By Joel Lehman
For The Essex Reporter
The Hornets, still with a chance to grab the second seed in the Division I tournament from BFA-St. Albans, had to like their chances Thursday night after they held the Comets to eight points in the first half.
But BFA (16-2), with only a pair of losses to Champlain Valley Union on its record, overcame the slow start thanks to a 15-for-17 free-throw performance in the second half from Hannah Earl and Andi Esenler as the Comets unofficially locked up the No. 2 spot with a 39-35 win.
Essex (13-5) took CVU to overtime Tuesday thanks to a relentless defense, and that momentum carried over into the first half against the Comets, with the only output coming from Halle Sam-Boudreau, who scored six, and a lone basket from Earl.
“They just put such good ball pressure on you,” BFA coach Bert Berthiaume said. “They force you to start your offense so far out with their quickness and their aggressiveness, and it’s hard to get into any kind of rhythm from there. So in the second half we did a better job of initiating our offense, getting our post involved, and turn the tide a little bit.”
Sam-Boudreau finished with 11 points and 13 rebounds, and Earl came alive in the second half as Essex found itself in foul trouble. The sophomore point guard was 10-for-12 from the line and scored 14 points.
With less than two minutes to go in the third quarter, Earl hit a pair of free throws to make it 18-17, and Esenler came off the bench to sink three foul shots after she was knocked down shooting a triple, giving the Comets their first lead.
“It was so close. To give us that lead, to give us that little cushion, it was kind of like, alright we can relax now,” said Berthiaume, who added that Esenler was rewarded for extra work recently on her foul shooting.
The Comets’ lead grew as large as nine in the fourth quarter, but Essex came roaring back thanks to a pair of threes from Mychaela Harton, who scored 14 of her 16 points in the second half. Her first triple pulled the Hornets within four, and her second made it a one-point game with 1:24 on the clock, forcing a Comet timeout.
With the game on the line in the final seconds and both teams in the bonus, Essex relentlessly pressured the ball on the inbounds pass under the Essex basket. After a pair of timeouts, Kimmy Howrigan finally entered the pass to Earl, who gave the Comets room to breathe shooting at the opposite foul line.
“We battle in those situations and talk about keeping our composure, which I thought we did a good job of. A couple of turnovers, offensive fouls, those types of things we’re working on, but in the end we did a good job,” Berthiaume said.
“It’s just effort, it’s just fundamentals, putting a body on people and not letting them get the basketball,” Essex coach Shawn Montague said. “We did a good job at it. But they’re good. They rebound really well.”
After being shut out in the first half, Howrigan finished with seven points and five rebounds.
With only a pair of games remaining, BFA secured the second spot heading toward the Division I basketball playoffs, potentially avoiding the undefeated Redhawks until the championship game. With BFA at 72 points in the index rankings used for playoff seeding, neither No. 3 Essex nor No. 4 Burr & Burton can catch the Comets, according to unofficial standings posted by the Vermont Principals Association. B&B, with four games remaining, would pass Essex for third if both win out.
“We just wanted to keep the string going and keep our confidence,” Berthiaume said. “We know Essex is a great team. They’re great, they’re well coached, they’ve got some great defenders, and we had to bring our A-game today. And we did, for a half.”
Alexis Britch came off the bench to chip in five points for the Hornets, and Emily Goodrich staked Essex to its early lead thanks to five first-half points.
“It was the rebounding,” Montague said. “And we had trouble scoring. They play good defense but I think it was a little bit our lack of aggressiveness at times.”