Twenty-Three and One

twentythreeandoneST. JOHNSBURY - The St. Johnsbury Hilltoppers' boys basketball team's epic winning streak came to an end at the worst possible time last night, as the Academy squad fell to Rice Memorial last night in overtime, 48-40, in the state championship.

The loss ended the Hilltoppers' winning streak at 23 games. It also ended their season.

"It just came down to one possession," said Hilltopper coach Tom O'Shea after the loss. "We had to get a stop. [Fitzgerald] hit the layup."

It didn't have to be that way.

The Academy raced out to a 10-3 lead after the first quarter, taking Rice out of their element early and assuming the dominant form they had displayed throughout the season. Unfazed, Rice entered the second quarter with a different game plan, running several possessions that lasted more than forty-five seconds. The stall worked. St. Johnsbury's offense sputtered in the second quarter, and Rice outscored the Academy 15-4 in the second quarter to open up a 18-14 lead.

"They are such a good team, such a talented team," said Rice coach Paul Pecor.

Both sides traded baskets during the second half, and the Academy spent much of the fourth quarter nursing a slim lead. With St. Johnsbury up 37-35 and under thirty seconds on the clock, Marcus Willingham hit a layup to tie the game.

In the overtime, it wasn't even close. A Rice team that only missed the state championship once since 2007 put that experience to use, and their defense held St. Johnsbury scoreless from the field in the overtime period.

St. Johnsbury big man Vlad Cobzaru, still recovering from a sprained ankle suffered during Saturday's quarterfinal, had a double-double with ten points and ten rebounds, and Jake Grinbergs had 11 points to go along with nine rebounds, but it simply wasn't enough to overcome the Green Knights' barrage. St. johnsbury now looks ahead to next season. They'll be losing several seniors, but many of the team's core - Cobzaru, Taeshon Best and Tristen Ross - will be returning next season, hoping to avenge last night's loss.