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Tiger girls’ basketball rallies late to top MMU

MIDDLEBURY — It didn’t look promising for the Middlebury Union High School girls’ basketball team on Friday when visiting Mount Mansfield went on a 7-2 run in the first two minutes of the fourth quarter to lead by 43-36.
And if Tiger fans had known that senior standout Keagan Dunbar was going to score just six points the rest of the way, they would have been forgiven for thinking their team’s chances were slim — not to mention Dunbar began the quarter on the bench with four fouls.
But rally they did.
The Tigers edged the Cougars, 49-46, as in the fourth senior Shannon Sunderland scored four points and contributed a key steal; she, Dunbar and junior Ashley Sunderland controlled the boards; a switch to man-to-man defense suddenly slowed MMU; and, yes, Dunbar did score those six points, including a game-tying, NBA-range three-pointer and two critical late free throws.
The Tigers improved to 3-7, with all the wins in their past four games. Dunbar, a four-year starter on a team that has no one else with two full seasons of experience, agreed that earlier this winter they probably could not have won a game like Friday’s.
 “I think it’s confidence,” said Dunbar, who finished with 26 points, six rebounds and six assists. “We’re a really young team, experience-wise. So having the beginning-of-the-season experience, we’re hitting our layups. We’re hitting our bunny shots, and we have a lot more confidence in ourselves, which has helped us. Girls are taking shots they normally wouldn’t have taken earlier in the season, and making them.”
Friday’s contributions were team-wide. Ashley Sunderland scored 11 points, three in the fourth quarter, adding four blocks to go with her team-high rebounding. Shannon Sunderland scored six points, tied for the rebound lead, and chipped in five assists. Senior forward Ella Beattie nabbed four steals and swished what she thought was a buzzer-beating game-winner, only to learn the scoreboard had wrongly credited a Cougar with a tying three-pointer.
Coach Jen Heath said all eight Tigers — her bench is short due to injuries — contributed, and agreed with Dunbar about where the team stands.
“We’ve improved a lot. We’ve been working hard,” Heath said. “I think our confidence has been growing. Beating Colchester the other night was really helpful, and Mount Mansfield is a good team. It was a huge win for us. Everyone played well. They went in and did their jobs.”
MUHS led after one period, 13-10, as Dunbar (seven points and an assist) and Ashley Sunderland (four points) combined for 11 points. Jillian Laughlin (24 points) hit the first two of her six three-pointers to keep MMU close.
The Tigers managed only a Dunbar three-pointer in the first 5:45 of the second, and it was 21-21 at the half as Laughlin and Devyn Beliveaux-Gale (13 points) each scored four in the period.
The Cougars dominated the boards in the third quarter, and points from Laughlin and Beliveaux-Gale helped them take a 34-31 lead at 3:00. Buckets by junior Carly Larocque and Dunbar restored the Tiger lead, but a Beliveaux-Gale transition hoop gave MMS a 36-35 lead after three.
The Cougars hit two shots over the Tiger 2-3 zone, an Elanor Deveraux jumper and another Beliveaux-Gale three, to open the fourth. Ashley Sunderland answered with a drive, but Laughlin went coast-to-coast two minutes into the period to make it 43-36. Heath then reinserted Dunbar and called for man-to-man, a move no possible earlier with so few subs, but one she made in part at that point to control Laughlin.  
“They really stepped up their defense. It felt like that our intensity grew from that moment,” Heath said.
But it took a while for the offense to match the defense. One free throw apiece from Ashley Sunderland and Dunbar and two from Sunderland made it 43-40 at 3:08. In that stretch Dunbar uncharacteristically missed an open layup and a short jumper, and threw the ball away in transition.
The Tigers and Dunbar (“Short memory, that’s what I tell myself” after mistakes, she said.) kept coming, and Shannon Sunderland snared a Tiger miss and found Dunbar at the top of the key. And Dunbar drilled the long-range bomb that made it 43-43 at 2:35.
The Cougars took a 44-43 lead at 1:51 on a free throw, but at 1:40 Dunbar looped a pass over the MMU defense to Shannon Sunderland cutting in from the right, and she banked home a six-footer for a 45-44 Tiger lead. At 0:17.7 left Dunbar hit two free throws after she stole the ball. Laughlin sank a jumper to make it 47-46 at 0:10, but the Tigers moved the ball quickly upcourt to Beattie, who iced the cake at the buzzer.
Dunbar said even in the Tigers’ losses they had shown a never-say-die spirit, and now that attitude is paying off.
“We’re used to battling back and not giving up,” she said. “We’ve been down by 20 and not given up, so I think that’s just who our team is.”  
Heath believes the Tigers are “where they need to be” for the season’s stretch.
“We just kept playing defense and believing, and, again, I think our confidence is growing, and that’s what we need, because we are good,” Heat said. “It was exciting. It was fun just watching them celebrate after. That says it all for me. It was just all of them into it.”

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