Vlad Cobzaru, a 6-foot-7 power forward, scored only two points in eight minutes of action of Tuesday’s Division I high school boys basketball semifinal.
No problem for St. Johnsbury Academy.
Jake Grinbergs knocked down three 3-pointers in the first half and finished with 16 points, Tristen Ross added 14 points and the top-seeded Hilltoppers played their typically tenacious man-to-man defense in a 54-39 victory over No. 12 Burlington at University of Vermont’s Patrick Gym.
“We are a team, we are not just one player. We came out together and got the win,” Ross said. “It’s a great accomplishment for the school and the community. It’s a great feeling and we have a lot of fans here to support us.”
St. Johnsbury weathered BHS’s hot start and used a 14-4 spurt at the end of the first quarter to take a lead it wouldn’t relinquish and advance to the program’s first state final since 1997. St. Johnsbury will play the winner of the other semifinal between Rice and Rutland in Thursday’s final. Game time is 7 p.m. at Patrick Gym.
The Hilltoppers shot 48.8 percent from the floor, including 8 of 18 from beyond the 3-point line, committed only seven turnovers and improved to 23-0, one step away from the first perfect boys basketball season in Division I since Burlington accomplished the feat in 2008. SJA also held Burlington to 38.5 percent from the floor.
“They shot well all night. We worked for every bucket we got and their defense was responsible for that,” BHS coach Matt Johnson said. “We had a plan offensively and their defense took it out of us a little bit.”
And the Hilltoppers also moved on despite Cobzaru, the team’s leading scorer and rebounder, turning into a non-factor with the ankle injury.
“I’ve told people we have a real team. Obviously, Vlad is an important part of it,” SJA coach Tom O’Shea said, “but others can play and it showed today. Guys stepped up.”
It started with Grinbergs, who ignited the Hilltoppers’ first-quarter run with 11 points, going 4 of 4 from the floor with a trio of 3-point bombs.
“It was a good moment, why not take them?” said Grinbergs of the 3-pointers. “In this case, Vlad wasn’t able to be 100 percent, so the guys stepped up and did the work. It doesn’t matter if it was defense or offense. That’s what won the game.”
St. Johnsbury’s lead grew to as many as 11 points in the second quarter before BHS made a run, cutting the deficit to 24-19 with 1:38 to go. SJA went on a quick 7-0 run, capped by Brendan O’Shea’s 3-pointer from the corner right before the halftime buzzer.
“I think it zaps the other team. These games – a play here or a play there – can turn the momentum,” the SJA coach said about his son’s 3-pointer. “High school games are only 32 minutes and you have to take the opportunities when you can.”
No. 12 Burlington, which bumped off Mount Mansfield and Mount Anthony en route to its first trip to Patrick Gym since 2010, hung around deep into the second half. Connor Wright and Jervon Montgomery each scored 11 points to pace the Seahorses, who trailed 48-37 with 3:46 left in regulation.
Burlington returns much of its talent, including Montgomery, Bryan Vachereau (nine points) and Josh Hale (six points).
“I told the kids I hope it makes them hungry to want to get back here,” Johnson said. “I’m hoping that it will trickle down to some of the younger kids and make them work hard in the offseason.”