VERGENNES — The visiting Mount Abraham Union High School boys’ basketball team played what its coach said was probably its strongest effort of the winter on Thursday, but it wasn’t quite enough to derail the No. 1 team in Division II and the Eagles’ No. 1 rival, Vergennes.
The Eagles led by seven late in the third quarter, but saw the Commodores go on a 16-4 run on the way to a 59-47 victory.
Until then, the 1-15 Eagles frustrated the 16-1 Commodores with a 3-2 zone that kept VUHS away from the basket and by hustling back on defense to prevent the fast-break points that helped VUHS defeat them, 58-32, back on Jan. 24.
“We did a very nice job on our defense, stuck to the game plan very solidly, I thought. I was very pleased with our effort,” said Mount Abe coach Bill Leggett. “That’s the best we played all year, no question about it.”
But the Commodores finally found the range from behind the arc after misfiring for most of the evening. In the key surge, junior guard Shep Carter (a game-high 24 points) sank two treys to help VUHS tie the game after three periods, and junior forward Charlie Stapleford (11 points, seven rebounds) and junior guard Cody Quattrocci opened the fourth with long balls.
VUHS coach Peter Quinn credited the Eagles for their determination, and said his team’s key run began on defense.
“Mount Abe came in intense, and they shot well. We made too many mistakes on defense early on, and ... we didn’t attack the middle of the zone,” he said. “As always it was our defensive intensity that picks us up. We got a couple steals midway in that third quarter when we made that run, and then we started shooting better, too.”
Carter said the Commodores knew they had to do better after a lackluster start.
“We got in that halftime huddle and just said, you know what, let’s bring the heat and start playing,” he said.
The Eagles turned the ball over five times in the first 2:30. But they settled down and committed only 11 more turnovers the rest of the way. And they began to make the Commodores pay for pressing them, moving the ball quickly to get good looks.
“Other than a few turnovers we took care of the ball pretty darn well tonight. And we used immediate passes, and as a result we had a lot of good looks and we knocked down some shots to keep us right with them,” Leggett said. “It was a hell of a basketball game.”
At the other end, the Commodores kept missing threes. Still, they led after one, 11-10, because Stapleford and Collin Curler managed four points each by getting the ball in the paint and junior guard Zach Ouellette hit a three. At the other end four Eagle starters scored — senior forwards Tommy Nelson and Jon Lathrop and senior guards B.J. Haskins and Ian Shaw.
Haskins (a team-high 18 points) sparked the Eagles in the second quarter with two threes and a jumper, senior guard Evan Tillson contributed a putback, and junior guard Ryan Barnes snapped a late 20-20 tie by drilling a three-pointer on the break. VUHS turned the ball over five times and managed four points from Carter, a Stapleford three and an Ouellette layup, but looked out of synch in trailing by three at the half, 23-20.
The Eagles outscored VUHS in the first 5:50 of the third, 11-7, to lead by 34-27. Lathrop hit two jumpers, Shaw scored in the lane, Haskins sank a three, and Nelson added a putback.
But the Commodores were beginning to be more aggressive, even if shots were missing. Curler twice drove for hoops, and Carter hit his first of three treys in the quarter.
At 2:00 and 0:50, Carter drilled two more, and the lead was down to one. At 0:35, a Quattrocci putback gave VUHS the lead. Haskins hit a three at 0:15 to make it 37-35, Eagles, but two Carter free throws tied the game heading into the fourth.
Shaw opened the fourth by hitting a free throw, and then Stapleford and Quattrocci both hit from behind the arc. Leggett called for time at 6:41 with his team trailing, 43-38.
Shaw sandwiched a fast-break layup and a three around a Carter jumper. The three made it 45-43 at 4:30 and brought the many Eagle fans in the packed VUHS gym to their feet.
But back-to-back threes by VUHS junior forward Devin Hayes at 4:10 and 3:51 made it 51-43, and the gym erupted.
The Eagles cut it to 51-47 at 2:25 on hoops by Barnes and Haskins, but the Commodores finished on an 8-0 run with seven points from Carter, including a three-point play to make it 57-47 at 0:50.
“To their credit, they knocked down a couple shots when they needed it most, and really that was the bottom line,” Leggett said.
Shaw finished with 11 points and five boards for Mount Abe, and Lathrop scored seven. Haskins had six assists, and Nelson recorded four helpers.
Carter credited the Eagles.
“It was awesome to see them play that great,” he said. “I want to see them win all their next games.”
For VUHS, Curler had eight points, five rebounds and three assists; Quattrocci, five points, four assists and three steals; Ouellette, five points, four rebounds and three steals; and Hayes, six points, five rebounds and four assists.
VUHS played without academically ineligible junior center Stanley Salley, whose return is expected in time for the playoffs.
VUHS, now No. 1 in the D-II standings, clinched no worse than a No. 2 seed with the win and is battling No. 2 Mount St. Joseph (15-1) for the top spot. On Thursday, MSJ defeated D-I Brattleboro, which dealt VUHS its only loss, and earlier knocked off D-I No. 3 Rutland.
Quinn said he thinks the Commodores can play with anyone, even if Thursday’s game showed they are still a work in progress.
“We hope to get the chance down the road to play them. They’re a really good team,” Quinn said. “They’re the class of Division II is what the word is. So we’d kind of like to contest that later.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.