Tiger girls outlast Otter Valley with late free throws

MIDDLEBURY — In the end on Monday night, two late free throws by Middlebury Union High School sophomore Keagan Dunbar were all that separated the Tigers and the visiting Otter Valley Union High School girls’ basketball team.
With the score tied at 32-32, the Otters — who had tied the game on back-to-back drives by senior forward Amy Jones — had a chance to take the lead, but lost control of the ball. Dunbar picked it up in the lane, and the Otters tried to steal it back and committed the key foul, about 80 feet from the Tiger basket, with 1.1 seconds to go.
Dunbar, who finished with 23 points, four rebounds and four steals, went to the other end of the court to shoot a one-and-one. Afterward, she said she had never gone to the line with a chance to win a game — but she had gone to the Middlebury College gym on Sunday to practice her free throws.
“I told myself when I went to the line that I was just going to shoot it just like I was the other day,” said Dunbar. “And I did it the exact same way I did the other day, and they went in.”
“I was so excited when I looked at the clock,” she added.  
For the 0-3 Otters, it meant another strong defensive effort went unrewarded. They forced 26 Tiger turnovers, 10 in the first quarter in taking an 8-3 lead after eight minutes. The Otters are allowing 38.3 points per outing.
“They’ve worked harder every game. They’ve got to get a win, because they’re earning it and they deserve it,” said Coach Steve Keith.
But he said the Otters do need to improve on an offense that so far has scored only 88 points in three games. On Monday, they were led by freshman Julia Lee (10), sophomore forward Gabby Poalino off the bench (seven) and Jones (six).
“We’ve got to find a way to get up higher than that,” Keith said. “Tonight, we did have a few good looks, especially in the first half. It was like the game was in slow motion, especially in the first quarter a little bit, but we had chances.” 
Meanwhile, the Tigers improved to 3-1 by battling the Otters to a 27-27 standoff on the boards (junior Riley Fenster, with eight, and senior Ally Larocque, with five, led the Tigers, while Jones, Poalino and senior guard Lexi Hedding did good work for OV). And, as Coach Jen Heath noted, the Tigers maintained their poise despite their early struggles.
“We played with confidence, and we kept our composure even when we got down,” Heath said. “We kind of slowed down on offense a little and picked up our defense.”
In that 8-3 first quarter, the Tigers managed just two Dunbar free throws and one from Larocque as OV pressed. The Otters hit the boards hard that period and got six of Lee’s points.
The Otters extended the lead to 14-4 in the second on a Poalino free throw, a Hedding three-point play after a steal, and a Maia Edmunds coast-to-coast layup at 4:30.
But Dunbar, who sat in the first period with two fouls, re-entered and sparked a 10-0 Tiger run. Junior Lily Smith started it with a drive, and then Dunbar drove a three-point play. After a Dunbar free throw, junior Payton Buxton and Dunbar hit jumpers to tie the game. The biggest lead either team had the rest of the way was four late. OV led at the half, 16-14, after two free throws by junior Sophia Bloomer.
The third period saw four ties, but Dunbar snapped the final one with a 30-foot, buzzer-beating three to make it 27-24, MUHS. Dunbar scored 11 of the 13 Tiger points in the period and set up the other two, tipping a loose ball to senior forward Jesse Trudeau. Five Otters scored, including Edmunds and junior Courtney Bushey following offensive rebounds as OV hauled down 13 boards in the quarter.
Poalino converted a three-point play in the post to open the fourth period, but Buxton (five points) sank a big trey at 5:50 to give the Tigers the lead for good, 30-27. After a Poalino free throw, Dunbar sank a jumper at 4:00 to make it 32-28.
The Tigers then elected to run the clock, but turned the ball over twice and missed the front end of a one-and-one, allowing Jones to drive twice, at 1:40 and 0:30, to tie the game.
Another Tiger free throw miss at 0:14 gave OV the chance to win, but the sequence instead ended up with Dunbar sinking the game-winning free throws.
Still, Keith said he saw some positives, including the work of bench players like Poalino when Jones and Bloomer, the starting forwards, ran into foul trouble.
“We had had a couple people come in and step up,” Keith said. “We need them to do that going forward.” 
Heath praised the Otters and her team’s response to the pressure. 
“They were physical and played good defense, and No. 15 (Edmunds), she did a great job guarding Keagan,” Heath said. “But again, I thought that composure stuck out. We knew coming in they were going to be physical and they were going to be tough, and we just kept chipping away.”
The Tigers have now equaled their win total of a year ago. Heath said the team is close, uses its quickness effectively, and is playing with confidence. And, she said, they are enjoying being on the right side of the scoreboard.
“We appreciate it,” Heath said. “We know how it is to lose games, and now it’s a nice feeling to get some wins and work hard and have that great feeling.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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