BARRE — One of the many fans of the Vergennes Union High School boys’ basketball team at the Barre Auditorium on Saturday held up a “Vermont Strong” sign before the Commodores’ Division II title game vs. Mount St. Joseph.
The Commodores were Vermont Strong this winter, defeating every D-II team they played except MSJ, which earned the D-II title by besting VUHS, 56-48.
So maybe the 21-3 VUHS boys were the Vermont champions of D-II. MSJ (22-2) is a private school that imported half of its players from out of state: Vermont Strong is a fair enough assessment of the Commodores’ winter.
Still, Coach Peter Quinn said the Commodores were disappointed they could not knock off the Mounties — the two squads have all season been awaiting Saturday’s seemingly inevitable showdown.
And when VUHS dropped an 11-0 first-quarter run on the Mounties and still led by two at the break, the Commodores seemed poised to win another close game, as they had all winter. But the Mounties took over in third quarter and held on for the win.
“It was a great season, but we were hoping to pick this one off,” Quinn said. “Obviously, there was a lot of excitement to play MSJ. We played a great half.”
After MSJ point guard John Dewey scored the game’s first three points, the VUHS 2-1-2 zone and ball pressure began to frustrate the Mounties: Half of MSJ’s 14 turnovers came in the first quarter.
At 4:37, VUHS began to score. That’s when Shep Carter sank two free throws after being fouled on the break to trigger the 11-0 run. Carter added a transition hoop, center Stanley Salley fed a cutting Cody Quattrocci for two more, Quattrocci took a feed from Zach Ouellette and sank a trey, and Salley hit in the post at 2:50 to make it 11-3.
Two hoops by MSJ’s Matthew Sanborn cut the lead to 11-7, but Carter, who led VUHS with 15, closed the quarter with two free throws, and VUHS led, 13-7.
The VUHS offense sputtered in the second period, but junior forward Dan McGrath gave VUHS a lift with two hoops off the bench. But other than that, two Ouellette free throws and a Devin Hayes layup set up by Ouellette were all VUHS managed. At the other end, Zach Lanzillo hit a pair of late threes to help MSJ close the gap to 21-19 at the break.
Then MSJ jumped on VUHS with an 8-2 run in the opening minute of the second half with baskets from four players: Dewey, center Jaskin Melendez, guard Robert Cassell, and forward Jahnathan Mitchell. Forward Shannon Murray (13 points, six rebounds) added six points inside, and the Mounties ruled the boards with an 11-3 advantage in the period. Counting team rebounds, their overall edge was 35-17.
Quinn said the Commodores simply had no margin for error against the Mounties, who entered the fourth quarter with a 37-27 lead.
“We lost a little bit of intensity was the big thing,” Quinn said. “We made too many mistakes, missing box assignments, and it lasted that quarter. And we had to play four quarters against them, and we really only played three.”
The closest VUHS came in the fourth was 42-36 after a 7-1 run that consisted of a Devin Hayes three, a Hayes free throw and a Charlie Stapleford three, while the Mounties managed only a Murray free throw. MSJ promptly got back-to-back hoops inside from Sanborn and Murray, both set up by Dewey. Murray turned his basket into a three-point play that made it 47-36 at 4:38.
Carter scored seven points down the stretch, but the Mounties hit enough free throws to maintain at least a nine-point lead until a late Carter three created the final score. Dewey scored 12, added 10 rebounds and keyed MSJ with his ballhandling and on-ball defense. Sanborn scored 10, and Melendez added seven boards.
For VUHS, Salley had five points and 10 boards; Quattrocci, seven points; Hayes, six points; and Ouellette, five points. Guard Collin Curler, the only senior who played for VUHS, was limited both by foul trouble and an illness, and scored two points. Senior tri-captain Nick Paquin also suited up for VUHS for the last time on Saturday.
Quinn said he expected more good things from VUHS in the future.
“Going through the intensity of the playoffs, playing here twice, the guys really understanding and feeling how complete your effort has to be to win, those things I think are lessons learned,” he said. “We’ll have a pretty seasoned ballclub next year, and I think we’ll be just a little hungrier.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.