BARRE — After watching the No. 2 Hartford Hurricanes knock off her top-seeded Mount Abraham Union High School girls’ basketball team in Saturday’s Division II final, 48-35, in the Barre Auditorium, Eagle Coach Connie LaRose summed up her impression of the winners.
“They are big. They are tough,” she said.
Led by six-foot-one-inch senior center Sara Illingworth’s 13 points and 17 rebounds, the 19-5 Hurricanes — with three other starters listed at five-foot-ten — had just outrebounded the Eagles by 46-23.
The Hurricanes’ edge on the boards led directly to nine second-chance points on the offensive glass, helped them typically limit the 19-4 Eagles to one shot at the other end, and triggered their transition attack and helped create 21 fast-break points.
And the tremendous size advantage — Mount Abe had only one starter taller than five-seven, senior center Lydia Stearns — also made Hartford’s man-to-man defense effective. The Eagles rely on attacking the basket, and found life difficult in the paint: Their shots were regularly blocked or altered.
“Even shooting from the perimeter we’re shooting over guards that are bigger than we are,” LaRose said. “That’s the team I thought all year long that was the No. 1 team in the state, and they certainly proved it today.”
The Eagles were able to bother the Hurricanes’ ballhandling and passing and forced 32 turnovers, many of them steals by sophomore Ashlie Fay, seniors Amber Fay and Casey Ogden, and junior Lizzie Huizenga. But unlike during their many wins this winter, including their two playoff victories, they were unable to convert those miscues into points — the Hurricanes are also quick and got back on defense.
“We didn’t capitalize on them, and that was the huge difference today. All season long we’ve made those turnovers be productive for us, and we didn’t today,” LaRose said. “Even when we got the ball there was always a hand up, someone in our way, somebody big to get around.”
Trouble began early, when six points from Illingsworth and four apiece from Stephanie Grobe and Kelsey Kehoe helped Hartford to a 16-10 first quarter lead. Eight of those points came on putbacks as Hartford earned a 14-6 rebounding edge.
Amber Fay hit a three and senior guard Sarah Sayles, who saw limited action in her return from a knee injury, scored three points to help the Eagles forge a 6-6 tie, but Hartford closed the quarter on a 10-4 run.
In the second quarter Ashlie Fay (a game-high 14 points, four assists) fed sophomore guard Meghan Livingston and then hit a three-pointer at 4:12. The trey made it 20-15, but would be the Eagles’ last basket for 13:11.
Hartford closed the second quarter on a 7-0 run consisting of two Illingworth hoops and late three-point play by Devon Day, and it was 27-15 at the break. And the Hurricanes’ Grobe and Kehoe combined for the first nine points of the third period, with a Grobe jumper at 2:00 making it 36-15 — and making it apparent it was not going to be the Eagles’ afternoon.
Finally, one Huizenga free throw and two by Ashlie Fay broke the ice and cut the lead to 18 after three.
“We struggled throughout the first half, but then you come out in the third quarter and you hit three foul shots for the entire eight minutes, and you know it’s been a long day,” LaRose said.
Still, the Eagles showed spunk in the final eight minutes, and poor free throw shooting by Hartford (eight-for-20 in the fourth) made a comeback at least theoretically possible. Huizenga converted an Ashlie Fay assist at 7:01 to break the basket drought, and then Ashlie Fay scored seven for the Eagles in the next three minutes, a trey and four points off steals. That outburst cut the Hartford lead to 40-27.
But while Hartford was sinking just three of eight free throws over the next two minutes, the Eagles still could not generate much offensively, managing just a free throw and a basket inside by junior forward Jessie Martin. Finally, time ran out on the Eagles despite their never-say-die attitude.
“They never gave up,” LaRose said. “They haven’t all year long, and we won a couple games because of that mentality.”
Livingston, Megan Ogden and senior forward Casey Ogden led the Eagles with three rebounds each. Also seeing action were junior guard Chelsea Rublee, who sank two late free throws; junior forward Jordan Emmons, who snared two late rebounds; and sophomore guard Sam Driscoll, who hit a layup with a minute to go.
Saturday marked the final game in a Mount Abe hoop uniform for Stearns, Amber Fay, Sayles, and both Ogden sisters, all of whom played key roles in helping the Eagles reach the D-II final for two straight years.
LaRose said the Eagles should remember the season as a success, in part because of their accomplishments on the court.
“You play all year for the right to have this opportunity. Sometimes it goes your way, and lots of times it doesn’t,” she said. “But there were only two teams left standing today, and I’m proud of the kids that we were one of them. They played with a lot of heart.”
And in part, LaRose said, because of the way they went about their business.
“They’ve been a great group all year. There’s been great team chemistry, just no issues,” she said. “They’ve been fun to be around, and they came into the gym every day to work hard.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected]