Mount Abe girls’ hoop dream comes true; outlast Slaters for D-II title
BARRE — When the final buzzer sounded on Friday night in the Barre Civic Auditorium not only did it confirm the Mount Abraham Union High School girls’ basketball team had defeated Fair Haven, 33-25, for the Division II title, but it also transported the Eagles back in time.
The team’s seniors talked about their first AAU practices with Coach Connie LaRose in fourth grade, the expectations heaped on them in middle school, and the earlier struggles that preceded their 13 straight wins — including Saturday’s final.
And after all that there the Eagles were, cutting down the net, posing for pictures and hoisting a trophy.
And thinking of being 9-years-old in the Bristol Elementary School gym.
“We’ve been dreaming about this since we’ve been in fourth grade, Emma LaRose, Emma Radler, our whole group of seniors,” said senior Emma Carter, who led the Eagles with nine points and six rebounds. “We’ve been playing together forever, so it’s always been a goal of ours.”
Yes, those numbers are low for Carter, the team’s leading scorer. She hobbled off the floor early in the second quarter with a sprained ankle and played at less than 100 percent when she returned in the second half, when the Slaters, also 20-4, twice pulled to within two points after they had trailed by as many as nine.
Coach LaRose credited her team’s grit and poise — and also recalled her years with the group.
“We could have folded our tent. Nothing went exactly the way we wanted it to go. There was Carter’s ankle, and (Emma) LaRose was cramping up in the fourth quarter,” LaRose said. “But they just kept hanging in there. I could not be more proud of a group of kids that I’ve been watching since they were five.”
With Carter limited it fell on the Eagle defense to perform, and the Eagles held the Slaters to seven points in the first period and then shut them out in the second period. Ultimately it was the Slaters’ lowest point total of the season; to be fair they were playing without injured senior Halle Coloutti.
All the Eagles contributed defensively. Radler (six points, four forced turnovers), and junior Jalen Cook (nine points) closed out shooters and got their hands in passing lanes. LaRose (four points, four assists) pressured ballhandlers and shooters, and senior guard Vanessa Dykstra and junior center Cora Funke entered in the second period and helped the shutdown defense.
And then there was senior tri-captain Abby Mansfield. As well as five points and five rebounds, Mansfield stole the ball seven times and forced four other turnovers.
“She’s always just coming in from somewhere and she’s magically there,” Coach LaRose said. “She’s got a great nose for the ball.”
The Eagles forced 21 Slater turnovers in all.
“We talked about this in practice,” LaRose said. “This is going to come down to defense. Defense wins championships. And it was never more evident than tonight.”
Mansfield said the Eagles’ practiced to take away the Slaters’ strong three-point shooting, and that they played as a unit.
“We’ve been working a lot on our half-court defense and being aware of where the shooters are,” Mansfield said. “And I think it really came down to communication tonight, because we have a really great team chemistry. We’ve been playing together for so long we were able to talk and know where everyone was and who was covering what.”
The Eagles never trailed, although it was 5-5 early in the first after points from Cook drove for two and LaRose hit a three, buckets matched by Slater freshman Ryleigh Coloutti and senior Kaleigh Brown, who scored a game-high 11. Then Carter hit for five points, and a Radler move made it 12-5. Slater senior Adriana Dalto (six points) beat the buzzer, and it was 12-7 after one.
A Mansfield jumper and a Radler free throw at 6:40 of the second made it 15-7, a score that stood at the half as both teams dug in on defense and sputtered on offense.
Carter said it was hard to sit, but she enjoyed watching her teammates put the clamps on Fair Haven.
“I was super emotional with my ankle and everything, and when I looked up at the scoreboard and the other team hadn’t put in any more points since I had been taken off the floor I got a little more tearful because I was so proud of everybody,” Carter said.
In the third period Brown scored eight points as the Slaters closed to within 22-17 after three. Cook boosted Mount Abe with three buckets in the period, one on a feed from LaRose. Mansfield had the other three Eagle points in the quarter, two on a layup after ripping the ball away from a Slater under the Fair Haven basket.
The Eagles held Fair Haven scoreless for the first 5:27 of the fourth and got four points from Carter, two on a layup on a LaRose feed that made it 26-17 at 3:30.
Then Mount Abe fouled Dalto at the arc at 2:33, and she hit all three free throws to make it 26-20. The Eagles missed free throws, while Coloutti hit on the break and freshman forward Courtney Brewster converted an inbounds play at 1:33, and it was 26-24.
After Radler and Dalto exchanged free throws it was 27-25 at 1:23, and again the Slaters pressed: It didn’t work this time. Doubled-teamed in the backcourt, LaRose heaved a strike down the right side to a streaking Cook, who laid it in to make it 29-25 at 1:15.
The Slaters missed and fouled Radler, who hit both at 0:54 to make it 31-25. After one more Mansfield steal two Eagle free throws set the final score.
Then, among the cheers and hugs, the Eagles looked back.
Carter talked about the Eagles’ last setback, at North Country on Jan. 26, and how they responded — with more dedication to defense and ball movement.
“We decided we weren’t going to lose a game for the rest of the season,” Carter said. “I think that’s when everybody kicked it into high gear and said, this is it, we’re going to win the championship this year, we’re going to win out.”
“It feels awesome,” she added. “I wouldn’t want to do it with a different group of girls.”
Mansfield talked the effort it took during all those practices for the Eagles to meet expectations.
“I really feel like we’ve really been told since like seventh grade when we get older this is going to be it. And I feel like a lot of times we took that for granted,” she said. “But this year we really just like, we have the opportunity, and we just need to really work. And it’s not going to be given to us. We just had to really come together to pull it off.”
And she agreed with Carter’s sentiments.
“It feels amazing, and I just love the group that I’m with,” Mansfield said. “I’m just really proud of all of us.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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