Tigers withstand Commodore rally in girls’ hoop

VERGENNES — The Middlebury Union High School girls’ basketball team left Vergennes with a 48-41 victory on Monday, but the Commodores made the Tigers earn it.
MUHS led by 40-25 when Tiger senior Riley Fenster laid in a fast-break feed from classmate Payton Buxton with 6:50 to go in the fourth period, but Commodore sophomores Brianna Van Der Way and Morgan Lynk sparked VUHS with five points apiece in the quarter as the host team fought back.
In the final minute Lynk, who already had nailed two three-pointers, launched a shot from behind the arc that could have cut the Tiger lead to two, but it sailed long, and the Tigers rebounded.
Tiger junior Keagan Dunbar then swished two free throws with 29 seconds left to make it 48-41 and nail down a win that improved MUHS to 11-6 heading into a Wednesday game at Mount Mansfield.
MUHS Coach Jen Heath credited the 7-10 Commodores.  
“We expected that they would make a run. They don’t give up,” Heath said. “They made it a little closer than we wanted.”
But Heath said the Tigers made enough plays — including two more Dunbar free throws at 1:03 after Buxton and senior Ally Larocque teamed up to grab an offensive board — and also stalled effectively enough in the final three minutes to earn the victory.
“It was a little closer than we wanted it to be, but we had composure,” Heath said. “Overall I felt like we controlled the game.”
VUHS Coach Billy Waller noted his team cut its turnovers in half after the break — from 16 in the first half to eight in the second — and after the teams were even on the boards in the first half, the Commodores owned the glass in the second half, 17-9. Van Der Way (11 rebounds and two blocks) and freshman Emily Rooney (six) led VUHS on the boards.
The Commodores also allowed 20 points in the second quarter after starting out in a 1-3-1 zone, and trailed at the half, 31-16. They switched effectively to man-to-man defense after the break with senior Caroline Johnston, sophomore Ciara McClay and Rooney taking turns trying to slow down Dunbar (18 points).
“The first time we played them we played man and they smoked us, so I thought we’d try something different. And it worked for a little while,” Waller said. “And in the second quarter it just got out of control. We don’t play a lot of zone, so I knew that was bound to happen, so I think the kids felt more comfortable going back to man.”
MUHS led after one period, 11-6, as five Tigers scored, including four points from Dunbar. VUHS didn’t score until 1:25 remained, when senior forward Xzavia Berry made a move inside. Lynk followed with a three-pointer and a free throw.
Fenster (nine points, a season high, plus six boards) and Dunbar sparked MUHS in the second quarter. Fenster scored five in the period and set up a hoop by sophomore Ashley Sunderland, while Dunbar scored six and assisted three buckets. Junior Shannon Sunderland (five points, five boards) came off the bench to score three in the period, while Van Der Way scored four points for VUHS.
Scoring slowed in the third, when VUHS outscored MUHS, 9-5. Dunbar scored late and set up Fenster for MUHS, and five Commodores scored, including jumpers by Johnston and senior Aly Gebo that Waller thought gave his team a lift.
“We hit a couple outside shots and I think that loosened things up for them, in their minds, to look for those shots,” he said.
Early in the fourth Buxton (seven points, four steals) hit two free throws and fed Fenster on the break, and it was 40-25 at 6:50. But a 7-2 VUHS run over the next 1:50 gave VUHS hope: Rooney hit two free throws, and Lynk sank a three and a layup. Even with a Dunbar drive mixed in, it was 42-32 with 5:00 to go.
Two free throws by Tiger senior Calista Carl at 4:54 made it a 12-point game, but while the Tigers went cold and turned the ball over twice, McClay hit a free throw, fed Van Der Way on the break, hit a three at 3:00, and sank a free throw to make it 44-39 at 2:21.
But the Tigers stalled effectively, and when they lost the ball, Larocque stole it back. Dunbar missed, but Buxton and Larocque nabbed the board, and VUHS fouled Dunbar. Her free throws made it 46-39. After Buxton swatted a Lynk shot out of bounds, Van Der Way converted the inbounds play to make it 46-41. MUHS missed a free throw, but Lynk’s three wouldn’t drop, and Dunbar iced the win at the line.
Heath would have liked to see a little more patience and poise on both ends of the court from the Tigers, but was happy overall.
“It was a great first half,” Heath said. “I don’t think it was a totally great second half, but we won, and that’s the important thing. And it was a team effort. That’s the important thing. Everyone contributed.”
For VUHS, McClay (five assists) and senior Shay Pouliot (four) assists helped the offense run. Waller said he was pleased with the team’s determination and poise in the second half, notably by some of its less-experienced players.
“I’ll take the effort,” he said, “and I thought all my younger kids did a good job tonight.”  
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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