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Panthers Leap Into Semis

Thetford Rallies Past Randolph for Trip to Barre

  • Thetford Academy coach Justin Smith leaps from the bench with his team as they pin down a spot in the semi-finals in Barre next week with a win over Randolph last night.  (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Thetford Academy coach Justin Smith leaps from the bench with his team as they pin down a spot in the semi-finals in Barre next week with a win over Randolph last night. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Thetford’s Ian Weider makes a move while closely followed by Randolph’s Ben Jickling during their quarterfinal game at Thetford last night. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

    Thetford’s Ian Weider makes a move while closely followed by Randolph’s Ben Jickling during their quarterfinal game at Thetford last night. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Purchase photo reprints »

  • Thetford Academy coach Justin Smith leaps from the bench with his team as they pin down a spot in the semi-finals in Barre next week with a win over Randolph last night.  (Valley News - James M. Patterson)
  • Thetford’s Ian Weider makes a move while closely followed by Randolph’s Ben Jickling during their quarterfinal game at Thetford last night. (Valley News - James M. Patterson)

Thetford — Say this about the folks at Thetford Academy: They’re quick workers. Authorities had the cash box out and were selling tickets to Thursday’s VPA Division III boys basketball semifinals barely five minutes after Thetford’s 58-53 win over Randolph last night.

The Panthers themselves? Not so much. It’s been an occupational hazard they’ve now overcome in three encounters with the Galloping Ghosts.

Thrice this winter, second-seeded TA (18-4) entered the second half trailing seventh-ranked Randolph (13-9). The Panthers shook off the Ghosts’ smothering defense for a rally on each occasion, this time in the form of a 16-7 fourth quarter that ensured ticket sales and another blue- and white-clad road trip to the Barre Auditorium.

“We’ve never been a first-half team,” confessed Thetford sophomore Brandon Gray, owner of two fourth-period buckets as part of a team-high 21 points. “They’ve been killing us. We played them twice this season; I think they were up seven or eight the first time and 13 in the second half the second time we played ’em.

“This time, we were only down by one (at the half). We had a little more ambition. We’ve really been that third- and fourth-quarter team that really comes together as one, be one unit, one family.”

Randolph destroyed Thetford on the glass all night, turning a 36-22 rebounding edge — 12-4 on the offensive boards — into a 15-3 advantage in second-chance points. But things changed in the fourth.

The Ghosts’ dominant big man, 6-foot-5 junior Ross Caswell (18 points, 14 rebounds) didn’t find the going as easy in the paint over the final eight minutes. Randolph also lost its best slashing guard option, junior Brandon Keyes (15 points) to foul trouble for most of the final stanza.

And the Panthers were able to finally spread Randolph’s defense out in the fourth. That opened avenues to the hoop for TA’s guards as well as room for 6-foot pivot Aidan Cleaves (16 points, seven rebounds) to compete more evenly with Caswell.

Cleaves’ three-point play with 5:22 to go put Thetford ahead to stay at 47-46. The Panthers kept the lead between one and two possessions the rest of the way.

“Randolph could be the best defensive team going into the tournament,” TA coach Justin Smith said. “One of the things I’ve done with these guys all year is that we want to keep putting pressure on people. A lot of nights we’ve shot 65, 70 times; we’ll take the first good, available shot in our offense every single possession. With these guys, it’s just seemed to work.”

Thetford was anything but slow out of the gate. Fueled by three Randolph turnovers, the Panthers scored nine of the game’s first 11 points, forcing Ghosts coach Jeremy Rilling to use a timeout after just 106 seconds of clock time.

Calmer for the break despite the standing-room-only crowd, Randolph repeatedly worked the ball low to Caswell for buckets or free-throw opportunities. That erased the early deficit; the acrobatic work of Keyes and fellow guard Jacob Sprague (10 points) produced a 12-2 run to close the first quarter for a 21-20 lead.

“The guys needed a little talking to in order to settle them down,” Rilling said. “We did. We settled down and played excellent basketball after that.”

Thetford buried three 3-pointers in the first quarter; increased defensive attention by Randolph permitted just one more the rest of the night. With the pace at their liking, the Ghosts held a 32-31 lead at the half and 46-42 after three quarters, one that could have been more had they done better than 15-for-27 from the charity stripe for the game.

There was still Thetford’s well-get-it-done-eventually mentality to deal with, however. Ian Weider hit a foul-line jumper following Cleaves’ go-ahead hoop and harm, but every other Panther point in the fourth came from the lane or the foul line.

Without second-chance opportunities or consistent success at the stripe, Randolph saw its upset hope evaporate.

“Coach told us we should hold them to 40 points, and they had 30 in the first half,” Gray said. “So we definitely had to pick up the defense, just like they had. I don’t know what else to say.”

Here’s something: Better late than never.

Free Throws: The Panthers will meet the winner of today’s quarterfinal between BFA-Fairfax and Leland & Gray on Thursday. Game time will be determined next week. … TA squeezed out a 51-47 win over Randolph at home on Dec. 20 and took a 49-39 decision at Randolph on Feb. 9. … Randolph’s defense held TA to 50 field-goal attempts, well below the Panthers’ average. … Thetford owned a 17-9 advantage in points from turnovers. … Woodstock boys hoop coaches Jeff Thomas and Tom Avellino were among the faces in the crowd. … The Ghosts lose Sprague, Ben Jickling, Jay Swartz, Zach LaPerle, Aaron West and injured forward Evan Wilson to graduation.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.