Statements rarely begin with an exclamation point. But that’s exactly what Rice Memorial chose to do.
What transpired against Mount Mansfield Union High School — the type of Division I boys basketball championship performance not seen in a quarter-century — took even the Green Knights by surprise.
“Better than we ever could’ve thought of, I think,” Rice senior point guard Tommy Fitzgerald said. “We just played great.”
All of 16 seconds into Saturday’s state final, Fitzgerald served up a lob from the top of the key for Kendrick Gray. The high-flying sophomore exploded off the right block, snared the pass with two hands and flushed it through the hoop.
The alley-oop, the game’s first basket, didn’t seal anything for the third-seeded Green Knights — they did that later. Rather it was a jolt of electricity for the sellout crowd of 3,266 at Patrick Gymnasium and for Rice, which went on to pull away to a 66-35 victory over the No. 5 Cougars for the storied program’s first title repeat in more than four decades.
“They just played a fantastic game in every facet of the game,” MMU coach Jeff Davis said. “Defensively they were very well prepared. They rebounded so well and they just made shots.
“We ran into a buzzsaw today, for sure.”
The Green Knights’ winning score was the highest in a D-I final in 13 years and the margin of victory was the first of 30 points or more since Mount Anthony raced past South Burlington 101-64 in 1989.
Sophomore guard Ben Shungu’s double-double of 18 points and 10 rebounds paced the champions. Gray and Fitzgerald (four assists) each finished with 13 points.
Junior Tinga Adiang collected a team-best 14 points and five rebounds, and Kyle Adams tossed in nine points for Mount Mansfield (19-5), which suffered its first defeat in a state final.
“They’re a very good team and they were clicking on all cylinders to come into this game,” Rice (20-4) coach Paul Pecor said of the Cougars, who split a pair of one-point games with the Green Knights during the regular season. “We were expecting a tight game, but I liked the way we were playing.”
“I knew if we could go on a couple runs then good things were going to happen.”
And that’s precisely what unfolded.
An early 14-3 spurt — the meat of which came when Gray and Shungu bracketed an Adams 3-pointer with trifectas of their own on consecutive possessions — paved the way to an 18-9 lead after one quarter.
When Mount Mansfield responded with an 8-0 run, trimming the deficit to 18-15 with 6:19 left in the second quarter, Rice fired back with a 14-2 surge to the halftime buzzer.
The Cougars, after reaching the final with a two-week run of emotional, dramatic victories, found themselves on the wrong side of a 32-17 score when they retreated to the locker room
“It was going to take the first four minutes of the second half,” Davis said of a comeback bid. “We felt, down (15) at the half, we did switch our defense up a little bit and we needed to get a couple of stops.
“But the first play of the second half they scored and it was kind of one of those things where we could never get close enough to make a run.”
That first field goal of the third quarter came on a pretty move by Shungu, driving right and spinning back to his left for a floater in the lane, that doubled up the Cougars on the scoreboard. The next basket, a two-handed slam by Gray to put back Matt Maynard’s fastbreak layup that slipped off the front of the rim, sent the Rice fans into a frenzy and sparked a runaway second half.
“We were just hitting everything. We couldn’t miss,” Shungu said. “At shoot-around I couldn’t miss, Fitzy couldn’t miss, the whole team couldn’t miss.”
But even when they did miss, there was a very good chance a Green Knight was there to clean up. Rice finished with a 42-25 rebounding advantage that included 18 offensive boards.
Adams’ second trey made it a 45-26 game midway through the third quarter, as close as the Cougars would get the rest of the way.
Putting a bow on a winter that had its ups and downs, Rice finished with a 25-9 run to secure the program’s 14th banner season and first back-to-back crowns since 1970-71. Unlike the Knights’ last four state finals, all grinding, single-digit affairs, three starters left the game to applause midway through the fourth quarter; Maynard and Fitzgerald, the two seniors, checked out to an ovation with a 31-point lead and 2:55 left to play.
“It’s great to look back on this year with this group and how far we’ve come from start to finish,” said Pecor, who has led the Green Knights to seven finals in eight years. “It might be the biggest transformation I’ve had with any of my groups.”
Written by: Austin Danforth