MIDDLEBURY — Basketball teams don’t win too many games in which they fail to score a basket in two of four quarters.
But they can if, like the Middlebury Union High School girls’ basketball team did on Friday night against visiting Burr & Burton, they also play tough defense and hit enough free throws.
Despite sinking only free throws in the second and fourth quarters and at one point failing to score a basket for more than 13 minutes, MUHS outlasted the Bulldogs, 41-37.
Senior forward Madison Fuller — whose game-high 16 points including seven fourth-quarter free throws that were the Tigers’ entire offense in the period — said the key for MUHS was remaining focused when their lead slipped away.
“We really kept our composure when it was tough,” said Fuller, a Rochester High student who joined MUHS after her school’s gym was made unusable by Tropical Storm Irene. “We got back in it and made our foul shots.”
Coach Cindy Atkins said the Tigers remain a work in progress, but their determination goes a long way.
“We see the same reoccurring pieces of the game we need to work on. We try to use our speed, but (need to) learn how to slow down in the halfcourt offensively. It’s tough when you’re encouraging kids to play hard, play hard, and then you get to offense and you realize you have to slow it down,” she said. “That was evidenced tonight. We turned the ball over a lot. But I was proud of the girls. They played hard. It was great to have a win.”
It’s also understandable that it may take the Tigers longer to gel than most teams, especially this season. The Vermont Principals’ Association cut the preseason in half at the same time two new players — Fuller and Rochester transfer Paityn Boyer, a guard — have joined MUHS.
“We haven’t had much time together as a team,” Atkins said. “Everyone’s in the same boat of not having a lot of time together as a team, but we’ve got a lot to think about.”
Fuller agreed it has been a challenge, but said the Tigers have the will and the chemistry needed to improve.
“We get along so good. We definitely work hard in practice every day,” she said. “It’s really awesome.”
The team’s positives were on display when the Tigers took a 12-4 lead after one period. Five players scored: senior forward Chrissy Ritter hit in the post, Fuller sank a jumper, junior guard Tiffany Danyow drained two free throws, Boyer converted a fast-break feed from senior forward Brandi Whittemore, and senior forward Brittany Clark came off the bench for two free throws. The Tiger defense also forced nine of the Bulldogs’ 20 turnovers in the quarter.
But that Boyer hoop on the break at 2:20 was the last Tiger bucket until Danyow converted in transition at 4:40 of the third. And in the second quarter, Bulldog guard Marjean Conlon sank two threes and drove for a hoop to spark a rally. Even though Boyer and Fuller combined for six free throws in the first 4:31, the Tigers fell behind at the half, 20-19.
Burr & Burton’s Kelsey Towslee then scored the first hoop of the second half, and the visitors’ lead was three. A Fuller free throw made it a two-point game, and Danyow’s transition hoop broke the bucket-less streak and forged a 22-22 tie.
Conlon (11 points) responded with another trey, but Danyow answered with a critical three for the Tigers at 4:05 to knot the score at 25-25. A 5-1 run consisting of a Fuller bucket on the break and a trey by sophomore guard Hannah Hobbes made it 30-26, and a Danyow jumper made it 32-26 at 1:25 of the third.
The Bulldogs didn’t fold: Their 8-2 run spanning the third and fourth periods tied the score at 34-34 with 4:00 to go in the game. Bulldog freshman forward Claudia Mosher scored four of her nine points in the game-tying run.
The Tigers got good looks in the stretch, but saw the ball roll off the rim. But they kept attacking the basket and drawing fouls. Fuller went to the line at 3:37 and 1:35, hitting three of four to make it 37-34. The Tigers missed the front end of a one-and-one at 1:17, and at the other end Mosher grabbed an offensive board and made one free throw at 0:53. Fuller rebounded the miss, and made two free throws at 0:39 to make it 39-35.
After Mosher made it 39-37 with a putback hoop at 0:10, the Tigers smartly ran an inbounds play for Fuller, who nailed the clinching free throws.
Fuller finished 12 for 14 from the line; as a team, the Tigers were 23 for 34 as they forced the Bulldogs into foul trouble. The Bulldogs earned a 38-33 edge on the boards despite nine from the Tigers’ Whittemore, six from Danyow and five each from Fuller and Ritter. Boyer had 10 points and three steals, while Danyow had seven points and six steals.
In all, Atkins sees positives.
“It’s a great group of girls. I feel like we continue to work hard in practice and give them a lot to think about, and we see players improving. In the two games I’ve seen a lot of improvement, so it’s exciting,”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]