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Taking a cue from its coach, Vermont grinds to historic winning streak

The Catamounts are running away with the America East.

NCAA Basketball: Vermont at South Carolina Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

John Becker knows something about a full day.

The Vermont coach broke into the profession in 1994 while working as a computer specialist at Georgetown. He’d work from 7 A.M. to 3 P.M., then drive across Washington D.C. to spend his nights as an assistant at Div. III Gallaudet University.

That wasn’t it.

Gallaudet is a school for the Deaf and hard of hearing, and Becker didn’t know sign language.

“There was a language barrier so I taught myself sign language,” he said in a phone interview earlier this week. “[Gallaudet] was my incubator. I learned about the game, and how much we take the communication piece for granted.”

Becker would spend five seasons at Gallaudet, including two as its head coach. He took over at Vermont in 2011, and in his sixth season, the Catamounts have made history. Their 87-66 win Wednesday at UMass-Lowell was a program-record 16th in a row.

To get there, it took something Becker is familiar with: a grind.

The Catamounts played five games from Feb. 4-15. The flu bug hit over that stretch, keeping Kurt Steidl out of a game. And then the weather hit, stranding the team in the D.C./Baltimore area an extra day after a game at UMBC.

“It was an interesting stretch, obviously we continue to win games and keep the streak alive,” Becker said. “With travel, bumps and bruises, and now throwing in the flu bug, it’s been challenging.”

Yet it didn’t throw Vermont off course. With the win at UMass-Lowell, the Catamounts clinched a share of the America East title. At the center of that win was burly forward Anthony Lamb (24 points, 3 rebounds).

The freshman has been the center of much more this season.

“He’s a really smart player and obviously talented. He came into college ready from a physical standpoint, but early in the year it kind of took me time to figure out how to best use him,” Becker said. “He’s helped redefine our identity offensively. Once we featured him more and played off of him in the block, we’ve been able to build around that.”

What the Catamounts have built is one the country’s most efficient offenses. Their effective field goal percentage ranks 26th in the country, in large part because of the nation’s 12th best two-point field goal percentage (55.8) anchored by guys like Lamb, Darren Payen and Payton Henson.

That pounding, consistent offense - 56.5 percent of Vermont’s points come from two-pointers - has meant a slew of blowouts in AE play. Twelve of their 14 wins have been by at least eight points, with many margins skewing much higher. Sunday’s game at UMBC was headed to that familiar place, as the Catamounts held an 18-point lead with 6:47 left.

Then it wasn’t so familiar.

K.J. Maura and the Retrievers mounted a furious comeback. The Catamounts got sloppy against the press, missed some free throws and UMBC ended up with a chance to tie the game as the clock expired. A Maura three-pointer was off the mark, just barely keeping the streak alive.

Could it have been a good thing?

Other than mildly close games against Stony Brook and New Hampshire, the Catamounts haven’t had to execute like that at the end of a game. And unlike West Virginia’s collapse at Kansas the following night, Becker could use the game as a teaching moment without being saddled with a loss.

“We’ve kind of been in that situation, up double digit points with six or seven minutes to go where we’re trying to hold on to leads as teams go small and try to press,” he said. “It was good to have a bunch of different people in a pressure situation.”

The pressure will only grow.

One more Vermont win or Stony Brook loss gives the Catamounts home court advantage throughout the AE tournament. The team also seems letdown-resistant. It has a veteran point guard in Trae Bell-Haynes, reliable low-post scoring, a lockdown perimeter defender in Dre Wills and three-point threats in Steidl and Ernie Duncan. Its defense is far and away the AE’s most efficient.

But March breeds uncertainty.

Vermont hasn’t been to the NCAA Tournament since 2011-12, Becker’s first year in charge. The Catamounts have already proven something important if that’s where this already-historic season is headed.

Like their coach, they know how to grind.