Barre, Vt. — The Thetford Academy student section chanted for defense. The Leland & Gray Union High student section chanted for defense.
Say this about the schools’ respective girls basketball teams: They honor requests and play them.
Second-ranked Thetford buckled down on Leland & Gray’s top scorer and capitalized on an 11-1 second-half run for a 43-37 Vermont Division III semifinal victory over the third-seeded Rebels on Thursday night at Barre Auditorium.
With the victory, the Panthers (18-5) kept what’s turning into their annual D-III title-game date, this time against No. 1 Windsor on Saturday night.
Junior Danielle Robinson came off the bench to score a game-high 11 points for TA, providing points, rebounds and heart in the game’s decisive moment and sending the Panthers to the D-III final for the fourth year in a row. Thetford led most of the night, rallying when Leland & Gray (16-7) took its only lead of the game late in the third period.
“I never really got down on myself, so that really helped the team not really get down on themselves,” said Robinson, who fouled out with 3:59 to play in a physical contest. “I just tried to pick everybody else up. Even if we were losing, just pick them up and play our game.”
It took a while for that to develop.
The first half played out short on points and heavy on contact. Basketball and demolition derby alternated on each end of the floor, and inconsistently so. The first 16 minutes ended with nearly as many fouls on the books (20) as points (27).
Through it all, Leland & Gray senior Rachel Borgesen made her presence felt. Despite her 5-foot-8 stature, Borgesen showed no fear in banging around for rebounds or muscling off Thetford defenders for shots at the basket. Although the Panthers never trailed in the opening half, Borgesen had eight of the Rebels’ 12 points and a dozen of their 22 rebounds by the time the halftime buzzer sounded.
Down 10-5 after one quarter, Borgesen’s three-point play drew Leland & Gray within a bucket of the lead early in the second. TA’s Regan Covey and Robinson each drew their third fouls a minute later, and a Mariah Hazard free throw reduced the deficit to 10-9.
The Panthers managed to do enough on the offensive end of the floor to maintain a 15-12 lead into the locker room. Dahlia Klarich (nine points) found her way through the Rebel defense for a driving bucket, Emily Emerson (nine points) hit a pull-up jumper from the right elbow and Nicolette Brown sank a free throw to keep Thetford ahead at the break.
TA wasn’t going to get much comfort until it found a way to slow Borgesen down.
“We were trying to decide to front her or three-quarter front her, so we said we’d play behind (her),” Thetford coach Eric Ward said of defending Borgesen. “If you put on ball pressure, they can’t get the ball to her as easily.”
The Rebel senior managed just one free throw in the second half and finished with a game-high 13 points.
Meanwhile, Thetford gutted its way to the game’s key run. Robinson started it innocently enough, cutting into a 26-23 Leland & Gray advantage with two free throws in the final minute of the third quarter. Taylor Hollis converted a Klarich pass on the left blocks with 37 seconds left, and Thetford took a 27-26 lead into the fourth.
Klarich opened the final stanza with the Panthers’ only 3-pointer of the night. Freshman Grace Davis — making what Ward termed her “debut” on Thursday — provided back-to-back hoops after a free throw from the Rebels’ Maris Linder. Davis’ second basket, on a transition pass from Hollis, pushed Thetford into a 34-27 lead with 6:36 left in the game and forced a Rebel timeout.
The Panthers kept Leland & Gray at least two possessions away from the lead the rest of the night.
“Exciting,” Robinson said when asked to describe the evening in a word. “At first, it was like we got a good pace going, then we kind of slowed down a little bit and they caught up. It was back and forth for a little while. We just needed to get into it.”
Free Throws: Ward and the Panthers hit the floor in T-shirts bearing the words “Journey to the Tourney” on the front and the team’s numerical roster on the back. … The Aud’s public-address announcer regularly updated patrons on Vermont’s NCAA Tournament game with Purdue, the responses growing fainter up to the Catamounts’ eventual defeat. … Windsor and Thetford met twice in the regular season, each winning on the other’s court. TA will be looking for its first state crown since its 90-84 track-meet win over Williamstown three years ago, while the Yellowjackets will be looking for their first championship since 2011.
Greg Fennell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3226.