Heavy Heart, Big Win

For Thetford Coach, Victory About More Than Hoops

  • Thetford Academy’s Dominic Chatot wins a fight for the ball during last night’s game against Oxbow at Bradford, Vt. (Jeffrey Porter photograph)

    Thetford Academy’s Dominic Chatot wins a fight for the ball during last night’s game against Oxbow at Bradford, Vt. (Jeffrey Porter photograph)

  • Thetford’s Cole Eastman fights with Oxbow players for a rebound last night. (Jeffrey Porter photograph)

    Thetford’s Cole Eastman fights with Oxbow players for a rebound last night. (Jeffrey Porter photograph)

  • Thetford Academy’s Dominic Chatot wins a fight for the ball during last night’s game against Oxbow at Bradford, Vt. (Jeffrey Porter photograph)
  • Thetford’s Cole Eastman fights with Oxbow players for a rebound last night. (Jeffrey Porter photograph)

Bradford, Vt. — After learning yesterday morning that his father had just passed away, Thetford Academy boys basketball coach Justin Smith knew he wanted to be with family. That’s why he made sure he was there to coach the Panthers’ 59-37 win at Oxbow last night.

In the same Mona Garone Gym where Smith, an Oxbow graduate, played for the Olympians, he coached the Panthers with a heavy heart, yet couldn’t envision himself anywhere else.

“I have a good relationship with (Olympians coach) Rich Thornton and he said to me before the game, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” said Smith, whose dad, Dennis, was 58 and lived in North Paris, Maine. “I told him there wasn’t anywhere else I would rather be. There are more important things than basketball, but (the Panthers) are who I spend a lot of time with and this team has taken on a real family (dynamic) lately.”

Smith didn’t notify the team until after a win that solidified the Panthers’ grasp on third place in the Vermont Division III standings. At 13-4, Thetford is on the brink of clinching a top-four seed and two potential home games in the upcoming state tournament.

“I didn’t want it to be a distraction for them because this was such a big game for us,” Smith said. “When I told them, each one of them gave me a hug and it really meant a lot. Again, they’re guys I spend a lot of time with and for all of them to open up their arms and give me a hug like that, it just kind of gives you goosebumps.”

Thetford’s performance was nearly enough to illicit chills, especially on defense. Speedy and well-positioned, the Panthers played a strong hand in Oxbow’s 13-of-53 night from the floor. Many of the Olympians’ 17 turnovers came on Thetford steals, including more than a couple from senior Ian Weider (12 points).

Thetford limited O’s big men Caleb Lafaille, Andrew Wyman and Lucas Wheeler to just 21 combined points. Lafaille, who’d averaged 19.7 points per game during Oxbow’s previous three contests, was held to 11 and just two in the first half.

“We have some completely new offensive sets this year, so we put a lot of time and preparation into figuring those out for a lot of the season,” Smith said. “As we’ve learned those, we’ve been able to focus more on defense and it’s starting to show.”

Oxbow (4-14) — which began the year 1-10 but had won three of five coming in — overcame an early two-possession deficit and led 10-7 when Lyman scored consecutive baskets underneath, the latter on an offensive rebound and putback to start the second quarter.

Thetford barely gave an inch after that and turned it on offensively, finishing the half on a 19-3 run to grab a 26-13 lead at the break.

Aiden Cleaves (seven points) had a steal and fast-break layup, Weider converted a 3-point play and Brandon Gray (game high 19 points) hit a long range jumper and 3-pointer during the rally.

The O’s shot just 2-of-13 from the floor and committed six turnovers in the second quarter.

“We’re not a jump-shooting team, and we just couldn’t get the ball inside,” Thornton said. “When we did have opportunities to shoot, our guards weren’t hitting shots. We did a lot of standing around, being indecisive and had silly turnovers. We were lackadaisical and it’s something we’re going to have to fix for the playoffs.”

The Panthers built a 19-point lead early in the third quarter when a bank-shot 3-pointer from Gray, a Weider-to-Cleaves layup and a Gray basket after a steal from Cleaves made it 33-14.

The O’s executed a 9-0 run from there to make it 33-23, with Jonny Ratel (11 points) sinking the second of his two 3-pointers during the rally after Anthony Giesing snagged an offensive board on a missed free throw.

Weider gave Thetford exactly what it needed to silence the Olympians’ momentum, nailing a pull up 3, then stealing the ball and zooming 3/4 of the court for two more. That started an 11-2 for Thetford, which matched its largest lead by the end of the third quarter, 44-25.

“More than any other team that I’ve coached, this team has the ability to kick it into sixth gear just when you think they couldn’t play any harder,” Smith said. “As much energy as we play with is usually determined by how much energy Ian is playing with. He’s been the leader of this team for two years.”

Lafaille had a steal and fast-break layup for Oxbow to lighten Thetford’s advantage to 15 with six minutes to play, but the Panthers answered with 11-0 run to empty the benches.

Free Throws: Oxbow held a 38-33 rebounding advantage. ... Both teams were poor from the foul line, Thetford hitting just 9-of-25 free throws and the Olympians hitting 9-of-22. ... Oxbow seniors Jobin Messenger, Lafaille, Wyman and Wheeler were played in their final home game and were honored in a pregame ceremony. ... Smith graduated from Oxbow in 1999 and played for famed coach Stretch Gillam. ... Cleaves left with a cut above his eye in the third quarter and did not return.

Jared Pendak can be reached at jpendak@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.