When a basketball team wins 14-straight and owns a 21-1 (20-1 NEPSAC) record, the tendency might be to assume it has peaked. But that would be a huge oversight when the squad in question is Phillips Exeter Academy.
Following the boys latest win — a 55-37 victory over Thayer Academy in Braintree, MA on Wednesday afternoon — the Big Red continued their march toward a No. 1 seed in the upcoming NEPSAC Class Atournament. A win in their season-finale on Saturday against arch-rival Phillips Andover Academy — a team Exeter easily bested, 72-45, on Jan. 9th — would make the aforementioned slotting a mere formality.
But don’t try and tell the Big Red they’ve accomplished anything yet.
“We never placed emphasis on a particular seed or record or anything like that,” said coach Jay Tilton. “We want to be getting better every day and playing our best basketball come Saturday (against Andover) so that we know (when) we get into the tournament we’re playing our best.
“Playing your best basketball doesn’t mean you shoot well. It doesn’t mean all the breaks go your way. In a game like this (against Thayer) we didn’t shoot particularly well, but we showed maturity and confidence in our ability to not panic when things (didn’t) go our way. That’s the sign of a mature team and those are the teams that are usually peaking at the end of the year.”
Fresh off its emotionally draining victory — a 54-52 thriller versus Cushing Academy in which Durham, NH-native Harry Rafferty drilled a game-winning 3-pointer as time expired — a letdown against Thayer was certainly possible. But it’s not been the practice of this year’s squad to fall into such traps.
Exeter’s starting-five huddle before Wednesday’s 55-37 victory over Thayer.
“It definitely takes place every day in practice and with morning workouts and lifts,” said Rafferty, who scored a game-high 17 points against the Tigers. “We try to bring that intensity everywhere we go so that it just becomes natural to us. We don’t have to just create it for a game. We bring it everywhere we go and it becomes the way we do things. It’s worked so far this season.”
On Wednesday, the Big Red built an early 13-3 advantage behind two quick 3-pointers from Rafferty. Though Thayer responded with 9-0 run to close the deficit to one-point, Exeter answered in resounding fashion. They tightened their team defense, moved the ball more crisply on offensive to locate the open shooter and played with unwavering focus. The result was a 31-19 lead, including a nine-plus minute stretch to close out the half in which the Tigers were limited to seven points.
As has been Exeter’s season-long trademark, however, they ramped up their intensity and production in the second half.
“There haven’t been many games where we jumped on people early,” said Tilton. “There were a couple here and there early in the season, but for the most part our wins have been second half wins. That comes from the cumulative effect of what we do defensively. We try to put pressure on people — not just from a physical standpoint — but mentally because of how we play.”
Like many opponents before them, Thayer began to crumble under the strain of Exeter’s pressure. Shots that fell in the first half were short. Passes that found there way to teammates were intercepted. And loose balls and offensive rebounds that turned into second-chance points were gobbled up by the Big Red.
After a Tiger 3-pointer cut Exeter’s lead to 47-33 with just under eight minutes to play, the Big Red embarked on a defensive stance that secured the victory. Not until 2:30 remaining — on a layup by junior forward Conor O’Brien, who scored a team-leading 10 points — did Thayer score again. By then, Exeter’s lead was 53-35 and the game was over.
Chris Braley (9 points), who committed to Stony Brook University in early February, Davis Reid (9 points) and Duncan Robinson (8 points) provided most of the scoring.
Another win on Saturday and a top playoff seed is certainly within Exeter’s grasp, but don’t try telling them they’ve accomplished anything yet.
“Really, at the end of the day it doesn’t mean much,” said Rafferty. “Being the No. 1 seed or the No. 8 seed, at the end of the day we just want to win a championship. It’s going to be a good notch on our belt, but we’re not buying any jackets that say we’re the No. 1 seed. We’re gonna buy a jacket that says we’re going to win the NEPSAC Class A championships.”
Beware Milton Academy, Trinity-Pawling School, Taft School and Salisbury School, the Big Red will not be satisfied until they’re crowned NEPSAC Class A champions. It’s a scary proposition for anyone who crosses their path.
Paul Lazdowski is the newest member of the NHSportsPage.com writing staff. Paul is a lifelong Bostonian with a penchant for sharing his strong opinions on all that is right and wrong with the professional and collegiate sports worlds. His voice is boisterous; his passions run deep. He is an avid basketball loyalist, who has been known to go on long walks only to stumble upon a park where he then proceeds to dissect a pick-up basketball game.