Panthers erase 20-point deficit to return to VPA D-III boys hoop title game

Valley News Correspondent
Published: 3/5/2020 11:14:51 PM
Modified: 3/5/2020 11:14:38 PM

BARRE, Vt. — Trailing 30-13 at halftime, the Thetford Academy boys basketball team appeared to be down and out in the VPA Division III semifinals on Thursday night at Barre Auditorium.

Then the No. 7 Panthers (13-10) produced a comeback for the ages, winning 51-48 to propel themselves to a second consecutive championship game.

No. 6 Peoples Academy (13-10) dominated the first half with its full-court press and staunch interior defense, but Panthers coach Jason Gray and his troops solved those issues at halftime.

The Wolves opened up the third quarter with a 3-pointer that put them up by 20 points before the defending champions responded with a 12-0 run to roar back into contention.

TA got typically balanced scoring from its offense: Alex Emerson and Ryen Wolf led the way with 15 apiece, and Eli Dunnet chipped in 14.

Wolf’s performance, which featured a drawn charge and multiple clutch free throws off the bench, was outstanding. The junior scored 10 points in the fourth quarter.

Emerson’s poise at the point guard position was tremendous, guiding the defending champs down the stretch. The senior gave TA its first lead since 2-0 on a successful drive to the hole with 1:49 left in the game. Wolf and Dunnet followed with free throws, and the former’s floater on a feed from Emerson over the packed-in Peoples defense capped Thetford’s scoring.

TA big man Eamon Deffner then blocked Charlie Veit’s shot at the top of the key to put the icing on the cake of a most improbable comeback at the Aud.

The Panthers were just 10-for-25 from the free-throw line but hit the bulk of their foul shots late when it counted. TA also hit just a single 3-pointer for the second straight game.

Thetford’s offense struggled mightily in the first half due to consistent defensive intensity by the Wolves.

Peoples jumped out to a 12-5 first-quarter lead with Jackson Ransom accounting for all of Thetford’s points on a put-back and a 3-pointer. Ransom took a strong elbow to the jaw midway through the second quarter — an offensive foul not seen by the referees — but he was quick to shake off the painful affront.

TA called a timeout down 12 points with 2:02 left in the second quarter but proceeded to miss a layup and turn the basketball over twice as the Wolves continued building their lead.

Thursday’s comeback was reminiscent of last year’s championship game, during which TA came back to win after being down by 16 points to Williamstown.

The contest was a true nightcap, tipping off at 8:30 p.m., a time when most regular-season games are finished.

The late start didn’t seem to bother the Panthers, who will face Enosburg in Saturday’s championship game at 7:30 p.m. The No. 4 Hornets (13-10), whom TA didn’t face during the regular season, defeated No. 1 Hazen, 66-55 in Thursday’s first semifinal matchup.

Peoples, which lost in last year’s semifinals to Williamstown, was led by Veit (20 points) and Joe Buonanno (11). The Wolves were 7-for-10 from the foul line and hit seven 3-pointers.

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