BURLINGTON, Vt. (AP) — Vermont capped off a perfect America East season with the conference tournament championship.
Junior forward Payton Henson converted a three-point play with 39 seconds remaining to propel the Catamounts to a 56-53 victory over Albany in the America East men's basketball championship game Saturday.
The top-seeded Catamounts (29-5) secured a berth in the NCAA Tournament with their 21st consecutive victory. The Catamounts were the first team to go 16-0 in the league's regular season.
Trailing by nine with 8:45 left, the Catamounts rallied.
Vermont coach John Becker said Vermont could look to one of the regular season game with Albany to understand that the deficit wasn't insurmountable.
"We were down two weeks to Albany by nine in the second half and won by 12. There was a frustration level but we were just confidently trying to get the guys to calm down, focus on the game plan," Becker said.
Becker pointed to his team's defense as the catalyst to the victory.
"That's what we are, defense and rebounding," said Becker. "I do believe that's how you win championship, that's why we were able to win 21 in a row.
Vermont used its defense to help chip away at Albany's lead and the Catamounts pulled even at 3:49 on two free throws by Anthony Lamb.
With the game tied at 52, Henson scored from underneath and made a free throw, establishing a 55-52 lead. Despite several opportunities, the Great Danes managed only one more point, a free throw by Nichols with 0.3 seconds remaining.
The championship is the sixth for Vermont, the most by any team in America East. The Catamounts, who own the longest current win streak in Division 1, will make their sixth NCAA appearance and their first since 2012.
"We played them three times. Twice we were up at the half. Tonight we were even with them, tie game what, a minute to go," Albany coach Will Brown said. "Our guys fought. We gave ourselves a chance to win. I thought tonight we made some youthful mistakes."
Charles led the Great Danes with 16 points. Nichols, a sophomore guard, added 14 points.
"They've got a great streak going," Brown said of Vermont. "They're a veteran team, a good team, and I know they'll represent the America East Conference very well in the NCAA tournament."
Henson, who transferred to Vermont from Tulane after his sophomore season, led the Catamounts with 17 points. Freshman Anthony Lamb added 10 points for Vermont and was named the most valuable player of the tournament, the first freshman so honored. Lamb also led all players with 10 rebounds.
The Great Danes lost by scores of 60-49 and 62-50 during the regular season and had the Catamounts struggling for points midway through the second-half Saturday before Vermont regained control.
"We wanted to get to that last media timeout in striking distance, put the pressure on them, and I thought we did that," Albany coach Will Brown said. "We had a couple opportunities in the final two minutes to win the game.
"We did not take advantage of those opportunities," Brown said. "It was another good game against Vermont where we played good defense. We won the rebounding battle. The game came down to a possession."
THE TURNING POINT
While Henson's three-point play gave Vermont the lead at 55-52 with 39 seconds remaining, the game's momentum switched on a sequence beginning at 7:49 of the second half. The Catamounts' Kurt Steidl tossed in a 3-pointer and Albany failed to score on its next possession despite two offensive rebounds. From there the Vermont defense forced turnovers and hurried Albany shots down the stretch.
THE BIG PICTURE
Vermont: The Catamounts have so far had the best season in the program's history by setting school records for wins in a season (29) and consecutive victories (21). Vermont has not lost since falling at Butler 81-69 on Dec. 21.
Albany: The Great Danes had been 5-for-5 in America East championships, including three victories over Vermont.
Vermont: The Catamounts will await their seed and first-round opponent for the upcoming NCAA Division I tournament.
Albany: If offered, the Great Danes would consider a berth in one of the non-NCAA Division 1 tournament.