Two weeks ago in a two-point loss at Rutland in the regular-season finale, the Rice Memorial High School boys basketball team let a late lead slip away.
The veteran Green Knights were bent on not letting a similar fate happen again to end their season.
Third-seeded Rice earned revenge by holding No. 2 Rutland scoreless over the final six minutes of a 55-40 Division I semifinal victory at Patrick Gymnasium on Tuesday night.
The Green Knights exploded for a 26-5 run to end the game and book a trip to the final for the sixth time in seven years. They will face undefeated St. Johnsbury in the championship game Thursday night at Patrick Gym.
“The last game of the season we were up like five with two minutes left and blew it,” Rice senior Marcus forward Marcus Willingham said. “All week in practice we worked on closing out games.”
Willingham dialed up 17 points, Casey Tipson tallied 13 points and seven rebounds and Matt Maynard notched 10 points and 11 rebounds for a Rice team that improved its record to 19-4 after shooting 50 percent in the second half.
Rice coach Paul Pecor lauded his team’s tenacity in limiting a high-powered Rutland squad to five points the fourth quarter.
“We gave up 17 points in the first quarter,” Pecor said. “We challenged the guys about our defense, about containing better, about getting our hands up on shooters, and more importantly, getting rebounds. I thought we did a fantastic job with that down the stretch.
“Our defense really stepped it up.”
In what had been a pulsating affair that featured six lead changes and six ties, Rice capped the third quarter on a 12-2 run to establish a 41-35 advantage. Then the Green Knights reeled off eight straight points early in the fourth quarter to pull away.
It was the fifth straight year Rice has dispatched Rutland in the postseason, four of those games at Patrick Gym.
Patrick O’Rourke, Tre Hysell and Samuel Brochu each scored eight points to pace Rutland (18-5).
A lightning-fast paced first quarter ended with Rice holding an 18-17 lead.
“I know everyone is used to Rice teams coming up here and holding the ball,” Pecor said with a smile. “We really wanted to work on transition, getting the ball up and down, and obviously we did that. The pace was unbelievable at the start.
“Down the stretch we kind of executed when we had to, broke them down a little bit, and got some easy baskets,” Pecor added.
Rice was up 26-24 at halftime, in part because Willingham went 5-for-8 from the foul line, and also because the Green Knights had five blocks and a 24-16 rebounding advantage in the opening 16 minutes.