Full Leede Arena makes Dartmouth dream, even in loss

Let’s be honest with ourselves, the Ivy League is never going to win any Division I attendance titles. But what some of the homely and aging facilities in the Ancient Eight lack in size or amenities, they can make up for in old-school college basketball atmosphere, which anyone who has attended a big game at Lavietes Pavilion (home of this season’s Ivy League Tournament) or Lee Amphitheater can attest to after their ears take a couple of hours to adjust to normality.

Sadly, it’s hard to include Leede Arena in that discussion simply because – to be kind – there just haven’t been many big games there, mostly due to Dartmouth’s long record of futility that we don’t have to rehash here.

But Thursday night, every seat in Hanover was full with an announced sellout crowd of 2,100, plenty of people standing at the top of either side (including Dartmouth legend Walter Palmer, but given his size, that’s not unusual) to see the Big Green take on reigning America East kings Vermont. The Green Mountain State border is less than two miles from the Dartmouth campus and UVM has a rabid fanbase that no one in the Ivy League can match, and therefore at least half the crowd was cheering for the visitors.

But underdog Dartmouth, coming off a fairly hideous performance at New Hampshire three days earlier, rose to the challenge of taking on one of the nation’s top mid-major teams, and the crowd – Dartmouth’s crowd – came with them for much of the night. In the end, Vermont showed its quality down the stretch and prevailed 77-68, but that was its largest lead all evening.

“When you fill the gym like this and we bring the energy we brought tonight, we can play with anyone,” Dartmouth coach David McLaughlin said. “That’s the type of home atmosphere we want here. It’s a great place to watch a game. It’s a good brand of basketball we have. We’ve been really trying to reach out to the community and when the students get back, we’re hoping it looks like that for every Ivy League game.”

It was the Big Green’s third straight defeat and their seventh in nine games, but there is optimism about what’s to come in the Ivy League. While they must tread carefully with public statements, there’s little secret that the conference has three very solid teams (Yale, Harvard, Penn) and the battle for that fourth place in the postseason is a crapshoot.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have the rest of the Ivy League in my favorites on the ESPN app and see the scores,” Dartmouth senior James Foye (seven points) said. “I watch those teams every now and then. Penn, Yale, Harvard look like they’re ahead of the pack, but even if you ask them, they know how hard it is to win in conference, especially on the road. I think that’s exciting, your mind immediately goes to that fourth spot and what that could mean. But we think we can beat anyone.”

Brown (buoyed by beating Rhode Island Thursday), Dartmouth and Princeton are separated (as of the writing of this) by just six spots in KenPom, and you could make a solid case for any of the three going to Lavietes Pavilion in mid-March? What does Dartmouth have to do to get there?

For starters, channel what it did in the first 35 minutes Thursday. As I’ve written before in this space, Brendan Barry’s loss meant the Big Green (7-8) was going to struggle offensively, but they were able to make up for that with a much-improved defense (still third nationally in defensive rebounding at 80%). 

At some point, however, they will need some kind of consistent offense, particularly in the home-and-home with Harvard that will begin Ivy play for them in two weeks. The effort against New Hampshire might have been the most discouraging of the campaign as the Big Green finished at 0.78 points per possession (in a 70-56 loss) and never looked comfortable against a Wildcat team that had just three Division I wins in 2018-19.

“You have to be able to catch and shoot when you’re open heading into league play. Against good college basketball teams, those opportunities are few and far between,” McLaughlin said. “I just think we have to see the turnovers collectively and figure out where they come from. Were they forced? I think that’s the biggest thing. What’s frustrating tonight is that I think a lot of them were not forced.”

But there was a renewed confidence Thursday, even against stingy Vermont, as Taurus Samuels opened the game with a three-pointer. Aaryn Rai had a strange stat line, but shot the ball very well and his three gave Dartmouth a 14-5 advantage, one it would keep for most of the first half before it finished 40-40.

It looked like Vermont might get a way on a couple of occasions in the second half (including a somewhat wild sequence where Everett Duncan hit five consecutive free throws when he was fouled on a three-pointer and Ian Sistare picked up a subsequent technical), but each time, the Big Green had an answer, and when Chris Knight hit a short jumper (one he is going to have to make in Ivy play), Dartmouth had tied the game at 62-62 with 4:45 left. Alas, that was the high point on the evening, but it left plenty for the Big Green to build on. They will have to cut down on turnovers, Dartmouth had 17 (Vermont had 11 steals, Robin Duncan grabbing six of them). Rai had 18 points on 8-for-9 shooting, but did turn it over six times.

McLaughlin and his staff will be somewhat concerned with Vermont finishing with 1.10 ppp despite shooting just 5-of-21 from three-point range. The Catamounts were 22-for-34 from inside the arc, with point guard Stef Smith leading the way, finishing with 26 points. Anthony Lamb was held to just 10 and four rebounds, a testament to the work both Rai and Chris Knight were doing on him. But Vermont is very deep and showed it. Trevon Ary-Turner replaced Sistare in the starting lineup but had just two points in 23 minutes.

“The message after New Hampshire was a very aggressive film session,” McLaughlin said. “It was just this is what we want to be known as and this is what we can’t be known as. Not getting too high or too low in games was a message we sent as well. I thought we were too emotionally low Monday (against New Hampshire), and although I think we had great emotional energy tonight, I thought we weren’t channeling it the right way at certain times.”

For Dartmouth, it is time for the conference season to begin. It finished last season’s nonconference slate with a loss to Vermont in which it played fairly well (although it never led) and followed it up blowing out Harvard in the Ivy opener, then proceeded to lose 12 of its last 13 games to finish the season. Will this year be different? We’ll soon find out together.

“When we watch this film the next couple days, we want to watch it the same way if we won or lost,” Foye said. “We had 17 turnovers, we’re trying to get that down to 12, that’s five extra possessions that we’re going to need. If we do that, we think we can beat anybody. We have to get two weeks to get ready for conference play and we’re excited about that.”

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