Thetford boys hold off Hazen to reach D-III basketball final

  • Thetford's Owen Deffner.

Valley News Staff Writer
Thursday, March 14, 2019

BARRE, Vt. — It’s official: Thetford Academy is carrying some serious athletic momentum into yet another state final. This time, its boys basketball team has a chance to make history.

Owen Deffner — fresh off of a cross country title in the fall and a pair of distance titles in indoor track and field this winter — scored 16 points and Eli Dunnet added a team-high 17 points to lift the No. 3-seeded Panthers to a 49-41 win over No. 2 seed Hazen in the VPA Division III semifinals on Thursday night at the Barre Auditorium.

Thetford (16-5) — which has won six of its last seven games since Feb. 11 — will face top-seeded Williamstown (18-4) in the D-III final on Saturday night at the Aud. Williamstown defeated No. 4 Peoples Academy in the early D-III semifinal to reach its eighth consecutive final. Williamstown is 5-2 in that stretch, and fell to Windsor in last year’s final, 71-59.

“I think we’re carrying a lot of momentum (into the final),” Deffner said. “Everybody is so supportive of the athletics programs right now. We’re having a really good year and we’re just hoping to keep it going on Saturday.”

The championship appearance is Thetford’s seventh since 2002, ninth all-time and first since 2013. The Panthers are 0-4 in finals since its winning their last state title in 2004, falling most recently in 2013 to Williamstown.

It’s not exactly a long track record of sustained success, the Panthers’ third-year head coach, Jason Gray, admitted. But winning seems to have caught on like a contagion in the Thetford athletic department this school year — its girls basketball team won the D-III title earlier this week and its girls soccer team and cross country team won state titles in the fall.

Add another wrinkle into the mix: Thetford’s girls and boys basketball teams have never won championships in the same season. Its boys squad has a chance to check that off the list.

“I’m excited,” Gray said. “The biggest thing is we have a lot of work to do. We have one day to prepare and be back here, and make sure we are well prepared for what we can.”

The Panthers used their height advantage and a quick start to jump ahead of Hazen early, starting the game with three quick baskets for a 6-0 run. They led, 11-6, after the first quarter and 25-14 at halftime.

“Their inside play … 12 (Dunnet) and 22 (Deffner) post-to-post pass as well as any two players I’ve seen,” Hazen head coach Aaron Hill said. “They know where to be. Thetford’s a good team. They’re not flashy, but they play good (defense) and those two big kids inside (Dunnet and Deffner) get it done, man.”

Added Deffner: “We always play well when we have a good warm up. The emphasis all playoffs has been be ready to play right as we run out onto the floor. That really helped us. We were focused right from the get go, which is what we needed.”

Dunnet, the Panthers’ shifty sophomore, came alive in the third quarter, scoring nine of Thetford’s 13 points out of the halftime intermission. The Panthers stretched the lead to 13 points midway through the third quarter and built a 36-25 lead heading into the final stanza.

That’s when Hazen got desperate. A 6-0 run late in the game cut Thetford’s lead to just four points, 43-39, off of a free throw made by Wildcat senior Elliott Kimbell. But Thetford’s Deffner and Dunnet answered with back-to-back buckets. The Panthers finished the game on a 6-2 run, hitting 2-of-4 free throws in the final minute to secure the win.

“We have four people averaging double digits,” Deffner said. “You never know who’s going to have a big game for us.”

Dunnet, Deffner, Jake Colby and Alex Emerson are all averaging about 10 points a game for Thetford. Carter Blain added seven points in the semifinal victory; Emerson scored five and Colby netted four.

Hazen sharpshooter Isaiah Baker tied a game-high with 17 points — including four 3-pointers — in the loss. The Wildcats, who beat the Panthers at home in their season-opener, 60-53, on Dec. 13, were bounced from last year’s D-III tournament by Thetford in the quarterfinals. Hazen graduates nine athletes off its roster in the offseason, including four of its five starters.

“I was proud of our second half and the way we battled,” said Hill, who’s coached the Wildcats for 20 years. “Thetford played very well. They made it really difficult to create any real offensive opportunities. I’m just proud of my seniors. They battled.”

Thetford graduated 1,000-point scorer Dylan Thorburn and scoring threat Lawson Ouellette from its roster last winter, a season that ended in a semifinal loss to eventual D-III champion Windsor. A year later, Gray said, Thetford’s squad has become deeper and less one-dimensional. Colby led the Panthers with 21 points in their quarterfinal win over BFA-Fairfax; Blain added 20. In the semis, Deffner and Dunnet led the way offensively.

The result has made Thetford more dangerous.

“Last year, we were virtually two-man deep,” Gray said. “Maybe three, maybe four. This year I think we have five to seven guys that are there, they want to play basketball, that will do anything for each other. And no one knows who’s night (it’s going to be). You look at the scorebooks and it’s everywhere.

“I think a lot of them relied on Dylan (Thorburn) and Lawson (Ouellette) to do most of the scoring. I think this year they realized that it’s going to take everybody. … It’s taken all of us to get this far.”

Saturday’s final is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. at the Barre Auditorium.

Josh Weinreb can be reached at jweinreb@vnews.com or 603-727-3306.