MIDDLEBURY — Round One didn’t disappoint.
Friday’s first 2013 matchup between two of the state’s best high school boys’ basketball teams delivered all the drama fans could hope for, as Vergennes remained undefeated by turning back Middlebury, 58-52, before the biggest crowd in the MUHS gym in a decade.
After the 14-0 Commodores sailed to an early 17-point lead, the 11-3 Tigers roared back and the second half saw seven lead changes and five ties before a Shep Carter three-pointer at 2:32 put VUHS up for good.
After that, the Tigers twice had the ball in the final minute with chances to tie what was, predictably, a physical game in a frenzied environment — complete with chants, cheers and dancing mascots.
“The atmosphere is miraculous. There’s no words for it. It’s just electric,” said VUHS center Stanley Salley, whose team-high 17 points included a three-point play to make it 54-50 with 1:31 to play. “It’s everything you could dream of. It’s almost like an NBA game.”
Salley said the Commodores had plenty of motivation: They had lost three straight at MUHS, they wanted to preserve their unbeaten season, and many around the state had circled this game as the most challenging left on the VUHS schedule.
The Commodores, who remained in first place in Division II and the Lake Division with the win, also wanted to prove something to themselves, Salley said.
“This was our biggest test of the year, everybody was saying Vergennes can’t beat Middlebury,” he said. “We knew we had to put an end to it and just play our game and just keep our streak alive.”
The D-I Tigers they certainly earned respect against a team many consider one of the top few in Vermont, regardless of division.
MUHS held the Commodores to fewer than 60 points for only the second time in nine outings; outrebounded them, 32-24, including team rebounds; and after falling behind by 26-9 early in the second period, took three third-period leads.
Coach Chris Altemose was not happy with his team’s 24 turnovers, nine in the fourth quarter, but saw a lot to like in the team’s fourth full game without injured senior starting point guard Mitchell Clarke, who is lost for the season.
“It was a nice effort on the boards, a nice effort defensively, and a good effort to get back into it,” Altemose said. “There are a lot of positives there. We just have to figure out how to close those out now with the crew we have now.”
Altemose also praised VUHS and both teams’ fans.
“Vergennes is a good team, and it was a really good game, fun, a packed house, noisy, everything you want to be in,” he said.
Early on, the Commodore fans had more fun. The VUHS ball movement led to easy baskets, and all the starters — Salley, Carter, senior guards Zach Ouellette and Cody Quattrocci, and senior forward Charlie Stapleford — scored as VUHS took a 20-7 lead after one period.
Senior forward Marrott Weekes (nine points, three assists and a game-high eight boards) kept MUHS alive with five first-quarter points.
The Commodores opened the second quarter on a 6-2 run capped by a Quattrocci fast-break hoop at 5:30 to make it 26-9. But VUHS did not score again until early in the third period, as MUHS began to cover the VUHS cutters.
MUHS freshman Perry DeLorenzo came off the bench to score eight of his 10 points in the second period and teamed up with Weekes and senior guard James Hare to start controlling the boards — DeLorenzo and Hare each finished with seven rebounds.
In the final 1:30 of the half, DeLorenzo sank a three, the Tigers finally got the ball to senior forward Tyler Provencher in the post for a bucket, and Weekes hit two free throws. The VUHS lead was down to 26-20 at halftime, and the Tiger fans were making the noise.
Provencher and Quattrochi (nine points) traded hoops to open the second half, but that was the only VUHS bucket in the first 4:25. Meanwhile, Provencher (a game-high 19 points, 17 in the second half) hit a three, DeLorenzo scored on the break, and at 3:44, Connor Collins (12 points, five rebounds, four assists) drove for a three-point play, and the Tigers had the lead, 30-28.
That triggered a series of lead changes:
• Two Salley three throws and a putback made it 32-30.
• Provencher nailed a three: 33-32, MUHS.
• Ouellette (12 points, seven of the 15 VUHS steals) hit a jumper: 34-33, VUHS.
• Weekes stuck in a putback: 35-34.
• Salley converted a three-point play: 37-35.
• Two Collins free throws tied it at 37-37.
• Carter (11 points) attacked the rim: 39-37, VUHS, after three periods.
Hare hit two free throws to open the fourth to make it 39-39. VUHS answered with a Carter three-pointer sandwiched between Stapleford and Ouellette free throws, the latter making it 46-39 with 7:07 to play in the game.
Again, MUHS responded. Collins stole the ball and scored, Provencher converted a three-point play on the break with an assist from Weekes, and then scored in the lane on a feed from Collins: 46-46 at 5:45.
The Tigers then had possession and a chance for the lead, but Stapleford stole the ball and went coast-to-coast for an acrobatic finish.
VUHS coach Peter Quinn said there were times when the Commodores lost focus on defense, but ultimately their defense made the difference.
“We had 15 steals tonight,” Quinn said. “That was maybe the key statistic in the game.”
Provencher hit in the post at 3:45 to tie the game, but the Commodores moved the ball to set up Carter for an open look from the top of the key, and Carter buried it at 2:32 to make it 51-48.
Provencher hit two free throws at 2:03 to make it 51-50, but at 1:31 Salley drove for a three-point play, and the lead was four.
A Collins putback made it 54-52 at 1:08, and the Tigers forced one of the 14 VUHS turnovers, but threw the ball away themselves. At 0:42, Quattrocci missed the front end of a one-and-one, and MUHS had another chance. But Quattrocci stole the ball and fed Ouellette for a four-point lead, and at 0:15 Devin Hayes iced the game with two free throws.
Quinn said the game was played in waves, crediting the Tigers for their mid-game revival.
“We played a great first quarter … And then in the second quarter we lost that edge,” Quinn said. “And then when we needed it, we got it back in the fourth quarter.”
Round Two is at the Commodome on Feb. 19.
Altemose said the Tigers will be anxious for the rematch.
“It will be a fun one up there, too,” he said. “They’ll be looking forward to that one.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.