It’s not very often when a higher seed takes down a lower seed in the playoffs, it’s considered an upset.
Friday was one of the few examples of that scenario taking place when the fourth-seeded Missisquoi boys basketball team hosted No. 5 Rice in the Div. I quarterfinals.
Rice entered the season looking to make it back to the Division I state championship game for the seventh season in a row.
Missisquoi was just surprised to still be in Division I after it had expected to go down to Div. II this season.
With the chips stacked against them and not many people giving them a chance against the powerhouse Green Knights, the Thunderbirds showed off their heart and determination to gut out a 60-56 win to move on to the semifinals and earn their first ever trip to Patrick Gym.
“We knew we always had a chance in this game no matter what everyone was saying,” said Missisquoi coach Jim Bose. “These kids have all responded all season long to whatever was thrown at them.
“We had nine kids come out to tryouts for varsity at the beginning of the year and out of the nine, five had never played varsity ball before and out of those five, two had never played JV ball either. They have all come a long way throughout the season and tonight is proof of that.”
With the win, the Thunderbirds move on to take on top-seed CVU on Tuesday in the semifinals on the campus of the University of Vermont.
It was another gut-check of a performance that earned the team the trip to Tuesday’s matchup with the Redhawks.
Friday’s game against Rice saw 13 different lead changes, including four in the fourth quarter to go along with three ties.
“This team is just incredible,” said Bose. “They did not give up one second and they battled out there all game long. Everyone contributed out there today for us.”
In the end, clutch free throw shooting from the Thunderbirds and some misses from the Green Knights at the charity stripe was the difference, as Missisquoi ended the game on an 8-1 run in the final two minutes.
With 21 seconds left in the game, Richard Walker hit the back end of his two free throws to put the Thunderbirds up 59-56 with 21 seconds left. Rice’s Leo Chalkin was fouled on the ensuing possession, but missed both his free throws with some help from the loud Missisquoi student section. With seven seconds remaining, Cayden Theberge came down with the rebound after the missed free throws and hit the back end of his two free throws to seal the deal putting the team up 60-56.
“When Cayden his that free throw with seven seconds left, that’s when I realized that we were going to pull this off,” said Missisquoi senior Nick Cutting. “It all hit me then and once the time went down to zero, that’s when it all started sinking in what was happening.”
The Green Knights attempted to quickly get up the court, but a shot in the final seconds was rejected by Walker sending the Missisquoi fans and its bench into one big celebration with the huge upset.
“This is a rush right now for sure,” said Missisquoi senior Riley Wilkin. “Going up against a team like Rice and beating them and earning our first trip to Patrick Gym is unbelievable right now.”
Having the game at home was a big advantage for the Thunderbirds, who sealed home court through the quarterfinals when they took down BFA-St. Albans in the regular-season finale in another barn burner.
The game could have looked much different if it had been played in Burlington instead of Swanton.
“Getting that fourth seed was huge and it made us realize that anything was possible with us being in this gym throughout the quarterfinals,” said Wilkin. “Home-court advantage was huge for us. Rice plays real well at home, but our fans cheering us on and being loud throughout the entire game was a huge advantage.”
Missisquoi made some clutch hustle plays in the final minute to lead to the win.
With just under a minute to go in the game, Rice led 55-54 and was looking to take some time off the clock before going for their shot. As the Green Knights were attempting to pass the ball around midcourt, Nick Cutting tipped the ball just enough and Walker provided pressure on the Rice player to force a backcourt violation and give the Thunderbirds the ball with 56 seconds remaining, which changed the dynamic of the game the rest of the way.
“Richard was working hard to cover his guy and I tried to time the pass and got just enough of a piece of it,” said Cutting. “I didn’t realize it was a backcourt at first, but when I heard the call, it was a huge sigh of relief and a big momentum shift.”
Walker drove to the hoop for a bank shot on the ensuing play to put the Thunderbirds up 56-55.
After Chalkin was fouled on the next possession and his 1 of 2 of his free throws, he was called for a foul on the ensuing inbound play with the Thunderbirds in the double bonus sending Walker to the free throw line.
The clutch senior hit both free throws and came down with the defensive rebound on the next Rice possession to send him to the line with his team up 58-56 with 21 seconds remaining.
After missing his first shot, he hit his second to make it a three-point game before Chalkin missed his two free throws on the next possession and Theberge hit the free throw he needed to hit to seal the game.
“I was a little nervous after missing one and only making it a three-point game, but luckily we made a stop and Cayden was able to hit one to seal it,” said Walker, who finished with a game-high 27 points. “We just played great defense down the stretch and did just enough to hold on.”
After Walker put the Thunderbirds up 46-44 with a 3 in the final seconds of the third, the Green Knights went on a 5-0 run to start the quarter and grab the momentum.
The all changed quickly when Theberge hit a huge 3 from the corner to tie the game at 49 and give the Thunderbirds some extra life.
“We were down by 3, needed a little bit of a momentum swing and I got some space and just took the shot,” said Theberge, who missed his entire junior season after needing knee surgery. “I was just glad to see it go in. It was a big moment.”
Missisquoi started the game off strong outscoring Rice 17-12 In the first quarter powered by the determination of Michael Wright, who came away with six rebounds in the first eight minutes alone, including a number of offensive boards.
Even though the Green Knights would outscore the Thunderbirds 19-7 in the second, the quick start gave the Thunderbirds confidence they could play with their opponents.
“You can’t avoid hearing what everyone was saying coming into the game tonight and not many people gave us a chance,” said Walker. “After the first quarter, that really gave us the confidence and showed ourselves we could play with this team and kept it rolling from there.”
Heading out of halftime, Missisquoi went on a 10-3 run to tie the game up at 34 with both teams trading the lead numerous times.
After a pair of free throws from both Cutting (eight points) and Riley Wilkin (nine points) made it a 43-40 game in the Thunderbirds’ favor, Rice’s Kam Farris hit a big 3 to tie the game before a Green Knight free throw made it 44-43 setting up Walker’s last second 3.
That all set up the late game heroics, propelled by every Thunderbird on the floor and gave them a chance to hit the floor at Patrick Gym for the first time in program history.
“Tonight was amazing for us to earn the opportunity to head to Patrick Gym and no matter what happens on Tuesday, no one will ever be able to take away what these kids have accomplished,” said Bose. “Thinking where we were going into the beginning of the season and being where we are now, it just makes it that much more amazing. These guys all stepped up and played the game of their lives tonight and it was just a great all-around team effort and that’s exactly what we needed tonight.”
It has been quite the ride for the Thunderbirds all season going from Division II back to Division I and now heading to the semifinals.
“This is just an amazing feeling right now,” Cutting. “If you had told us in the beginning of the year we were going to stay in Div. I and make it to Patrick Gym, we would have probably thought you were crazy, but we have battled all year and here we are. We are going to Patrick.”