BURLINGTON, Vt. -- Albany guard Jacob Iati found his shooting touch against Vermont late in the America East Conference championship game to carry the Great Danes into the NCAA tournament.
In two regular-season losses to the Catamounts, the senior was a combined 1-for-17 shooting and 0 for 11 from 3-point range. That changed Saturday when Iati hit two 3-pointers in the closing minutes to lift the Great Danes to a 53-49 victory and into the NCAA field for the first time since 2007.
"Finally, after what felt like 100 attempts, we were able to get Jacob free for a couple of shots," Albany coach Will Brown said. "He's a gutsy performer and he knocked them down."
Iati took only two shots all game. The first was a 3-pointer from the right wing that gave fourth-seeded Albany a 46-45 lead with 2:36 left. After a Vermont turnover, Iati nailed another long shot that provided the Great Danes enough cushion to deny No. 2 seed Vermont its sixth NCAA berth in 11 years.
"We did a great job on him all night but for whatever reason we walked away from him twice," Vermont coach John Becker said. "In championship games, somebody makes plays and for them Iati made the two plays they needed."
Albany (24-10) suffered its most-lopsided defeat of the season and was held to its two lowest offensive efforts in 70-45 and 50-43 losses to Vermont (21-11) in the regular season. But in front of a sellout crowd of 3,245 at Patrick Gym, the Great Danes snapped an eight-game losing streak to Vermont and ran their record to 3-0 against the Catamounts in America East title games. Two of those victories have come in Burlington.
Albany became the first team seeded lower than third to win the title and set a school season record for victories. The Great Danes won three conference tournament games by a total of seven points and beat the top two seeds.
"We beat a very good basketball team in a hostile environment," Brown said. "I've got a lot of respect for Vermont. They've been a model of consistency in this league for several years. I told our guys all week that there is no pressure on us. All the pressure is on Vermont. They're supposed to win, especially in their building."
Senior guard Mike Black, the tournament's most outstanding player, led Albany with 14 points, while Luke Devlin came off the bench to add 12 on 6-for-6 shooting. But it is Iati, who followed his older brother, John, to Albany, who will be in the spotlight as the team prepares for the NCAA tournament.
"I was just looking for an opportunity because I don't care that much about scoring," said Iati, who averaged 12.2 points this season. "But if I get an open shot, I'm going to take it. They were both good looks. I'm just happy they went in."
Vermont jumped to a 10-0 lead before Albany's defense limited the Cats to four baskets the rest of the half. By the break, the Great Danes had grabbed a 28-20 lead. Albany's pressure on the ball forced 11 Vermont turnovers that led to 13 points.
The Great Danes finished with 18 points on Catamount giveaways. That helped Albany cover up a 20-2 deficit in second-chance points that was tied to Vermont's 37-21 rebounding edge (16-3 at the offensive end).
"We were aggressive, I thought we were physical," Brown said. "I told our guys the only way we wouldn't win this game is if we had turnover issues today. We had nine turnovers. Mission accomplished."
Vermont, which also trailed at the half in its two previous conference playoff wins, put together another surge to start the second half. Three-point plays from Ethan O'Day and Luke Apfeld pulled Vermont to 28-26 before Albany made its first basket, more than 5 minutes into the half.
Taking better care of the basketball and picking up its defensive intensity allowed Vermont guard Sandro Carissimo got on a six-point run that gave Vermont its first lead since 10-9 when he scored on a drive to make it 45-43. That set the stage for Iati's heroics.
"I really thought we had the momentum but credit Iati for making two big shots," Carissimo said.
There was still drama left for the final minute. Iati hit both ends of a 1-and-1 foul situation to give Albany a 51-47 lead with 20 seconds left. Vermont's Trey Blue scored on a drive and was fouled to pull the Cats within a basket with 15 seconds to go. But Blue missed the free throw and Albany's John Puk, who missed three free throws in the final 1:01, then hit both halves of a 1-and-1 to finish the scoring.
"They played better than us today and they deserved to win," said Becker, who was attempting to become the first league coach to win the conference title both times in his first two seasons. "For us, just a tough day with too many turnovers.