Marcus Willingham is one of the top players in Vermont high school boys basketball — a quick, big and strong forward who can score and defend. Making free throws, however, is not one of the Rice Memorial senior’s strengths.
Willingham came through anyway.
A 48 percent foul shooter, Willingham made the third-seeded Green Knights’ biggest free throws of the season — two points that fended off No. 6 Spaulding’s gutsy upset bid for a 52-49 Division I quarterfinal victory at Bill Hammond Gym on Saturday afternoon.
With 42 seconds left in the fourth quarter, Willingham knocked down a pair of foul shots to give Rice a 50-49 lead. Nate Shungu followed with a steal and breakaway layup and Rice survived a wild final seconds to book the program’s eighth trip to the Division I semifinals in coach Paul Pecor’s 10-year tenure.
“You know what it is, seniors somehow step up. At that point, (Marcus) stepped up. Nate Shungu had those offensive rebounds to keep it alive to get Marcus the chance to get to the line,” Pecor said. “I couldn’t be happier for those guys. It wasn’t our best game, obviously, but it was a pretty good effort team wise.”
Willingham finished with 13 points while Casey Tipson had 15 and Tommy Fitzgerald’s 10 points included three 3-pointers for the Green Knights (18-4), who will play No. 2 Rutland (18-4) at the University of Vermont’s Patrick Gym on Tuesday night. Game time will be announced today.
“It all came down to focus. I know in the past I’ve haven’t done well,” said Willingham, who was 5 of 6 from the line in the fourth. “It’s a big game. I think I do best when it’s clutch time. I made them count — good for our team … and it’s back to Patrick.”
And it wasn’t without some late drama.
After Shungu’s fastbreak layup, there was still time for Spaulding to force overtime. As Harrison Bailey (21 points), grabbed an offensive rebound and raced behind the 3-point line to heave a shot, Spaulding coach Mike Mislak called a timeout with eight seconds to go. Harrison’s shot banked in, but an official granted Mislak the timeout and waved off the basket.
On the ensuing play, Evan Grubb’s shot hit rim but was off the mark and Rice ran out the clock.
“After we got the rebound — I don’t like to ever take the flow out of a run — it didn’t look good and I thought that it was a great time to call a timeout, set up a play and get a good look,” Mislak said. “It is surprising, because it’s hard to get a timeout sometimes, but in that case I think I said it almost simultaneously. … It was the right call.”
After falling behind by as many as 10 points in the second quarter, the Crimson Tide’s use of backdoor screens and cuts proved effective in mounting a comeback. Bailey helped ignite it, draining a 3-pointer with 2:15 left in the third quarter to give Spaulding its first lead of the game, 35-34. From there, the lead changed six times.
“(Spaulding) gave us their best shot. We always get everybody’s best shot and they put it out there for us and really tested us,” Willingham said.
Jon Kilian scored seven points while Grubb and Marcus Thornton each finished with six points for a 14-8 Spaulding squad that will graduate seven seniors.
“I wanted so badly for this team to get to Patrick — that was their dream. Just sheer Tide pride willed us. … Arguably, we should have won the game,” Mislak said. “As a coach, they gave me everything you could ask for as a team.”