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Panther Power

Thetford Does Enough To Advance to Championship Game

  • Thetford Academy’s Ian Weider cuts to the outside during the Panthers’ semifinal against BFA-Fairfax last night at the Barre Auditorium. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Thetford Academy’s Ian Weider cuts to the outside during the Panthers’ semifinal against BFA-Fairfax last night at the Barre Auditorium. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • The Thetford bench waits with tension before the Panthers lock up their win with a series of foul shots against BFA-Fairfax last night. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    The Thetford bench waits with tension before the Panthers lock up their win with a series of foul shots against BFA-Fairfax last night. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • From left, Mick Zack, Kit Norton and Hannah Gelb celebrate a Thetford Academy basket during last night’s 43-38 win against BFA Fairfax in the state boys basketball semifinals. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    From left, Mick Zack, Kit Norton and Hannah Gelb celebrate a Thetford Academy basket during last night’s 43-38 win against BFA Fairfax in the state boys basketball semifinals. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Thetford Academy’s Ian Weider cuts to the outside during the Panthers’ semifinal against BFA-Fairfax last night at the Barre Auditorium. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • The Thetford bench waits with tension before the Panthers lock up their win with a series of foul shots against BFA-Fairfax last night. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • From left, Mick Zack, Kit Norton and Hannah Gelb celebrate a Thetford Academy basket during last night’s 43-38 win against BFA Fairfax in the state boys basketball semifinals. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Barre, Vt. — It was a night of minimalism for the Thetford Academy boys basketball team — and that was plenty for the Panthers.

Struggling from the floor, the free throw line and just about everywhere else, No. 2 Thetford made just enough plays in the final minutes to dig out a 43-38 win over BFA-Fairfax in last night’s VPA Division III semifinal at Barre Auditorium.

The win propels the Panthers (19-4) into tomorrow night’s title game against top-ranked unbeaten Williamstown, a 60-54 winner over No. 4 Rivendell in last night’s early semi.

It’ll be the Panthers’ first championship game appearance in six years as they vie for their first crown since 2004.

Senior Ian Weider scored a game-high 17 points for the Panthers, who struggled while shooting 16-of-48 from the field and 10-of-27 from the free throw line. Kris Wehner scored 13 for the Bullets (16-7), who were slightly better from the free throw line (8-of-15), but even worse from the field (14-of-54).

Thetford coach Justin Smith didn’t mind the way his team won.

“You can talk about poor shooting, but at some point you have to give the defenses credit,” said Smith, whose team was outrebounded 35-27 while leading scorer Brandon Gray was held to three points. “BFA is a big team with length and size, and they’re well coached. They came in with a good game plan.”

Thetford matched its largest lead of the night when Weider’s steal and dish off to fellow senior Dominic Chatot made it 31-20 with 2 minutes, 32 seconds remaining in the third quarter.

The Bullets found a groove from there, executing a 12-0 run — many of them second-chance points — to seize their first lead since the first quarter, 32-31 with 7:20 to play.

It was the first of six fourth-quarter lead changes. Weider snagged an offensive rebound and found Cole Eastman for two, but Doug Legris answered for the Panthers with a pull-up jump shot. Thetford’s Aiden Cleaves went 0-for-2 from the line with just under four minutes to play, and Smith called for a rare full timeout on the Panthers’ next possession.

“The AD (Jade Huntington) always gives me a hard time about having four or five timeouts left when the game is over,” Smith said. “I usually just don’t feel like I have to use them very much with this group, and I didn’t really tell them anything (during the timeout last night), to be honest, because I was comfortable with the way we were playing.

The break seemed to help nonetheless. Chatot found Weider on a shuffle pass underneath to make it 35-34 and, after another putback from BFA’s Jud Veren gave the Bullets the lead again, the Panthers made the critical play they needed to make.

Following an in-and-out 3-point attempt from BFA’s Wehner, Cleaves missed two free throws on the other end. Eastman lunged to gather the second miss and found a dashing Weider for another layup to make it 37-36 with 2:15 to play.

The Panthers never trailed again, eking out the win while shooting 6-for-11 from the line over the final two minutes.

“BFA was an opponent we didn’t see (in the regular season), and we expected a really good game out of them,” Weider said. “We don’t mind playing these low-scoring games. We can play up-tempo or we can slow the game down. it doesn’t matter.”

Weider, who doubles as a track-and-field sprinting champion, showcased his speed with an explosive first half. He was faster than the speeding Bullets during a personal 6-0 rally to give the Panthers their first lead and, after a 3-pointer from Andrew Cawley made it 11-5 at the end of the first quarter, Weider began the second with another quick five points. He had a steal and fast-break layup 10 seconds into the quarter, dashed to the net again to draw a foul, then had another steal.

“Ian’s been the leader of this team for two years, and lately I’m convinced that he’s the best athlete I’ve ever coached,” Smith said. “He makes the other guys on the floor better.”

Thetford began rushing shots and missing bunnies, but managed to build a 10-point lead on Eastman’s cleanup of a free-throw miss that made it 17-7.

BFA scored the last three points of the half to make it 19-11 at the break, but the Panthers opened the third quarter on a 6-2 run to make it a 10-point game again.

Wehner sank a 3 to bring the Bullets within five, but Thetford responded with layups from Weider, Cleaves and Chatot to make it 31-20.

BFA rallied to regain the lead on a turnaround jump shot from Ben Pomitcher, a 3 from Cam Place, a 3-point play by Veren and putbacks from Wehner and Jared Demar.

Free Throws: It was Thetford’s lowest point total of the season. ... Tomorrow night’s title game in Barre will be a rematch of the Blue Devils’ 78-64 win in Williamstown on Dec. 28. ... Weider’s 17 points were three short of his career high. ... Gray’s three points were his fewest since he had only one against Rivendell on Jan. 12.

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

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Thetford vs. BFA-Fairfax boys basketball semifinal game in Barre, Vt., on March 7, 2013. Thetford won, 43-38. Valley News — James M. Patterson …