SOUTH BURLINGTON – In their first meeting, the Rice and Burlington High School boys basketball teams hinted at something special. It was Dec. 9, just the second game of the campaign, and yet for a quarter the classic rivals unspooled nothing but classic, end-to-end entertainment featuring nine lead changes and eight ties.
What’s changed since, now that Seahorses and Green Knights had the better part of a season under their belts?
The crosstown foes produced four captivating quarters.
Duking it out for the inside path to the No. 1 seed in next week’s Division I tournament, Rice emerged with the upper hand after a sparkling, 25-point performance from Ben Shungu paved the way to a 54-47 win over Burlington on Tuesday night.
The Green Knights (18-1) edged the Seahorses (17-2) by five in that pre-Christmas encounter and it was anyone’s game in the rematch as the teams stood tied, 37-37, with a quarter to play.
“We were hoping it would be close. It was a battle both ways,” BHS coach Matt Johnson said. “One team had a spurt and the other team was able to come back. You never know what to anticipate but it’s certainly not surprising.”
Here are some thoughts on the game and what it means:
The Shungu show
Five days after hanging 35 points on Mount Mansfield, Shungu was held to just two points in the first half against the Seahorses.
But there’s no escaping what happened next: The junior guard took over the game almost single-handedly to the tune of 23 second-half points.
“He’s kinda good, huh?” Rice coach Paul Pecor said. “We literally just cleared it out. … You could see it in him. The basket looked big for him and that was our offense: Everybody get low and get out of his way.”
At one point, Shungu scored 11 straight points for the Green Knights. Early in the fourth quarter he tied the game 39-39 with a slick crossover dribble to set up a 15-footer, drilled a pull-up 3-pointer for the lead on the next trip — after Josh Hale (15 points) hit a fadeaway jumper to give the Seahorses the lead. Two more baskets in the next minute, the latter a putback after wrestling back possession of his own miss, and Rice had a five-point cushion, 46-41.
“You know he can get to the basket, he does that. But when he pulls up and hits some of the shots that he did that’s when he sets himself apart from all the other players in the state,” Johnson said.
Perhaps one play loomed larger than the rest Tuesday night. For those not at Bill Hammond Gym, it unfolded like this:
Holding a 47-46 edge with 2 minutes, 11 seconds to play, Burlington came out of a timeout with an inbounds play on its end of the court. As the Seahorses worked the ball to the top of the key, Kendrick Gray (12 points) picked off the pass — with room to run. His emphatic, two-handed dunk that followed gave Rice the last lead it needed.
Even on a night when the explosive junior forward’s offense wasn’t at its usual level, he still managed to create something out of nothing.
“His defense has improved dramatically. He’ll take guys out of the game where last year he might not have done that,” Pecor said. “Offensively he might not have been his best, but defensively he was really sharp tonight.”
Hale and Asko Mostarlic (15 points), Burlington’s top two scoring threats, provided their share of moments as well.
Their creative shot-making prowess — reverse layups, leaning jumpers, fadeaways, you name it — helped keep the Seahorses’ neck-and-neck until the end and it was Hale’s slashing drive to the hoop for a layup with 12 seconds left in the third quarter that left the game tied with eight minutes to play.
Combined with Kujtim Hashani’s 3-pointer midway through the final frame, which answered Shungu’s late charge and made it a two-point deficit, the Seahorses had nearly every move needed to avenge their only loss.
But Rice had its own timely contributions, namely senior Ferran Lopez (nine points, eight rebounds), whose steal in the final moments of the first half sent the Green Knights to the locker room trailing by just one, 24-23, after a sloppy first half.
“Burlington is a phenomenal team,” Pecor said. “Defensively, they’re going to make the game look ugly because they’re so good defensively. … They won’t let you go with your first option, not even usually your second option.
“It’s usually your third, fourth or fifth option and then it’s, like, danger zone.”
What it means
With a win against Essex on Thursday, Rice, the two-time defending state champ, will own the top seed in the playoffs — something it’s never had since Pecor took over the program in 2003-04.
“We wanted it bad. We’ve never been the No. 1 seed in his career,” Shungu said. “The No. 1 seed meant a lot.”
Burlington, closing the regular season at St. Johnsbury on Friday, needs a win to secure the No. 2 seed and what looks like an increasingly daunting road to a championship-game rematch.
Other contenders like Rutland, Mount Mansfield, Essex and St. Johnsbury all appear poised to land on that side of the bracket.
“We said this could, potentially, be a battle for the 1(-seed) but we’ve still got to go to St. Johnsbury on Friday. Even a win here wouldn’t have guaranteed us anything,” Johnson said. “It was more important for us, especially this close to playoffs, just to play well and compete and it’ll be the same thing Friday.”
Rice fans celebrate during the boys basketball game between the Burlington Seahorses and the Rice Green Knights on Tuesday night.