By Joe Cardello
The Essex Reporter
On Tuesday night No. 3 Essex downed No. 14 North Country Union at Essex High School 50-28 to stay alive in the tournament and moved on to a Friday evening quarterfinal game that had them pitted against No. 6 South Burlington. The Rebels previously beat No. 11 MMU in the playdowns during their own Tuesday night matchup.
The last time the Rebels and Hornets were on the same court was in mid-December when Essex came out on top 30-21.
Heading into the game Essex head coach Shawn Montague explained that what his team was looking for on the offensive end of the court.
“We have a couple of offenses that were looking to get right under the hoop,” said Montague. “We got some of them and we tried to spread things out and get some cuts going.”
A physical and frantic start gained the Hornets some missed opportunities and five early fouls in the first half, but Essex maintained a lead throughout. With three minutes before the break South Burlington closed the gap to make the score tied at eight. A shot from the field at 2:22 from Emily Goodrich started a short offensive scoring drive for the Hornets before the buzzer. Erin Murphy recovered after having her shot blocked to knock down another basket for Essex and with five seconds left in the half Alex Esposito put away one last bucket.
At the half, the Hornets led 14-8 over the Rebels.
Montague wasn’t pleased with his players’ performance under the hoop and felt as though they could have demonstrated a better offense earlier in the game.
“There were some shots that we missed that we haven’t missed in the last few weeks,” Montague said. “Transition hoops… layups… you know a lot of things that we get in our offense that we normally don’t miss.”
The Hornets were settled into a better rhythm in the third quarter while South Burlington scrambled to match up. Essex used perimeter passing and motion on offense to disorient their opponent and Goodrich managed to put away the first three points of the period. On the defensive end, Essex freshman Olivia Duncan held up the attacking Rebels with excellent low post defense and tenacious attempts to force the turnover.
The Rebels were held scoreless in the third until less than two minutes remained when they knocked down a 3-pointer. Goodrich responded by draining her own shot from the field and Mychaela Harton and Esposito both put away a basket before the buzzer.
Montague acknowledged the Hornets’ defensive prowess in the third quarter and praised it as the reason Essex managed to increase their lead to nine before the final quarter.
“Good defense… that’s been our strength all year,” Montague said. “We try to keep things in perspective and there are times when we feel like we didn’t play that well, but when you can hold a team’s scoring like that you’re doing something right.”
South Burlington grew increasingly anxious in the final quarter and their defense became vicious. In the first two minutes of play during the fourth quarter, the Rebels garnered three fouls. Less than a minute into the quarter the South Burlington coach called for a timeout and encouraged her players to get open for the long-range jumper to close the nine-point score gap.
Harton led scoring for Essex in the final quarter and demonstrated some fantastic shooting from the line in the final minutes. She made three of four free throws in the last minute of play and put away a total of six points in the quarter. Freshman Hornet Duncan earned some bruises when she took a charge. She was subbed out of the game after taking an elbow to the face, taking a few tumbles and twisting her ankle – but not before she made a basket after a killer pump fake. Esposito swiped the ball from South Burlington a few times during the quarter and sank a basket of her own. Senor Alexis Britch and freshman Emmalee Smith both put away one basket a piece during the fourth.
“Our offense took a little bit of a step back,” Montague said. “I think a little bit of that was nerves by my kids and part of it was probably South Burlington playing well and feeling like they had nothing to lose.”
The Hornets took the win 39-29 over the Rebels and will be playing No. 2 BFA St. Albans – a team that beat Essex twice in the regular season – in the semi-finals at UVM on Feb. 31.
After a long week of games and preparation practices for the tournament Montague conceded that what his players needed to do more in order to prepare for their next game was take a rest.
“Before we do anything we’re going to take two days off first of all,” Montague said with a chuckle.