BRANDON — On Tuesday at Otter Valley Union High School, the Mount Abraham Union High School girls’ basketball team improved to 3-0 by defeating the Otters, 36-33.
Two of the Eagles’ three wins have followed Tuesday’s template: They have gotten out to big leads, but needed key fourth-quarter baskets to pull out victories.
Meanwhile, the Otters dropped to 0-2 with similar setbacks: Both have come to unbeaten teams in which rallies have fallen short and in which they have shot free throws poorly. In their 51-45 loss to Poultney, they missed 14 free throws, and on Tuesday they sank just three of 12.
Needless to say, the teams were in different moods afterward.
Eagle senior guard Sarah Sayles — who scored a team-high 13 points and keyed the Eagle defense by stealing the ball three times, forcing three more turnovers, and blocking a shot in the final minute — said the result gave Mount Abe a lift.
“It’s very important especially because it’s on the road,” Sayles said. “It’s also a good feeling to win three games in a row now starting off the season.”
OV coach Ray Counter said he saw encouraging signs in the way his team overcame two large deficits to take a three-point lead in the fourth.
But while the young Otters — five sophomores start, all listed as guards — considered their loss to Poultney a moral victory, he said they thought it was time to win outright.
“The girls are very disappointed, because they wanted to win this game bad,” Counter said. “We’ll talk about the things we need to do and work on a little more patience, and I think we’ll be fine.”
With three minutes to go in the first period, the Eagles led, 10-8. OV had points from Taylor Aines, Jordan Mitchell and Olivia Bloomer, while the Eagles countered with three fast-break hoops from Sayles, all set up by sophomore point guard Ashlie Fay; an inside hoop from Casey Ogden, and a jumper from senior guard Amber Fay.
Then Eagles went on a 7-0 run to lead by 17-8 after the period. Five more points came from Sayles, Amber Fay hit a jumper, and Ashlie Fay contributed three more assists.
The Otters fought back in the second quarter, with help from their crowd. Their fans planned a “Silent Night,” with no cheering until their team reached 10 points. When Jessica Frazier stole the ball and converted a short jumper at 6:40 of the period to make it 17-10, suddenly the student section started stamping its feet, chanting and cheering wildly at every good Otter play.
Or every Eagle miscue. And the Eagles committed a dozen turnovers in the period and scored just once, a Sayles layup at 1:20. Meanwhile, Aines converted two turnovers into points for OV, Brittany Bushey drove for two, and Mitchell’s late jumper made it 19-18 at the half.
Sayles acknowledged the atmosphere disrupted the Eagles. But they came out in the third quarter and went on a 9-0 run to lead, 28-18. She said the Eagles’ run to the Division II final last winter helped them regain their composure, as did a halftime chat with Coach Connie LaRose.
“At halftime we said, ‘You know, we’ve been here before, state championship. We’ve heard the same sort of stuff. So just tune it out.’” Sayles said. “And Connie said the reason they’re really loud is we’re making mistakes, and if we keep making mistakes it’s going to get louder and louder ... So we need to step it up and they’ll quiet down.”
In that run the Eagles forced four of OV’s 22 turnovers, Ashlie Fay drove for two hoops, Amber Fay hit a trey, and senior forward Megan Ogden fed Sayles for a hoop.
Counter called for time at 4:28 to halt the Eagle momentum, and the Eagles did not score again in the period and committed five of their 27 turnovers. At 3:43 Bushey drove for a basket, and then Mitchell, who scored a game-high 14, sank two trees and a free throw to make it a one-point game after three quarters, 28-27.
“We have spurts where we show our youth, but they have tremendous heart and desire, and just continue to battle,” Counter said. “We’re never out of a game.”
The OV surge continued in the fourth with a Bloomer jumper and two Bushey free throws at 6:54, and the Otters led, 31-28.
The Eagle senior center Lydia Stearns made her presence known with had eight points in the fourth quarter. At 6:00, she sank a trey to tie the score at 31-31.
After OV missed two free throws, at 4:00 Stearns scored in the post, and it was 33-31. At 3:40, Mitchell put back an OV miss to tie the game.
At 2:39, Stearns converted a putback, was fouled and hit the free throw, and it was 36-33.
Down the stretch OV missed the front end of two one-and-one free throws. Ashlie Fay and Stearns pulled down key boards, and in the final minute Sayles blocked a shot. The Otters had a final chance to tie with 10 seconds to go, but saw a three-pointer bounce off the rim as time expired.
Bushey scored six and led OV with seven rebounds; Aines had seven points and five boards; Bloomer had four points and four boards; and Frazier contributed five steals.
Despite his team’s record, Counter said he saw a lot to like against an Eagle team that many believe will again contend for the D-II title.
“We were down twice and battled back, and that says a lot,” he said. “It’s not like we were playing inferior competition. It was a good test for us early.”
For Mount Abe, Ashlie Fay finished with nine rebounds, eight assists, four points and three steals; Amber Fay scored seven; Stearns had 10 points and seven rebounds; and Casey Ogden added three steals.
LaRose would like to see the Eagles make better decisions with and take better care of the ball, but said the Otters had a lot to do with her team’s struggles.
“They can come at you in a number of different ways with their quickness and athletic ability,” she said.
Ultimately, LaRose said she hopes her team can grow from surviving Tuesday’s challenge.
“We could have folded out tent totally, and we didn’t. We found a way,” LaRose said. “And this is a tough place to play ... They make it wild, and their fans are enthusiastic, and it’s a good win to come away with, and hopefully we learned something from it.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.