Maybe Stony Brook coach Steve Pikiell should have re-enacted the scene from "Hoosiers'' in which Gene Hackman measures the baskets in Butler Fieldhouse to show his high school team from tiny Hickory that they still were 10 feet off the ground on the big stage.
After going 13-0 at 1,630-seat Pritchard Gym, the Seawolves shot 29.3 percent in front of a roaring crowd of 4,423 Saturday at Stony Brook Arena and became only the fourth of 29 home teams in America East Conference championship games to lose.
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Vermont built a 17-point lead with 9:56 remaining and saw it cut to four before holding on for a 51-43 victory. The second-seeded Catamounts (23-11) earned their fifth NCAA berth and Stony Brook (22-9) settled for its second NIT bid in three years as regular-season champion.
It was a bitter defeat, especially for heartbroken seniors Bryan Dougher, Dallis Joyner, Al Rapier and Danny Carter, all of whom helped Pikiell lift the program from the bottom of the Division I barrel to the cusp of that elusive first NCAA berth.
"I wouldn't trade these guys for 10 trips to the NCAA, and I mean that sincerely,'' Pikiell said. "Vermont was the better team today. If you don't score, you can't win . . . We got a little taste of March Madness. I thought it was our time, but obviously it wasn't.''
It wasn't just the move to a bigger arena and the bright lights of ESPN2's national telecast that shook the Seawolves, whose .457 field-goal percentage in conference games led the America East. It was the enormity of breaking through to a place where Vermont's program already has been, combined with a brilliant defensive performance by the Catamounts.
"We were very loose coming into this game,'' Vermont guard Matt Glass said. "We felt a lot of the pressure was on them, playing at home and being the No. 1 seed.''
Rapier and Dave Coley led SBU with 10 points apiece. Dougher had eight, setting SBU's Division I career scoring record when he hit a three-pointer in the first half, but he shot 2-for-12. Coley was 4-for-16.
Joyner scored on his only two shots, but the fact that's all he got was a tribute to the effectiveness of Vermont's double-teaming.
"I thought I could get to the glass and we'd have them scrambling if I got the ball out of the double-team,'' Joyner said, "but I wasn't able to do that either.''
The Catamounts' only double-figures scorer was freshman Four McGlynn with 14 points, including a 4-of-7 three-point effort, but tourney MVP Brian Voelkel had 15 rebounds and seven assists and was great defending Joyner.
Vermont took a 22-9 lead as Stony Brook missed 17 of its first 20 shots. When the Seawolves cut the deficit to 31-25 in the second half, McGlynn nailed a trio of three-pointers in a 15-4 run that ended with Voelkel hitting a three on his only shot of the game. That gave Vermont a 46-29 lead with 9:56 to play.
That was Vermont's last field goal as it shot 0-for-9 the rest of the way, adding five free throws. Coley scored eight straight Stony Brook points to make it 47-41 with 5:24 left, but the Seawolves shot 0-for-7 and had two turnovers after that.
After Coley's run, neither team scored again until Dougher was fouled on a three with a minute left. He had a chance to make it a one-possession game but hit only two of the three foul shots for a 47-43 deficit, and Vermont added four free throws.
"Voelkel got big rebounds at the end that were the key to the win,'' Joyner said. "We couldn't get offensive rebounds. He played great.''
Including last season's two-point loss at Boston University in the America East final, a game in which Stony Brook led by 15 early in the second half, the Seawolves have missed two clear chances at their first NCAA berth. "We're close, we're close,'' Pikiell said. "I wanted to go to the NCAA Tournament for the university and for the senior class more than anything. But we're going to get there. There's no doubt about it.''