BRANDON — The Otter Valley Union High School boys’ basketball team started and finished strong on Saturday, and it was enough to turn back visiting Mount Abraham, 52-37, and give the Otters two wins in two nights after an 0-8 start.
The Otters opened by dominating inside during an 18-3 run, but hard work and a switch in defensive tactics allowed the Eagles to claw their way back, and they trailed by just four at 4:50 in the final period.
But then the Otters’ big guns on the night, sophomore John Winslow (21 points, 10 rebounds) and senior Ryan Kelley (18 points, 13 rebounds) combined for six points in 30 seconds to push the lead back to double digits, and OV hit 12 of 16 free throws down the stretch to avenge an earlier overtime loss to the Eagles.
The night before, Kelley had scored 25 and the Otters had also taken an 18-3 lead in a 52-46 win at Proctor that was the first of Coach Greg Hughes’ career at OV.
Hughes appreciated Saturday’s early focus and fast start.
“They came out ready to go. They came out getting some stops and making some shots on offense, putting it inside early,” Hughes said.
The OV coach was also happy with his team’s defense, except for a stretch that spanned the third and fourth quarters when Eagle Sawyer Kamman hit two threes and stole the ball for a lay-up, and Travis Bachand and Ryan Barnes each hit threes as a 14-3 Eagle run cut a 32-17 OV lead to 35-31.
“Defensively that was a good job. Those threes, the first half, they weren’t there,” Hughes said. “But they came out in the second half and started hitting some threes, and we lost track of those guys. But other than that, our defense was on point.”
The Eagles (1-10) did miss some makeable shots as they fell behind early, and did not enjoy their best shooting night. Coach Mike Estey said he has noticed his team does not play its best in night games after days off, but also credited the Otters.
“We couldn’t score early. I’m a little disappointed. It seemed like a little step back, but we had some opportunities early, and we didn’t capitalize. Shots didn’t go for us,” Estey said. “And Otter Valley played well.”
Estey wasn’t happy that the Eagles’ ball movement did not reflect his team’s recent progress.
“We were putting the ball on the floor too much. We went back to that today,” Estey said. “The effort was there. We did play hard. And they played well tonight. The big kid (Kelley) hurt us.”
Kelley particularly did damage early, scoring six points inside to answer a Barnes three that had give the Eagles a 3-2 lead. That was his contribution to a 16-0 run that also featured two buckets from senior Jim Winslow and six from younger brother John, including a three-pointer.
The Eagles missed four good looks during that run, but received few second chances as OV controlled the boards, with 42-27 rebounds overall.
But they scrapped back, in part because they went to a box-and-one defense that asked sophomore Whit Lower to devote all his energy to chasing Kelley. The Otters went cold, and the Eagles went on a 9-0 run that spanned the first and second quarters and cut the lead to 18-12 at 4:39 of the second. Senior guard Justin Kimball converted two fast breaks, one on his own steal; senior forward Cody Alexander sank a three; and Bachand converted a Lower feed.
Both teams struggled to score in the second. From 4:39 on, each Winslow scored once inside to push the lead back to 10 at 2:40, and a Lower jumper made it 22-14 at the half.
As the second half opened, Kelley finally found a way to beat the box-and-one — he crashed the boards for two putbacks and added a free throw. Kamman (a team-high 11 points) hit a floater and also made a free throw as the OV lead still grew to 10, 27-17.
Then John Winslow converted a steal into a layup and hit a three at 3:15. Estey called for time with his team down by 32-17.
The Eagles came out of that timeout with their 13-3 run, offset only by OV sophomore Josef Scarborough’s trey. Kamman capped the surge with a three-pointer at 4:50 of the fourth, and it was anybody’s game.
But 15 seconds later, John Winslow answered with a key three-pointer. The Eagles turned the ball over and sent John Winslow to the line at 4:25. He hit the first, but missed the second. Jim Winslow (10 boards) rebounded, but missed the follow shot. But Kelley crashed in from the right side and banked in the second offensive rebound of the sequence, and just like that the lead was back to 10, 41-31, at 4:20.
Down the stretch, sophomore guards Connor Gallipo and Derek Bassette, senior guard Thomas Roberts, Scarborough, John Winslow and Kelley all made free throws for OV.
Meanwhile, the Eagles missed the front end of three one-and-one chances, and only managed hoops from Lower and junior forward Mark Jipner as the Otters pulled away despite some careless ballhandling — they turned the ball over eight times in the period after an acceptable total of nine the rest of the game.
“Definitely when the pressure is on we have to get better at controlling the ball,” Hughes said. “But as the season goes on we’ll get better at that.”
Estey said he expects the Eagles to bounce back and play better.
“They’re still a good group,” he said. “We’ll come in, get back together on Monday and regroup.”
Hughes said the back-to-back wins should give the Otters a lift going forward, and that the better results were a result of their growing belief in their abilities.
“I think they’re starting to realize the potential they have as a team, and as individuals, even,” he said. “I’ve noticed a huge, huge change. Besides Ryan, he’s had confidence, John’s starting to build up his confidence, but even Jim, Tom, Connor, Derek, they’re all coming in with more confidence and better focus, more intensity. I think that’s what’s changing.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at email@example.com.