VERGENNES — The Middlebury Union High School girls’ basketball team took an early lead on Saturday and survived a rally by host Vergennes to defeat the Commodores, 42-39, and earn the Tigers’ first win of the season, and of Coach Jen Heath’s tenure.
The Tigers survived a 10-turnover third quarter in which the Commodores whittled down their 20-9 halftime deficit to 25-20, and then held on during a fourth quarter in which VUHS sophomore center Nikki Salley poured in 12 points and VUHS three times cut the lead to a point.
Critical for MUHS was committing only one turnover in the fourth quarter against the same press and man-to-man defense that gave them fits in the third.
Ballhandling by seniors Hannah Hobbs and Olivia Carpenter and freshman Payton Buxton — who had eight or her 14 points and two assists in the fourth — proved to be pivotal as the Tigers righted their ship.
“We knew that we had to be composed. We were ahead and had to keep that lead, and we knew we had to take care of that ball,” said Hobbs, a senior captain whose 13 points included three first-half three-pointers.
The good start — the Tigers led, 6-1 after one period, and VUHS did not score a basket until Salley laid in a loose ball at 5:30 of the second — was also important, Hobbs said.
“I think we were ready. There’s a rivalry with Vergennes, and I think everybody had that drive that we wanted to win,” she said. “We wanted to come out with a lot of energy. We’ve had trouble coming out strong, so that was our main goal.”
Coach Heath and Hobbs said the 1-12 Tigers have remained positive and kept working hard in practice despite the lack of wins, and with the early lead came belief they could break through.
“The key is they’ve been coming to practice every day working hard. They didn’t give up,” Heath said. “And I think they played with confidence today.”
That’s how VUHS Coach Billy Waller saw it. His 3-9 team did not play its best early on, he said, and the Tigers seized the opportunity.
“We weren’t moving the ball quick and we weren’t moving the ball quick in our defense. And I thought that we were flat,” he said. “I thought Middlebury did a good job getting some momentum.”
In the first period, both teams took good care of the ball, but had trouble getting shots to drop. For MUHS, Hobbs hit a trey at 5:30, junior forward Krisandra Provencher contributed a putback, and Buxton hit a free throw.
VUHS sophomore forward Tamara Aunchman (five points, seven rebounds) hit a free throw at 5:10, but she, Salley (14 points, seven boards) and senior forward Taylor Paquette (seven points and eight boards) could not get chances inside to fall as MUHS took the 6-1 lead.
Ultimately, Waller said those misses could have been the difference.
“In the first half we missed four or five layups,” he said. “A team loses by three, that’s usually what you can point back to.”
MUHS stretched the lead to 10-1 in the second as freshman Riley Fenster converted from Hobbs on the break and Buxton hit two free throws. Finally, Salley scored, and freshman Shay Pouliot made a move in the lane to make it 10-5 at 4:40. But Hobbs answered with two straight treys to make it 16-5, and the teams traded points until it was 20-9 at the half.
In the third period, Waller abandoned zone defense for a press and man-to-man, and the Tigers started turning the ball over. At the other end, VUHS went on a 10-0 run sparked by four points apiece inside from Aunchman and Paquette to cut the lead to 20-19 with 2:20 left in the period.
But Tiger freshman Ally Larocque (five points) converted a three-point play on a feed from Hobbs, and senior Julia Cluss (six points, seven boards) hit in the post. VUHS added only a free throw from sophomore Sara Poirier-Thayer (seven points, seven boards), and the lead was 25-20 after three.
After VUHS senior Breanna Lapan scored to open the period, Salley scored three straight hoops, two inside and one on the break from junior guard K.C. Ambrose. Buxton assisted Hobbs on a pretty lob pass and drained two free throws, but the MUHS lead was down to 29-28, at 6:15.
But Buxton scored a jumper set up by Carpenter and a coast-to-coast press-breaker at 4:25 to make it 33-28. VUHS then hit only one of four free throws, while Cluss sank a jumper from Buxton and a free throw at 2:57 to make it 36-29.
Salley struck for a hoop and two free throws, and it was 36-33 at 2:19. A Buxton free throw made it 37-33, and a Paquette runner set the score at 37-35 at 1:45. VUHS soon had a chance to tie, but Lapan’s shot bounced on the rim several times before rolling off.
Larocque hit a free throw to make it 38-35, and Salley hit again to make it a one-point game. Buxton then sank a free throw at 0:51 and hit on the break at 0:37 to push the lead to 41-37. Two Lapan free throws and one by Cluss created the final score.
Waller said his message to the Commodores would be to focus better in practice.
“I personally didn’t think we practiced well yesterday, and my message was you practice how you play, and you play how you practice,” Waller said. “We’re going to have to make better decisions in practice in order to play better in the games.”
Heath said the Tigers deserved a positive result for their winter’s worth of effort.
“It was great to see them all hugging and cheering and saying this is a great moment,” Heath said. “They haven’t given up at all this season, and I give them a lot of credit for that.”
And, yes, they did enjoy the moment.
“It feels amazing. We’ve all been waiting for this for so long,” Hobbs said. “I’m beyond ecstatic.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.