Tiger girls block Mount Abraham basketball

MIDDLEBURY — For the first time in six years and only the third time in 11 years, this winter the Middlebury Union High School girls’ basketball team will finish the regular season with at least a .500 record — and this time the Tigers will do it with three players who won one game two seasons ago and seven of the athletes on 2015’s three-win team.
The Tigers clinched that feat by edging visiting rival Mount Abraham, 39-37, in a Monday game not decided until senior MUHS forward Hannah Buttolph recorded her third block of the night.
That block came with seconds to go on hard-charging sophomore Eagle forward and leading scorer Emma Carter. Buttolph controlled the ball after tipping Carter’s layup attempt into the air to seal the victory.
“I saw her coming down, and I was just planted, and I hoped that I would go straight up, and I hoped it would stop her. I hoped it would be enough,” said Buttolph, who also contributed all six of her points in the late going. “Thankfully it was.”
The senior co-captain also spoke about the Tigers’ 10-9 record heading into their final game of the year at Colchester on Thursday. Buttolph, one of only two Tiger seniors along with co-captain Jesse Trudeau, said it bodes well for her seven teammates who will return.
“It’s just really exciting, and I think next year it’s going to really help them to keep going and really improve,” Buttolph said. “We’ve improved a lot this year, and I think it’s going to help us keep going.”
Meanwhile, the Eagles had also hoped to reach .500 during the regular season with a win on Monday and then at Vergennes on Thursday. Instead, they dropped to 8-11.
That record includes an earlier home loss to the Tigers, as well as a 7-5 mark after a 1-6 start. Coach Connie LaRose said the Eagles might have been wound too tight in the first quarter when they committed an uncharacteristic nine turnovers.
“We made too many mistakes early on, played scared,” LaRose said. “We’ve been playing so well.”
In that first quarter, the Eagles also had no answer for Tiger sophomore guard and leading scorer Keagan Dunbar, who erupted for 11 straight points, including two three-pointers and two sweet left-handed finishes on the break, to give MUHS an 11-2 lead.
The Eagles cut it to 11-7 on sophomore Abby Mansfield’s three-point play after a steal and senior guard Jessie McKean’s jumper. Then junior guard Lily Smith came off the bench to give the Tigers a lift with two hoops in the final minute. Smith converted an offensive board and then hit a short jumper after Dunbar grabbed an offensive rebound.
Tiger junior Ally Larocque sank two free throws to open the second quarter, and the Tigers led by 10. But Carter scored nine points in the period and Mansfield again stole the ball for a three-point play to spark the Eagles as they cut the lead to 25-21 at the half.
Meanwhile, LaRose switched her defense to a box-and-one, with McKean hounding Dunbar. Dunbar managed four points and a nice assist to Trudeau, but the Tiger offense began to slow, with only a Payton Buxton jumper added into the mix in the period.
McKean’s defense was pivotal, as Dunbar added just eight points in three quarters after the switch. “She did a nice job, she really did,” LaRose said.
Both teams dug in defensively in the third period, in which MUHS outscored the Eagles, 6-5. Larocque excelled in denying Carter the ball, and she added only a free throw, while freshman forward Jalen Cook’s four points kept Mount Abe afloat. At the other end, Dunbar fed Larocque for two, Buxton set up Smith on the break, and Buttolph closed the quarter by stealing the ball and going coast-to-coast to make it 31-26.
Baskets remained hard to come by in the fourth. At 5:38, Carter’s three-point play made it 31-29, and at 4:50 Xzavia Berry hit a layup off a feed from McKean to tie the game. At 4:15, Buttolph snapped a Tiger scoreless streak of almost 5:40 with a putback, and the Tigers led. Eagle senior Dani Forand responded with a runner in the lane at 3:50, and it was 33-33.
At 3:10, a Buxton free throw put the Tigers up by one, but Berry responded at 3:00 with a baseline jumper to put the Eagles up, 35-34.
At 1:30 Dunbar rebounded an Eagle miss and broke out two-on-one with Buttolph, who converted Dunbar’s feed at full-speed: 36-35, Tigers. At 0:30 Dunbar hit the front end of a one-and-one to make it 37-35, but missed the second. Larocque then tied up the Eagles on the rebound, and the possession arrow favored the Tigers. Mount Abe fouled Dunbar, who this time made two at 0:23: 39-35, Tigers.
The Tigers then made the mistake of fouling Carter. She swished two at 0:13 to make it 39-37. Again, the Eagles fouled Dunbar, and she missed the free throws to give Mount Abe a chance. Carter rebounded and raced down the left side of the court, but Buttolph met her in the paint to deny the game-tying bid.
Carter finished with 17 points, while Mansfield contributed six points, four assists, four steals and four rebounds. Berry, Forand and Cook all scored four, and McKean chipped in four steals.
The Eagles, who still stand a chance at a home Division II playoff game, will hope to finish strong with a win at VUHS.
“That would be my goal,” LaRose said. “The kids, I thought they battled, but we’ve got to battle smarter.”
Dunbar finished with 18 points, plus three assists. Smith and Buttolph each scored six, Larocque scored five, and junior forward Riley Fenster added three steals and three rebounds. 
The Tigers were thrilled to beat the Eagles in front of Monday’s big crowd.
“That’s pretty big. It’s been a pretty big rivalry, and we haven’t beaten them the past few years at all,” Buttolph said.
Heath said the Tigers’ success was the result of their years of dedication.
“We wanted to win 10 games this season, and we’re there, and we still have one more very winnable game,” Heath said. “It’s a great feeling. The girls have worked hard, and they deserve it.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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