It came down to the wire in the Hornets’ final home game of the year, but the hosts prevailed and captured an exhilarating victory Friday night.
Essex High School (EHS), the No. 2 seed in the Vermont Division I girls’ basketball championship tournament, came back from a late deficit to defeat seventh-seeded Burlington High School (BHS) 52-49 in the quarterfinal round of the postseason.
Both sides took decent leads at various points throughout the night, but neither could sustain one as the game was up for grabs going into the final minutes.
Essex went into the break on top 29-28, and the Hornets then pushed their advantage to eight (42-34) by the end of the third.
Burlington came storming back, however, to take the upper hand and would lead 49-44 late in regulation. The Hornets moved back in front with some big-time scores, and they closed out the win with clock management and the help of a couple inside missed by the Seahorses.
EHS head coach Shawn Montague said the key to his team’s win was “grit.”
“We didn't shoot very well--particularly in the first half,” Montague commented. “But we just kept sticking with it. That's one of the things; [we] just need to keep shooting, and we came up with some defensive stops and rebounds. When [Burlington is] at full strength, they're a good team; their record is not reflective of how good they are--at all. So I'm not surprised it was close and it was tight.”
Essex now heads to UVM’s Patrick Gymnasium on Thursday (March 12) for a semifinal bout with the Hornets taking on No. 3 Mount Mansfield at 7:45 p.m.
“I think we'll be ready,” Montague said about the program’s first semifinal appearance since he led the Hornets to the championship round in 2015. “This is what they've been working for all year; this is where they've had their sights set.”
Leading EHS against Burlington was senior Mary Finnegan who dropped 14 points. Foul trouble for the Hornets led to a complete-team effort which saw six players come off the bench and five of those register points--the leading scorer of the reserves being sophomore Mary McClintock who had 7. While praising the entire team, the Essex coach made particular mention of a player whose time on the court Friday made an impact which went further than the stat sheet.
“We're obviously really deep with guards,” Montague commented. “Having Noel [Lyon] in foul trouble is difficult for us, and when Emilyrose [Mercier] got into foul trouble, too--that was hard. But Adrienne Noyes came in and busted her butt on defense, got a bucket, and got fouled. That was huge; we really needed that boost. She's the first kid cheering, and she's always trying to pick people up, say positive things, and do positive things. So to have her go in and make an impact in the most important game of the year--I was really happy for her.”
A good-sized Burlington crowd--which included the likes of top-seeded UVM men’s basketball players who were passing time before their first-round America East Conference matchup against Maine on Saturday--helped fuel the Seahorses to an 8-0 lead after the tip.
EHS would bounce back and go on top with a 9-0 run--a McClintock triple from the right side of the arc putting the hosts ahead 12-9 by the end of the first quarter. The early portion of the second frame was an exciting back-and-forth with the first four buckets coming from beyond the arc--the two sides notching a pair apiece on consecutive possessions.
Play remained tight with BHS regaining the lead in the third as the visitors used free throws to eventually go in front 32-31. Essex quickly jumped back on top, however, with Winter registering a steal-and-score to help her team go up 42-34.
Seahorse treys saw BHS take to a 49-44 lead late in the fourth, but Finnegan ended the surge by connecting from the left corner of downtown before senior Emma Whitney drilled one of her own off a second chance to put Essex ahead 50-49.
The final few minutes were a certified whirlwind. EHS had the ball with two minutes to go and looked to run the clock completely dry. Burlington, on the other hand, had been charged with only one foul all half and had the opportunity to play tough defense in conjunction with attempting a steal.
The Seahorses were struck with luck when Essex threw the ball away into its backcourt on an inbound--giving possession to Burlington with 32.6 seconds on the clock. The visitors worked the ball down low, but they couldn’t connect on the lay-in. While BHS grabbed the offensive rebound, a second-chance opportunity wouldn’t go, either, as Essex controlled the carom and looked to close out the win.
Still, Burlington had only been charged for a few fouls all half and had the opportunity to play smothering defense while the Hornets looked to bleed the clock. EHS would execute four-straight inbounds passes while drawing fouls before junior Anna Sabourin eventually went to the line with two seconds left.
She connected on both of her free throw attempts to make it a 3-point game, and Burlington was unable to get any sort of a quality look for a tie off its subsequent inbound.
“I'm just excited for the kids,” Montague added. “One of the kids said to me after the game, ‘Coach, you got really excited.’ I was like, ‘Yeah, I'm excited for you!’ I just want it for them. That's it. If I didn't coach another game in the semifinals, I'd be fine; but I just want them to experience that.”