With Sunday afternoon’s 58-47 victory over Choate Rosemary Hall, thePhillips Exeter Academy boys basketball squad achieved a first in the school’s 232 year tradition-rich history — they captured a NEPSAC Class A title.
But beyond the win’s historical significance, Sunday’s performance also marked the culmination of months and months of hard work, and a team’s consistent focus and ever-present determination — something which regularly set Exeter apart from their opponents.
All season Exeter was clearly the best NEPSAC Class A team. The label was well-earned after defeating all but one opponent (Kimball Union Academy) en route to a 22-1 regular season record, including three-consecutive late-season road wins against Class AA powerhouses Worcester Academy, Tilton School and Cushing Academy.
But the label was ultimately validated when the final buzzer sounded on Exeter’s third-straight dominant playoff victory and the championship hardware held firmly in its grasp.
Early Intensity: Exeter’s season-long trademark was their ability to bring constant defensive energy and aggression to every game regardless of the opponent. They simply never overlooked a team.
Coming into the playoffs, Exeter had held opponents to an average of 42 points per game. In the semifinals against Milton Academy — a team they defeated in a tightly-contested overtime game (74-66) earlier in the season — the Mustangs managed only 35 total points.
If not for some strong outside shooting from Choate’s Pete Weston (15 points) andColin Richey (10 points) in the second half of the finale — which included three of the team’s four 3-pointers and numerous deep twos — Exeter might have bested their semifinals effort.
The Wild Boars scored only 16 points in the first half as Exeter displayed crisp defensive rotations and tenacious on-ball defense. The result was three offensive calls against Choate, including two on 6-foot-8 power forward Jeff Coby (15 points).
Exeter would add a fourth in the opening minutes of the second half before Choate started to heat up offensively.
BIG Red MVP: While the defensive execution was team-wide, the offense was oftentimes carried by 6-foot-7 Duncan Robinson. The Williams College-bound sharpshooter — who finished with a team-high 24 points and 10 rebounds — connected on three deep 3-pointers to give Exeter an early 16-4 lead.
In the second half he added two more treys and also showed a knack for finishing at the rim with a runner and a couple layups, including one which resulted in an old-fashioned 3-point play.
But Robinson’s biggest shot came after Choate had whittled Big Red’s lead from 19 points early in the second half to nine points with just under two minutes remaining. Off a pass from teammate Chris Braley (15 points) — Exeter’s only other player in double-figures — Robinson immediately squared up and let fly a 3-pointer from the left elbow. And as had been the outcome all afternoon, the ball swished.
With MVP trophy in hand, Robinson spoke about his confidence to take the shot and what the win means to him and his teammates. (Video Below)
Special Connection: Bonds between teammates and players tend to be strong, especially at the high school level. But every so often a team comes along where the chemistry runs a little deeper; where the relationships extend well-beyond the playing surface.
Such was the case for coach Jay Tilton and his players. Words like love, admiration and respect were regularly uttered in the immediate aftermath of Exeter’s win. But even before Sunday’s victory, their interactions before games and activities around campus (e.g., team dinners, rallies, etc.) as captured on the team’s Facebook page, revealed a genuine affection and camaraderie that is not easy to create. While winning certainly brought these emotions to the forefront, such tight connections would not have been broken had Exeter lost.
It’s this culture — one of accountability, perseverance and respect — which will make Exeter a dangerous program moving forward; that is provided a similar level of talent fills out the roster. Next season the three remaining players from this year’s team will step into leadership roles vacated by Braley, Robinson and point guard Harry Raffertyand be asked to teach the “Exeter way”.