Last-second free throw nets VUHS win at MUHS

VUHS JUNIOR FORWARD Oakley Francis has inside position on the Tigers’ Penn Riney for this defensive rebound. The Commodores’ edge on the boards helped them stay close enough to rally for an overtime win. Independent photo/Steve James

MIDDLEBURY — As the clock wound down in the Middlebury Union High School gym on Monday, a second overtime period loomed. 

Vergennes had scored with 40 seconds left in the first overtime, and it was 54-54. The Tigers ran the time down and shot with a few ticks on the clock left, but the ball bounced off the rim. Players from both teams went hard after it, and Commodore senior guard Abram Francis came away with the rebound. 

Then the whistle blew with 0.2 on the clock. He had been fouled.

That meant Francis, one of the Commodores’ better shooters, would shoot two free throws, and making either would give his team a happy bus ride home. The Tigers would have no time to score afterward.

TIGER GUARD GRAHAM Mattrick has a step on the field as he tracks down a long pass in transition during Monday’s home game vs. Vergennes.
Independent photo/Steve James

His first attempt hit nothing but the bottom of the net. After Francis missed his irrelevant second shot, his teammates mobbed him. 

Afterward the celebration, Francis admitted he was nervous at the line. The result pushed the Commodores, having an up-and-down season, to 9-7 with a trip to Missisquoi on deck Tuesday and the season winding down.

“I’m just praying, you know?” Francis said. “We needed this win. It’s something the guys have been hoping for. We needed some momentum going toward the end of the season.”

The free throw capped a Commodore comeback from down 21-12 at the half and avenged a 57-47 home loss to the Tigers on Jan. 20. 

VUHS GUARD ELIJAH Duprey cuts between Tigers Eddie Fallis and Graham Mattrick as he drives in the lane during the Commodores’ game at MUHS on Monday.
Independent photo/Steve James

Francis said VUHS was determined to start playing better after halftime. 

“We got down in the locker room and we just really locked in,” he said. “And we were able to come out in the third and really put on a show.”

The Tigers, who dropped to 8-8, were hampered by foul trouble to senior center Penn Riney, who fouled out with 2:04 left in regulation. And senior point guard Jack Trudeau is out with an ankle injury. 

 “Not having Penn down the stretch was huge for us, said MUHS Coach Chris Altemose. “But that was part of their plan, and it worked.”

Overall, Altemose said he thought his backcourt played well in Trudeau’s absence, but the Tigers missed him in crunch time.

“It wasn’t any one single person’s fault down the stretch. But we had too many turnovers. We took a couple bad shots,” he said.

Ultimately, Altemose said, the Commodores earned their victory.

“Give credit to them for making shots and playing hard and not giving up,” he said.

VUHS Coach Josh Carter was pleased with his team’s persistence. 

“We did a great job of staying together and responding to their runs,” he said. “It was really exciting.”

Carter also appreciated their strong man-to-man defense and rebounding, and said the second half emergence on offense could bode well. 

“We’ve just been working so hard in practice, and it finally showed up tonight in the second half,” he said. “I was just waiting for the breakthrough to come.”  

More of the same would help as the Commodores work to move up the Division III standings, Carter said .

“We can build on that energy. Hopefully we can continue to go on the upswing,” he said. (They did win at Missisquoi.)

TIGER SENIOR FORWARD Willem Berry goes for a layup during his team’s home game vs. VUHS on Monday. Berry scored seven points in overtime, but the Tigers lost by a point.
Independent photo/Steve James

For most of Monday’s game it looked like the Tigers were in control. They opened on an 11-2 run as Riney powered for six early points, but it was 11-6 after one period when Wyatt Rochon converted on a late inbounds play for the Commodores. 

Defense ruled a second period in which both offenses struggled. VUHS cut the lead to 15-12 with help from forward Oakley Francis scoring twice inside, but the Tigers closed with a 6-0 run capped by two Graham Mattrick free throws and a Noah Doherty-Konczal baseline jumper to put MUHS up, 21-12.

The Commodores outscored MUHS by 14-8 in the third period. Guard Elijah Duprey netted five, Abram Francis nailed a three, and Devin Brisson heated up with a pair of buckets. Riney converted in the post twice to keep MUHS afloat, but when Abram Francis fed brother Oakley on an inbounds play to end the period the Tiger lead was down to 29-26. 

The Tigers kept a slim lead as the teams traded hoops in the fourth, except when an Abram Francis three made it 35-35 at 4:15. But Cole Ashelin quickly responded with a three to make it 38-35. 

MUHS pushed the lead to 44-39 on a Riney post move, and VUHS called time at 2:23.  

Out of the timeout Duprey drew Riney’s fifth foul and hit two free throws to make it 44-41. After Tiger Kyle Stearns hit a free throw, the teams each turned the ball over before Commodore Levi Cogger sank a free throw at 0:54 to make it 45-42. The Commodores got the ball back with 40 seconds left, and Brisson hit his third three of the period to force overtime.

In OT, Brisson drove for two points to give VUHS its first lead of the game at 47-45, which Tiger senior forward Willem Berry quickly erased with a three. A Duprey free throw knotted the score, and an Oakley Francis putback made it 50-48, VUHS. 

COMMODORE GUARD WYATT Rochon challenges Tiger center Penn Riney at the basket during the team’s game on Monday at MUHS.
Independent photo/Steve James

Then Berry swished another three to make it 51-50, and Doherty-Konczal’s baseline jumper pushed the lead to 53-50 at 2:25. But the Tigers went one for four from the line for their only point the rest of the way. Drives by Abram Francis and then Rochon at 0:40 made it 54-54, and the stage was set for Abram Francis to make his tense and lonely heroics. 

Riney led MUHS with 17 points, followed by Berry (14), Doherty-Konczal and Ashelin (eight apiece) and Mattrick (six). 

Next up for the Tigers is a Thursday date vs. Milton that could be a doubleheader. Assuming officials can be found, the teams will start play at 5 p.m. to complete their Feb. 6 game that was suspended at Milton with the Yellowjackets leading, 40-37. Then the JV game will be played, and the regularly scheduled varsity game between the programs will take place. 

Immediately after Monday’s disappointing loss Altemose told the Tigers they have to look forward and finish the season strong.

“This was a tough one for us, but we’ve got a great opportunity coming up on Thursday, and we’ve got a couple games coming up next week,” Altemose said. “We’ve got to win these games if we want a home playoff game. So we’ve got to regroup fast.”

The Commodores outrebounded the Tigers, 41-28. Brisson scored 15 points to lead VUHS, all after halftime. Also reaching double figures were Duprey (14) Oakley Francis (12) and Rochon (10). 

Abram Francis described what it was like to play in and then leave the packed, loud MUHS gym with a victory.

“It was really intense. It was a lot of emotion,” he said. “But it feels really good to win here because it really proves to these fans and everybody else that we mean business.”

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