VERGENNES — Visiting Middlebury outlasted an improving Vergennes Union High School girls’ basketball team, 37-32, on Friday in a defensive struggle that was ultimately decided on the foul line and in the turnover column.
On a night when neither team shot well, the Commodores committed more fouls in their man-to-man defense and full-court press than did the Tigers, who most of the time sat back in a zone. As a result, the Tigers went to the line 36 times, sinking 18 shots, while VUHS made seven of 12 attempts. And the Commodores lost the ball 32 times, compared to 22 turnovers for MUHS.
Tiger junior tri-captain Katie Ritter, who led all scorers with 18 points and had six of the Tigers’ nine field goals, agreed the Commodores made the game a battle.
“They’re a county rival and they always play us hard, so we knew we had to come out (and) just work our hardest,” Ritter said. “The game in general was tough. We definitely made some poor choices with the ball. They applied some good ball pressure, but I think we hit our foul shots. We didn’t have great shooting, but we worked hard.”
VUHS coach Billy Waller was happy that his smaller team held its own on the boards — counting team rebounds, MUHS held a 49-47 edge — and with the Commodores’ defense. But he said VUHS must take better care of the ball.
“We did well defensively. I thought we took away some fast break opportunities away from them, (but) Ritter made some plays,” Waller said. “We did a decent job of keeping their scrappy guards keeping away from those loose ball rebounds ... Offensively, we still turn the ball over way more than I’d like to.”
The game had seven lead changes, four in the third period. In the first half the teams combined for 34 turnovers, and Ritter and VUHS junior guard Ali Provost combined for 25 points (12 for Ritter, 11 for Provost) as MUHS took an 18-16 lead. The only other field goals of the half were a game-opening trey from VUHS senior guard Margy Kerschner (eight points), and a hoop in the post from MUHS junior center Nicole Brown (six points, seven boards).
VUHS took the lead twice in the third period, largely thanks to the hard work of senior forward Kathleen Van Wyck (seven points, seven rebounds) and sophomore center Hannah Curler (nine boards, two blocks). VUHS snatched 16 rebounds in the period, and Van Wyck twice grabbed offensive boards, once converting a three-point play to make it 21-20, VUHS, at 7:23.
After a Ritter free throw and a drive by Tiger senior guard Kayla Whittemore (10 rebounds) put MUHS back on top, Van Wyck snared another offensive board, was fouled and hit two free throws to make it 23-23.
At 4:30, Provost (13 points, four steals) drove and scored, and VUHS led, 25-23. But MUHS forward Afton Anechiarico (seven rebounds) helped MUHS shut down VUHS the rest of the period with two blocks, and hit a free throw to make it a one-point game. At 1:35, a Ritter jumper made it 26-25, MUHS, and that was the score entering the final period.
MUHS then earned a 15-11 rebounding edge in the final quarter. Coach Cindy Atkins said rebounding was also vital in the Tigers’ 38-33 win over Division I Mount Mansfield on Wednesday, and she brought that issue up between quarters.
“This is the second game in a row where our shooting percentage from the floor has been incredibly low,” Atkins said. “So I’m really thrilled where we had sequences where the girls boxed out. We definitely had sequences where we didn’t, and I kept reminding them we needed to own the boards, and that was crucial.”
Sophomore forward Chrissy Ritter opened the fourth period with a putback to extend the lead, and after sophomore guard Tabby Danyow answered at the other end, two free throws by freshman point guard Tiffany Danyow (six points, six rebounds) and one by Brown made it 31-27.
Kerschner sank a trey at 4:08 to make it 31-30, but that proved to be the Commodores’ high-water mark. Two VUHS turnovers came next, and Danyow hit a free throw at 3:30. Then at 2:27 Provost fouled Danyow, her fifth, and another Danyow free throw made it 33-30. When Katie Ritter sank a jumper at 2:00, it was 35-30.
Two free throws by junior guard Lexa Higbee at 1:18 made it 35-32, but down the stretch Danyow and Katie Ritter each hit free throws.
At 7-4, MUHS is in the top four in the D-II standings. Ritter said the Tigers know they need to improve, but are feeling confident knowing they can win without playing their best.
“We’re feeling pretty good,” Ritter said. “That win against Mount Mansfield definitely gave us a boost, and we’ve really been working on working together as a team, and we’ve been playing good solid defense.”
For the 3-7 Commodores, Provost has now scored in double figures in every game. Waller said the key to their better recent play, including an overtime win at Missisquoi on Wednesday, has been not only team defense and the rebounding of Van Wyck, Curler and sophomore Chelsea Grant, but also an improved focus on the business at hand.
“Over the last two weeks we’ve done a good job of moving forward,” Waller said. “I really think we’ve been doing a good job over the last couple weeks of just playing the game and moving on, and getting better.”