BRANDON — On Friday in Brandon, the Otter Valley Union High School girls’ basketball team led for most of the game against visiting Middlebury, but crucially not the final 2:35.
That’s when the visiting Tigers capped a comeback from a 10-point third-quarter deficit to take a hard-fought 53-46 win in the crowded House of Noise.
MUHS coach Cindy Atkins believes her team — which was shorthanded due to injuries and dressed just eight players — did well to win in a challenging environment against a tough foe.
“It was a physical game, and it was loud, and there was a lot of excitement, so they got to experience an exciting environment,” Atkins said. “That was great.”
OV coach Ray Counter was frustrated that the Otters’ shots stopped falling in the late going. They also turned the ball over six times in the fourth quarter after just six turnovers in the first three quarters, and were outrebounded, 42-35, after taking an 11-5 edge on the boards in the first quarter.
“Middlebury’s good. They’re everything we expected them to be,” Counter said. “But we ... had our chances. As poorly as we played in the fourth quarter, with a minute-and-a-half to go we were down by three and we were one shot from tying the game. It’s just a matter of us taking care of our business, and we would be good.”
The Tigers (2-1) jumped out to a 5-2 lead on hoops by junior center Nicole Brown (19 points) and junior guard Katie Ritter (16). But then the Otters (1-2) went on a 12-0 run in which Kristy Pinkham (8 points) and Amanda Sanderson (6 points, 7 rebounds) each scored four points. Tiger tri-captain Kayla Whittemore (8 points), the team’s only senior starter, hit in the lane, and it was 14-7 OV after one.
Whittemore opened the second quarter with a hoop set up by Tiffany Audet, and two buckets by Ritter made it 14-13. The Tiger bench helped, as Audet, senior Courtney Johnson and freshman Tiffany Danyow spelled the starters and MUHS took the lead at the half, 25-24. The Tigers also hit the boards for six second-chance points.
Senior forward Michelle Lefebvre (11 points, 8 boards) kept OV close, hitting a putback and a three late in the quarter. But the Tigers’ lead could have been greater: They hit just four of 11 free throws in the quarter, four of 15 in the half, and 12 of 35 in the game.
OV then ruled the third quarter. Six Otters scored, and their man-to-man defense continued to harass the Tigers. Lefebvre scored six, Jessica Greeno (8 points) tossed in a trey, and after Erin Trombley converted a steal and Pinkham went coast-to-coast, it was 43-33.
Brown kept the Tigers in the game with three hoops inside, two set up by Ritter. When Ritter hit a trey at 0:20, it was 43-36 entering the fourth.
Brown scored three early points, but at 5:10 Greeno swished a trey, and OV still looked good at 46-39. But the Tigers continued to get key offensive rebounds and force turnovers, and OV couldn’t get shots to fall.
“You’re not going to beat any team when you only score three points in the fourth quarter,” Counter said.
The Tigers chipped away. Sophomore Chrissy Ritter (7 points) hit down low, Brown put in her own miss, Katie Ritter hit a free throw, and a Brown bucket at 3:10 tied the game.
Then came a terrific sequence. Ritter made a great steal, OV senior guard Emily Waldrip countered with a fine theft, but Brown swatted away OV’s attempt at a go-ahead hoop. Chrissy Ritter then snuck in for an offensive rebound, drew a foul and hit a free throw for a 47-46 Tiger lead at 2:35.
Danyow hit a free throw at 1:44 to make it 48-46, and then stole the ball to set up a Katie Ritter free throw for a three-point lead. OV then missed a wide-open trey, and Danyow hit a free throw to make it 50-46. The Tigers then hit three of six free throws in a final minute marred by two intentional fouls committed by OV.
Kayla Whittemore said the Tigers’ keys were rebounding and remaining poised in the physical game in the raucous atmosphere.
“It’s a really big win for us because they’re a really big rival, and we stayed composed really well,” Whittemore said.
Reinforcements are on the way for MUHS. Injured senior forward Afton Anechiarico and sophomore forward Brandi Whittemore should return soon, and junior veteran forward Rachel Scholten will soon be eligible after recently opting to play. Senior guard/forward Kaitlyn Kirkaldy will probably not play this season, however, due to foot injuries.
Kayla Whittemore said the Tigers are optimistic about their first year in Division II.
“Everyone’s really excited,” she said. “Once we get everyone back, we’ll just be unstoppable.”
Meanwhile, Counter said he sees OV improving in most areas.
“I’m pleased with our progress,” he said. “That’s been our goal. We’ve been working on some things. Rebounding has been one of them. It hasn’t shown up yet.”