SOUTH BURLINGTON – To book its ticket back to Patrick Gymnasium for the Division I semifinal the BFA-St. Albans girls basketball team needed to repeat its result from the quarterfinals a season ago when it traveled to Rice on Friday.
The Comets entered last season as an underdog tenth-seed and were a big surprise on their way to upsetting Rice in the quarterfinals on the Green Knights’ home floor during their eventual run to the championship game.
While the Comets aren’t quite the underdog they were a year ago as a five-seed this year, they found a similar result in this year’s quarterfinal.
The Comets’ stingy defense played a solid game and their offense built a big lead by the third quarter that they didn’t relinquish on their way to a 34-30 win and a trip back to the semifinals for the third year in a row.
“This is really exciting, because I think a lot of people outside of our school doubted us coming in here tonight,” said senior Hannah Earl. “This was a total team effort and it’s a great feeling to be heading back to Patrick for the third year in a row.”
After BFA got the first basket of the game, Rice followed up with a 3-pointer to make it a 3-2 game in the first couple of minutes. A minute and 17 seconds later, BFA went up 4-3 and never gave up the lead the rest of the game.
The Comets went into halftime with a 17-12 lead and started the second quarter on an 8-0 run to jump out to a 13-point lead.
“That was really big for us, because we haven’t started games out very well throughout the year, but always find a way to finish strong,” said Hannah Earl. “The last couple of games, we have really started strong and kept it going through the games, so that’s been pretty big to start out the playoffs.”
Rice started to find its rhythm from there ending the third quarter on an 11-2 run to get the game within four points.
“I was very impressed with the way the kids hung in there and made this a game going into the fourth quarter,” said Rice coach Tim Rice. “I was proud of the comeback the kids made, but unfortunately the hole we dug ourselves in was too deep.”
Rice got the score to within two points on two different occasions in the fourth quarter, but couldn’t find the equalizer. The Green Knights had their chances to tie the game after making it a 32-30 game with just over three minutes remaining. The Comets were fouled in the double bonus three straight times down the floor and missed six straight free throws giving Rice an opportunity to tie or even take the lead.
After BFA missed its sixth straight free throw with just over a minute remaining, the Green Knights ran down a lot of the clock and Lisa Sulejmani (12 points) attempted a go-ahead 3 with 10 seconds left. Her shot was off the mark and went out of bounds off a teammate. The Comets inbounded the ball to Andi Esenler (nine points), who was fouled right off.
The senior made both the free throws to extend the lead to 34-30 with only four seconds remaining to seal the deal and punch the Comets’ ticket back to Patrick.
“I was just trying to stay focused and know what I had to do to help seal the win for the team,” said Esenler. “We had some trouble from the line toward the end of the fourth, but I knew those ones were going in.”
It was a closer game than the Comets would have liked with the opportunities they were given throughout the game.
Particularly at the free throw line, as they ended the game 14 of 28 from the charity stripe and 5 for 16 in the fourth quarter.
“I think fatigue might have set in a little bit at the free throw line toward the end,” said BFA coach Shawn Earl. “We missed a few free throws to keep this game close, but the girls really buckled down and gutted this one out.”
The Comets defense shut down the Rice offense all night long never giving them any easy opportunities.
They held Rice’s Lisa Sulejmani to 12 points in the game with no one else on the team scoring more than four points, as the Green Knights couldn’t get comfortable in their offense outside of their run to end the third quarter.
“The girls did a great job of not getting hung up on the baskets not falling later in the game and just staying focused on what they can control,” said coach Earl. “The girls kept their heads up and kept giving 100 percent effort on defense and the girls won this game on effort and defense.
“And it came down to everyone doing the little things tonight that don’t end up in the scorebook,” he added. “Everything from diving on a loose ball, to setting a screen that no one sees, and everything in between that helped us get this win tonight. And as a coach, I’m happy to see everyone willing to do whatever it takes to help the team succeed, which is what you need this time of the year.”
It was a big defensive stand all game long for the
BFA got out to a five-point halftime lead behind the Hannah Earl shooting lights out and making tough shots scoring 12 of her game-high 14 points in the first half.
Kelly Laggis (six points, nine rebounds) scored the other five points in the first half to help the team get out to the lead it needed to set the momentum.
Rice coach Tim Rice said despite his team’s struggles offensively, he was pleased with the fight it showed toward the end of the game after trailing by 13 points midway through the third quarter.
The Green Knights finished the season with a 16-6 record and will return 13 players from Friday’s roster, including a strong cast of juniors from this season, including Sulejmani.
“This year was a great journey with a great group of players,” said Rice. “Basketball is a long season with its highs and lows, and I couldn’t be more proud of this group of girls.
“Tonight is very tough to see our two seniors go off like this, but we have a good group of returners for next year with a deep junior class. We will get back to work in the next couple months here and get ready for next season.”
The Comets improved to 16-6 with the victory, as they advance to the Division I semifinals for the third year in a row.
“Tonight was impressive for the girls,” said coach Earl. “It’s very tough to come into Rice twice in one year and play in a tough hostile environment like this during the quarterfinals and handle the pressure to come away with the win.”
To advance to the championship for the second year in a row, BFA will have to get through top-seeded St. Johnsbury (20-2). The Hilltoppers are the only team with two wins against the Comets this year winning by scores of 40-38 in overtime at BFA and 43-26 in St. Johnsbury.
St. Johnsbury came away with a 45-23 win over No. 8 Colchester on Friday. Tipoff for Tuesday’s semifinal game is scheduled for 8 p.m.
“St. Johnsbury has a tough four-guard lineup,” said coach Earl. “We battled them hard in overtime the first time we played them at home and the second time we played tough with them on the road for three quarters and it kind of got away in the fourth. It’s going to be a fun game, and you never what’s going to happen at Patrick. We will go through the video, get ready and see what Tuesday brings.”