Vt. Boys Hoop: Unbeatens Collide in St. J Tonight - The Caledonian-Record - St. Johnsbury, VT
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home : sports : regional October 13, 2015

Vt. Boys Hoop: Unbeatens Collide in St. J Tonight
Sports Editor

ST. JOHNSBURY -- Former longtime St. J Academy boys basketball coach Layne Higgs has seen a lot of individual talent through his years. He's seen great teams too -- leading three different squads to Division I championships in his 35 seasons.

His take on the unbeaten 2012-13 Hilltoppers?

"My early observations, and we'll have to see how things play out, but this is probably the most talented starting five in the history of the school," said Higgs, who coached SJA from 1971 to 2006. "Obviously more goes into what makes up a team. But as far as pure basketball talent goes, and that includes the team's top eight players, I've never seen an Academy team with this much talent."

There will be an extraordinary amount of basketball skill on display tonight in the highly-anticipated matchup between Vermont's top two squads. Second-ranked Rice (7-0) and No. 1 St. Johnsbury (8-0) square off at 6:30 inside Alumni Memorial Gymnasium in the biggest boys matchup of the young season -- and perhaps the biggest Hilltoppers' home game in over a decade.

"In terms of unbeatens facing each other here," Higgs said, "it's probably the biggest game since Tony Orciari was around."

So big and so much talent that coaching staffs from both the University of Vermont and Brown University are planning on attending, said Rice coach Paul Pecor.

The 10th-year Green Knight coach certainly has his share of talent. Seniors Casey Tipson and Marcus Willingham pave the way for Rice, which returns 10 players and three starters from last year's team that lost to MMU in the Division I final.

Tipson, a 6-foot guard who scored 41 points and grabbed 12 rebounds in the Green Knights' 57-39 victory at CVU on Friday, is a first-team all-state player averaging 17.8 points, 7.0 rebounds and 6.9 assists. Willingham is a 6-foot-5 wing, who is a threat inside and on the perimeter. He's averaging 16.2 points and 11.1 boards per game.

"I think the key is keeping Tipson and Willingham under control," said second-year SJA coach Tom O'Shea. "We must do a good job on those guys."

What Tipson and Willingham possess that SJA does not, is big-game experience.

"Those two have started every game together since they were freshman," Pecor said. "They've been through the trenches. They won a championship as sophomores. They've played in these kind of environments before. Hopefully our experience can pay off in a game like this."

The Hilltoppers' talent has shown thus far. Junior forward Vlad Cobzaru is one of the key reasons for St. J's resurgence. The team's leading scorer and rebounder is averaging 17 points and 12 boards per game. Junior guards Tristen Ross (15 ppg) and Brendan O'Shea (14 ppg) also carry the scoring load, while point guard Taeshon Best and wing Jake Grinbergs anchor the starting five.

"I think our guys are ready to go," O'Shea said. "Rice has experience in big games, but we'll be ready to play. Our kids won't back down."

Rice junior point guard Tommy Fitzgerald (5.0 assists and 7.0 rebounds) figures to be key for the Knights, along with forwards Matt Maynard (junior) and Peter Sylvester (senior).

"Fitzgerald is the glue for us," Pecor said. "He's very similar to Taeshon (Best). The ball is always in his hands. He's our best defender and we go as he goes."

Keys to the game for the Hilltoppers?

"The big thing is to be solid on defense and to rebound well," O'Shea said. "Rice is a good rebounding team."

And avoiding a treacherous start like they experienced in the first quarter against Brattleboro on Friday night. The Colonels led the Academy 16-3 at one point in the second quarter.

"I just hope the kids have a good warmup and are ready to go," O'Shea said. "Hopefully we won't have the same kind of start. There really is no recipe for how these kids will respond at tip-off."

The Hilltoppers would like an uptempo contest. They are averaging 71.5 points per game, with a season-high of 101 (against North Country) and a season-low versus Mount Mansfield (55). They allow just 49.1, twice holding Brattleboro to less than 40 points.

The Knights like to run too, but prefer a more half-court style. They average 59.7 points per game and give up just 40.7. Their defense has held three opponents to less than 40 points and one to under 30.

Most likely, a low-scoring battle will ensue tonight.

"But who knows how it will play out," O'Shea said. "When you have this much talent on the floor at once, games kind of take on their own style."

Whatever the outcome, both coaches caution that it's still January. Championships are won in March.

"I've told the kids to take a breath. It's not a must-win game," Pecor said. "In January, I don't care who you are playing. I just want the team to play better basketball."

No. 1 versus No. 2? Games like this can only better a basketball team.

"We're excited," Pecor said. "The biggest reason why I am excited, it's a measuring a stick of where we are. The winner will be No. 1, the loser won't fall past No. 2.

"Hey we're on the road. It's a free roll for us."

The hype can finally rest. It's time to roll out Rice-SJA, Part I.

"It's going to be a good game for the people to see; for the town to be a part of," O'Shea said. "The kids are expecting a big crowd. These kinds of big games are the reason the kids worked so hard in the offseason."

NOTES: The Rice-SJA game was originally scheduled for Jan. 27, but was postponed because of a snowstorm. ... The teams' second regular-season meeting is slated for Feb. 14 in South Burlington. ... Rice swept the season series from St. J in 2011-12, then edged the Hilltoppers 48-44 in the opening round of the D-I playoffs. ... The Hilltoppers' last basketball championship came in 1997, Orciari's senior season. ... Alumni Memorial Gymnasium holds a little over 1,000 spectators. A very large crowd is expected.

Sports editor Michael Beniash can be reached at beniashm@caledonian-record.com. Follow Beniash on Twitter at www.twitter.com/BeniAsh12.

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