Tiger girls’ basketball stand up to Commodore comebacks

MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Union High School girls’ basketball team took an early lead against visiting Vergennes on Monday and then held off Commodore rallies to earn a 43-29 victory and a season sweep of their local rivals.
The Commodores fell behind by 12-3 late in the first quarter, but cut the lead to two in the second quarter. Then, after falling behind by 11 points in both the third and fourth quarters, VUHS sliced the lead to six in the third and then five in the fourth.
But the Tigers took charge in the final six minutes after a Tamara Aunchman hoop assisted by Sara Poirier-Thayer cut their lead to 32-26.
Four MUHS players scored as they pulled away: Lily Smith, Hannah Buttolph, Jesse Trudeau (on a nice feed from Payton Buxton) and finally Keagan Dunbar, who hit five of six from the foul line to finish with a game-high 21 points.
MUHS Coach Jen Heath made note of that balance: Five Tigers contributed points, including eight from Buttolph, five apiece from Trudeau and Smith, and three from Riley Fenster. Meanwhile, Dunbar (four assists) and Buxton (three assists) helped set up baskets.
Heath said that continued a recent trend for her 8-9 team, which has already won five more games than a year ago.
“In the last two games we’ve had more balanced scoring, which has been helpful,” she said.
The win also snapped a recent trend: Despite playing well, the Tigers had lost their previous two games, both on the road in overtime to respectable competition.
“We’ve been doing some good things. We just haven’t gotten the win at the end, so this was a big win for us,” Heath said.
VUHS Coach Billy Waller, whose 6-11 Commodores need one more win to improve on last winter’s record, lamented his team’s slow start on Monday, which included 11 turnovers in the first period, but a more manageable 16 the rest of the way.
“The girls made a lot of good decisions after the first four minutes,” Waller said. “There were times we could have cut the lead even more and maybe even been tied at the half. We missed some breakaway layups. And then in the second half, those first two possessions I thought were going to be baskets for us. We set up plays coming out of the half and the girls executed really well, and we just missed the bunny.”
Dunbar scored eight points in the first period and set up a Fenster hoop as the Tigers took their 12-3 lead. VUHS forward Nikki Salley (eight points, seven rebounds) began the first VUHS surge with the last hoop of the first period and the first of the second to make it 12-7.
Buttolph broke a four-minute Tiger drought with a putback at 4:51 to make it 14-7, but VUHS guard Caroline Johnston (five points, three assists) scored all of her points in the next minute to make it 14-12. Dunbar then took charge, drawing a foul and hitting two free throws and then feeding Trudeau underneath for another foul and two more free throws, and the lead was back to six at 2:57. The teams traded points for the rest of the period, and it was 22-16, MUHS, at the break.
Both teams padded their rebound stats early in the third period. The Tigers got five points in the first four minutes to lead by 11, a Dunbar three-point play and a Buttolph drive. The Tigers were outrebounding the Commodores, a key factor, as their positioning also got VUHS in foul trouble. By the end of the game, Salley and the versatile Bri Gebo fouled out, and Aunchman had four fouls. 
Heath said boxing out the bigger Commodores was a point of emphasis, and the Tigers’ ability to execute a game plan was a sign of their increasing maturity.
“We’ve done a good job on focusing on things. Tonight we were trying to box out, and we did,” Heath said. “We had them go over our backs some times, and that helped with the foul trouble.”  .
But the VUHS defense — three players in the lane, with two Commodores harassing Dunbar and Buxton — again held MUHS scoreless for a four-minute stretch — and they began to find the range. Aunchman (five points) hit inside, from Abby Dobson, at 3:05 to break their scoreless streak; Poirier-Thayer (three points, four blocked shots) sank a free throw; and Shay Pouliot (five points) hit a lefty runner at 2:15 to make it 27-21.
But VUHS missed two free throws at 1:04, and then picked up two offensive boards and couldn’t score. Then Ciara McClay stole the ball and went in for the layup, only to have Buttolph catch her and swat the shot away. Instead, the period ended with Dunbar driving for a hoop and an eight-point Tiger lead.
In the fourth, a Pouliot free throw and a Salley putback at 6:50 made it 29-24. But Smith hit a jumper in the lane while being fouled and added the free throw at 6:28. Aunchman converted in the post at 6:00, but then the Tiger defense and the Commodore foul trouble took its toll, and MUHS pulled away.
Smith sank a jumper, Buttolph drained two free throws, and at 2:50 Buxton drove and dished to Trudeau, and it was 38-26. Dunbar hit five free throws before VUHS got late points from Lily Russell and McClay.
Heath credited both defenses.
“It was a low-scoring game on both parts,” Heath said. “It was a good defensive effort by both teams.”
And she credited the Tigers’ effort for their better play.
“The girls have been working really hard and focused in practice, and we’ve improved,” Heath said.
Waller praised the Commodores’ ability to hold the Tigers in check with a brand-new defense.
 “The girls did a good job,” he said. “To pull out a defense like that this late in the year when you don’t do it all the time, I thought it boded well for the kids.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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