BARRE — Sparked in Monday’s Division II girls’ basketball semifinal by mid-game tactical and lineup changes and junior Ashlie Fay’s third-quarter scoring surge, No. 1 Mount Abraham Union High School knocked off No. 4 Hartford, 56-48, in the Barre Auditorium.
In defeating the 19-4 Hurricanes, the Eagles:
• Improved to 22-1 with their 13th straight victory.
• Reached the final for the third straight season; this year’s foe on Saturday at 3:45 p.m. in the Aud will be No. 3 BFA-Fairfax (21-2).
• Avenged their 2012 loss in the final to Hartford.
• Hit 23 of 29 free throws, including 13 of 16 in the fourth quarter to prevent Hartford from rallying from a 41-27 deficit after three periods. Juniors Sam Driscoll (six for six) and Meg Livinsgton (five for six) combined to hit 11 of 12 from the line.
And they surprised Coach Connie LaRose just a little bit. Back in November, she knew the Eagles had talent and would be good. But with a number of juniors and a sophomore — center Isabel Brennan — joining only three seniors — guard Lizzie Huizenga and forwards Jessie Martin and Jordan Emmons — in the regular rotation, she wasn’t sure how good.
“At the beginning of the season I thought we were a year out, I really did,” LaRose said. “But they just kept getting better and better. We’re not perfect by any means, but we’ve done some good stuff.”
Simply put, all winter the Eagles have risen to the occasion. Needing in the late going to defeat tough D-I foes South Burlington and Colchester to win the Lake Division and nail down D-II’s No. 1 seed, they did so. Down by 12-10 after Monday’s first quarter, they rallied to go ahead at the half, 20-19, as Brennan and Driscoll came off the bench to combine for eight points in the period.
“We knew we needed to step it up,” Fay said, “and we did.”
And it was in that second quarter that LaRose changed defensive tactics. In the first period, Hurricane senior forward Stephanie Grobe sliced through the Eagles’ 3-2 zone for eight points. Only Livingston’s five first-period points kept Mount Abe afloat.
To open the second, LaRose inserted the six-foot Brennan into the middle of a 1-3-1 zone. Brennan (nine points and a team-high seven boards) hit all three of her shots in the quarter, and Grobe could no longer find space in the lane. The Eagles stayed in the 1-3-1 for the rest of the night, and Grobe added only five more points.
“We just needed to stop their offense. We needed to move our feet … and stop No. 3 (Grobe),” Fay said. “She was driving in there.”
LaRose said the 1-3-1 also matched up better against the Hurricanes on the perimeter.
“They’re quick, and they have a lot of three-point shooters,” LaRose said. “I knew we had to get a hand in their face.”
Still, the Eagles — notably Fay — were not really clicking offensively in the first half. But LaRose decided to stick with the defensive look and trust that the attack would come around: She left Driscoll, normally the leading scorer off the bench, and Brennan in the lineup to start the second half, leaving starting forwards Emmons and Martin and their two fouls apiece on the pine.
“That was a four-guard offense and a sophomore,” LaRose said. “A little bit of a gamble. For the first time in my life we didn’t come back with my starters in the second half, and I’m old.”
The offense finally began to come around in the third, when Livingston (13 points) and Driscoll (11 points) hit threes and Fay found Huizenga on a back-door cut as the Eagles pushed the lead to five, 28-23, with 3:44 to go.
At that point, Fay, the Eagles’ leading scorer, had hit one basket and scored four points. Those numbers changed in a hurry: Fay put 11 points on the books in 3:24 as the Eagles closed the quarter on a 14-4 run. Fay finished with game highs of 19 points and six assists.
Six of those points came as Fay converted three of her four steals into layups (one just before the horn sounded), two came on an eight-foot banker in transition, and three came on free throws. Driscoll sank a pair of free throws in the surge, and it was 41-27 after three to the delight of the enthusiastic Mount Abe crowd, who drowned out the Hartford fans all night.
Hartford made it interesting in the fourth as Chelsea Dow opened with back-to-back threes while the Eagles committed three straight turnovers. At 41-33 with 6:30 to go, it was still anyone’s game.
But Livingston blocked a shot and came up with the loose ball, and then hit four straight free throws to make it 45-33 at 4:42. Brennan then stuffed a shot, and Hartford sent Fay to the line at 4:02. Fay sank both to make it 47-33, and the Eagle students started chanting, “I believe that we will win.”
Hartford sophomore Taylor Illingsworth (13 points) nailed three straight threes and Kelsey Kehoe (12 points, nine boards) banked in a jumper to make it interesting. But Fay set up Brennan on the break, and Livingston, Driscoll, Fay, Brennan and Huizenga (three steals) all hit free throws to protect the lead.
Ultimately, LaRose said the Eagles’ superior quickness — which she used with the four-guard lineup she stuck with throughout the second half — proved to be the difference against another taller team.
“We’re fast and we’re active,” she said. “I think we went with what’s been our strength all year.”
And Fay said the loss in the 2012 final gave the Eagles just a little extra motivation.
“We worked hard,” Fay said. “We wanted the win so bad.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.