MIDDLEBURY — The Middlebury Union High School girls’ basketball team on Tuesday caught offensive and defensive sparks in the second quarter and defeated visiting Fair Haven, 41-27, in an opener that pitted two top-five Division II seeds from last winter.
The Tigers trailed late in the first quarter and were being badly outrebounded when Coach Cindy Atkins called for a switch from a zone defense to man-to-man.
It took a little while still for the Tigers to get rolling. The Slaters led after one period, 5-4, and 7-5 at 6:20 of the second. But the Tigers then held the Slaters scoreless for three-and-a-half minutes, during which the Tigers went on a 7-0 run to take the lead for good.
Four of those points came from senior guard Katie Ritter, who then added eight more in the period as the Tigers led at the half, 20-14.
Ritter — who finished with a game-high 17 points and added nine rebounds and four steals — said a lot changed in the second quarter, everything from getting past opening-game jitters to better tactics.
“We started off a little rough. We were rushing our passes. We were playing like we had a three-second shot clock,” Ritter said. “But I think the key was quick ball reversal ... and just calming down. I think we were all just a little nervous, and then we finally settled into our offense and ran our plays. And I think switching into man as well helped. They were pretty flustered by that. And we picked up the intensity. In the zone we were pretty flat. We weren’t boxing out at all.”
The Tigers also got a big lift from their bench, especially junior forwards Brandi Whittemore (six points, five boards) and Chrissy Ritter (six points, two assists, three boards).
With the offense stagnating early on, Whittemore converted an offensive rebound to pull the Tigers within one point after the first period, and Ritter twice fed center Nicole Brown (seven points, three boards) in the post early in the second quarter, and Brown produced a free throw and a layup to tie the game at 7-7 after Slater sophomore Chelsea Borah hit inside to put her team on top.
Atkins is carrying only 10 players, but she said the Tigers do have depth.
“I definitely have eight people easily that I can rotate in and out,” Atkins said. “It gives us a lot of flexibility.”
After that Brown hoop, the Tiger offense and Ritter kicked into gear. Ritter hit two jumpers and senior forward Rachel Scholten hit a free throw to make it 12-7. Slater Kendra Severance (six points) hit a trey to make it 12-10, but Ritter responded with a three-pointer of her own. Then Chrissy Ritter stole a pass and set up a Katie Ritter hoop, and it was 17-10 at 2:00.
The Tigers then turned the ball over twice, and the Slaters took advantage with an Erin Borah hoop and two free throws by center Kala Mackenzie (six points) to make it 17-14. But Katie Ritter nailed another three-pointer, and the lead was six at the break.
Mackenzie and Slater guard Devyn Reed (seven points) sandwiched baskets around a Brown hoop to open the third quarter, twice cutting the lead to four. But the Tigers pulled away when Katie Ritter converted a three-point play after rebounding her own miss and senior guard Jordyn Smith set up a Whittemore hoop on the break to make it 27-18.
The Slaters then hit the boards hard — Erin Borah, Mackenzie and Reed helped them to an edge of 32-24 — and had four offensive rebounds on one trip. But they failed to convert, losing their best chance to get back into the game.
Chrissy Ritter then drove to the hoop for a three-point play that made it 30-18 at 0:47 of the third, and the Slaters came no closer than nine the rest of the way.
Brown also blocked a pair of shots for the Tigers, senior guard Kiera Hoefle added a pair of assists, and sophomore guard Tiffany Danyow scored three.
“Everybody contributed,” Katie Ritter said.
Atkins said she was thrilled to see MUHS, which was seeded fifth in D-II a year ago, open with a win over the Slaters, who — thanks to what might kindly be called a quirk in the Vermont Principals’ Association rulebook — earned a No. 3 seed despite losing to the Tigers in the regular season and finishing tied in the standings with them.
More importantly, Atkins said she saw what the Tigers have been working on in practice translated onto the floor.
“I saw real growth,” Atkins said. “I thought the girls did some really nice things as a team offensively and defensively.”
Ritter said the Tigers are feeling good about themselves entering the winter.
“We definitely still have some things to work on,” she said, “but this was a great win to start off our season.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.