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VUHS boys’ basketball outlasts U-32; state final up next

BARRE — Twenty-three down, one to go.
In a Monday Division II semifinal in the Barre Auditorium, the No. 1 Vergennes Union High School boys’ basketball team shrugged off a slow start to get past No. 4 U-32, 54-49, and move to within one game of the title and undefeated season that has been the Commodores’ goal not only since the first day of practice, but also since their disappointing loss in the 2012 final.
At 3:45 p.m. on Saturday, the 23-0 Commodores will meet the winner of a late Wednesday game between two 20-2 teams, No. 2 Burr & Burton and No. 3 Lake Region.
VUHS senior Zach Ouellette said the Commodores would be “absolutely, 100 percent” confident going into Saturday’s match-up, even though they have had to work their hardest in their quarterfinal and semifinal wins.
On Monday, the 16-7 Raiders took a 9-2 lead in the first 3:21, and U-32 still led, 9-3, when Coach Peter Quinn called for time at 2:46.
Quinn told the Commodores to work harder to harass U-32, both in their full-court press and in their half-court man-to-man defense. And Ouellette, who scored a team-high 19, said the message took hold.
“Our defensive intensity, we just stepped it up, made sure we stayed in front of our man, stopped reaching, that kind of stuff, stuff Coach has been talking about all year,” said Ouellette. “They definitely had trouble handling our pressure.”
The Raiders still led after one quarter, 17-13, because they were crashing the offensive boards and had six second-chance points, and because U-32 center Chris Collins already had eight of his game-high 21 points. Shep Carter (10 points) gave VUHS a lift with two three-point plays in the period, and Stanley Salley (a team-high five rebounds) scored three.
Then the Commodores took over the game in the second quarter: They outscored U-32, 22-7, to lead at the break, 35-24; outrebounded U-32 in the period, 11-6; and forced seven of the Raiders 20 turnovers.
Quinn said once the Commodores got their feet moving defensively, they also established themselves offensively.
“We picked up our pressure,” he said. “And then when we started playing up on them, our quickness kicked in. And we got some turnovers, we got our adrenaline going. And then we were in control of the game.”
Charlie Stapleford (eight points, four boards) and Devin Hayes (eight points) gave VUHS a lift early in the period. Stapleford scored six points in an opening 11-2 run, including a game-tying three-pointer at 6:30, followed by a steal and layup that put VUHS up for good, 23-21.
Hayes chipped in the other five points, converting two feeds from Cody Quattrocci, one after another steal, and hitting a free throw after an offensive rebound.
After U-32 snapped the streak with a fast-break hoop, Hayes tossed in a three-pointer to make it 27-21 at 4:40. Down the first-half stretch, Collins hit three free throws for U-32, but Carter hit on the break, Ouellette went four-for-four from the line, and Hayes set up a late Josh Benning layup to push the lead to 11.
Ouellette said the Commodores also relaxed offensively during the surge after “a little bit of nerves” in the first quarter.
“We had to slow our offense down a little bit, kind of take our time, get our composure and gain a little bit of confidence,” Ouellette said.
In the third quarter, the Raiders cut into the lead with relentless rebounding: Including team rebounds, they earned a 19-5 edge in the period on the way to a 44-26 advantage overall. Collins, who hauled down 18 boards in all, did a lot of the damage, and also blocked several shots, changed a number of Commodore shots in the paint, and scored six points in the period.
But the Commodores forced another six turnovers and got three late points from Ouellette after U-32 cut the lead to five, and VUHS led after three periods, 45-37. Forward Dan McGrath (four points, four rebounds off the bench) also contributed in the period, including by taking a charge on Collins and winning a scramble for a loose ball as time wound down.
Both teams looked tentative in the fourth — when U-32 forward Kyler Weaver (13 points) drove for a layup at 3:35, the scoreboard changed for the first time in the period, to 45-39.
VUHS regained its composure, and ran more than a minute off the clock. U-32 finally had to foul, and Ouellette hit two from the line at 2:28 to make it 47-39. Another Collins putback at 2:08 cut the lead to six, and then Ouellette surprised the Raiders with a drive to the hoop to restore the eight-point lead at 1:50.
Collins got lucky with a long banked jumper at to make it 49-43, and then VUHS got unlucky: At 1:29, Carter drove to the hoop, was fouled hard and went down. His ankle swelled immediately, and he was still icing it after the game. Carter is undergoing physical therapy and is expected to play on Saturday, but almost certainly not at full strength.
Stapleford came in and hit both free throws to make it 51-43, enough for the Commodores to survive two late three-pointers (one another lucky banker) for the win. Their final points came on Ouellette and Quattrocci free throws, followed by deafening noise from the many VUHS fans who made the semifinal sound like a home game.  
Regardless of who is next, the Commodores know their rebounding will have to improve on Saturday.
“We’ve got to crash the boards a lot harder definitely,” Ouellette said.
But there were also positive signs. Quinn said the Commodores could have taken better shots, but also noted many good shots simply wouldn’t drop. And he said his team is playing good defense — the Raiders recorded fewer points than they scored against VUHS earlier this winter. 
“I was happy with how we played,” he said. “We actually played a little better D against them this time.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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