BARRE — There are many reasons the Mount Abraham Union High School girls’ basketball team’s 23-1 season ended on Saturday with a 44-28 win over No. 3 BFA-Fairfax in the Division II final.
Of course, the No. 1 Eagles showed talent, teamwork and chemistry all winter.
But after Mount Abe allowed a historically low 109 points in four tournament games, it was no surprise to hear Eagle after Eagle cite the same No. 1 reason after beating the 21-3 Bullets in the Barre Auditorium: “Offense wins games. Defense wins championships.”
Senior tri-captain Lizzie Huizenga was one of the perimeter players in the Eagle zone who helped hold BFA’s top guard, Chace Carpenter, without a field goal.
“We pulled it off with our defense,” Huizenga said. “Coach always says defense first, you can rest on offense.”
Senior tri-captain Jessie Martin was one of the forwards who helped hold BFA’s top forward, Meghan Bochanski, without a basket. Martin said the Eagles’ game plan was to stop the top BFA scorers.
“We worked on it all week in practice; what we had to do this week in order to win it with defense,” Martin said. “The post player, she’s very good, she’s a great athlete, and we were working hard as posts to contain her. No. 3 was a great ballhandler from Fairfax, and we were working to try to minimize the control she could have over the game.”
How good was the Eagle defense in the entire tournament? They surrendered 27.25 points a game. That’s the lowest points-against tournament average for a D-II girls’ champion since 1977, when Randolph allowed 25.7 points per game.
And points off opponents’ turnovers sparked the Eagles’ game-clinching surges in both the final and semifinal. On Saturday, the Eagles opened the fourth quarter with a 7-0 run to make it 33-17, with two hoops from junior guard Meg Livingston (nine points) and one by junior tri-captain Ashlie Fay (six points, seven rebounds) from steal conversions.
In Monday’s semifinal 56-48 win over Hartford, Fay converted three steals into six points late in the third as the Eagles went on a 13-4 run to take a 41-27 lead.
“We kept saying you win championships with defense,” said Coach Connie LaRose. “For the most part, we got what we needed out of the defense (vs. BFA). We altered every shot they took … And the defense got us those transition buckets, and I think that’s demoralizing for a team.”
That defense and those transition hoops do not happen by accident. Yes, the Eagles are blessed with quickness, one of those reasons they won the program’s first title since 1997.
Fay took a brief break from jumping up and down with joy after the BFA game to make a point about the team.
“We wanted it,” Fay said. “We worked so hard.”
LaRose agreed the Eagles put in the effort to learn to harness their athletic ability.
“There’s talent, absolutely. There’s overall quickness, speed. That can create a lot of things,” LaRose said. “They’ve worked incredibly hard. We’ve devoted so much time to pressure defense and our transition game.”
The Eagles’ teamwork can also be seen in transition. On Saturday, three players had at least three assists, often on the break. Fay led with five, and Huizenga and junior guard Sam Driscoll, whose play off the bench was a major factor in Barre, each chipped in with three.
Then there was another big factor, one LaRose wasn’t sure about entering the season — sophomore center Isabel Brennan, or as a smiling Fay said after the game, “the six-footer we have.”
Brennan came in on Monday and scored six points in the second quarter as the Eagles took the lead for good vs. Hartford. On Saturday, she again entered in the second, this time scoring seven of her game-high 16 points in the period as the Eagles extended their 7-6 first-period lead to 17-11 at the half.
Brennan also hauled down a game-high nine rebounds vs. BFA, joining with Fay and senior forward Jordan Emmons (five) as the Eagles earned a 39-35 edge on the boards, including team rebounds.
LaRose praised her sophomore’s improved play, defensive presence and composure.
“She did a great job,” LaRose said. “She had every right to be a nervous wreck, and she kept battling.”
Of course, with the unit of Fay, Livingston, Huizenga (six points, three steals), Brennan and Driscoll proving to be so effective, that meant fewer minutes for senior starters Martin and Emmons.
That’s where chemistry comes in. As has been the case all season, LaRose said her four seniors — the fourth is guard Chelsea Rublee, of whom LaRose said, “There’s no day when she’s not the hardest worker on the floor in practice” — showed nothing but leadership.
“Especially when seniors are not starting or not playing a lot of minutes or they come off for a sophomore, to still be there as a unified part of the team, I couldn’t be more proud of them,” she said.
Martin said the seniors, especially after leaving Barre in 2011 and 2012 losing in finals, were happy with whatever roles LaRose assigned them.
“They (the players on the floor) were getting it done, and that’s what it took for us to get here,” Martin said. “And I think we as a team recognized that, and we all wanted it so bad that whatever part we had in that was totally OK with us.”
Fay said the Eagles were motivated by those earlier Barre setbacks.
“We knew we had to work hard. Twice we’ve been runner-up, and we wanted it,” Fay said.
LaRose said maybe that was one reason this year’s team played so hard from start to finish. Her 1997 team was loaded with talent, including two 1,000-point high school scorers and several players who had solid collegiate careers.
This team has skills, too, but also a lunch-pail mentality, she said.
“This team has done it with … get down in the trenches and we’ve got to get the ball and we’ve got to make something happen,” LaRose said.
And even before the Eagles got the traditional escort from Starksboro back to Mount Abe by fire equipment from all five of the school’s sending towns, Martin talked about not only how much the Eagles wanted this title, but the fans.
“After the last two years of coming here and coming away, so close, and not quite getting there, I was really looking to getting back here. And I know everyone else, not just the team, but the fans were rooting (for it),” Martin said. “The third time’s the charm was what people would say to me in the hallway or in the streets or in Cubbers. So to finally get back here and finish this way, especially for the seniors, for all of us, is really great. I can’t even describe how excited I am right now.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]