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VUHS is hot first, but Mill River dominates

VERGENNES — For most of Friday night’s first quarter, the Vergennes Union High School girls’ basketball team went toe-to-toe with visiting Division II title contender Mill River — after five minutes, they trailed by just four, 13-9.
But then foul trouble, defensive problems and the Minutemen’s full-court press combined to take the wind out of the Commodores’ sails — MRU went on a 14-0 run and coasted to a 60-29 victory in what was the Commodores’ season opener after two postponements.
Coach Billy Waller said there were some bright spots, but first singled out the biggest problem: His team’s man-to-man defense simply couldn’t handle the picks and back-door cuts presented by MRU’s motion offense. The Minutemen constantly worked for open layups and jumpers from just inside the free-throw line, and they made their shots.
According to Waller’s figures, MRU scored 50 points on attempts in the lane.
“We didn’t defend their flex cuts at all,” Waller said. “We got too flat-footed. We’ve got to get better.”
Those defensive breakdowns also caused the foul trouble, notably to junior forward Nikki Salley, who led VUHS with seven points and added six rebounds despite limited minutes. The Commodores often found themselves having to bail out their teammates, Waller said.
“I’m not upset with Nikki’s fouls,” Waller said. “I’m upset we didn’t defend the pick-and-rolls and we didn’t defend the back cuts, and she’s helping out with somebody’s man that is unaware.”
The Minutemen’s offense also helped them set up their effective press. The Minutemen forced nine VUHS turnovers in the decisive second quarter, five in the first 1:25, and often turned them into points. MRU led by 17-9 after one period, and by 38-17 at the half.
“Once they got rolling, their fast break was really good,” Waller said, “and we didn’t rotate back very well.”
Still, there were positives. In that first quarter, Salley worked well inside for three points; sophomore Caroline Johnston, who had an energetic effort, drove for a bucket; senior guard K.C. Ambrose hit a floater in the lane, while junior forward Tamara Aunchman sank a baseline jumper at 3:00 to make it 13-9.
But then came the 14-0 run. Rylee Nichols (a game-high 16 points) hit a jumper to start the surge, and Melissa Fay hit in the post to make it 17-9 after one. Nichols then scored on an inbounds play to open the second, and Taylor Worcester converted a steal at 7:42, forcing Waller to call time.
“It was 15-9, and we had the ball, and we missed a layup,” Waller said. “It was trouble after that.”
The timeout didn’t help: Mariz Mangundayao drove for two, Carly Ward (11 points) cut and scored on an inbounds play, and Haley Hull (10 points) scored on another cut in the lane to make it 27-9 at 5:32. Salley broke the spell with a pair of free throws at 4:44, but soon after picked up her third foul, and chances of a comeback pretty much ended then.
“We had a little run, and I was hoping to sustain that a little bit, but then I got a couple kids with fouls. That hurt,” Waller said.
Pluses Waller could point to included a hustling performance off the bench by junior forward Natalie Salley, who filled the stat sheet with four points, six rebounds, three blocks and three steals. Ambrose also had a strong all-around game, with good defense, six points and team highs of seven rebounds and three assists.
Johnston finished with four points and two assists, Aunchman had four points and two blocks, junior guard Brianna Gebo hauled down five rebounds, and junior guard Sarah Poirier-Thayer blocked two shots.
 The Commodores will look to bounce back on Friday at Missisquoi, a team against which they have enjoyed success in recent years. And unlike this past Friday, before which bad weather cancelled three practices, the Commodores should be able to properly prepare for their next game.
Certainly, Waller said the T-Birds probably won’t be as challenging as the 2-1 Minutemen.
“They were ranked No. 2 at the beginning of the season, and they might be better than that,” he said.
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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