OV boys ground Eagles in D-II match

MOUNT ABE JUNIOR guard Aricin Griffin carries the ball as Otter junior guard Lucas Politano defends during Tuesday’s playoff game in Brandon. Independent photo/Steve James

BRANDON — There were good reasons to expect a competitive first-round Division II boys’ basketball playoff matchup on Tuesday between host No. 6 Otter Valley and No. 11. Mount Abraham.

The 12-8 Otters had dropped five of their past seven games entering the playoffs. Meanwhile, the 8-12 Eagles had won three straight, including a victory over Middlebury, which recently upset the Otters. And the Eagles and Otters had split two games in the regular season. 

But there were signs right from the start that Tuesday would be the Otters’ night — their defense forced five turnovers in the first two minutes. The Otters weren’t capitalizing at the other end, however, and a low-scoring first quarter ended with OV up by just 7-5.

EAGLE JUNIOR GUARD Hayden Lutz goes up for a layup during Tuesday’s first-round playoff game at Otter Valley.
Independent photo/Steve James

Then in the second quarter the roof of the gym known in Brandon as The House of Noise fell in on the Eagles. In those eight minutes the swarming Otters forced eight turnovers and 10 transition points. They outscored Mount Abe by 26-11 and took a 33-16 lead on the way to a 67-44 victory.

Turnovers were a huge part of the story: The Eagles committed 27, eight in each of the first two quarters, to 10 for the Otters. Coach Mike Stark deployed his speedy Otters in man-to-man and zone defenses in the halfcourt, a fullcourt press, and a halfcourt trapp, all of which were effective.

“We didn’t want them (Mount Abe) to get any kind of momentum. So when you go from a zone press to a match-up man it’s hard for them to figure out,” Stark said. “Our team is pretty versatile one through 12. We can all guard the same guy, so we’re able to switch a lot of things and have a lot of different guys cover.”

Even though the first period was close in the scorebook, Stark said the Otters had set the tone. 

“We talked in pregame that we had to have a strong start. We couldn’t come out slow and give these guys any kind of hope,” Stark said. “We thrive on momentum. It’s our defense first, and our defense turns into transition baskets.”

OV JUNIOR DREW Pelkey goes high for a rebound during his team’s D-II home playoff game vs. Mount Abe on Tuesday.
Independent photo/Steve James

Mount Abe Coach Martin Clark credited the Otters and their packed blue-and-white bleachers. 

“They played strong, strong and with confidence. Of course, they’ve got a great home crowd,” Clark said. 

For his team, it was just one of those nights. 

“We made mistakes, and we can’t make mistakes in big games,” Clark said. “The ball was not going in for us either.”

Still, after a Lucas Politano three-pointer made it 7-1 for the Otters with 2:30 left in the opening quarter, the Eagles did respond with a pair of buckets by senior forward Ian Funke in the paint to make it a two-point game. And their halfcourt man-to-man defense was certainly respectable in the period. 

But the Otters opened the second period with a Connor Denis drive for two, and three consecutive fast-break baskets off turnovers against the half-court trap, making set-up defense moot — Drew Pelkey converted one chance, and Owen Thomas laid in two buckets, and it was 15-5. 

EAGLE SENIOR IAN Funke gets off a shot in the lane against Otter Valley in Tuesday’s D-II playoff game in Brandon.
Independent photo/Steve James

Funke and classmate Noah Ladeau answered at the other end to make it a six-point game at 5:50, but the Otters kept coming and closed the quarter on an 18-7 run. Pelkey keyed the surge with 10 points, including two threes; Thomas scored twice; Politano converted in transition; and Denis beat the buzzer with a floater after an offensive rebound. Four points from Eagle guard Hayden Lutz helped limit the OV lead to 17 at the break. 

The Otters slowly stretched the lead to 41-21 at 2:25 of the third quarter. Thomas scored twice, Mark Jackson came off the bench for three points, and Aiden Decker hit a free throw. A Jacob Prouty three-point play and a Funke bucket answered for the Eagles. OV still led by 20, 49-29, after three.

A Ladeau drive to open the fourth quarter cut the lead to 18. But OV scored the next eight points, four by Pelkey, to settle matters.

OTTER SOPHOMORE GUARD Connor Denis dribbles toward the paint during his team’s D-II home playoff game on Tuesday against Mount Abe.
Independent photo/Steve James

Funke led the Eagles with 13 points, Lutz scored nine, and Ladeau added six. Funke and Ladeau are the team’s only seniors. 

Clark pointed to the team’s late-season surge as an indicator of its quality.

“I’m really proud of the boys and the way they played the last two weeks of the season,” he said. 

Unofficially and counting team rebounds, OV had a 27-24 edge on the boards over the Eagles; Stark credited Pelkey and Logan Letourneau for their efforts on the boards. Funke, Lutz and Aricin Griffin did good work there for Mount Abe.

Pelkey (20 points), Thomas (18), Politano (10) and Denis (six) led the Otters in scoring.

OV SENIOR AIDEN Decker, flanked by classmate Owen Thomas on the left, leads the Otters in transition against Mount Abe during Tuesday’s D-II playoff game in Brandon.
Independent photo/Steve James

Next up for the Otters is No. 3 Harwood (16-5) on the road on Saturday afternoon, with the winner playing in a semifinal at the Barre Auditorium on Feb. 29. Stark said if the Otters are to advance they will need to follow Tuesday’s template of pressure defense and up-tempo offense with unselfish ball movement. 

“It’s not going to get any easier, and these guys know it. Any given night anything can happen,” Stark said. “But the message for these guys is we’re 32 minutes from the Aud now.”

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