By Tris Wykes
WHITE RIVER JUNCTION – Jeff Thomas sat slumped in the coaches office adjacent to Hartford High’s Hanley Gymnasium on Wednesday evening after the Hurricanes boys basketball team’s Vermont Division II playoff contest.
“It’s one of those games where you scratch your game and ask how did we lose?” Thomas said, still a bit disbelieving after his sixth-seeded squad led most of its opening-round clash with 11th-seeded Spaulding, yet lost, 64-62, in overtime. “Maybe we need to blame the basketball gods.”
The entertaining contest’s result sends Spaulding to play at third-seeded Mount St. Joseph, which blew Hartford out, 76-48, at Hanley five days ago. Still, the Hurricanes (7-3) were frustrated after leading the Crimson Tide by eight points at halftime and by four points with three minutes remaining in the fourth quarter.
“With the schedule they had, they were ready to play,” Thomas said, noting that Spaulding faced mostly Division I foes, making its 2-6 regular-season record and playoff seeding highly misleading. “They don’t have a specific player or two to stop. We might rely on (Tarin Prior) a bit too much at times.”
Prior, a junior, led Hartford with 20 points and sank 1 of 2 free throws with 1 minute, 10 seconds remaining in overtime to give the hosts a 62-61 lead.
Aidan Brooks missed the front end of a 1-and-1 foul-shot chance with 34 seconds to go, followed by Spaulding’s Cole McAllister draining two free throws to give the Crimson Tide a 63-62 advantage with 27 seconds on the clock.
Thomas said he then set up a double-screen scoring play for Danny Bushway, but the senior eventually passed to Prior. The guard drove the lane’s right side with 10 seconds remaining but his layup attempt under pressure was a touch too strong and bounced off the rim’s back edge and out. Spaulding rebounded and the Hurricanes’ scoring chances were finished.
“Tribute to the kids for not giving up,” Thomas said. “We got good looks but the ball wouldn’t fall.”
What would the coach change about his team’s performance? Thomas considered the question for a few seconds.
“Pretty much nothing,” he said. “Which is amazing. That was a really good team and we played really well. I was disappointed in our defense giving up the baseline and in our help-side rotation, which would help and then get beat.
“I thought we’d addressed that after the MSJ game and I’ve got to do a better job as a coach to make sure we’re defending better. But we left it all on the court tonight.”
Hartford led, 47-42, after three quarters but was up only 55-54 with 2:30 remaining in the fourth quarter. The Hurricanes missed their next four shots – two each by Jacob Seaver and Nick Clay.
Seaver, however, leaped to convert Prior’s alley-oop inbounds pass with 33 seconds to play in the quarter and to forge a 57-57 tie. Prior couldn’t finish a drive with 5 seconds remaining and overtime arrived.
Prior had six rebounds and Bushway had 14 points, five assists and four rebounds. Cole Jasmin, Brandon Potter and Clay each had 4 points.
Seaver had 8 points and 7 rebounds, which Thomas judged as adequate before adding that he’d like more out of the junior forward.
“I expect a lot from Jacob Seaver, but it’s not for lack of effort,” the coach said. “He got in a little bit of foul trouble in the second quarter and we had the lead, so we sat him for a bit.”
Although Hartford also lost its first-round playoff game last season, Thomas built a team during his second season that’s more talented, rugged and disciplined than a year ago. The Hurricanes were almost always a tough out and there’s a sense that a program that hasn’t won a state title since 1929 is on the rise.
“I think we’re turning a corner,” Thomas said. “Our kids’ dedication makes me tear up. Our seniors gave everything for our program. Down the road, I hope we can look back and say that they helped us change the program.”
Notes: Hartford assistant coach “Downtown” Bill Brown used a walker to get about the gym and sat with an ice bag on his side, the result of recent hip-replacement surgery… The Hurricanes deployed two sets of five players, substituting then en masse… All but one of Hartford’s 12 players saw action.
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