BRISTOL — Both girls’ basketball teams had positives to take away from Saturday’s game at Mount Abraham Union High School, where the host Eagles held off a Middlebury rally for a 43-41 victory.
Mount Abe coach Connie LaRose saw her team pull out a tough game with major contributions from sophomores Ashlie Fay and Meghan Livingston, who combined to score 21 of the Eagles’ final 23 points, and clutch free-throw shooting — Mount Abe sank its final 11 free throws.
Mount Abe improved to 8-1 and held onto second place in the Division I standings, and LaRose said challenges like Saturday’s will help the Eagles mature.
“We maybe bent a little bit, but we never broke, and I think it’s a good thing to survive a game like that,” she said. “(It was) a tough thing for Middlebury to lose, because they played with a lot of heart today.”
That heart was just one element that encouraged MUHS coach Cindy Atkins about her 1-6 Tigers. She said her ballhandlers – senior Paityn Boyer, junior Tiffany Danyow and sophomore Hannah Hobbes — passed the test against the Eagles’ trademark zone press.
And after scoring just nine first-half points, the Tigers finally broke out of a shooting funk to score a season-high. Their 32 points in the second half is more than they have scored in three of their losses, and every starter scored at least six.
“I see kids starting to gain some confidence in their shot, which is what we need,” Atkins said. “The girls play so scrappy on defense, but it just takes the pressure off when you can hit some shots.”
The Eagles dominated the first half and could have had a larger lead than the 16-9 margin they settled for. The Tigers played tough man-to-man defense, but Mount Abe missed a few shots in the paint.
In the first quarter, the Eagles took a 9-1 lead with 1:45 to go on a drive by senior guard Sara Sayles. Before then a move in the post by senior center Lydia Stearns, three points from senior guard Amber Fay and a coast-to-coast layup by Ashlie Fay had been answered by only a free throw by Tiger senior forward Chrissy Ritter. Finally, Hobbes sank a three-pointer at 1:25, and it was 9-4 after one.
In the second quarter senior forward Brandi Whittemore scored four points to keep MUHS in the hunt, while the Eagles answered with points in the paint from senior forward Meghan Ogden, junior forward Jessie Martin and Ashlie Fay to take their seven-point lead at the break.
The Tigers made a run at the Eagles to open the third: Danyow sank a trey and Whittemore and Ritter hit inside to offset two Ashlie Fay free throws and a Stearns move in the paint, and the margin was four, 20-16.
Then Livingston came in off the bench. Between 5:00 and 2:07, she scored nine points in an 11-3 Eagle run that pushed the margin to 31-19. Livingston scored on a fast-break feed from Sayles and three times drove and drew fouls, converting a three-point play and hitting both free throws the other times. Ashlie Fay added the other hoop, while at the other end the Tigers mustered only three points from Ritter.
But at 0:46 Boyer hit two free throws, and as time wound down the Tigers beat the press: Hobbes found Whittemore, who banked in a jumper to cut the margin to 31-23 after three.
The Tigers kept coming in the fourth, completing a 10-0 run with a Whittemore move in the post, a Danyow layup off a steal, and a layup by senior forward Madison Fuller on the break assisted by Whittemore. LaRose called for time at 6:30 with the lead down to 31-29.
“Middlebury never quit. They just kept battling back,” LaRose said.
Fay scored the next six for Mount Abe, which never trailed but couldn’t shake the Tigers. Fuller answered her first points with a nice drive, and then after the next Fay hoop Danyow drilled a long trey to make it 35-34 at 2:50.
Fay drove for two more at 2:40, but Fuller hit two free throws at 2:25: 37-36. The Eagles then missed, and the Tigers had a chance to take the lead. But senior forward Casey Ogden made one of her three steals, and Livingston sank two more free throws at 1:58: 39-36.
The Tigers then missed the front end of a one-and-one at 1:46. Casey Ogden got the rebound, and Ashlie Fay set up a cutting Sayles at 1:25: 41-36.
Still it was not over: Boyer drilled a three over the Eagle zone at 0:47. The Eagles were smart enough to get the ball to Livingston: She made both at 0:27 to make it 43-39.
“She had ice water in her veins those last few free throws,” LaRose said.
Fuller scored inside with a few seconds left, but time ran out on MUHS.
Ashlie Fay finished with 15 points, three steals and three assists, while Livingston scored 13. Sayles finished with a team-high five assists. By slim margins, the Eagles won the rebounding (27-23) and turnover (20-18) battles.
LaRose sees her team steadily improving as it works in practice.
“The master plan is the whole season, but take care of business today,” she said. “Every day we get a little bit better.”
Whittemore’s 10 points led MUHS, and she added two steals. Danyow (three steals) and Fuller (two steals) scored eight each, and Ritter and Boyer added six apiece.
Atkins said her team has been competitive in almost all of its games and played well on Saturday.
“We’ve lost six games, but only once did a team truly beat us,” she said. “And that’s what is encouraging with this group. They’re getting better, and they just have to gain confidence.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]