By ANDY KIRKALDY
BRISTOL — In a high school girls’ basketball game longer on grit and drama than on precision and flow, visiting Middlebury survived a spirited fourth-quarter rally by Mount Abraham on Friday, 36-35.
In the Tigers’ earlier win over the Eagles this season, the teams combined for 127 points, but against Friday’s hard-working defenses they combined for as many turnovers as points — 71, 40 by the Tigers —in the hot, noisy Mount Abe gym in a pivotal contest that left both teams at 5-6.
The Eagles trailed, 29-20, after three periods, but took a 35-34 lead after senior Jade Dingler (a team-high nine points) twice knifed through the Tiger defense in the final 1:33.
The Tigers then found a surprise hero, sophomore reserve forward Rachel Scholten. With 12.5 seconds left and the score 35-34, Tiger guard Joey Kelley went to the line to shoot one-and-one.
Tiger coach Jared Bailey had just waved Scholten into the game for rebounding purposes. When the shot bounced to the right, Scholten grabbed it, muscled inside and laid in the game-winning hoop off the glass.
The Eagles still had about 11 seconds and gave the ball to Dingler. She drove to the basket for another clean look, but the ball rolled off the rim to Scholten, who rebounded to clinch the win.
MUHS co-captain Kayla Whittemore, a junior guard, said it is a sign of progress when a team can pull out a win on the road when it is not playing its best.
“I thought we handled the pressure well, even though at first we got a little frazzled,” said Whittemore, who contributed four rebounds and tough defense on Eagle standout guard Jen Loyer. “But in the end it all turned out good.”
Bailey said the Tigers’ growing confidence helped them pull out the dramatic win, as did their hard work in practice: He believes Scholten’s play typifies their effort.
“These girls work on the little things to the best of their ability day in and day out. And it’s games like this where the little things like that have to happen,” Bailey said.
Mount Abe coach Connie LaRose said it was a tough loss, but could see the glass half-full. If the Eagles had just made a decent number of free throws (they hit just eight of 24) or if Loyer and guard Paige Wener had not both gotten into foul trouble, the outcome could have been different, she noted.
With both on the bench in each stretch, the Tigers closed the first half on a 6-2 run to lead, 22-17 at the break, and closed the third quarter on a 7-0 run to lead by nine.
“Paige is huge defensively for us,” LaRose said. “Jen ... can also wreak havoc out there.”
But LaRose also said there were positives, especially the fourth quarter.
“It’s a game we badly needed, but I’m proud of the way my kids came back in the second half,” she said.
The Tigers dominated early to take an 8-0 lead on two points each by center Nicole Brown (6 points, a team-high 7 rebounds) and Kelley, and two hoops by guard Katie Ritter (a game-high 15).
Loyer (6 steals, 3 assists) then gave the Eagles life. Her three straight steals led to hoops by Wener (5 steals) and Dingler (4 steals, 3 assists). A trey by Tiger guard Jordyn Smith still pushed the lead to 15-4 before Eagle sophomore Shanna Gebo (10 boards, 8 points) went coast-to-coast to make it 15-6 after one.
The Tigers then went scoreless against the Eagle zone for the first 6:46 of the second quarter (a Clara Cox free throw broke the ice) while committing nine turnovers. The Eagles crept back on a fast-break hoop by Dingler and putbacks by Gebo and Loyer (they outrebounded the Tigers, 11-6, in the quarter; the Tigers had a 32-31 edge overall).
Then, with MUHS up, 16-15, and 1:10 to go in the first half, Ritter scored two hoops and stole the ball and fed Kaitlyn Kirkaldy for a layup and it was 22-17.
In the third quarter, Jill Huizenga (4 points, 6 steals, 6 rebounds) converted a fast-break feed from Dingler and Sara Taggart (5 rebounds, 5 steals) hit a free throw while MUHS went scoreless for 3:18, and it was 22-20.
Then the Eagles went scoreless for 5:09 against Tigers’ man-to-man defense. And Joey Kelley fed Alora Kelley (4 points, 4 rebounds, 3 steals) inside for a hoop, and Ritter hit a jumper and a trey, and it was 29-20 after three.
The Eagles switched to man-to-man coverage for the fourth, and for the first 6:08 the Tigers managed only a Brown hoop on an inbounds play. Meanwhile, Loyer hit a trey, Taggart hit inside on a feed from Georgia Winters, and Sophie Owen-Jankowski and Wener each made two free throws.
At 2:05, Gebo hit inside, and it was 31-31. Ritter drove and dished to Brown for a layup, and the Tigers led by two. Dingler answered with a strong move at 1:33, and it was 33-33. Smith hit a free throw for MUHS at 1:11, and it was 34-33.
Scholten grabbed an Eagle miss, but couldn’t hit a one-and-one free throw, and Gebo rebounded. Dingler scored again, and it was 35-34 at 0:30. The Tigers missed twice, but twice got the ball back when it was out of bounds off Mount Abe. Then the Eagles fouled Joey Kelley, and Bailey made the night’s smartest coaching decision by calling for Scholten to return.
Whittemore said she wasn’t surprised to see Tiger substitutes play roles in the important win over a solid, veteran Eagle team.
“We definitely have a very deep bench, and everyone contributed tonight,” Whittemore said.
LaRose said the Eagles’ chemistry and effort late in the game was the best she has seen in the Eagles’ tough recent stretch against some of the top teams in both Division I and II.
“Hopefully we can build on that,” she said. “It’s the best eight-to-ten minutes I’ve seen them play in the last four games.”