The perfect storm of history: Participants remember highest-scoring game
It was a perfect storm at the perfect time.
On Feb. 16, 2004, history was made inside Kates Gym at Mount Anthony Union High School as the Patriots beat Brattleboro 149-141 in a two-overtime boys' basketball contest.
The combined 290 points still stands tied as the highest total ever recorded according to the National High School Federation record book, but that's only one statistic:
-- MAU attempted 78 free throws, the second-highest total recorded by the NFHS.
-- Seth Procter scored 58 points for Brattleboro, a modern Vermont record.
-- The teams combined to shoot 115 free throws, seventh nationally.
-- Ninety-three field goals were made, and 33 of those were from 3-point land.
The numbers will stand the test of time, but to only look at that one game in the context of MAU's entire 2004 season only paints a sliver of the actual picture that the Patriots made.
It was a game that had all the right ingredients mixed perfectly. It was a game that showcased just how deadly head coach Dan Sleeman's system could be and why it could be run so efficiently. And it needed a foil -- an opponent willing to come along for the ride.
Sleeman, then in his third season as coach of the Patriots, started putting in a system the year before that was based not on a structured offense, but on a run-and-gun philosophy putting more weight in quick shots than regulated sets.
It would turn the state of basketball in Vermont on its head.
Drawn directly from Paul Westhead's "The System" offense from Loyola Marymount University in the late 1980s, Sleeman put in a system that took advantage of a special group of players -- a group of players that stood together and went to war all season with that one philosophy in mind.
It was anchored by seniors A.J. Mahar and Jared Callanan, both of whom reached 1,000 career points that season. The scoring, though, was spread out among players who were in the MAU rotation. Geoff Silver, Drew Becker, Andre Whyte and Adam and Duncan Kenyon all had pivotal roles for the Patriots that season.
And as Mahar noted 10 years after that fateful night in February, the only reason the team was successful was because it believed.
"The best part is we had two 1,000-point scorers on the team, and there was no jealousy and no egos amongst any of the kids," said Mahar, who is now an assistant coach at Southern Vermont College. "It was really spread out scoring. We just had a great group of kids that bought in. We bought into the system and had the right pieces to run that style."
It was a risk. With no half-court offense, the Patriots had to get in transition and shoot quickly. There was no fail-safe. If the team didn't execute, it wouldn't win.
"The guy who inbounds my basketballs to trigger the fast break, we had to make sure he was guarding a man that spent most of his time around the paint," Sleeman said. "Because if he is out on the perimeter contesting a shot, he isn't going to get it out of the net and into my point guard in less than three seconds, and that was huge. I would have a problem with that."
Not that the Patriots even played defense.
"When you play this way, you have to allow for a little bit of rest on the other end of the floor if you aren't playing a lot of people," Sleeman said. "You tend to give up more points."
Instead, the Patriots only cared about themselves. MAU did not recognize defenses. It did not react when a team changed from a zone to man-to-man. It was go, go, go.
"It was a big emphasis on, if they score, you give up a layup, trading twos for threes. Shoot in less than 15 seconds, crash all five guys on the offensive glass," Sleeman said. "Run on a make, run on a miss, don't recognize defenses. It was definitely a gamble, and there were times that we had to make some adjustments, but clearly the strength of this team was the ability to knock [shots] down from the perimeter."
Less than a week before, Mahar had scored a modern record 56 points as MAU beat Rutland 119-104. That performance was the talk of Vermont and media around the state, the Banner included, debated if it was the highest total ever. No one could believe it happened.
It did, because Rutland and Brattleboro were two of the only teams that wanted to run with the Patriots.
"There were all sorts of tactics thrown at us," Sleeman said. "Hoosick Falls with the deliberate stall, I remember them trying that. Then teams trying to zone us up, well, we don't recognize defenses so we [couldn't] really care about that. There was subbing on free throws, intentionally, so it would limit the number of breaks and it would create dead balls."
But for one week, MAU's opponents took the opposite approach.
"There were a few coaches, with Rutland's [Jason Cassarino] being one at the time, that believed that the only way to beat us was to run with us," Sleeman said. "Brattleboro [coached by Glenn Fidler], it was like they just did that when they played us."
So the game started. And it played, and it played.
After regulation, it was 112-112. After the first overtime, it was 129-129. Callanan and Procter were locked in a battle amongst the war. Procter finished with the game-high 58, Callanan scored 48. Procter hit eight treys, Callanan nine.
"Every time Brattleboro needed a bucket towards the end of the game or in overtime, [Procter] was there," Mahar recalled. "It felt like maybe it was one of those games of destiny for them to pull out. For whatever reason it happened, we stuck with it and Jared played unbelievable and he put us on his back and we were able to pull it out."
Mahar scored 18 in the contest and fouled out in the fourth. He noted how bittersweet that was, having to sit courtside and watch a thrilling game while not being able to make his impact on it. But as was the case with MAU that year, he had a capable backup to fill in.
"We had a great sophomore that year [Whyte], who was a big part of that team," Sleeman said. "He was like our sixth man. He was the perfect compliment to A.J. It was really unfortunate that A.J. fouled out, but now it's Andre's turn."
Whyte finished with 13. Becker had 24 and Adam Kenyon had 21. Duncan added 10, and Silver had 15. Of the eight players listed in the Banner's box score that night, only Shane Meaney did not score.
"We didn't care who scored on the team. That was the unselfishness," Sleeman said. "That was the amazing thing. You spend entire seasons talking to the guys about sharing the ball, but I look back to this team and I don't remember if we had that conversation. There were so many shots to go around, that how could you possibly get upset? What is a few missed shots amongst friends?"
But while the game, and that stretch in general, will forever be a memory for those involved, the Patriots' season ended with a bad memory.
In the semifinals of the Division I tournament, MAU fell to Mount Mansfield 66-53. It was the second time that season MAU lost, with the other coming against Albany, N.Y., school Christian Brothers Academy -- a 73-50 loss.
The two losses encompass the inherent flaws in MAU's system. While the breakneck pace could lead to games like the one against Brattleboro, the lack of a structured offense hurt against teams that could combat MAU's full-court approach.
Sleeman has not watched the MMU game since it happened. It's a bad memory that he likes to keep in the past.
Ultimately, Mahar said, the season was not a success because it didn't end in the championship. The 21 wins MAU finished with were the most for a Patriots team that did not win the state title.
In the semifinals, Sleeman entertained the idea of adding a wrinkle or two, but ultimately decided against it.
"I stuck with the system. I said, ‘Hey, we haven't recognized in the first 22 games what they are playing on defense, we don't care now.'"
That would be the Patriots' downfall. Behind a rigid 1-2-2 zone defense and a strong fast break defense, MMU held the Patriots in check. After a decade of perspective, it makes sense, Sleeman said.
"You are foolish as a coach to think that you can just run the early break and win every single game," Sleeman said. "Transition is a big part of the game, but you have to have something else to go to. You can still shoot quick ... I just don't think you can do it to an extreme, because I thought in the end that hurt us. I wish we had a little more structure in that game."
With time to reflect, Mahar and Sleeman have found a way to appreciate what they did that February night and the system that they implemented.
"I hope that [we are remembered] something along the lines of how well we played together, what kind of team we were, and what kind of teammates we were to each other," Mahar said. "We had a great group from top to bottom. That goes a long way with the sharing of the ball and buying in and being on the same page and being able to run a system like that."
It was a team that came together at the perfect time. There might never -- no -- will never, be another team like that. And Sleeman, who still uses parts of that offense to this day, is OK with that.
"[My players], I mean, the talent was just unbelievable," Sleeman said. "They all could shoot, they all could dribble. They all could run, and the biggest thing is they all bought into it and believed in it.
"You have to have the personnel to do [what we did]," Sleeman continued. "The following year I did stick with it, and it made me realize that an important factor is that you need those horses to do it. There are some parts of what we did that year that we kind of do emphasize this year, but it was such an extreme I don't think anybody can understand the whole concept."
Maybe not, but everyone will remember the results.
Geoff Smith is the Assistant Sports Editor at the Bennington Banner. He can be reached at 802-447-7567 ext. 120, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @GSmith_Banner.
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