When Burr and Burton Academy’s Joey Shehadi set off on a blistering start to the night, Mount Mansfield’s Sean Springer was there to match him shot-for-shot — from behind the arc.
When it was a two-possession game late in the second quarter, Springer popped up again. Back-to-back 3-pointers, 21 seconds apart, paved the way for a 12-point halftime lead.
And who was there to stem the Bulldogs’ second-half rally that had whittled a 19-point Cougar lead down to five? Springer, his only trifecta after the break adding precious breathing room.
Springer and Shehadi each had their high points. Top-seeded BBA and No. 5 Mount Mansfield each made their runs. Then it was down to Cougars senior Nick Bergeron, who hit four straight free throws in the final 26.9 seconds to help his team fend off the Bulldogs for a 60-56 win in the Division I boys basketball semifinals Tuesday night at Patrick Gymnasium.
“I think effort has a lot to do with it and just trying to hang on,” MMU (19-4) coach Jeff Davis said. “We had a team tonight we were playing against that just never quit. We were up by, I think, (19) at one point and they just fought back.
“We were able to just gut it out and that’s what I think our group’s about right now. It wasn’t the prettiest in the fourth quarter but we did gut it out and I think that’s from playing together, playing the teams we played, and getting a little bit better every time.”
The last bit of improvement, the Cougars’ third single-digit win in their last five games, dealt BBA (22-1) its only loss this winter and booked a second championship berth in three years.
MMU meets No. 3 Rice in the title game on Saturday at 1 p.m.
“Coach was telling us not to let down and when they were coming back we just had to keep our poise,” Cougars junior Tinga Adiang said. “It was just like St. Johnsbury, and when we played Rice. We’ve had the experience of being down and up at the same time.”
Going 6 of 13 from distance, Springer drilled five treys in the first half to pump in 17 of his game-high 20 points. Shehadi, too, finished with 20 for the game, including a lights-out, 5-for-5 start from the floor.
Mount Mansfield’s 14-12 lead after one stanza included nine points from Springer while BBA got 10 from Shehadi.
“Joey was ready and so was Springer. Those guys were locked in,” BBA coach Dave Shehadi said. “They’re tough kids and they understand the stage and they both came ready to play.”
The Cougars, buoyed by Springer’s early fireworks and 10 BBA turnovers in the first two periods, stretched a 33-21 halftime lead to 45-26 with 3:44 left in the second quarter after Adiang (17 points, eight rebounds) knocked down a pair of free throws.
Meanwhile, Adiang and Alec Eschholz, splitting time guarding Shehadi, managed to keep BBA’s catalyst off the scoreboard for nearly two full quarters.
“He can shoot the ball like no other player in the state. I just had to stay in there, not get down on myself when he made a deep shot,” Adiang said. “Because he did hit one in the first quarter and I was like, ‘Yeah he’s as good as they say he is. The tape doesn’t lie.'”
But the Bulldogs never let the margin swell to 20 points.
The 17-3 run that followed included a number of momentum plays from Tyeshawn Gadson (12 points) and a deep Shehadi trey in traffic with 2 seconds left into the third quarter to make it 48-36.
Gadson raced out for a layup after a steal by Ryan Smith and then canned a jumper to trim the deficit to 48-43 with 6:37 to play. Springer followed with a timely bomb from the left corner, his last of the game, to put the brakes on the BBA rally.
“They wouldn’t let me shoot anything,” Springer said of the second half. “I made the most of the one shot I got.”
Burr and Burton, making its first D-I semifinals appearance, gamely cut the Cougars’ lead to three points and then two in the final minute but never got the chance to take a go-ahead shot.
“We like to call it ’emptying the bag’ — you’ve got to leave it all out here,” Shehadi said. “I said, ‘Guys, it’s been a great year, let’s not leave anything on the floor.’ We started to get some tips, get some run-outs, they got a little tight and all of a sudden it was anyone’s ball game the last four minutes. We just couldn’t get over the hump.”