After No. 5 South Burlington narrowly missed a game-winning shot at the buzzer, players from No. 4 BFA-St. Albans storm the court to celebrate the schoolÕs first final-four berth since 1996. Ben Kaufmann, County Courier


By Ben Kaufmann
County Courier

ST. ALBANS – Before heading off to UVM’s Patrick Gym for the Division I final four for the first time since 1996, the longest such drought among current D-I teams, the cardiac kids of BFA-St. Albans gave their home fans one final heart attack on Friday night. Following an overtime win to close the regular season and earn the No. 4 seed, then a win in the opening round on a shot with :02 seconds left, the Bobwhites erased a nine-point deficit in the fourth quarter and forced overtime, winning a 52-51 thriller over No. 5 South Burlington.

Most impressive about the victory was that it came without leading scorer Seth Richards, who was sidelined by illness and had not been cleared to return to the court Friday. His teammates, down 43-34 after three quarters, outscored the Wolves 12-3 in the fourth to force an extra frame. A Liam Howrigan free throw with eight seconds left in overtime gave the Bobwhites a lead to break a 51-51 stalemate and South Burlington’s attempt at the buzzer rattled in and out to keep BFA’s search for its first title since 1987 alive.

“It’s tough because I’m a senior and I don’t know if I’m going to be able to play again after this,” said Richards, who was able to be at the game but not allowed to play. “So it was tough watching it but I knew they could pull through without me. That group of guys has been through the same season that I have. They’re tough, they’re passionate, they love this game just as much as I do and I respect them and I know that when I’m not there they’ll pull through.”

An early three by Liam’s brother, Gabe, helped key an 11-6 run by the Bobwhites to open the game. Gabe has been a quick option off the bench for BFA this season but has been infrequently called upon to play such a big role. Thrust into a higher billing on a huge stage, the sophomore went off for 15 points on Friday — second only to Liam’s 17 among Bobwhites.

BFA-St. Albans had its back against the wall Friday night, starting the fourth quarter down 43-34 to South Burlington. The Bobwhites started the fourth on an 8-0 run, including this shot from Liam Howrigan, to get within one and eventually beat the Wolves in overtime. Ben Kaufmann, County Courier

“Gabe, holy crap! We should have plugged him in maybe a little bit sooner,” said BFA coach Tristan Menard.

“Obviously with Seth down, some people had to step up,” Gabe Howrigan said of his evening. “At first I was just trying to step up on defense and boxing out, the little things. And then shots started falling and it just got moving for me.”

A beautiful, no-look overhead pass from Noah Earl to Reed Stygles capped an impressive 13-9 first-quarter for BFA. A late, tough shot by SBHS captain Ryan Sweet helped the Wolves to cut their halftime deficit to 23-21. South Burlington had missed quite a few open threes in the first half, and it stood to reason they’d eventually make them.

SBHS sophomore Deng Aguek did more than just make the open ones in the third quarter. He hit his first three ten seconds after halftime and his second less than a minute later. An otherworldly reverse layup with 30 seconds left was his first non-three of the quarter. In just those eight minutes, Aguek scored 17 of his game-high 29 points and turned a two-point deficit into a 43-34 South Burlington lead.

“I’ve never seen a kid go off like that in my life, it was insane,” Menard said. “Noah was like ‘What do you want me to do?’ and I said ‘Shrug your shoulders.’ Then he hit that ridiculous reverse layup, it is what it is. Props to him and props to them. They played an incredible game and we were fortunate enough to get the win this time.”

By all reasonable expectations, an undermanned BFA team had thrown its best punch and simply had been knocked to the mat by a Tyson-like sophomore. But with just eight minutes left to save its season, the Bobwhites opted not to throw in the towel. Liam Howrigan made a pair of free throws, then hit an elbow jumper, then Gabe made a shot through contact, then Liam scored again. All the while, BFA held the Wolves scoreless.

“I’m proud of these guys,” said Menard. “We got down eight or ten, I don’t even remember what it was but it was significant. I told the boys, listen, the only way you don’t have a shot is if you fall apart and don’t stay together. They stayed together, they rallied, they worked hard.”

With the BFA deficit down to 43-42, both Howrigans dove for a loose ball which was eventually called a jump and awarded to SBHS. Aguek extended his team’s lead to three by somehow making a shot while not even facing the basket, and the Bobwhite run could have ended right there.

But Liam answered with a quick basket, then Gabe made a steal and got the ball to playdown hero Will Hughes, who had his shot blocked but kept possession with BFA. Earl dropped a ball to Stygles, the Bobwhite most responsible for filling Richards’ shoes Friday, for a perfect post move and a 46-45 BFA lead.

“Reed, he’s been struggling to finish at the hoop but he had multiple ones tonight and to take the lead at the end. He drop-stepped, we worked on it a ton and he did it to perfection,” said Menard.

Gabe Howrigan drives to the basket in the first half of BFA-St. AlbansÕ quarterfinal win over South Burlington on Friday night. Ben Kaufmann, County Courier

“I knew I had to step up because obviously losing Seth, he’s a big part of this team,” said Stygles, who finished with a dozen points. “So I knew I had to step up and just got it in my mind before the game. But it wasn’t just one player, that’s my favorite part about this team, that next-man-up mentality.”

Thanks to the previous effort by the Howrigans, another jump ball kept possession with BFA but the Bobwhites turned the ball over twice. South Burlington’s Ethan Sandberg made his second of two free-throw attempts with 13 seconds left, despite the deafening sound in the gym, to knot the game at 46-46. Though BFA rushed its next, unsuccessful shot and left five seconds on the clock, Aguek finally turned back into a human and barely missed his attempt at the buzzer.

Stygles took the overtime jump, filling a role that otherwise belongs to Richards 100% of the time, and won it. He then took a pass from Hughes and scored on another beautiful post-up to put BFA up and grabbed the defensive rebound from South Burlington’s ensuing try. That turned into an Earl basket, the last of his eight points, to put BFA up 50-46. Sandberg immediately answered to get it back to a two point deficit before Liam Howrigan made the front end of a one-and-one to increase the Bobwhite lead to 51-48 with 1:27 left.

It’s worth noting that the officials let the players decide this quarterfinal. No one fouled out, those free throws by Howrigan were BFA’s first one-and-one shots of the night, and the Bobwhites had just four second-half fouls at that point. Because of that, when Aguek broke free at midcourt, Earl’s foul on him was a brilliant — if accidental — one. If anything, BFA likely wishes it would have fouled Aguek the next time he touched the ball, before he could make a deep three to tie the game at 51-51 with 40 seconds left.

Once again, BFA shot too soon and gave the Wolves the ball back with 17 seconds in a tied game. After an SBHS travel, Liam Howrigan drew a shooting foul and made his first try to punch BFA’s ticket to Patrick Gym in dramatic fashion.

“We had mental mistake after mental mistake after mental mistake but they continued to battle, never hung their heads, made up for every mistake we made and in the end it was enough to win it,” Menard said. “I’m proud of these guys. Patrick, here we come.”

These Bobwhites don’t play a deep rotation, and that didn’t change even with Richards out. In addition to the scorers, one other player saw an increased role and did beautifully with it.

“Munger did everything that we asked of him and probably a little bit more,” Menard said of Justin Munger, the sophomore who jumped in to play in the frontcourt against a powerful Wolves team in front of a standing-room-only crowd. Munger was especially brilliant in helping BFA hold its lead late in the second quarter with a block, a couple of big rebounds, and steady passing.

BFA’s prize for its first quarterfinal win this century is a Monday date with top-seeded CVU (20-1), which won its quarterfinal game on Friday by 31 points. The Redhawks swept the season series with BFA this season, winning 66-49 and 66-45. But good luck to anyone hoping to write off the Bobwhites, the team which locked up homecourt with an overtime win, advanced on a first-round miracle shot, then overcame a nine-point deficit and superhuman opponent to shake off a 27-year drought.

The Bobwhites of BFA-St. Albans will play in the Division I semifinal at UVM’s Patrick Gym, this Monday at a time yet to be announced. Count them out at your own peril.