Strong defense fuels Tiger boys’ hoop to victory

MIDDLEBURY — When Montpelier called timeout 1:20 after the tip off of Saturday’s boys’ basketball game at Middlebury Union High School, the Tigers had hit all four of their shots, forced three turnovers and taken an 8-3 lead.
It didn’t get any better for the winless Solons.
By the end of the first quarter, the Tigers had harassed the Solons into 10 turnovers with their man-to-man defense and converted three steals directly into layups; outrebounded them, 10-6, including three offensive rebounds for six points; gotten points from eight players; and taken a 29-9 lead. 
By halftime it was 54-21. In the second half, when Coach Chris Altemose went deep into his bench, the defensive effort never waned — the final was 77-30. The result pushed the Tigers’ record to 3-2 heading into a holiday break that will end with a Jan. 3 home game vs. Rutland.
Senior point guard and co-captain Bobby Ritter — who in the first quarter scored seven of his nine points, assisted two hoops, and snatched two of his team-high five steals — said the Tigers met two of their goals on Saturday.
First, Ritter said, the Tigers kicked their habit of not playing their best right away.
“The past four games we’ve got off to kind of a slow start,” Ritter said. “So our goal this game was to come out ready to play and play fast and do what we do.”  
Also, coupled with a solid, 60-44 road win vs. Colchester two days earlier, the Tigers have crested .500.
“That was actually a huge win, to get one on the road against a quality Division I opponent,” Ritter said. “And going above .500 into Christmas is huge for us. I think we’re on the right track.”
Altemose was most pleased to see his defense not only throttle the overmatched Solons, but also dictate the pace of the game and allow the Tiger offense to flow.
“It was a nice up-tempo game for us offensively, which is what we are trying to do,” Altemose said. “Everything starts from our defense. We want to pressure and get after the ball and get after the passing lanes, and clean up the misses and run from there, and we were able to do that from the start today. If we have energy on D and play good D, the offense comes for us.”
The Tigers showed offensive versatility from the start. For their first 13 points, junior guard Oakley Gordon (11 points) hit a jumper, Ritter stole the ball and went coast-to-coast for a hoop, senior forward Bryce Burrell (a team-high 12) twice converted in the post, Ritter drove to the basket in a half-court set, and Ritter fed Gordon for a transition three-pointer.
Senior forwards Sam Holmes and Austin Robinson (nine points each) soon got into the act as the quarter progressed. Holmes scored once in the post, contributed a putback and hit a free throw, and Robinson tossed in two putbacks, including an acrobatic one-hander after he rebounded on one side of the hoop and scooped the ball in from the other side.
Senior guard Cullen Hathaway (10 points) converted a steal into a lay-up, and senior forward Connor Quinn became the eighth Tiger to score when he sank a three in the quarter’s final minute.
The Tiger lead topped 30 for the first time late in the second quarter (52-21) when Robinson fed Burrell on a strong pick-and-roll play, crested 40 on two Hathaway free throws at 2:45 of the third (66-25), and at one point reached 50 (77-27) when junior forward Jonathan Fitzcharles sank a pair of free throws late in the fourth.
The Tigers finished by forcing 30 turnovers, 21 in the first half, and including team rebounds earned a 53-30 edge on the boards. Robinson, Quinn, Ritter, Fitzcharles, junior forward Wilder Perera and sophomore forward Trey Kaufmann all did good work on the glass, and Robinson matched Ritter’s total of five steals.
Guard Oliver Cattaneo led Montpelier with eight points, and guard Sampson Ackerson and center Jon Kilian added seven apiece.
Eight Tigers scored at least five points, with Quinn and junior guard Jackson Hounchell reaching that total.
“It was a nice balanced effort,” Altemose said. “A lot of guys got some good minutes. I said to the team this game really helped us, top to bottom, in getting better, with everybody getting some good experience today.”
Above everything, Altemose liked the defense, and what it means to the team’s offense. The Tigers, he said, have bought into the message that if they work on defense in practice, it also will force their offense to raise its level of play.
“We’ve been harping on defense in practice, not just to be better defensively, but to be better offensively,” Altemose said.
There remain things for the Tigers to improve, he said, including bettering a free-throw percentage that barely tops 50 percent (they were 18 for 32 vs. Montpelier) and refining decision-making and execution in their up-tempo offense.
But Altemose believes the Tigers can achieve those goals.
“I’m happy where we’re at, but we’re not satisfied. We’ve got to realize that we are doing a lot of good things, but we also have to keep working hard every day, because we’ve got a long way to go, still,” he said. “We can get a lot better, which is an exciting thought.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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