Bang — Josh Hale drills a pull-up, 25-foot trey from the left wing to trim Burlington’s deficit from nine points to six.
Bang — after St. Johnsbury Academy goes 1-of-2 at the foul line, Hale buries another 25-foot trifecta on the next trip down the court to make it a four-point game with 31.6 seconds left.
“When a kid gets hot like that, you’re just hoping it doesn’t come down to the last shot because, obviously, he was feeling it,” Hilltoppers coach Tom O’Shea said.
Rallying from a 16-point fourth-quarter deficit, Hale and the Seahorses produced an electric final minute, but not close enough to get that fateful, decisive heave. With two free throws apiece from Tristen Ross and Patrick Schoolcraft, St. Johnsbury held off Burlington’s charge in the final 30 seconds to snare a 47-39 victory in boys basketball at Buck Hard Gym on Thursday night.
In their first trip back to Burlington since losing last year’s state final at Patrick Gym, the Hilltoppers (5-2) slayed one of the two undefeated teams left in Division I behind 18 points and 12 rebounds from 6-foot-8 forward Vlad Cobzaru.
“We’re not a team that has tremendous size so we can try to be active and try to work hard but, especially against us he’s going to score some points,” Burlington coach Matt Johnson said. “You try to make sure if he’s getting 18, which he did tonight, that Brendan (O’Shea) and Tristen (Ross) aren’t getting 20.
“That’s where they’re real dangerous if those three guys get involved like that.”
O’Shea and Ross added 12 points each, combining for three 3-pointers in less than a minute to balloon St. Johnsbury’s lead to 41-25 with 6 minutes left in the fourth quarter — and showing the inside-out threat that had the Seahorses’ (9-1) attention.
Hale, the sophomore who spent large chunks of the night matching up with Cobzaru, and Shaquane Cooperwood both scored 16 points to lead Burlington, which made for a much closer game than when they lost to SJA 55-39 in the semifinals last March.
“You can tell they’re playing very confidently to make that run at the end of the game. Their confidence was building, you could see that,” O’Shea said. “We had to finish the game off. Fortunately we did.”
Knotted 12-12 after six lead changes in the first quarter, St. Johnsbury broke free in the second, holding the Seahorses to just two field goals and finishing the half with an 18-12 edge on the glass that included eight offensive rebounds.
Up 22-17 at the half, the Hilltoppers held the hosts to just two field goals again, though the Seahorses had a painful string of shots around the hoop bounce in and out of the basket. That St. Johnsbury, which started the final stanza with a 32-23 lead, opened the third quarter with a 8-3 run only made things worse.
“We just weren’t finishing at all,” Cooperwood said. “It was frustrating, not going to lie, to see the ball just going in and out. In the fourth quarter we started knocking down shots but at the same time it was just too late.”
With four starters back from last year’s runner-up squad, St. Johnsbury entered the season as one of the teams to beat.
After weathering Burlington’s frantic final two minutes, the Hilltoppers showed they’re still worthy of that billing.
“They do everything they did last year, but you can tell that they honed it pretty well and they’ve worked hard,” Johnson said. “They’ve just had a whole summer and fall to get better and they have.”