When the final buzzer sounded Saturday afternoon in Bangor, Maine, Albany head coach Will Brown once again found himself in totally uncharted territory: A perfect 9-0 to open America East play, riding a nine game winning streak, both all-time bests in the program’s Division I history.
The Danes’ 9-0 America East record is the best start to conference play that the league has seen in the past nine years. Ten years ago, however, the America East bore witness to an even better one, as the 2004-2005 Vermont Catamounts – one of the greatest teams in conference history — rattled off 13-straight league wins before they finally registered a conference loss.
“That was a great team because everyone knew their roles” said former Vermont point guard T.J. Sorrentine during an earlier.
“We had our golden boys in Taylor [Coppenrath] and T.J. [Sorrentine] and we had great role players like a [Germain] Mopa-Njila and a [David] Hehn who knew exactly what they were supposed to do and embraced it,” remember former Vermont head coach Tom Brennan.
The 2004-2005 Catamounts featured a pair of 2,000-plus point scorers in Coppenrath, an unstoppable 6-foot-9 inch power forward with unworldly footwork, an uncanny ability to constantly beat his man to his spot, an unconscious shooting stroke out to behind the arc, and a preternatural scoring ability, and Sorrentine, a 5’11” ball of swgger, charisma, and fearless scoring abandon – not to mention 3-point range to well beyond the state lines, the Catamounts could put up points in bunches.
One of just two players in America East history to win the conference Player of the Year award three times, Coppenrath finished his career third in conference history in scoring with 2,442 points. The 2002 America East Player of the Year as a sophomore, Sorrentine finished his career 13th in league history in scoring (2,013 points) and second in career- 3-pointers (354).
“It was definitely an unbelievable team,” said Coppenrath in an interview over the summer. “T.J. and I were roommates and teammates for five years, and we just always knew where the other was on the court at all times.”
But according to Brennan, Coppernath and Sorrentine, it was players like Mopa-Njila, a super athletic, lock-down defender and tenacious rebounder as a 6’4” small forward, Hehn, a relentless defender and all-around glue guy as a 6’5” shooting guard, and Martin Klimes, a 6’8” center with a knack for tacking charges and dishing out elbows, who made the team go.
Vermont started out the season with a hard-fought 68-61 loss at perennial power Kansas, with Coppenrath and Jayhawk future NBAer Wayne Simien going shot for shot in the post. The Catamounts then destroyed Maris and Iona, each by 20 or more points, with Sorrentine scoring 31 points in the first victory, and Coppenrath pouring in 32 in the next.
After a surprising loss to American, the Catamounts started conference play early, and were off to the races, with Coppenrath pouring in 39 points and ripping down 12 rebounds in a 30-point win over Binghamton and his one-time arch-nemesis, Bearcats 7-footer Nick Billings.
The Catamounts lost their next game to national power North Carolina, but then rattled off 15 straight wins, with victories over non-conference foes Siena, Holy Cross and Dartmouth sprinkled in amidst 12 America East wins. Coppenrath scored 22 or more points 10 times during the 15 game overall winning streak and eight times in the 13-0 start to America East play. Coppenrath cracked 30 points three times during the Catamounts blitzkrieg of the America East, while Sorrentine broke 30 twice.
The Catamounts winning streak finally came to an end on Feb. 12 at Boston University, with Coppenrath scoring 37 points while the Terriers ran a triangle-2 defense with the “two” both covering Coppenrath for all 94 feet of hardwood.
After the loss to Boston University, the Catamounts immediately bounced back, rattling off three more America East wins to clinch the regular season title, with their only loss in that stretch coming against a Nevada squad stacked with future NBA talent as the marquee matchup of the original ESPN Bracket Buster.
With the regular season title wrapped up, Brennan chose to sit Coppenrath and Sorrentine for the final game of the regular season, and the Catamounts fell 87-66 at Maine.
The dynamic duo showed absolutely no rust in the conference tournament held in Binghamton, leading Vermont to a 76-61 quarterfinal win over UMBC, followed by a 76-65 win over the tournament hosts in the semifinals, and an 80-57 destruction over a JJ Barea-led second-seed Northeastern in the Championship Game. Sorrentine was terrific during the Catamounts third-straight America East Tournament championship, scoring a combined 56 points over the three games.
But Coppenrath was otherworldly, putting together arguably the greatest America East Tournament performance in league history, scoring 33, 34 and 37 points, respectively, in the three wins.
The run to the NCAAs, of course, set up a showdown in the NCAA Tournament First Round at the DCU Center in Worcester, Massachusetts, between the 13-seed Catamounts and four-seed Syracuse, a team led by Hakim Warrick and Gerry McNamara that many pundits had picked as a dark horse to win the NCAA Tournament.
The results of that game, of course, continue to reverberate around the college basketball landscape a decade later, with Sorrentine’s 28-foot 3-pointer in overtime propelling the Catamounts to a 60-57 overtime upset.
What many forget was that it was Mopa-Njila who stepped up and carried the Catamounts for most of the game, scoring a career-high 20 points on 9-of-10 shooting, to go with nine rebounds, five assists, four steals, among them several momentum-changing dunks and the go-ahead 3-pointer with 1:55 left and subsequent steal on the other end to set up Sorrentine’s heroics.
Vermont’s season came to an end, valiantly, in the second round, with the Catamounts giving Michigan State everything the Spartans could handle, before falling 72-61. It was truly one of the most remarkable post season runs in America East history, but it began with one of the greatest regular season win streaks the conference has seen.
Only time will tell whether this year’s red-hot Great Danes squad can follow suit.