MIDDLEBURY — This winter the Middlebury Union High School girls’ basketball team has struggled to score, and Tuesday’s first half against visiting Mount Abraham looked like more of the same — the Tigers trailed at the half, 20-11.
Then their shots started to fall. And those launched by the Eagles did not: Mount Abe managed only five free throws between 2:00 of the second quarter and 5:45 of the fourth.
When Eagle forward Casey Ogden snapped that basket drought, three Tigers had combined for 19 points, including 10 by senior forward Madison Fuller, and MUHS led, 30-24 on the way to a stunning 37-28 win over the Eagles.
A lot changed between the halves. After a dozen first-half turnovers, the Tigers coughed up the ball just five times in the second half against the Eagles’ fulltime, full-court press. Taking better care of the ball also dried up a source of offense for Mount Abe, which scored many of its first-half points after MUHS miscues.
Tiger senior forward Chrissy Ritter, whose game-high 11 rebounds helped MUHS earn a 35-31 edge in that department, said the Tigers also made an attitude adjustment.
“We had a lot of team talk in the locker room,” Ritter said. “We were more positive ... And we had a lot of turnovers, so we just decided to settle down, calm down and play our game.”
The Tigers, who improved to 5-9, also waited for open shots rather than forcing the ball inside against the Eagles’ 3-2 zone.
“This is one of the most patient teams attacking a zone,” said MUHS coach Cindy Atkins. “We’ve talked a lot about making a zone shift back and forth. Reverse it twice and good things will happen.”
But getting good shots and making them are two different things, as Ritter noted.
“Finally, our shots were dropping,” she said.
Eagle coach Connie LaRose said the Tigers also deserve credit at the other end — in their man-to-man defense the Tigers contested her team’s shots and controlled the boards to limit them to one attempt on most second-half possessions.
“They just came out hungry, especially in the third and fourth quarter,” LaRose said. “They just got after it.”
The loss was costly for Mount Abe, which dropped to 13-3 and out of first place in Division II. Hartford (11-3 according to the Vermont Principals’ Association website) is ahead on quality points, and Fair Haven (11-3 per the VPA) is in third; those three teams have separated from the pack.
Despite what was at stake, LaRose said her team lacked urgency on Tuesday, possibly because the Eagles’ two prior games had come against poor competition: winless Missisquoi and Mount Mansfield, which has defeated only Missisquoi.
“I didn’t think our own defensive effort was there the way it normally is. We were flat,” LaRose said. “But you have to give Middlebury credit. They played hard. They wanted it a lot more than we appeared to.”
Still, the Eagles controlled most of the first half, taking an early 9-2 lead as Ashlie Fay scored five early points. The Tigers committed five early turnovers and didn’t score until 3:30 of the first quarter, when Hannah Hobbes hit a jumper. That sparked a little run that created a 9-9 tie that the Eagles snapped at the end of the quarter when Fay stole the ball and fed sister Amber Fay to make it 11-9 after one.
Ritter drove to tie the score at 11-11, but MUHS did not score again in the half. Meanwhile, four Eagles scored as they took their nine-point lead at the break.
Coming out of halftime, Fuller scored in the lane and sank a three-pointer. And Ritter and fellow forward Brandi Whittemore (eight rebounds) kept pulling down Eagle misses.
“We’ve been talking about players embracing their roles on the team, and the post players going out there and really working hard on the boards,” Atkins said. “And I thought that really showed tonight.”
And guards Paityn Boyer and Hobbes — getting more minutes than usual with starting point guard Tiffany Danyow out for at least another 10 days with an ankle sprain — kept breaking the Eagle press.
At 4:50, Boyer hit a jumper, and the Eagles called time up by just 20-18. At 4:10, a Ritter jumper tied the score.
With the lead up for grabs, neither team found the range for three minutes. At 1:00, Boyer drove into the lane and got a teardrop shot to fall, and MUHS led, 22-20. A Fuller three at 0:40 made it 25-20 before Eagle guard Sara Sayles snapped her team’s eight-minute scoreless drought with two free throws.
In the fourth Boyer hit a three assisted by Fuller, and Fuller hit a short jumper set up by Ritter at 6:00 of the fourth. The lead was 30-22 before Ogden’s foul-line jumper became the first Eagle basket since late in the second period.
The closest the Eagles came the rest of the way was 35-28 at 0:50, on a Lizzie Huizenga putback.
Ashlie Fay led the Eagles with eight points and six boards; she added three steals. Sayles had six points and two assists; Amber Fay, four points and five steals; Casey Ogden, four points; and Megan Ogden, four rebounds.
For MUHS, Fuller finished with 17 points, Hobbes had seven points and three assists, Boyer scored seven. As well as hitting the boards, Ritter added four points and three assists, and Whittemore chipped in three steals.
Atkins was pleased that her team did not allow the Eagles to attack the basket the way they did in winning in Bristol earlier this winter. But ultimately, the shooting made her happiest.
“We’ve had multiple games where we’re in the game and we just can’t hit shots ... This is good for confidence, and hopefully we can carry that forward,” Atkins said. “Everything else is in place.”
Ritter said the Tigers hope Tuesday will prove to be a turning point.
“We’re so excited,” she said. “We’re hoping it’s just all positive from here.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.