BARRE — The Thetford boys basketball team secured its first championship berth in six years with Thursday’s 49-41 victory over Hazen in Division III semifinal action.
The No. 3 Panthers jumped out to a 6-0 lead against the No. 2 Wildcats and never looked back. Thetford led 11-6 after one quarter, 23-14 after two and 36-25 after three. Hazen made it a two-possession game during the final minutes before Thetford slammed the door. The Panthers will face No. 1 Williamstown (18-4) in Saturday’s 7:30 p.m. championship at the Barre Aud.
“We played defense well,” Thetford forward Owen Deffner said. “There were a couple possessions where they were moving the ball well and we couldn’t keep up with their rotation. But, for the most part, our emphasizing the defensive end is what got us the win.”
Deffner finished with 16 points, while teammate Eli Dunnet scored 17 points. Carter Blain (seven points), Alex Emerson (five points) and Jake Colby (four points) rounded out the top scorers for Thetford.
“We always play well when we have a good warmup,” Deffner said. “So the emphasis all playoffs has been to be ready to play right as soon as we run out on the floor. And that really helped us. We were focused right from the get-go, which was what we needed.”
Isaiah Baker (17 points), Justin Howard (eight points), Freddy Larsen (seven points) and Jay LeCours (four points) paced Hazen (18-4). The Wildcats trailed 47-41 entering the final minute and watched the Panthers miss the front end of a 1-and-1 situation from the foul line. The Wildcats attempted a 3-pointer with 40 seconds remaining, only to watch Colby grab the rebound.
The Wildcats threw up another 3-point attempt with 30 seconds on the clock, and this time Deffner crashed the defensive glass. The senior forward went 2 of 2 from the stripe for a 48-41 lead. Following a loose-ball scramble, Hazen inbounded with 14 seconds left and failed to get off a shot because Ethan Steingas leapt up for a block.
Thetford coach Jason Gray relied on a core group of players all season, and Thursday was no exception as the five starters played most of the game. The Panthers’ conditioning had been crucial to the team’s success, with Deffner doubling-up this winter to compete on the indoor track team as well. After winning a cross-country running title in the fall, he claimed indoor state titles in the 1,500 and 3,000-meter races last month.
“I hadn’t run cross-country before this season,” Deffner said. “Jason has us playing all 32 minutes, so being able to do that without it affecting my play is huge.”