Eagle girls’ basketball surges past Commodores

VERGENNES — The Mount Abraham Union High School girls’ basketball team rallied from an 18-6 first-quarter hole for a critical 57-42 victory at rival Vergennes on Thursday.
The Eagles got a lift from their bench in a 27-point second quarter in a win that improved them to 9-11 and apparently nailed down a first-round Division II home game on Tuesday or Wednesday.
In all, Eagle substitutes Dani Forand (10 points), Emma Radler (seven) and Olivia Young (four) combined for 21 points, and three other Eagles hit for double figures: Emma Carter (15) and Jessie McKean and Emma LaRose (10 each).
Forand, a co-captain along with McKean, now Mount Abe’s only seniors, said the Eagles have developed into a more balanced scoring team behind Carter, the sophomore forward who has led them in points the past two seasons.  
“We’ve all been contributing the last couple games. We’ve played hard together, and I think we’re going to go really far in the playoffs,” Forand said. “I thing we’re going to be a shock to most teams.”
Fourteen of those bench points came from substitutes, as the Eagles took charge with a 27-7 second-period surge.
Eagle Coach Connie LaRose, whose improving young team went 8-4 after a 1-7 start, noticed.
“They were huge,” LaRose said. “That’s an important piece of a team to have kids with enough confidence to come off the bench and hit shots.”
Coach Billy Waller saw his 7-13 team open strong against the Eagles, bolting to a 9-0 lead in the first 3:35 on two hoops inside by senior forward Nikki Salley, a three by senior guard Sara Poirier-Thayer, and a transition hoop by freshman guard Ciara McClay.
A sign of things to come came when Carter set up a LaRose three-pointer to break the ice for the Eagles at 4:48, allowing Mount Abe to use its press for the first time. McKean promptly stole the ball and scored to make it 9-5.
But VUHS, with senior Bri Gebo hounding Carter, limited Mount Abe to a Radler free throw for the rest of the quarter while adding nine more points, four from Salley inside, two on a Breanna De Smit jumper, and three on another Poirier-Thayer shot from behind the arc.
“The kids came out with a ton of energy,” Waller said. “Ciara McClay and Bri Gebo did a great job to start that game to help us beat that press. They helped us find Nikki down low to help us set the tone, and Bri did a decent job on Carter.”
But after only two VUHS turnovers in the first quarter, they committed seven in the second as the Eagles began to make shots and set up the press. LaRose said the Eagles also relaxed into the game.
“I tell them all the time it’s not running a race. You’ve got to execute,” LaRose said. “Once the press began to kick in a little bit and they got a couple buckets, they began to find a little rhythm.”
The VUHS lead slowly eroded, and an 8-0 Eagle run tied the game at 23-23. It included a Young free throw, a Forand three, a LaRose layup after a McKean steal, and a LaRose three after a Young offensive board at 3:35.
McClay sank a short jumper at 3:20 for the final VUHS lead, but the Eagles closed the quarter with a 9-0 surge: McKean tied the game with a jumper, Young scored the next three points, Carter hit a free throw, and Forand nailed a late three to make it 32-25 at the break.
In the third, points from Carter and McKean helped stretch the lead to 44-31 late in the period despite two hoops from Salley, both assisted by McClay, and a bucket by senior forward Tamara Aunchman. McClay gave VUHS some hope by capping the quarter by hitting in the lane and assisting Salley in transition to cut the lead to 44-35 after three.
Three Radler points to open the fourth stretched the lead back to 12. VUHS made one more run behind McClay, who set up Salley inside and then hit a three at 5:30 to make it 47-40. But the Commodores went scoreless over the next 3:30, and buckets from LaRose and Carter and two from Forand sealed the win.
Carter led the Eagles in rebounding, making an impact in the second quarter after the Commodores had dominated the glass in the first quarter, and Radler also chipped in on the boards. Forand and McKean each recorded five assists and two steals.
LaRose said if the Eagles are to advance in the playoffs, they might need to rebound better, while a balanced attack like Thursday’s would also be helpful. The kind of performance and senior leadership McKean and Forand displayed vs. VUHS would also give the Eagles a lift, she said. 
The Eagles will be without LaRose for the postseason as she deals with a health issue, and longtime assistant Gene Bell will take over.
Forand said the Eagles will be thinking about the program’s longtime mentor.
“If we play hard, I think she’ll be proud of us,” Forand said. “I think that’s all we can do for her, and keep her in our thoughts.”
Salley led VUHS with 16 points and 11 rebounds in her last home game. McClay added nine points and a game-high six assists. Poirier-Thayer scored nine before leaving with an ankle injury; she will almost certainly join recently injured junior guard Shay Pouliot on the sidelines in the playoffs. Aunchman and Gebo pulled down seven and six rebounds, respectively.
Waller said the game was closer than the final score, noting the seven-point fourth-quarter margin. And he said the team’s seniors will be missed.
“Nikki led us in scoring and rebounding a number of years in a row. Brianna Gebo is a spark plug,” Waller said. “Tamara Aunchman gives you everything she’s got … and Sara P-T loves the game, loves to play, will be in the gym any time it’s open, and she can carry you for a while.” 

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