VERGENNES — As expected, the undefeated and top-seeded Vergennes Union High School boys’ basketball team had little trouble with visiting No. 16 Milton in Tuesday’s first-round Division II playoff game, winning by 51-32 despite what the Commodores, their coach and their fans agreed was not their finest effort of the past two winters.
Next up for the 21-0 Commodores is a Friday quarterfinal at 7 p.m. vs. No. 9 Fair Haven (11-10). A win over the Slaters would send VUHS to Barre for a Monday semifinal at 8:15 p.m.
The Commodores’ Monday opponent would then be the winner of a Friday contest at No. 4 U-32 (15-6, with one of those losses a rout at the Commodores’ hands).
The Raiders will host the victor of a Wednesday game between No. 5 Mount St. Joseph (13-7) and No. 12 Montpelier (6-14). The D-II final is set for Saturday, March 9, at 3:45 p.m. at the Barre Auditorium.
The area’s other D-II teams were also set to play on Wednesday after the deadline for this issue of the Independent.
No. 11 Otter Valley (8-12 after an 0-9 start) was seeking to knock off No. 6 Mill River (12-8), which defeated OV twice during the regular season. If the Otters advanced, they would probably face No. 3 Lake Region (18-2) on Saturday.
No. 15 Mount Abraham (3-17) was looking to upset No. 2 Burr & Burton (18-2) on Wednesday. If the Eagles pulled it off, they will travel to either No. 7 Hartford (11-9) or No. 10 Harwood (9-11) on Saturday.
In Division I, No. 4 Middlebury (15-5) also was scheduled to open the postseason on Wednesday, with a home game vs. No. 13 Mount Anthony (6-14). If the Tigers advanced, they will host No. 12 Burlington (10-11), an upset winner on Tuesday over No. 5 Mount Mansfield, on Saturday at 2 p.m.
In Vergennes on this past Tuesday, there was little suspense as the Commodores continued on their title-driven mission — they forced 23 Milton turnovers on the way to a 24-6 lead at the break.
There was also widespread agreement the Commodores will have to play better than they did against a 3-18 Yellowjacket squad playing without injured 1,000-point scorer Derryk O’Grady.
The Commodores scored a season low, turned the ball over an uncharacteristic 14 times, hit just 11 of 19 free throws, passed up open 10-to-15-foot jumpers in favor of ill-advised drives into traffic, and made only one of many three-point attempts.
Senior tri-captain Zach Ouellette said the team would remain “100 percent confident” going forward and that Milton’s total of 35 turnovers showed VUHS played decent defense, but that the Commodores know they have to do better.
“Preparation-wise, coming in in practice, our focus wasn’t the best,” Ouellette said. “We’ve got to take every opponent with the mindset that they’re a lot tougher than they are, because that was awful, to be honest.”
Still, it was clear Milton stood no chance, even with the Commodores misfiring and with senior starting swingman Cody Quattrocci sitting out with an ankle sprain — he was hoping to practice on Wednesday.
VUHS took an 8-4 lead after one, with Ouellette scoring four of his nine points, Shep Carter (11 points, eight steals) hitting a pair of free throws, and junior Brendon Huestis (11 points and five steals in an energetic effort off the bench), adding a late layup.
Josh Benning (six points) came off the bench to start the second with two inside hoops, and Huestis hit the only VUHS three of the game. Eric Menard scored two of his team-high 11 in the lane for Milton and the VUHS lead was 15-6 midway through the period.
Finally, VUHS got something going and closed the period on a 9-0 run in the final 2:50 to take charge. Charlie Stapleford started the surge with a drive, Huestis and Ouellette converted two of Milton’s 16 turnovers in the period into layups, Dan McGrath (six points, five rebounds) hit in the post, and Carter added a late free throw to make it 24-6.
Free throws by Ouellette and Stanley Salley (eight rebounds) pushed the lead to 28-6 to open the third period, but then VUHS reverted to sloppy mode and the lead hovered at 20 for most of the rest of the game. The best VUHS stretch came to open the fourth, when Devin Hayes racked up nice assists to McGrath, Benning and Jarret LaFleche as the Commodores momentarily pushed the lead to 28, 47-19.
Ultimately, the Commodores know they have to bring more to the party vs. Fair Haven on Friday and, hopefully, on Monday game in Barre vs. U-32 or defending champion MSJ.
Ouellette said the work to do so would start in Wednesday’s practice.
“I think we can use this as, definitely, motivation … for the next game,” Ouellette said. “It’s just focus right now and being prepared and working as hard as we can. Preparation is what we’ve got to do. We’ve got to prepare better.”
Coach Peter Quinn agreed his team cannot again afford the luxury of not being prepared.
“We talked about being ready, and we sounded like we were ready, but we weren’t ready to play,” Quinn said. “It can be hard to play against a team with not a good record. It’s apparently hard to get your energy up to do that, because we sure didn’t do that tonight.”
But he also believes the Commodores, who he said have “played well every other game” this winter, will learn from Tuesday’s first-round game and show up good to go on Friday.
“I have confidence in them that they will do exactly that,” Quinn said. “People were pretty unhappy in the locker room.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]