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Eagle girls’ basketball soars past MMU in second half

BRISTOL — After a stagnant first half in their home gym on Tuesday evening, the Mount Abraham Union High School girls’ basketball team came out swinging in the second half to overwhelm Division I foe Mount Mansfield, 37-19. 
The Eagles — who graduated four starters and a couple key reserves from the team that won the D-II title this past season — improved to 9-2 with their eighth straight win. 
The Eagle veterans — seniors Jalen Cook, the lone returning starter from a year ago, and Jess Murray, Molly Murray and Cora Funke, all of whom played roles off the bench for the 2018 title team — now find themselves in a familiar position: Their team is in first place in D-II.  
But it took until Tuesday’s second half for the Eagles to show why they are a first-place team. They looked tentative on offense; were getting outrebounded, 19-16, including team rebounds; turned the ball over nine times; and trailed at the break, 15-11. 
Then in the third quarter they shut out the Cougars in scoring, 15-0; outrebounded them, 17-7; and won the turnover battle, 5-1. 
Cook, who scored eight of her game-high 13 points in the first half to keep the Eagles afloat, explained in part what happened. 
“At halftime we talked about we didn’t really play together in the first half. So picking it up and starting to play together like we have been for the last eight games (was key),” Cook said. “So now we’ve won eight in a row and that’s because in the second half we turned it around and all played together, and looked to pass to each other more.”
EAGLE FRESHMAN FORWARD Grace Harvey battles for the ball under the Mount Mansfield basket in the first quarter of Tuesday’s game in Bristol.
Independent photo/Steve James
Cook and Molly Murray led a balanced Eagle effort on the boards with six apiece. All the Eagles attacked the glass, and that and a defensive switch limited the Cougar offense. 
“Anyone can get rebounds. It’s just who wants it more. So we just had to show we wanted this one more than they did,” Cook said. “We knew we had to pick it up in all aspects.”
Coach Connie LaRose made a switch from a 2-3 zone (two up, three back) to a 3-2 zone (three up, two back) in the second half, and the Cougars also found it more difficult to get open shots. 
“We went mostly with the 2-3 in the first half. The kids weren’t happy with it. I wasn’t happy with it. So we went to the 3-2, and I felt like we got to the corners (to contest shots) a little better,” LaRose said.
Mount Abe forward Jalen Cook turns on the after burners in the lane during the first half of the win over Mount Mansfield on Tuesday. Below, with two Cougars on her back, Mount Abe freshman guard Abby Reen looks to pass from under the Mansfield basket in the third quarter of Tuesday’s game in Bristol.
Independent photos/Steve James
But LaRose said stronger effort was probably more important. The Eagles were coming off a long weekend followed by an extra day off between semesters, and LaRose thought they took time to get going after the disruption in routine. 
“They all agreed with everything I was saying at halftime that we needed some fire. We needed to change our energy level. We needed to play defense with some passion out there, and we weren’t doing that in the first half,” she said. “And we needed to execute on offense, and we did a far better job of that.”
The first quarter ended in a 5-5 tie, with Cook scoring all five for the Eagles. MMU earned a 10-6 edge in the second quarter with a balanced attack — seven Cougars scored in the half, and a CJ Luitjens three with a minute left set the score at 15-11.
Then the Eagles flipped the switch in the third period, when junior guard Chloe Johnston sparked the defense with two of her six steals. The Cougars cooperated by missing a couple of easy shots early on. Then the Eagles adjusted and denied good looks as the quarter wore on, and MMU got no second-chance opportunities as Mount Abe dominated the boards. 
At the other end the Eagles moved the ball quickly and rediscovered the presence of six-foot center Cora Funke, who showed strong hands and a nice touch by scoring six points in the post in the period, four in the first three minutes to jump-start the attack. 
Cook and freshman guard Abby Reen added putbacks, Johnston tossed in a three and Molly Murray hit a jumper as five Eagles scored in the period as the Eagles took a 26-15 lead. 
Johanna Kolok (a team-high seven points) hit a three in the first minute of the third period to break a nine-plus minute MMU drought and give the Cougars some hope at 26-18. But Cook answered with a three set up by a clever inside-out pass from Funke at 5:15, and MMU added only a free throw the rest of the way. Funke converted three straight times in the post mid-period on assists from Cook and Johnston to clinch the victory. 
Johnston, Cook and Molly Murray (five points) each finished with three assists. Johnston, the team’s second-leading scorer, finished with just three points, but also grabbed five rebounds, while Funke snared four boards. Funke and freshman Grace Harvey each blocked shots.
Cook said scoring balance is just one element that has sparked the Eagles winning streak. 
“Everybody contributing to the scoring is definitely helpful. We’re getting more people to take more shots, and getting confident on the offensive end, and Chloe Johnston on defense, she’s got really quick hands,” Cook said. “We get a lot of steals off of our 3-2 defense, so that helps transition to our offensive end.”
LaRose said the Eagles still need to improve to repeat, but she likes their growing faith in themselves and their teammates. 
“I think we’re beginning to develop a little confidence in each other. We’re just understanding how to play together a little better,” LaRose said. “It’s far from perfect. We’re a work in progress. We’ll see where it takes us.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].

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