The way it began didn’t hint at history in the making. The tip-off took two tries to get right. A turnover on one end led to a missed baseline jumper at the other. Seven seconds later, a loose rebound caromed out of bounds 80-plus feet away — another fruitless possession.
Then, a flurry: one 3-pointer, a second and a third in a 15-second span, from one end to the other and back again. It was on.
Feb. 16, 2004, would be a night to remember.
In the 40 minutes of basketball that unfolded 10 years ago, free-wheeling Mount Anthony fended off Brattleboro for a 149-141 victory in double-overtime that, with its 290 total points, matched the record for highest-scoring high school boys hoops game ever played, according to the national high school federation record book.
But the point total was only one of the eye-popping numbers produced in Kates Gym two nights after Valentine’s Day:
* 78 — Free throws attempted by the Patriots, the second-most ever by a high school team in one game.
* 115 — Combined free throw attempts, the seventh-highest single-game total.
* 93 — Combined field goals in 204 attempts — an average of five shots per minute.
* 33 — Combined 3-pointers in 73 attempts.
* 58 — Points by Brattleboro’s Seth Procter, the second-most by one player in a Vermont high school boys game.
And in a sport where points seem to grow more scarce by the year, it’s likely that Vermont — and the nation — might never see another game like it, the high-water mark of a program’s two-year experiment racing against the clock.
The system: ‘It was shoot, rebound, run’
Less than a week before the Patriots and Colonels went for broke in Bennington, Mount Anthony’s run-and-gun style produced a game that appeared to have set the new benchmark for scoring in the state.
On Feb. 11 in Rutland, the Patriots beat the Raiders 119-104. It was one of the seven games that year in which Mount Anthony cracked the century mark and one of the few instances where a pair of Vermont teams both got there.
“We probably thought that was about the max,” said A.J. Mahar, Mount Anthony’s leading scorer, who lit up Rutland for 56 points that night. “That was a ton of points. Two teams with over 100 points in a high school basketball game was unheard of.
“To see that was crazy.”
It was the result of an approach installed the season before, 2002-’03, coach Dan Sleeman’s second in charge of the Patriots.
After assessing the personnel he had, rich in shooters and ball-handlers, he decided to stop trying to coach the way he was coached, which resulted in a middle-of-the-road 10-11 record in his debut campaign.
“I felt at the time we needed a change to jump-start us,” Sleeman said. “I made up my mind if we were going to do something drastic, we’re going to go all the way in.”
What Mount Anthony went with drew on “The System” made famous by Paul Westhead’s teams at Loyola Marymount, Sleeman said.
The Patriots looked to break out in transition whenever possible, pressing the tempo the entire game. They had no diagrammed offensive plays; they practiced with a 15-second shot clock and played with one in their heads. If an opponent converted a layup, Mount Anthony wanted to dart back down the floor to strike with a 3-pointer.
“We don’t even care what defense teams play. We didn’t recognize defense,” Sleeman said. “It was shoot, rebound, run.”
But, unlike other full-court philosophies, the Patriots’ full-tilt mantra didn’t harp on their own defensive strategy. They simply sought to hone their fastbreak out of a “lazy, sagging, half-court man-to-man defense,” Sleeman said.
Over the two-year run, Mount Anthony went 41-5. Over the course of the 2003-’04 season, the Patriots went 22-2 while averaging 84 points per game.
“We were going to fly down the floor and put up the first good shot,” Sleeman said. “It’s amazing that we even scored that much.”
Empowered by the freedom to shoot often and in the flow of the game, Mahar and Jared Callanan each finished their careers as 1,000-point scorers — the first and only time two Mount Anthony classmates reached the milestone.
“It was an unbelievably fun style to play,” said Mahar, who went on to play at Division II Bryant University and St. Joseph’s (Ind.). “It was literally, we had the freedom to go out there and play basketball.
“We didn’t really have anything in a half-court set, it was just action. You read the action and you made decisions.”
The game: ‘There was not a bad shot’
A sellout crowd already on his hands before the start of the record-setting game against Brattleboro, Mount Anthony athletic director Tim Brown recalled locking the school doors to abide by the fire code. As it was, the gym was over-stuffed with anticipation, fans standing along the walls and the landings at each end of the upper-tier bleachers.
“It’s like they knew something was going to happen,” Brown said.
In the two teams’ first clash that winter, the Patriots survived for a 102-96 win. The rematch was another shot at breakneck basketball, with coach Glenn Fidler’s Brattleboro team embracing the challenge of matching the offensive juggernaut on the other side.
Points were bound to come in bunches.
“MAU had a structure, a three-player structure that they ran, that consistently got one of those three players open. That worked for them at their end,” said Joe Rivers, the current Brattleboro head coach and an assistant on the ’04 team.
“At our end, we were trying to feed Seth (Procter) and we were also running a couple guys opposite Seth, who, when Mount Anthony gave Seth too much attention, they were sprung open,” Rivers recalled. “Between those two things happening, in both cases they were having a lot of success.
“Because of the pace of it it never really settled out into a grind-it-out defensive struggle. Both teams were comfortable taking shots in 12 seconds or less.”
By halftime, Mount Anthony led 57-42 — an output that would take most teams four quarters.
And the shots continued to fall after intermission. Pull-up 3-pointers in transition? Spot-ups from 25 feet? Sure, why not.
“There was not a bad shot,” Sleeman said. “It was kind of hard to leave every second-by-second decision up to the kids. You let go of control a little bit in that style of play.”
After three periods, the hosts led 87-79, but the Colonels continued to chip away. With seven seconds left in regulation, Procter drilled a triple — one of his eight threes on the night — over a defender at the top of the arc to knot the score at 112-112 and force overtime.
He added four more trifectas in overtime to keep Brattleboro, which had six players foul out, in the game.
“Seth shot the ball like I’ve never seen anybody shoot in my life,” Mahar said. “He could’ve closed his eyes and shot it backward and it would’ve gone in.”
Mahar had fouled out midway through the fourth quarter with just 18 points to his name. Without him, the Patriots relied on Callanan, whose 48 points included a school-record nine treys, and Drew Becker, who scored 17 of his 24 points after the third quarter.
And Callanan, who also tied the game 129-129 with a pair of free throws to force the second overtime, sewed up the win with points No. 289 and 290 to cap a whirlwind night between the Marble Valley League rivals.
“It was a special game. It was an exciting night,” Rivers said. “I think everybody enjoyed it.”
‘We really did have something special’
Last month, Burr and Burton Academy topped Mount St. Joseph 99-95 in the season’s highest-scoring contest to date.
The teams combined for 30 3-pointers, eight of them padding BBA junior Joey Shehadi’s team-high 37 points. The game lasted three overtimes and still needed 86 points to catch Brattleboro and Mount Anthony.
“I watched that game. I was expecting to really see these guys flying, running in transition, and it wasn’t,” Sleeman said. “It was like boy, we really did have something special.”
The evolution of the game since that ’04 thriller has skewed toward defense, with coaches looking to squeeze as much as possible from every possession. Mount Anthony’s win against Brattleboro looks increasingly like an outlier: The only other game since 1971 in the national top-five was Sarasota (Fla.) Riverview’s 148-142 win over Bradenton Bayshore in 1995 that set the original record.
Ultimately, the Patriots’ experiment didn’t deliver hardware for the Bennington school and Mount Mansfield ousted them in the Division I semifinals, 66-53. But Mount Anthony still have its place in history.
“It was bittersweet because we didn’t win it all in the end, but not many (programs) end up in the national federation record books either,” Sleeman said.
“You have to be crazy to try it,” he said. “But we went with it.”