BFA-St. Albans fans go wild after Will Hughes (15) makes a three to cut Rice’s lead to 64-61 with 40 seconds left to play on Wednesday (Ben Kaufmann, County Courier)


By Ben Kaufmann

ST. ALBANS – After winning a third straight Division I championship last season, including a quarterfinal trouncing of BFA-St. Albans, perennial powerhouse Rice returned every single player this year in its quest for a fourth straight crown. An early season trip to St. Albans on Wednesday was supposed to be more of a statement than a test – not necessarily a walk in the park but not anything especially stressful either.

The Green Knights (5-0) fell behind early on in a raucous BFA gym but resettled to knot the game at 15-15 entering the second quarter before grabbing a 35-25 halftime lead. The Bobwhites (3-1) returned some fire to get within three points at the end of the third quarter, but as the final frame reached the midway point, the favorites led by 12 points. Four heartstopping minutes later, BFA had whittled the Rice lead down to two points but simply ran out of time and fell by a 69-65 final.

“I told the guys there’s no reason to hang our heads,” said BFA coach Tristan Menard. “That’s a fairly well-executed game, it’s early, we’re running a new scheme offensively. The message is teamwork, we worked as a team.”

The BFA-St. Albans bench gets fired up as the offense gets going in the final quarter Wednesday. Down 12 to defending champion Rice more than halfway through the fourth, the Bobwhites rallied to get within two points before falling 69-65 (Ben Kaufmann, County Courier)

There were a number of standouts for the Bobwhites on Wednesday. Liam Howrigan operated like a runaway train in scoring 12 of his 15 points in the second half, Reed Stygles kept BFA going in the first half and played an impressive two way game before fouling out with 13 points to his name. Stygles’ frontcourt partner, Seth Richards, was fearless against the Rice big men in finishing with 10 points. Noah Earl, an AAU teammate of Rice superstar Sharif Sharif and numerous other Green Knights, ran the point with the required confidence of someone who belongs on a court with the best in the state.

One Bobwhite, however, stood out above the rest on Wednesday. Junior Will Hughes scored a team-high 21 points which included six of BFA’s first ten en route to a confidence-building 10-3 lead, and 10 of his team’s final 15 points to help BFA nearly erase a 12-point deficit in the final four minutes.

“He’s been shooting the lights out all offseason, so it’s coming,” Menard said of Hughes. “A lot of guys stepped up and played a good game, nobody stood out as having a poor performance.”

With the Bobwhites down 60-48, Hughes assisted a Howrigan three, made two of his own then made a shot through a foul which cut the Rice lead to 66-63 with 21 seconds left. BFA made the mistake of committing an obvious intentional foul, so even when the two free throws were missed, the visitors kept the ball and Sharif was able to make a free throw and turn it into a two possession game with 16 seconds left. Hughes nearly did the impossible, drawing a foul on a three-point attempt, but the foul was too hard for the shot to have a chance and even if he’d made all three foul shots, it was a longshot that BFA would have made up the point in the 3.1 seconds left.

Rather than look at those final four minutes, where you’d be hard pressed to find a BFA error beyond lacking subtlety on the intentional foul, it would be more accurate to say the game was lost in the middle quarters. Tied 15-15 after a quarter, Rice outscored the Bobwhites 20-10 in the second to take all the momentum into halftime.

“Second quarter we got away from it, we let them dictate our offense a little,” Menard said. “And we paid the price for a couple of defensive letups in the second quarter, they beat us in transition too much. All in all, if you take that quarter out of it, I thought we played a hell of a three quarters of basketball.”

Reed Stygles tosses a pass into the post in the opening quarter of BFA-St. Albans’ 69-65 loss to Rice on Wednesday (Ben Kaufmann, County Courier)

The real “one that got away” was the third quarter, though just looking at the scoreboard wouldn’t tell the story. BFA came out of halftime on a tear. A runner by Earl, a fast break by Howrigan and another by Richards cut the Rice lead to 37-31 with just two minutes gone in the quarter. Earl then put back his own rebound, Hughes hit a three and made a short jumper, Stygles made three free throws and Howrigan closed the quarter with a coast-to-coast basket through contact to send BFA to the fourth down just 46-43.

The only problem? Those three free throws by Stygles were the only foul shots made by the Bobwhites in 10 third quarter attempts. After attempting just one free throw in the first half, BFA figured out ways to get to the line against the defending champions but left seven points on the table and thus trailed entering the final quarter.

“It’s always crazy. You do all this advanced planning and scouting and systems and the game comes down to layups and free throws,” Menard said. “And we missed a lot of layups and free throws.”

Able to play a little more freely with a lead, Sharif – Vermont’s reigning Gatorade Player Of The Year – was able to put together his best run of the night. After a Howrigan elbow jumper got BFA within two, Rice answered to make it a 48-45 game. Sharif rolled off eight of his team’s next ten points (he assisted the other basket) to give the Green Knights a 60-48 lead midway through the fourth. That turned out to be just enough cushion to get back on the bus with a victory in hand.

“You just try to contain him, you don’t shut him down,” Menard said of Sharif, who finished with a game-high 29 points.

Liam Howrigan draws a lot of contact on a shot in the second half of BFA’s narrow loss to defending Division I champion Rice on Wednesday night (Ben Kaufmann, County Courier)

What BFA mostly needed to accomplish on Wednesday was to compete, and they smashed that goal. If, like last season, the playoff path runs through Rice, BFA will know it’s capable of beating the Green Knights. Menard said that such belief is incredibly valuable through the rest of the long regular season and into the postseason.

“I think we believed it as a coaching staff. But it can be hard as players to see Rice coming in, the defending champs and they didn’t graduate a single player – that’s a full returning squad, then to be up against that I think can be a mental block. Thankfully we got off to a good start and they realized we’re here with them.”

The Bobwhites will get another regular season look at Rice on February 18th in South Burlington.