Scoring burst carries Commodores past Eagles

VERGENNES — Bright lights, Little City, big win.
Bathed in the glow of the new lights in the Vergennes Union High School gym, the Commodore boys’ basketball team flicked on a switch for a 14-0 first-half run in Thursday’s game vs. rival Mount Abraham.
That surge — in which VUHS senior forward Connor Merrill shone with 10 straight points — sparked VUHS to a 25-9 second-quarter lead on the way to a 61-34 victory over their friendly rivals as the usual Eagle-Commodore boys’ crowd of more than 1,000 cheered.
More important than the Commodores’ sweep this season over the Eagles, said VUHS senior guard Logan Williams, was the fact they bounced back strong after coming out flat in a 57-52 loss at Missisquoi earlier in the week. Williams hopes the 9-7 Commodores have that intensity on Tuesday, when they will visit BFA-St. Albans with first place in the Lake Division at stake.
“This big-energy game at home against our rivals (the Eagles), it was really big,” he said. “And we hope to carry that into St. Albans on Tuesday and hopefully win the Lake and get some momentum going into the playoffs.”
VUHS started out 4-6 while playing top D-I and D-II teams, but Williams said the Commodores are “beginning to come around,” thanks in part to the kind of defense they played against Mount Abe.
“Teams are worrying about how to stop our offense, and they should be worrying about how to score,” he said.
Mount Abe coach Bill Leggett thought that defense was the difference on Thursday. Even in the close first quarter, which ended at 13-9, VUHS, Leggett said the Eagles struggled to score, particularly inside against Merrill and sophomore forward Jake Bushee.
“They make it very difficult to get good comfortable shots off anywhere near the paint,” he said. “They’re a good club. They’re better than their record shows. I don’t think there’s any question about that.”
Leggett’s team dropped to 3-12, including tough, recent two-point losses to Milton and Missisquoi. Leggett said he is proud of the way the Eagles have handled what has been at times a frustrating season.
“They all pull for each other. They all realize where they are and what their roles are, and they’ve accepted them extremely well. And they all stick together. They root for each other. And they play hard and they don’t quit,” he said. “Anytime you’ve got a bunch of student-athletes that will do that for you, it’s an enjoyable year.”
Early on, the Eagles took a 6-4 lead as junior guard Cam Skerritt-Perta sank two threes and the Eagles’ man-to-man defense disrupted the Commodores, who turned the ball over five times in the first quarter.
But VUHS took the lead, 7-6, when Merrill (20 points, 11 rebounds, three blocks) scored on the break at 2:00. Bushee (13 points, 11 boards) followed with a putback, and sophomore point guard Collin Curler (10 points, 6 boards, 5 assists) converted a steal. Eagle senior forward Bela Dobkowski sank a trey to make it 11-9 at 1:00, but Merrill capped the quarter by dunking an alley-oop pass from Williams (14 points) to the loud approval of the crowd.
VUHS coach Peter Quinn told his team to press to open the second quarter, and Mount Abe went scoreless for 3:40. In the meantime, Bushee hit in the lane, and then Merrill took over, submitting a putback after a Williams steal, two short jumpers, a dunk while being fouled on the break and a move in the post at 4:40.
In the span of 4:20, the score went from 11-9 to 25-9. The Eagles later twice cut the lead to 14 in the quarter, on a Shawn Marcelle jumper and two Greg Scott free throws, but that was as close as they would come.
Highlights the rest of the way for Mount Abe included senior guard Adam Pouliot’s on-ball defense, and sharp fourth-quarter shooting by junior reserve Andrew Malzac.
A nice moment for VUHS also came in the fourth quarter, when senior Josh Bushee, who has missed almost the entire season with a knee injury, fed younger brother Jake for a hoop.
Quinn said he would like Jake Bushee to get the ball more often.
“I’d like to see him taking 10 shots a game, because he can finish,” Quinn said.
Williams said he liked his team’s offensive balance — four Commodores finished in double figures.
“When everyone’s scoring, it opens everything up,” Williams said. “It’s really great to get Collin and Jake working together.”
But Quinn said focus and defense may ultimately determine whether VUHS can win the Lake and contend for a state title.
“There are several teams in Division II that can win the championship this year, and I firmly believe we are one of them. But we have to play well to do it. We’re not that good that we can play poorly, as we showed at Missisquoi,” he said. “So our challenge has been to play hard every minute. It doesn’t matter what the score is or who you play, you play hard, so you develop good habits, especially defensively.”

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