Tiger girls’ basketball uses press to earn 43-35 win at VUHS

VERGENNES — The Middlebury Union High School girls’ basketball team took charge with a first-half run at Vergennes on Saturday and held off Commodore surges to claim a 43-35 victory.
Defense sparked MUHS in a game that left both teams’ records at 5-5. The Tiger press forced 27 Commodore turnovers, at least six in every quarter.
“That’s what we were trying to do, force them into some turnovers,” said MUHS Coach Jen Heath. “They broke it a couple times, but we just kept on working. That was the important thing for us, not to just give up because they broke it once.”
The Tigers also got 22 points from sophomore guard and leading scorer Keagan Dunbar, who had to fight off the VUHS box-and-one defense focused on her. Junior guard Payton Buxton also scored 11 points, including three three-pointers.
VUHS Coach Billy Waller said contributions from those two were pivotal despite his team’s best efforts.
“I thought we made Keagan earn her points,” Waller said. “And Payton hit a couple threes in the corner, and they seemed to come at a time when we cut the lead to four or five. So I thought we did a good job of knowing where she was, but at the same time she hit two too many.”
The Commodores did work the ball inside effectively to senior forwards Nikki Salley (16 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks) and Tamara Aunchman (seven points, three steals, two blocks).
But VUHS made just 11 of 25 free throws and did not sink a shot from outside the lane.
“The girls followed a good game plan today. We wanted to get the ball inside,” Waller said. “The problem was we didn’t make anything from the line, or not enough from the line, and we didn’t make anything from the perimeter.”
After Buxton opened the game with a three, VUHS took a 6-3 lead, thanks to Salley and senior guard Sarah Poirier-Thayer, who racked up six points, nine rebounds and four blocks. The pair assisted each other in the post, and then Salley hit again at 5:00 of the period.
But all the Commodores managed over the next 7:00 were two free throws as they turned the ball over eight times in the first period.
At the other end, Dunbar scored nine points in a Tiger 13-2 run, with forwards Hannah Buttolph (a putback) and Riley Fenster (a fast-break layup set up by Dunbar) adding the other points. Dunbar capped the run at 6:11 of the second period with a three-point play that made it 16-8.
Salley broke the VUHS drought with a transition basket set up by junior guard Shay Pouliot at 5:25, but a Dunbar three-pointer gave the Tigers a game-high nine-point lead, 19-10, at 4:00.
The Commodores fought back, and could have made it closer if they hit free throws. While holding the Tigers scoreless, they made two of six from the line while getting hoops inside from Salley and Aunchman to make it 19-16 at the half.
The Commodores continued to attack the boards in the third, with putbacks from Poirier-Thayer and Salley in the first four minutes. In all, they outrebounded MUHS, 41-32. But the Tigers extended the lead to 28-20 as Buxton hit a three and a baseline drive, Dunbar scored in transition, and Lily Smith sank a jumper at 3:00.
Heath said the Tigers focused on beating the box-and-one defense.
“That’s what we talked about at halftime, making sure that we sent Keagan in to set some screens, and she did a good job setting some screens to open them up, and they found their shots,” she said.
Again, the Commodores dug in. Salley scored in transition, junior guard Caroline Johnston hit one of two free throws, and Poirier-Thayer hit a pair to make it 28-25 at 0:49. A strong move by MUHS senior forward Jesse Trudeau then made it 30-25 after three quarters.
Buxton struck from behind the arc make it 33-25 to open the fourth, but two Salley hoops, with assists from Bri Gebo and Johnston, cut the lead to four.
Dunbar then stole the ball twice in a row and converted layups, and the Tiger lead looked safe at 37-29 at 5:23. But VUHS held MUHS scoreless over the next 3:30. And hit just three of seven free throws while getting a Salley putback, thus cutting the lead to only 37-34.
Dunbar then drove to make it 39-34 at 1:40. The rest of the way, VUHS made one of four free throws while Ally Larocque — who was active on defense and on the boards — sank two at 0:51 and Dunbar added two to create the final score.
Waller said consistency will be important for VUHS to rebound from its four-game losing streak, which has come as the Commodores face tougher Lake Division foes. He said in some games they shoot from the perimeter well and miss layups, while the reverse happened on Saturday, for example. He also hopes for more poise handling the ball.
“I thought we were going to have to make more shots and run the plays well to stay in games,” Waller said. “So we’re staying in games. Now we’ve got to get over that hump.”
Likewise, the Tigers had also lost some close games while dropping four of their past five before Saturday. Heath believes their effort at VUHS should give them a lift.
“Hopefully this will help us with our confidence, and our confidence in our defense,” Heath said. “That’s what we really needed, to see that we could press and make another team make some mistakes, because we’ve been working on it and we finally kind of pulled it together today.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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