VERGENNES — Tuesday’s high school girls’ basketball game between visiting Mount Abraham and host Vergennes was essentially over after the first quarter, during which the Eagles showed why they are once again Division II title contenders.
In that quarter the 10-1 Eagles took a 24-2 lead with crisp offense and tough fullcourt and halfcourt defense that translated into transition baskets.
The 1-9 Commodores kept working and cut the lead to 15 at the half, but could not stop Mount Abe from walking off with a 50-17 victory.
The Eagles, of course, are aiming for a return trip to the Division II final four in Barre after losing in the 2012 title game.
Several key Eagles on last year’s team graduated, but versatile junior tri-captain Ashlie Fay leads a group of key veterans that includes senior forwards Jessie Martin and Jordan Emmons, senior guard Lizzie Huizenga and junior guard Megan Livingston, all of whom started on Tuesday.
Fay — who as usual filled up the stat sheet vs. VUHS, with 16 points, five rebounds, five steals and five assists — said this year’s team has some new strengths.
“I think we have a lot more speed, and we have good outside shooting now,” Fay said.
The Eagles displayed those assets in the first quarter. Huizenga (12 points, four steals) and Livingston (eight points, four assists) hit two three-pointers apiece, and Mount Abe forced 13 turnovers and picked up assists on several baskets.
“We work (the ball) really well when people are open, giving them a chance to shoot,” Fay said.
Coach Connie LaRose said she was happy with the period, after which she called off the press and substituted freely — none of her starters played in the second quarter.
“Our goal wasn’t to come in here and humiliate them, by any means. It was to come in and play perfection basketball. That’s what we were looking for. Run offense the way it’s supposed to be run. Make our press work. Make our transition game work,” LaRose said. “And I thought we did a good solid job of that in the first quarter.”
VUHS coach Billy Waller tipped his hat to the Eagles.
“Mount Abe is very good. They’re quick. They have quick hands and they get in the passing lanes. They’re not big, but because they box out they give themselves a chance for rebounds,” Waller said.
To the Commodores’ credit, they kept plugging. Senior forward Caitlin Chaput (nine points, nine rebounds), whose 12-foot jumper in the lane provided the only VUHS points in the first period, sparked VUHS in the second with six points inside, one on a nice feed from junior Taylor Paquette.
At the other end, the Commodores worked hard on defense, while the Eagle bench — hampered somewhat because junior guard Sam Driscoll was ill — struggled to make shots and move the ball. Only a free throw by sophomore center Isabel Brennan (seven points, four boards, three blocks) went through the hoop in the period for Mount Abe.
When VUHS senior captain Morgen Clark (four rebounds, three steals) converted a putback late in the period, the Eagle lead was 15, 25-10.
The Eagles started slow in the second half, getting only three points from Fay and two from Brennan in the first 5:58. At the other end, Commodore junior guard Ruby Dombek converted a length-of-the-court pass from sophomore K.C. Ambrose and Chaput hit a free throw, and it was 30-13.
Then the Eagles went on an 11-2 run in the final 2:02. Fay hit a free throw after going coast-to-coast with a rebound, and Brennan hit in the post. The Eagles then converted four straight steals into hoops, two each by Huizenga and Fay. Livingston also picked up two of her assists in that surge, and it was an insurmountable 41-15 after three periods.
The Eagles outrebounded VUHS, 39-33, including team rebounds. Eagle junior guard Hailey Sayles came off the bench for a team-high six boards.
The Eagles were coming off their first loss, 52-48 at home to South Burlington on the previous Friday, and still face another game at South Burlington and two tough outings against D-I Colchester. Those results could determine their seed in the D-II playoffs, LaRose said, and what they take away from games like the one vs. the Rebels could determine how well they fare in the postseason.
“It was a physical game, and we had to answer a lot of challenges,” LaRose said. “We’ve got to put it behind us, learn from it.”
LaRose sees a lot to like, citing Driscoll and Brennan off the bench, the Eagles’ willingness to learn two new presses and three new offensive sets, and simply “the way we’re playing.”
“I like the way kids are buying into things,” she said. “It’s a good group to work with, and they’re fun to be around. They’re hungry.”
Fay is also confident moving forward about the Eagles’ chances of making a playoff run.
“If we work really hard, and we want it that badly, I think we can do it,” Fay said.
Waller also is finding things to like about the Commodores’ season.
“Our kids are working hard,” Waller said. “I’ve still got kids showing up at 6:00 in the morning to work on their ballhandling and stuff, and it takes dedication to show up at 6:00 in the morning when you still have practice that night. And our practices are still running pretty good, so it shows they’re trying. I don’t think anybody has given up yet. I think they’re showing they’re still looking to get better. So as long as that’s the case, then we will get a little better.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.