The West Rutland girls walked onto the court in Barre Auditorium for the state finals as the three-seed underdog, but walked off the court as champions, defeating Blue Mountain, 39-33, in a defensive match-up.
The Blue Mountain Bucks entered the playoffs as the number one seed with an 18-2 record. They won their first two playoff games, defeating last year’s state champs Mount St. Joseph’s in the semifinals game.
They seemed unstoppable, that is until they ran headlong into the staunch defense of West Rutland’s Golden Horde, who entered the playoffs with a 15-5 record. They had defeated Danville in the quarterfinals, before clashing with a powerhouse Proctor team in the semifinals.
“Blue Mountain was better than I thought they were,” West Rutland coach Carl Serrani said about the Bucks. “I had scouted them a couple times and the games I saw, they didn’t have stellar games.”
The finals, as the score indicates, was a largely defensive struggle with bursts of offensive scoring throughout. The Horde was tied with the Bucks with 2:49 left in the first quarter, 4-4.
When the buzzer sounded signaling the end of the first, West Rutland was up 13-4 after a lightning-fast 9-point run.
The Horde relied on the same tactics that took them to the finals. Sophomore Elizabeth Bailey controlled the lane and made the area under the basket nearly impenetrable. Samantha Callahan was all over the court harassing shooters and deflecting passes leading to turnovers and a few quick layups.
The game got physical before the half as West Rutland’s Kiana Grabowski was fouled hard on a fast break layup and banged her head on the hardwood. She was led off the court by trainer Cody Parker and checked for a concussion.
At the half, West Rutland was up 22-13 and looked to be cruising to a championship trophy. Grabowski returned to the game halfway through the third quarter, having been cleared to play by Parker. The game continued to be a defensive test as West Rutland struggled to maintain their lead.
“I didn’t think it was too physical,” Serrani said. “We were lucky we had our own trainer there. Cody knows Kiana and he knew the answers to the questions that she should have given so he was able to clear her to play.”
As the fourth quarter got under way, the West Rutland lead was 32-24.
But West Rutland’s offense, under pressure from a tough Blue Mountain defense, started making uncharacteristic errors and kept turning the ball over, leading to quick points for the Bucks.
With only four minutes left to play, Blue Mountain was down by a point and West Rutland looked frustrated and tired.
“Someone said there was some questionable calls that went against us, but hey, there were questionable calls that went against them, too,” Serrani said. “If you’re worried about the refs, you may have bigger problems.”
Serrani called a quick timeout to settle his team down and refocus them on the task at hand.
“We kind of lost our minds a little bit. We lost focus,” Serrani said. “We missed some key assignments on defense.”
With 2:30 left, the Bucks tied the game for the first time at 33.
With just over a minute left in the game, Kiera Pipeling injured her arm when a Blue Mountain defender fell on her after a hard foul under the basket. Madison Guay came off the bench to replace her. After several passes, Grabowski found Guay in the corner all alone. Guay launched a three-pointer that swished through the net, breaking the tie at 36-33.
There was only a minute left to play when Bailey picked up her fifth foul, holding her head in disbelief as she walked toward her bench. Serrani put senior Kasey Serrani in to replace the 6’1” post player for the final minute.
The Bucks went to the free-throw line down by three. The first shot missed and as the second shot bounced off the rim West Rutland grabbed the rebound and took the ball down the court with a three-point lead, desperate to run out the clock.
Serrani was fouled twice in the last minute and hit her free throws to up the lead to 39-33. Blue Mountain could not penetrate the tough West Rutland defense before they ran out of time as the buzzer sounded and the Golden Horde rushed onto the floor to celebrate as Vermont’s D-IV girls champions.
“Bailey going out kind of slowed our offense down,” Serrani said. “We kind of got panicky, but we made some key plays at the end. Madison Guay hit a nice three pointer and our defense took over from there.”
Bailey led the Horde in scoring with 12 points, Grabowski scored 10, and Serrani had 7 points in the win. This makes the third state championship for Coach Serrani in his 21st season of coaching. He notched his 300th career victory this season as well.