By JAME BIGGAM
BARRE – Saturday’s Division II semifinal between Milton and U-32 boiled down to one burning question: Was it a travel?
The seventh-seeded U-32 Raiders battled back from multiple double-digit deficits and had a chance to win in the final seconds. Jordan Hawkins heaved up a 3-point attempt from just inside midcourt and the shot found nothing but net, but it was waved off due a traveling violation. It left U-32 fans in disbelief as No. 3 Milton celebrated its 57-56 victory.
“I think the ref made the right call,” Milton coach Chris Brown said. “I put two guys at midcourt just to delay. We knew they were going get the rebound and probably throw the ball to midcourt. I’m yelling at them, ‘Just delay the ball-handler.’ They jumped up on him and he traveled. I know it’s a tough call to make in a game like this, but it’s the right call.”
Milton (17-6) was making its first Barre Aud appearance in 24 years and will return to the Granite City to face No. 1 Fair Haven (18-5) in Monday’s 8:15 championship. The Yellowjackets’ top scorers Saturday were Ian Jennings (16 points, seven rebounds) and Tre Sherwood (11 points, 10 rebounds, three steals).
Milton capitalized on numerous second-chance shots, thanks to balanced rebounding from Tyler Farrar (four points, six rebounds), Sam Patterson (four points, four rebound), Seth Herrity (five points, three rebounds) and Javante Sovey (five points, four rebounds).
“(Rebounding) was definitely a focus for us,” U-32 coach Dan Gauthier said. “Being as big and athletic as they are, we really wanted to put a focus on finding a body and keeping them off the boards. And Sherwood had a double-double. We’d give a great effort defensively and force a tough shot. And it would come off the rim and he would get a 6- or 8-foot putback. And that wears on you. Our guys did a tremendous job of battling, we just needed one or two rebounds to come our way.”
Bryson Richards paced U-32 with 20 points to go along with five rebounds, three assists and two steals. Teammate Josh Farber finished with 16 points, 10 rebounds and four steals. Trevor Day added eight points and four rebounds for the Raiders and was followed by Hawkins (four points, four rebounds, three assists) and Hayden Roberge (six points, four rebounds).
“Our group has an incredible amount of belief and I believe in our guys,” Gauthier said. “The entire game we felt like if we could just swing the momentum back our way, and if we could get over the tipping point, we could have a different outcome. We were right there and just ran out of time.”
It was all Milton at the start. Six first-quarter turnovers by U-32 allowed the Yellowjackets to build a 15-7 lead. Sherwood set up Jennings for a fast-break layup at the beginning of the second quarter and Herrity added a baseline jumper for a 19-7 lead.
U-32 clawed back with a 9-0 run and reached the double-bonus with 4:23 left in the second quarter, before Milton had reached the bonus itself. Two foul shots by Farber closed the gap to 19-13 and Hawkins added a turnaround jumper. But it was Milton that executed from the foul line, going 4 of 6 in a one-minute span. U-32 went 2 of 4 from the stripe at the end of the second quarter, and a 3-pointer by Day trimmed the deficit to 23-21 entering halftime.
Milton opened the third quarter with a 3-pointer by Jennings and a putback by Sherwood. A floater from Colby Mason and back-to-back 3-pointers by Jennings and Herrity pushed the Yellowjackets in front 36-27 with 3:48 left in the third quarter. Milton enjoyed another flurry by scoring six points in a span of 1:28, but Milton opened the door for a U-32 comeback by committing four quick turnovers. Two foul shots by Richards with two seconds left in the third quarter closed the gap to 42-35.
“We pretty much held the lead, but they got close before halftime,” Brown said. “We missed a lot of finishing inside, which hurt us a lot. We had four guys in foul trouble the first half and almost half of their points were from the free-throw line, which not only gives them points but limits our transition. So we made some adjustments and we played some really good basketball in the third quarter and got (the lead) to a dozen. And we’ve had several stretches where our biggest opponent was ourselves. We started making these uncharacteristic turnovers. I give U-32 credit for putting on the pressure, but a lot of it was unforced. We were up by 10 or 12 with 3:00 left with the game pretty much in hand. And some of the decisions we made let them right back in it.”
Baskets in the paint by Farber and Richards helped U-32 start the final quarter on the right track. However, two scrappy offensive rebounds by Sherwood set the stage for a Jennings basket at the other end. Farber made a pair of foul shots to keep his team in the hunt while trailing 45-41, but Jennings answered with a baseline jumper with five minutes remaining. The Yellowjackets committed five turnovers after that, and U-32 countered with six quick points from Richards and an old-fashioned three-point play by Farber.
Richards crashed the offensive glass with a minute left to play and set up Day for a 3-pointer, closing the gap to 55-53. Milton committed a traveling violation on its next possession, but Jennings grabbed a defensive rebound at the other end. Gauthier screamed at his players to foul, but the Yellow Jackets drained 30 seconds off the clock before Jennings was sent to the line with 14 seconds remaining.
“Ian Jennings is who you want at the foul line and he made both free throws,” Brown said. “I know their game plan was to stop him and he still had a big game.”
Hawkins found Richards for a 3-pointer with six seconds left, making it a one-point game. A missed foul shot by Herrity gave U-32 possession again with four seconds left to play. The Raiders got the ball into the hands of their leading scorer, and Hawkins’ long-range bomb lit a fire throughout the U-32 crowd. But the thrill was gone in a heartbeat when a referee nullified the last-second shot with a traveling call.
“We felt like this was a challenge that we could overcome, even down the stretch,” Gauthier said. “Jordan Hawkins hits a 30-footer to push us ahead and then it’s waved off. Jordan is the straw that stirs the drink and when it’s in his hands I trust his decision-making. We got as good of a look as we could have given the circumstance. Our guys did everything possible to give us a chance to be successful.”
U-32 ends he season at 14-9. The Raiders will graduate Roberge, Day, Farber and Kyle DeRosia.
“One thing our guys are able to do is we go nine-deep, and our guys are in great shape,” Brown said. “We can tire other teams out. I’m not saying that happened today, but they did miss some foul shots. However they hit some 3-pointers down the stretch and made it a heck of a game. And down the stretch we had a couple guys jump up to cause a travel, which was big because the shot went in.”
Milton is 0-3 in title appearances and had two common opponents with Fair Haven in the regular season. The Yellowjackets earned a 51-39 victory over Vergennes before losing to the Commodores, 55-47. Milton swept Middlebury, prevailing 57-56 and 80-70. Fair Haven cruised to a 67-40 victory over Middlebury and overpowered Vergennes with victories of 71-40 and 58-52.
Photos by Kyle St. Peter.