Playing for those who came before: Catamounts honor the late Trevor Gaines before the game and on the court.

by December 19, 2011

(Burlington, VT) — Somewhere, Trevor Gaines was smiling.

On a day when the University of Vermont retired the number of arguably the hardest-working player to ever don a Catamounts uniform, Vermont fought with heart and determination that would have made Gaines proud.

The Catamounts fell 73-72 to Iona Saturday, but against one of the top mid-majors in the country – a team that had advantages across the board in speed and athleticism – Vermont played with an unyielding determination reminiscent of the late Gaines.

“I’m really proud of our guys: They played really, really, hard,” said Vermont head coach John Becker. “And if we continue to play with that effort… we’re going to have a really good season.”

Freshman guard Four McGlynn scored 19 points, forwards Matt Glass and Luke Apfeld added 14 points apiece, and sophomore forward/do-it-all Brian Voelkel had a workman-like day with seven points, seven rebounds, eight assists and four steals (the latter two both game highs), but three last-second shots didn’t fall and the Catamounts came up just short.

The game was a battle of contrasts, between a slower-paced Vermont squad that runs a very structured, half-court system, and an Iona team that pushes the ball at every opportunity, plays in transition, and whose only system appears to be “first man over half-court: shoot.

Right out of the gate, the Catamounts matched the intensity of an emotionally charged home crowd, racing out to an 11-0 lead in the game’s opening three minutes, behind 3’s from Matt Glass, Brendan Bald and Sandro Carissimo.

The Gaels, who entered the game with the second-highest scoring offense in the nation at 87.5 points per game, quickly responded with a 12-2 run of their own. But the Catamounts never backed down, and Iona seemed out of rhythm for nearly the entire first half. Behind a 3-point barrage (the Catamounts shot 7-of-14 from distance in the first half), energetic defense, and a Glass bomb at the buzzer, the Catamounts went into the half with a 43-37 lead.

“In the first-half we were getting a lot of clean looks [from behind the perimeter],” said McGlynn.

In the second half, the physicality of an already knock-down-drag-out game turned up a notch and the Gaels flooded the perimeter, allowing only two Catamount treys after the intermission. Vermont concentrated on working the ball inside to Apfeld, who scored 12 of his 14 points after the break.

“We want to go inside and 3’s are just a byproduct of that,” said Becker. “Luke was doing a good job inside.”

Iona grabbed the lead with 9:49 left, and led 73-68 with just over two minutes left, but the Catamounts cut the lead to one and had the ball for the game’s final possessions. Vermont got three shots in the game’s final 16 seconds – a Glass top-of-the-key 3 with 16 seconds left and two Voelkel jumpers – but could not connect.

McGlynn went 7-of-12 from the floor and, against a very physical and athletic back court, showed that he is not just a shooter, attacking the hoop and getting to the line. Apfeld continued to show remarkable effort after three ACL tears, constantly attacking the hoop.

“Four played a great game, had some huge drives in the first half. He took another step today against a tough, physical Iona team and played a very good game,” said Becker.

Glass went 4-of-8 from downtown, but his quick shot with time on the clock seemed questionable (although not in the eyes of his coach).

“Wide open,” said Becker of the 3-point attempt. “He’s going to take it again and I’m going to tell him to take it again.”

Prior to tip-off, the University retired Gaines’ number 45 in a pre-game ceremony, making him only the third men’s player to receive such an honor (joining Eddie Benton and the late Kevin Roberson). Roughly 20 of Gaines former teammates, including T.J. Sorrentine, David Hehn, Grant Anderson, Scotty Jones, Germain Mopa-Njila and Tobe Carberry, as well as his former Vermont coaches Tom Brennan, Jesse Agel, and Pat Filien, and his family, converged from around the country to Patrick Gymnasium to be in attendance.

“Trevor was the hardest working guy on the team, he was a leader from the first day I met him,” said Anderson. “He was just someone who was a great teammate, a great and someone who was always there for you.”

“It is an absolute honor just to be here and to have met and been around [Gaines],” added Hehn. “He was a great leader, a great captain, and above and beyond all that he was just a great person.”

Gaines parents, Gary and Glennie, were presented with a framed jersey at center court by Brennan, before Gaines’ number was raised to the rafters by his former teammates. There were few dry eyes on the court, in the stands, or on media row.

In his career at Vermont, which spanned from 1998-2002, Gaines scored 1,255 points and ripped down 880 rebounds, which rank 13th and third, respectively, in the Catamounts all-time record books. Gaines’ 880 rebounds are the 10th most all-time in America East history.

But sheer numbers don’t tell even half of Gaines impact on or off the court. A 6’6” in platform shoes center, he relied on a heart the size of a basketball to outplay far larger opponents, relying on sheer guts, guile and determination.

“He set the tone, he gave us so much every night, and he taught those kids how important it was to compete,” Brennan reflected.

He was the unquestioned heart and soul and team leader of the Catamounts, and is credited by former teammates and coaches alike as having changed the culture of Vermont basketball and setting the foundation for the Catamounts’ three straight NCAA appearances, and 2005 upset over Syracuse, in the years that followed his graduation.

“I would have given two NCAA appearances back to get Trevor to the NCAA’s,” said Brennan. “After the last game of his career, he was just inconsolable in the locker room, and he was throwing towels, and ordinarily I wouldn’t have stood for that, but I wanted the guys to understand just how fleeting this [college basketball] is, how quickly it’s gone, and to see how important it was to him.”

Despite being drastically undersized, Gaines made it to the final cuts with the Minnesota Timberwolves in the summer following his graduation, before spending the next seven seasons playing professionally, where he carved out a very successful career.

Prior to the 2008 season, Gaines was diagnosed with kidney disease. Gaines chose to avoid dialysis or a kidney transplant, which would have likely saved his life but ended his playing career, so that he could continue to play. Gaines spent the final seasons of his career with kidneys functioning at 15 percent, a remarkable achievement.

On July 21, 2010, Gaines collapsed in a pick-up game in Las Vegas from a heart attack and never regained consciousness. He was 29. There is a very high rate of heart attack in young adults suffering from kidney disease.

On Friday night, Becker asked Brennan to speak to the Catamounts about Gaines.

“I talked to the kids before the game, yesterday,” said Brennan. “And I just said to the kids that, ‘This guy was a special guy: he is what we want all of you to become. And tomorrow, just remember, you are playing for the people who came before you.’”

According to the team, it had a profound impact.

“We definitely knew it was a special night, and we wanted to come out and play very hard,” said Glass of the pregame ceremony. “I think we did that, I’m sorry we came up a little short.”

The Catamounts have now lost five games in a row for the first time since the 2002-2003 season, but not all losing streaks are equal. Four of Vermont’s losses (Harvard, Yale, Saint Louis and now Iona) have come against teams that appear to have a very good chance at making the NCAA tournament, and there were many positives from Saturday’s game. Vermont held Iona well below their scoring and shooting percentage averages for the season.

“I think we did as good a job as we could to bring the game down to our pace because they can really get out and run,” said Glass.

Moving forward, the Catamounts have their fair share of problems to be sure. As long as center Ben Crenca is out, someone is going to have to step up and give Voelkel a hand on the boards. Junior wing Brendan Bald, who was projected to take over as the teams “go-to” player, continues to seem allergic to contact around the hoop and to getting to the free-throw line. And the Catamounts will be at an athleticism disadvantage against much of the America East and struggle at times to attack the hoop and create off the dribble.

But if they can continue to play with the heart and energy they displayed, and channel Trevor Gaines every time the lights go on, they will be in the thick of the hunt for an America East championship.