Hilltoppers outlast Comets in defensive battle

 

ST. ALBANS – Heading into Tuesday’s battle of the undefeated between the BFA-St. Albans and St. Johnsbury girls basketball team’s, it was looking like it was going to be a defensive battle between two teams who hadn’t given up many points all season.

That’s exactly what happened.

Before Tuesday’s game, the Comets had only given up 32 points a game and the Hilltoppers were only giving up 27 points per game.

Not much changed when the two teams faced off – even with an overtime period – as the Hilltoppers used timely 3-pointers to come away with a 40-38 victory to hand BFA its first loss of the season.

“We knew what we were getting coming into tonight’s game,” said BFA coach Shawn Earl. “They are very defensive oriented like we are, and that just makes it a battle out there. It wasn’t pretty at times, but both teams felt each other out in the early going and the intensity really picked up as the game went on.”

After BFA had hit a pair of big shots and drew a charge down the stretch in the fourth quarter to force overtime, the extra period continued to provide excitement for everyone in attendance.

Both teams had leads throughout the final four minutes, but it was St. Johnsbury freshman Josie Choiniere (17 points, four 3-pointers) that hit the deciding shot of the game.

With under 20 seconds remaining in overtime and BFA up 38-36, Choiniere found some space a few feet beyond the arc and nailed the 3 to give the Hilltoppers the lead for good. She hit a free-throw with five seconds remaining to make it a two-point game.

The Comets were able to get a last-chance shot off, but after a broken inbound play, the shot was rushed and off the mark giving the away team the victory.

“This was exactly the type of game we expected coming into tonight,” said St. Johnsbury coach Jack Driscoll. “Maybe we didn’t think it would go to overtime, but we knew it was going to be close and a hard-fought battle, and it was both of those things.

“Josie is a solid player in all aspects of the game and understands the game pretty well. She’s a pretty fierce competitor and to have all that in a freshman, I’m very fortunate and we saw why tonight.”

The first half was low scoring on both ends as BFA held a 14-9 lead at the half, as St. Johnsbury wasn’t able to find its range from 3-point land early on.

Hannah Earl knocked in seven of the team’s 14 points in the first half. She ended the game with 10 points and 12 rebounds.

The Comets extended their lead to 17-9 just over a minute into the third quarter before St. Johnsbury put together an 8-0 run in a two minute stretch behind six points from Choiniere to make it a 17-17 game.

“This is a young group that we have this year, especially with our starting five,” said Driscoll. “I thought they held their composure well under adverse conditions in the first half, so give a lot of credit to the girls just sticking to the gameplan and trusting things would work out.”

Lily McAllister (eight points) knocked in five of her points in the final three minutes of the third quarter and Choiniere hit her second 3-pointer of the quarter late, as the two teams were tied 22-22 at the end of the third quarter.

BFA started the fourth off strong with five straight points behind a 3 from Andi Esenler (nine points) and a bank shot from McAllister.

St. Johnsbury responded by going on a 12-2 run to extend the lead to 34-29 with 43 seconds left in the game.

The Comets didn’t go away without a fight, as Elena Clark hit a huge 3 with 32 seconds left before Esenler drew a charge to give them the ball back and a chance to tie it up.

On the inbound play, McAllister attempted a shot that went off the glass right to Kelly Laggis (seven points), who hit a putback with seconds left to force overtime.

“You have to tip your hat to the girls tonight,” said Earl. “They scrapped at the end of regulation to get back in the game to force overtime.”

The overtime period was competitive on both sides, but some costly turnovers by the Comets gave the Hilltoppers the advantage they needed to close out the game.

St. Johnsbury improved to 7-0 on the season, as it remained on top of the Division I standings with the win.

“It was really our focus tonight to take away the post and we did that pretty well I thought,” said Driscoll. “You can’t take away everything, so we were focused on trying to make them beat us with their outside shooting, and give BFA a lot of credit, they almost did that.”

BFA has been a team that has liked to run the full-court press through the early parts of the season, but went away from pressing throughout the game on Tuesday.

Earl said the Hilltoppers lineup had a lot to do with that, but he was impressed with how the defense played without having to press.

“Tonight, we were a little apprehensive with the press because they started four guards,” he said. “We didn’t want to get caught, so we went away from it a bit tonight.”

It was a good challenge for the Comets, who will continue a tough road of opponents over the next couple of games.

They will take their 6-1 record to Rutland on Friday before hosting girls basketball powerhouse CVU on Monday.

“We just have to continue to get better every day out here,” said Earl. “To get better, you have to take some bumps and the goal this year wasn’t to go undefeated. We have many more games ahead of us, so we will take a look at the film, see where we need to improve and go from there.”

 

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