VERGENNES — In a Monday girls’ basketball game between two teams in search of wins this season and that saw three lead changes in overtime, visiting Middlebury finally walked off with a dramatic 47-43 decision over Vergennes.
Senior guard Tiffany Danyow shrugged off an injury suffered late in regulation to score six of her game-high 13 points in OT for the 3-9 Tigers, including two free throws at 0:51 that gave MUHS the lead for good at 44-43.
Senior center Erin Connor chipped in twice in OT — by laying in a loose ball and blocking the Commodores’ potentially game-tying layup. Junior forward Julia Cluss then iced the win with two free throws.
Those efforts thwarted a remarkable VUHS comeback. The 2-11 Commodores trailed by 16-0 early in the second quarter, never led in regulation, and closed the fourth quarter with a 9-2 run in the final 1:32 to tie the game at 37-37.
In that surge, VUHS senior forward Cat Chaput sank two jumpers, junior Ruby Dombek scored on a well-run inbounds play, and after MUHS sophomore Lejla Mahmuljin had hit two clutch free throws to make it 37-34, VUHS junior Taylor Paquette swished a game-tying three-pointer at 0:30.
VUHS took its first lead on a Paquette free throw 1:36 into OT. But Danyow — who hit the bench at 2:31 of regulation after colliding with two Commodores — re-entered and drove for a three-point play at 2:14 to make it 40-38, MUHS.
VUHS answered when Chaput found VUHS sophomore K.C. Ambrose on a back-door cut to make it 40-40, but Connor’s lay-in at 1:20 restored the MUHS lead at 42-40. The Commodores answered when freshman forward Nikki Salley put in a VUHS miss, was fouled and converted the three-point play at 1:06.
At 0:51, Danyow drew a foul and sank both free throws to put the Tigers on top despite the noise generated by the VUHS student fans, and she added another at 0:24 to make it 45-43. After Connor’s block, Cluss rebounded and hit two free throws at 0:06, and the four-point lead was safe.
Danyow said the Commodores “played a great game” to force overtime, but the Tigers were determined to prevail.
“We didn’t want to lose,” Danyow said. “They had the same record we did. We’ve been struggling all year, and we just didn’t want to lose.”
MUHS assistant coach Laura Emilo, filling in for ailing head coach Mary Nienow, noted the contributions of many of her players, including the key plays and free throws in overtime and late in regulation.
Cluss (10 points after a 12-point, 15-rebound effort vs. Missisquoi last week), Connor (eight points), junior Olivia Carpenter and Danyow helped the Tigers hold their on the boards against the taller Commodores, who earned just a 44-43 edge, including team rebounds. Junior point guard Hannah Hobbs added 10 points for MUHS.
“It was absolutely a team effort,” Emilo said. “They definitely came together as a team.”
But she added Danyow’s ability to return in overtime made a difference.
“That was huge. There’s just a sense of calm when Tiff’s on the floor,” Emilo said. “She’s a natural leader.”
VUHS coach Billy Waller praised the Commodores for their effort down the stretch.
“In the games that have been close, we seem to hit on some clutch plays at the end,” Waller said. “We just came up a couple short tonight.”
But Waller is still searching for answers for the Commodores’ tendency to start slow. Their scoreless first quarter continued a trend — he noted they are averaging just three points in their opening periods.
“I don’t know what more to do. We’ve changed things up. We’ve started different kids at times. It just doesn’t seem to matter. We just aren’t ready to go when the game starts,” Waller said. “So I’m a little frustrated with that, but not frustrated with the effort. Our kids played hard.”
Paquette and Chaput led VUHS with eight points apiece, and Chaput (11 rebounds) and Paquette (eight) also paced the Commodores on the boards. Senior forward Morgen Clark added seven rebounds, and Salley finished with seven points off the bench. Dombek added six points and five assists, and Ambrose contributed a couple steals in the late going.
The Commodore bench gave the team a big lift in the second quarter as they got back in the game. Senior guard Katie Robinson scored four of her six points in the period, including a jumper at 6:42 that provided the first VUHS points of the game, and freshman Sarah Poirier-Thayer banked in consecutive three-pointers that cut the MUHS lead from 20-8 to 20-14 at 2:20. It was 24-16 at the half, and the Commodores stayed within striking range the rest of the way.
“It allowed us to stay in the game,” Waller said.
Overall, Waller said the Commodores are dealing with adversity well, as could be seen by their rally on Monday.
“They’re doing their best to keep mentally in it. That’s the toughest thing when you’re not winning to stay mentally in it every day, but our kids seem to be doing that,” he said. “They’re all plugging away and getting better.”
The Tigers have now won three straight, although they face a tough home test from 13-1 Mount Abraham on Thursday.
Emilo — owner of a 1-0 record as a head coach — said the Tigers’ recent streak is a good reward for their effort this winter, and she was pleased to see them show their mettle in Monday’s overtime.
“The girls have worked so hard this year, and they really deserve it,” Emilo said. “Things are starting to come together. We haven’t played a game that tight all year. So for them to stay composed and tough it out is really exciting.”
Danyow would like to see the victories keep rolling in, and there are winnable games as well as challenges left on the schedule.
Regardless, she said the Tigers will enjoy the rest of the winter.
“Mary and Laura are really good at keeping our heads up,” Danyow said. “We’ve all been pretty positive about everything.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.