VERGENNES — The No. 7 Vergennes Union High School boys’ basketball team accomplished all of its goals in Tuesday night’s first-round Division II playoff game against visiting No. 10 Springfield.
The 13-8 Commodores advanced to the quarterfinal round, avenged their loss in the 2009 final to Springfield with a 47-37 win, and helped senior forward Connor Merrill reach the coveted 1,000-point plateau.
Senior guard Logan Williams helped VUHS achieve all those aims. Williams scored 22 points, sparked critical second- and fourth-quarter runs, and fed Merrill for his milestone points, a layup on the left baseline with 1:30 to go in the third period.
Williams finished with six rebounds and three assists to go with his game-high point total. Merrill scored 19 to end the game with 1,003 career points; pulled down 16 rebounds to join with sophomore forward Jake Bushee (12 rebounds) to help VUHS rule the boards, 43-23; and blocked six shots.
Merrill and Williams combined for 24 first-half points, and the Commodores put the clamps on the 10-11 Cosmos before intermission as VUHS led at the break, 26-11. Williams led a 10-0 second quarter spurt with three hoops and two assists. But the Commodores had to survive a late Cosmo rally to advance to a Saturday quarterfinal at No. 2 Harwood (18-3).
Merrill said the Commodores made the plays and dug in on defense when they had to down the stretch.
“We played a great first half on defense, 11 points, and then we kind of lost focus. Their point guard, (Brandon) Boyle, hit a couple shots, and they just got confident and we lost our intensity. That got them back in the game. But in the end we pulled it out,” Merrill said. “I thought that everyone who played helped.”
Coach Peter Quinn was happy with the first 16 minutes.
“I thought we played a great first half. The offensive execution wasn’t great in the first half, but the defense was really good,” Quinn said.
Then a few things went wrong for VUHS after the break. The Cosmos switched from man-to-man defense to an effective press and a zone, and they trapped effectively out of both looks. The Commodores turned the ball over 11 times in the second half after just six first-half miscues.
Quinn said VUHS also left a bit of intensity in the locker room.
“At halftime we turned it down a notch. We just weren’t playing as hard,” he said.
And with Merrill needing just two more points in the second half to hit 1,000, Quinn thought the Commodores got a bit out of synch.
“They were all aware of it ... You try to play through it and ignore it, ignore the elephant in the room, basically,” he said.
Merrill said he came into the game focused more on Springfield, which had upset the Commodores in last winter’s D-II final, but couldn’t help but notice the students holding a sign tracking his progress to 1,000, and a thousand fans hanging on his every shot.
“To be honest, I wasn’t even thinking about it during the game until I saw the sign over there that had the numbers and it was counting down. And I was, ‘Aw, crap, now I’ve got to think about it.’ Every time I scored everyone would go nuts. And when I was two points away, they all moaned when I missed a shot. That started to get to me a little bit,” Merrill said. “Finally when I got it, it took the weight off my shoulders ... Now it’s out of my mind and I can focus on getting to Barre. That’s the ultimate goal.”
The Cosmos also finally found an offensive spark to make a game of it. Boyle scored 12 of his 18 points after halftime, and his teammates began to shoot with more belief.
Finally, the Cosmos fought back to within five early in the fourth quarter, 36-31, as they went on a 10-1 run after Merrill’s 1,000th point made it 35-21, and earned him a lengthy standing ovation.
But Williams snapped VUHS out of its funk with a three at 5:45 of the fourth, and that shot triggered a 9-0 run over the next four minutes that was also sparked by a renewed commitment to defense.
Next, Williams drove for two on the break, Bushee grabbed a loose ball in the lane and fed Merrill for a layup, and Merrill whipped a 45-foot pass to Williams for another layup that made it 45-31 and ended the Cosmo comeback bid.
Now the Commodores can turn their attention to Harwood, a team that stunned them, 61-41, in Duxbury on Dec. 12. Quinn said the Commodores must be able to handle the Highlanders’ pressing and trapping tactics.
“Not turning the ball over is a big key. I think that’s the most important thing. If we don’t turn the ball over against Harwood, we’ve got a great shot against them,” Quinn said. “They get a fair amount of easy points off their press and their trap.”
Merrill said the Commodores will go in thinking they can win if they take care of the fundamentals, like boxing out, and prevent the Highlanders from getting out in transition.
“We just have to play our game, and I think we’ll be all right,” Merrill said. “I’m feeling confident, and I’m looking forward to it.”
Merrill also spoke about his milestone.
“I guess it just shows my hard work pays off in the summer, playing AAU and playing out of state, lifting all the time and playing four or five times a week. All that hard work finally pays off, I think, and people will remember me at this high school. And it’s just a good feeling,” he said.
Merrill also credited his teammates, notably point guards Jackson Alexander, a senior who has missed almost the entire season with a knee injury, sophomore Collin Curler and freshman Shep Carter; and Williams, whose presence as a scoring threat means teams cannot simply try to shut Merrill down.
“It was rough without Jackson, but Collin and Shep have stepped up great,” he said. “And Logan has helped me out a lot. If teams have focused on me more than him, then he’ll have a good shooting night, and they’ll focus more on him and the tables will turn ... I have great teammates, and I like being around them.”
Quinn said Merrill has been a pleasure to coach.
“He’s just what you see. He’s great. He’s totally focused on the game. He’s focused on winning,” Quinn said. “He’s just been a joy. I will miss him a lot.”