By ANDY KIRKALDY
VERGENNES — To the delight of a full, noisy house, the Vergennes Union High School boys’ basketball team erupted in the middle quarters of Friday’s Division II quarterfinal to oust Harwood, 75-60. No. 2 seed VUHS advances to a Wednesday night semifinal vs. Montpelier in the Barre Auditorium.
At 8:15 p.m. on Wednesday the 18-4 Commodores will face No. 6 Montpelier (14-8). VUHS and the Solons met twice this winter. The Commodores won, 67-59 at home on Dec. 30, and the Solons prevailed, 59-57, on Feb. 9 in Montpelier.
But that second game merits an asterisk: VUHS junior forward and leading scorer Connor Merrill missed it with an illness. On Friday, Merrill tossed in 23 points and blocked five of the 13-9 Highlanders’ shots.
He said the Commodores are looking forward to Wednesday, and, with any luck, the D-II final on Saturday at 3:45 p.m.
“I think we’re very confident. We know we can do some damage,” Merrill said.
On Friday, they also avenged another setback: Harwood knocked them off, 60-43, at VUHS on Dec. 27, when junior sharpshooter Logan Williams was out with a broken collarbone. Harwood also ousted the Commodores from the playoffs last winter.
“They got us in the playoffs last year, got us this year. It was just nice to get them back,” Merrill said.
The Commodores said it was also great to have everybody back. Merrill also missed the Commodores’ regular-season ending loss at Middlebury, Williams sprained his ankle after returning from his broken bone, and Jesse Tynan missed much of the season with an infection.
Senior forward Cam Curler (7 points) said Friday’s middle quarters, in which VUHS outscored Harwood, 51-21, showed what the Commodores are capable of when healthy — and provided another reason to be optimistic in Barre.
“It’s really good to have everybody back, and this is the best we’ve played with our full squad,” Curler said. “Now everybody’s back and fully ready to go.”
Harwood led after one quarter, 17-13. Guard Steve LaRock had 11 of his team-high 20 points in the period to spark the Highlanders’ fast start, while Merrill countered with nine points.
In the second quarter, VUHS started mixing up defenses, using different presses and traps. Harwood began to turn the ball over and force shots, while the Commodores began to move their feet better at both ends of the court. By halftime, VUHS led, 39-29, after hitting six second-quarter treys, three by Logan Williams (21 points), one by Josh Carter (18), and two straight by senior reserve Jackson Lalumiere that brought the house down late in the quarter and made it 37-26.
“We came out with a lot of different looks and a couple different presses,” Curler said. “It seemed like a good way for everybody to be active, and it really worked ... Everything just started going faster, and when we got the ball we were already running with it, and then we were a lot more confident, and when we ran our offense we got a lot better looks.”
Harwood opened the second quarter with a trey to make it 20-13, but Carter hit his trey, and then Williams hit two threes and converted a steal to make it 24-20. Harwood tied the game at 4:48 on four points by forward Tyler Hoare (13), but VUHS responded with a 15-5 run capped by a Curler putback at the buzzer.
VUHS opened the second half with a 15-2 outburst in the first 6:10 that grew the lead to 54-31. The play the capped it started when Carter and Jackson Alexander teamed up for a steal. Carter pushed the ball hard up the floor and dished it out to Merrill for a trey, bringing the crowd to its feet again. VUHS kept coming, and grew the lead to 64-38 after three periods.
Harwood made the game mildly interesting with a 1-3-1 trap that forced the suddenly careless Commodores to turn the ball over seven times in the first four minutes of the final quarter. The Highlanders converted several steals into hoops in a 15-0 run that made it 64-53.
But Carter drove for two and hit three of four three throws to restore order, and the Commodores held at least a nine-point lead the rest of the way. With the score 69-60 at 1:40, Adam Flynn’s nice pass to a cutting Williams for a layup ended Harwood’s chances for a miracle finish.
Flynn led VUHS with five rebounds, while Carter had six assists and three steals. In all, VUHS hit 24 of 41 shots, including nine of 18 three pointers.
But Merrill said defense made just as much of a difference.
“We just started scoring, and that started getting the whole crowd all riled up, and we just picked up our defense,” he said. “We forced some turnovers, started getting some easy baskets. We just got the flow going.”
VUHS coach Peter Quinn said more defense would go a long way in Barre.
“It’s about playing D and keeping teams out of the paint. We’re very confident offensively. We have so many weapons,” Quinn said. “If we can play good D, that’s going to put a lot of pressure on other teams, because we know they’re going to have to defend us.”
Friday was the last time for VUHS seniors — Carter, Lalumiere, Flynn and Curler — to play in front of the home crowd. Curler said he remembered being in that crowd and watching older students earning their trip to Barre, and said he and his teammates are thrilled they have the chance.
“I remember watching Ben Epstein play and then get to Barre and I was saying, ‘Oh man, this is the best thing,’” he said. “And it’s going to be me. I’m starting to savor it. I’m going to Barre.”