BARRE — The top-seeded Mount Abraham Union High School girls’ basketball team on Saturday defeated No. 2 Fair Haven, 43-30, to win the Division II girls’ basketball title in front of a capacity crowd in the Barre Municipal Auditorium.
The victory earned the 18-4 Eagles’ their second straight D-II title in their fourth consecutive state final appearance.
The Slaters finished at 17-6, with two losses to Mount Abe. In December, they fell at home to the Eagles, 37-31. That was the only D-II game this winter Mount Abe did not win by double digits.
As was the case in 2013, when the Eagles held their opponents to the lowest D-II tournament point total in decades, defense made the difference.
“I think we got it done with defense in this game,” said senior guard Meg Livingston. “We always say you have to do it with defense, and offense will come.”
The Eagles did just that, generating many of their scoring chances off of turnovers. Throughout much of the game, the Eagles’ deployed their tenacious 2-2-1 full-court press, and it wreaked havoc in the Slater backcourt. Mount Abraham recorded 10 steals on the day.
“We’re known for that press, and it works really well because our guards pressure other teams to make a bad pass,” said junior center Isabel Brennan.
Eagle Coach Connie LaRose said the press wasn’t as effective vs. the Slaters as against many other teams, but still was worth sticking with.
“I think it wears the other team down, constantly looking over their shoulder trying to beat it,” LaRose said.
LaRose said the Eagles adopted a similar strategy vs. the Slaters this time around as they had in December.
“We didn’t do anything any differently,” LaRose said. “We just decided that we were going to do what we did well and hope it was better than what they did well.”
On offense, the Eagles moved the ball crisply against the Slaters’ man-to-man defense.
The Eagles were 17 of 40 from the field, and converted three of nine three-point attempts. Up against Mount Abraham’s 3-2 zone defense, Slaters struggled to find the basket, shooting just 11 for 34 from the field and only one of eight from beyond the arc.
Just four Eagles scored in the game — Livingston led with 14, Brennan and guard Sam Driscoll added 10 apiece, and Ashlie Fay pitched in nine. Fair Haven senior and Orwell resident Elizabeth Fyles led all scorers with 18 and was the only Slater in double figures.
Over the din of competing student cheering sections shouting for supremacy, Mount Abraham jumped out to a 10-2 first-quarter lead behind a three-pointer from Driscoll.
The second quarter was much of the same and included a Livingston trey that put the Eagles up 15-4. Baskets by Fay and Brennan expanded the lead to 19-4, the Eagles’ largest of the day.
The Eagles kept up the defensive pressure, including an athletic play by Fay, who poked the ball from a Slater guard and tapped it to teammate Sam Driscoll before stepping out of bounds. Fyles scored six late points in the period, however, and at the half, the Mount Abe lead was down to 10, 22-12.
The Slaters closed the gap to five at one point in the third quarter, which saw Livingston leave the game with a nosebleed. But the Eagles would have the last stay in the stanza, when Driscoll dished to Brennan for a baseline jumper in the closing seconds.
Early in the fourth, a heads-up play by Brennan slowed the Slater momentum. Seeing Slater guard Alexis Ellis barreling towards the basket, Brennan established position and took a charge.
The Slaters midway through the quarter twice pulled within five, on a basket by Ellis that made it 33-28 and a layup by Fyles that brought the score to 35-30.
But the tough Eagle defense wouldn’t let the Slaters score again. Livingston returned to the game and quickly contributed two buckets plus a steal took she took coast-to-coast for a layup.
Mount Abe made four of eight free throws in the closing minutes, enough to seal the game, especially when Fyles fouled out.
LaRose called her only timeout all afternoon to empty her bench with 43 seconds remaining. When the final buzzer sounded, the Eagles swarmed the court, applauded by the hundreds of fans who made the trek to Barre.
Livingston said the victory, in her fourth state final, was an excellent end to her high school career.
“We didn’t get it the first two years, and this is what I dreamt for,” Livingston said. “I have to thank Connie a lot, she’s been coaching me since the fourth grade.”
The Eagles were also playing for Olivia Scott, the Mount Abe junior who took her own life in October. The Eagle players wrote “Liv” on their wrists in magic marker as a tribute to Scott, whose former field hockey teammates likewise had her in their thoughts while winning the crown this past fall.
“At halftime we said ‘let’s do this for her,’” Brennan said. “That meant a lot to us, and it just reminded ourselves what it was like to be here last year and just got ourselves fired up and got our heads in the game.”
LaRose said Scott was on the minds of the whole team Saturday.
“We had the heart of an angel on our shoulder today,” LaRose said. “There’s a little piece of all of us that had been missing all season, and they wanted this for her as much as they wanted it for ourselves.”