Vermont shines, for a moment or two

SALT LAKE CITY -- Call them underdogs. Call them Cinderellas. Or better yet, call them what the twentysomething blond guy in the 10th row called Vermont when he first laid eyes on the Catamounts. They are, in this guy's opinion, "the whitest team I've ever seen."

And this was from a guy in Utah?!?

But he wasn't exaggerating. Vermont looked like a team full of Craig Kilborns. And as you watched them in the lay-up lines, you knew the Catamounts didn't have a snowball's chance in Tucson to pull the upset. Heck, even their coaches knew it.

But the reality is, and maybe this is the best part of the NCAA Tournament's first round, this game was all about the journey the Catamounts, Tourney virgins, took to make it here. A 42-hour journey.

"It was two days in the biggest blizzard to hit Denver," UVM coach Tom Brennan said. "And who knew that that would be the calm before the storm?"

Truth is, when the Catamounts showed up Thursday morning to peep a little of the Cincy-Gonzaga game, it didn't take long for them to realize they were in a different hemisphere. Right there, about 50 feet below them was Bearcats firebrand Bob Huggins imploding. There he was, the same guy they watch on TV, ranting and raving and getting tossed.

"Wow, this is really it," thought sophomore guard David Hehn. "Wow. Bob Huggins. Wow. Look at that! I was overwhelmed. Our jaws all dropped."

You couldn't blame them if they thought they were dreaming.

Vermont didn't arrive in Salt Lake City until almost midnight on the eve of the game. Brennan opted to let his kids sleep in Thursday rather than have a walk-through on the Huntsman court. His kids did get to practice while they were stuck in Colorado. Well, sort of. A friend of the school knew someone at Colorado College, so they worked out on that court.

"It was basically just half a little gym," junior forward Corey Sullivan said.

Not that Vermont needed any more excuses, but they didn't have any chance to get used to the change in altitude. "Three trips up the court today and I was dead," Sullivan said. "And it's hard to make a shot when you're dead." Or when you have 6-foot-10 fly-swatter Channing Frye floating around the paint.

UVM hung tough for the first five minutes and then it began to fade. 'Zona kept throwing athletes at them. Athletes like they had never seen before. Like how about that sick alley-oop slam Hassan Adams threw down on them? That was pretty neat, said Hehn.

'Zona's lead with six minutes remaining swelled to 33. The building began to empty. The only section that remained full was packed with a yellow-and-green group from Vermont. They had traveled cross-country to share this moment and they weren't gonna get short-changed. So when Sullivan blocked another lob to Adams, they roared. And then they roared even louder when Sullivan sank a 3 to narrow the gap to 28.

A Wildcat jumper got it back to 30, but then Mike Goia hit another 3. Arizona won anyway. But not quite by 30. As Brennan walked off the court, he was beaming. He gave the Vermont section the thumb's up.

After the game, Brennan's personality shined through. The guy whose morning-drive time radio show outdraws NYC icons Imus and Howard Stern locally made you hope more people could see a coach like this. One with wit, charm and a genuine appreciation for the moment.

He spoke about how his kids never played for any fancy AAU teams, or had any other of the perks that come with big-time basketball. He kidded that he didn't want too much made of his team's trek out west.

"We weren't in a foxhole. We weren't in caves," he said. "We were in the Holiday Inn watching SportsCenter."

But they probably got something more. They gave their fans a thrill. They made some shots. Made some plays. And made some memories for a school that's best known as a ski school.

As for Brennan, the long-time coach at UVM, what did he get out of this experience?

"My best guess is that I'll never have to pay for a meal in that state for as long as I live."

Bruce Feldman is a staff writer at ESPN Magazine..