VERGENNES — The host Vergennes Union High School boys’ basketball team fought off a furious rally by visiting Middlebury on Tuesday to prevail in a pivotal Lake Division clash, 58-54.
The 7-8 Commodores improved to 3-1 in the Lake, while the 7-7 Tigers dropped to 3-2 in the league.
Both are chasing BFA-St. Albans in the Lake Division. BFA is 5-9 overall, but is 5-0 in the league and has defeated both MUHS and VUHS in St. Albans.
Senior VUHS forward Josh Benning, whose game-high 23 points included the winning basket with 27 seconds to go, said the defending Division II champion Commodores — winners of four of their past five games — have their eye on the league title, and beyond.
“The win means a lot to the team, because now that we’ve beaten Middlebury we’re second in the Lake, which means we’re one step closer to getting to Barre, hopefully,” Benning said.
VUHS coach Peter Quinn sees a three-way race for the Lake title.
“I’m certainly going to be a big fan for Middlebury when they go down there,” Quinn said. “I think Middlebury is good enough to beat them, for sure. I think us and Middlebury and St. Albans are pretty comparable.”
The Commodores shot 63 percent and scored 17 of their 20 baskets in the paint, both by exploiting the smaller Tigers in the post and by beating their press. The Tigers worked hard on defense and forced 16 turnovers, but Benning and junior forwards Wesley Miedema and Dylan Raymond and sophomore forward Josh Dam all were effective in the lane.
MUHS Coach Chris Altemose noted the Tigers played well on the boards, earning a 39-30 edge including team rebounds, with junior Connor Quinn’s eight leading the way.
But Altemose said the Tigers had trouble underneath defensively, and had difficulty on the attack until their late surge — they went on a 15-2 fourth-quarter run to knot the score at 52-52, a rally sparked by three treys from sophomore Oakley Gordon, who finished with 15 points.
“Obviously the size differential there was a challenge for us coming in, and it was a challenge for us all game long. But I think we held our own defensively and on the boards,” Altemose said. “But offensively … I don’t think we made a shot on the perimeter outside of 12 feet until probably the last four, five minutes of the game.”
In the first quarter, the Tigers took a 4-0 lead on a couple hoops set up by junior point guard Bobby Ritter (11 points, four assists, four steals, five rebounds).
But then VUHS remembered the game plan: Get the ball inside. Benning scored nine points in the period, and Raymond (13 points, a couple nice assists) capped it with a three, and VUHS led, 14-8.
Benning said the Commodores had discussed taking advantage of their size.
“We knew that we were going to have a little bit (of size) on them, we just tried to play our best and try to get it down low,” he said.
In the second period, the Commodores stretched the lead to 20-10, when only a putback by senior forward Sam Usilton (nine points) answered two buckets inside by Miedema and one by Benning. A couple hoops by MUHS sophomore forward Sam Holmes and three Ritter points helped cut the lead to 24-17, but Raymond closed the quarter with six straight points — three free throws after being fouled launching a trey, and then a trey at the buzzer — to make it 30-17 at the half.
The Tigers pushed the pace in the third and began to find the basket, but made little headway on the scoreboard as Dam came off the bench to score six for VUHS.
The Tigers finished the period down 12, 43-31, but could have made up more ground if they had hit more than four of 11 free throws in the period (they were eight for 20 overall). Still, junior forward Bryce Burrell scored four, and Usilton and Ritter added three apiece as MUHS stayed within striking distance by attacking the basket in the third.
Quinn switched VUHS into a zone to open the fourth period, and it looked like a good idea for four-and-a-half minutes, after which VUHS still led by 13, 50-37, on three points from Benning and baskets by seniors Jarret LaFleche and Jamie DeVries. MUHS countered only with hoops from junior swingman Cullen Hathaway, Gordon and Usilton, all in the lane.
Then at 3:30, Gordon sank a three from the left flank at 3:30, and after a VUHS turnover, sank another one from the same spot at 3:10 to make it 50-43.
Benning hit in the lane at 2:49, courtesy of one of Cousino’s four assists, but 14 seconds later Ritter nailed a trey. Nine seconds after that, a Gordon free throw made it 52-47. After another VUHS miscue, Usilton rebounded a miss, Altemose called for time, and Burrell converted inside on the inbounds play at 1:45: 52-49.
Usilton stole the ball at the other end at 0:43, and five seconds later the game was tied — Gordon hit another three. Quinn called for time, after which the Commodores inbounded to Cousino. He flew down the floor and dished to his left to Benning cutting to the hoop. Benning converted, was fouled and made the free throw (VUHS was nine for 17 from the line) to put VUHS on top, 55-52, at 0:27.
Quinn said the play was by design.
“He created a little lane for Josh, who was the horse all night,” he said. “That was exactly what we were hoping for.”
Benning then rebounded a Tiger miss and hit a free throw at 0:17: 56-52. Ritter hit two free throws at 0:13, but Raymond iced the game from the line at 0:11 with two for VUHS.
COMMODORE SENIOR JOSH Benning beats Tiger junior Sam Holmes to the basket and scores two of his game-high 24 points Tuesday night in Vergennes.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
Altemose said both teams made good plays down the stretch, but would have liked to see the Tigers do more earlier.
“(Our) kids played hard and kept their heads in it and made a nice run at the end,” he said. “I’d just like to see us play more of a consistent game.”
Quinn said it was important for the Commodores that they won without starting junior point guard Liam Hayes, who was out sick.
“Certainly, winning a game without Liam is huge,” Quinn said. “I think that helped everybody’s confidence.”
Altemose noted the rematch comes on Feb. 21.
“We’ll probably have another tough game with them at our place in a couple weeks,” he said. “We’ve got to focus on the ones in between, but of course, we always look forward to that.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.