Defense sparks Eagles over Commodores in girls’ basketball

VERGENNES — In front of a big crowd on Friday at Vergennes Union High School, the visiting Mount Abraham girls’ basketball team used tough man-to-man defense and full-court pressure to deal the Commodores their second loss of the winter.
In a high-intensity game that included two buzzer-beating three-pointers, the Eagles forced 16 VUHS first-half turnovers and got 15 of junior forward Emma Carter’s game-high 25 points before the break to take a 27-13 halftime lead.
The Commodores worked hard to cut the lead to 10 late in the third quarter, but then went scoreless for five-and-a-half minutes as the Eagles pulled away for the victory.
Carter said the 5-3 Eagles — a team that has often relied on a 3-2 zone — have played more man-to-man this season, and on Friday things clicked.
“Defensively we all came together as a team,” Carter said. “Everybody played their role. We had great energy on the floor tonight.”
And when they forced turnovers, that defensive effort led to points in transition. The Eagles took a 13-4 lead with an 11-0 first-quarter run that included seven transition points, five from Carter and two from junior forward Olivia Young (four points, four rebounds), and consecutive hoops from Carter and sophomore forward Jalen Cook (eight points, three assists) in which they set each other up.
“When we run the floor we often get more buckets,” Carter said. “We have more energy and chemistry on the floor, and I think man defense helps us with that.”
Eagle Coach Connie Larose agreed that playing man-to-man allowed the Eagles to create a faster pace that they handled better than the Commodores.
“Any time Mount Abe and Vergennes play, it’s just a great atmosphere,” LaRose said. “But you have to ready for the energy that’s coming from all over the gym, and I thought we handled that fairly well tonight.”
VUHS Coach Billy Waller praised his 4-2 team for playing hard, but agreed the Commodores might have been caught up in the moment. He said he should have done more to “idle back” his team and get them to relax with the ball.
“Defensively we were doing our best to be aggressive and move our feet,” Waller said. “And then offensively we were still in that mode. There wasn’t that ability to take that extra second to make the right pass, make the right play.”
VUHS will also work on boxing out. Carter (seven rebounds) and Young hurt VUHS on the offensive glass.
 “We played some good defense, and then they got the rebound and got the putbacks,” Waller said.  
In the first period VUHS took a 4-3 lead on Xzavia Berry hoop inside assisted by Caroline Johnston and a Shay Pouliot jumper at 5:05. But then came the Eagles’ 11-0 run. Finally Ciara McClay answered as the horn sounded, swishing a 24-foot three-pointer as the fans erupted.
Two Pouliot free throws and a Berry bucket offset three Carter points, and it was 19-11 at 4:30 of the second. Then the Eagles went on an 8-2 run to close the half. Carter scored four, junior guard Grace Norman hit a jumper, and junior guard Emma LaRose struck in a transition to make it 27-13. Only a strong Pouliot lefty layup at 3:00 broke the run.
The Commodores stopped giving the ball away in the third period, but still struggled to score. Their man defense disrupted the Eagles, and got if a couple more shots had dropped, Waller said, things might have been different.
“It would have been nice to know if we had made some of those layups in the third quarter how the game would have turned out,” he said.
In the first 7:58 all the Eagles managed was a jumper from Cook and a Carter three. Meanwhile Berry put in a VUHS miss. Johnston nailed two jumpers, and at 2:20 Megan Tarte drained a three-pointer to make it 32-22. At the other end, Commodore sophomore forward Brianna Vander Wey brought the fans to their feet by swatting an Eagle layup attempt, and maybe momentum was shifting.
But VUHS couldn’t hit another shot, and at 0:02 Carter sank a dagger of a three-pointer to make it 35-22.
While VUHS didn’t score for the first 3:22 of the fourth, Eagle guard Vanessa Dykstra (two free throws) and Cook (a layup on an inbounds feed from LaRose, her fourth assist) put the game out of reach.
Carter noted the Eagles have a winning record even though the Eagles have many new players into the team and are playing so far without injured junior veterans Abby Mansfield, a guard, and Emma Radler, a forward, who hope to return by February.
“There are a lot of kids who have made a lot of improvement,” Carter said. “Plus when we get Abby Mansfield and Emma Radler  back it’s going to be awesome.”
LaRose noted on top of the injuries, the Eagles have had a tough schedule and had to hold preseason practices at odd hours at Bristol Elementary School because Mount Abe’s gym floor had to be replaced this fall.
“We’ve had a lot of character-building experiences right from the get-go,” LaRose said. “But we’re hanging in there.”
For VUHS, Berry notched eight points and 12 boards, Pouliot scored six, Johnston added four and played creditable defense on Carter, and Morgan Lynk chipped in two assists.
Waller remains encouraged by the Commodores’ winning start, and he sees plenty of upside.
“We’re still building,” he said. “I feel like we still have room to grow.”
And all agreed the VUHS gym was a fun place to be on Friday night.
“It was a great crowd,” Carter said. “I love the chanting back and forth. It’s awesome.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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