When the final second ticked off the clock and the buzzer sounded, signaling a Champlain Valley Union High girls basketball state championship, the team exploded into a massive celebration.
Although the Redhawks had led for most of the game, for the last five minutes or so, team members on the sideline had been roiling like a tea kettle on the verge of boiling into steam. When the pent up celebration was finally released, much of the noise was pretty high pitched.
With the game ended, the galloping, jumping and hugging began. CVU had won a state title with a 43-29 win over St. Johnsbury.
The girls state title game started with both teams looking nervous, making some silly turnovers and fouls, but it didn’t take too long for things to settle down.
The problem for the Hilltoppers was that the Redhawks had a much more solid and deeper foundation to compete from.
Both teams played solid defense and both struggled to penetrate the other’s zone, but it wasn’t long before CVU began to work the ball into the paint and back out again, opening up shots closer to the basket.
This fit well with coach Ute Otley’s strategy for her team. Familiar with how high school players become confused by the larger college basketball court, she’d planned for this.
Besides the extra 10-feet in court length, the foot of distance added to the college 3-point line is particularly confusing. Although both 3-point lines are marked on the floor, players just gravitate to the outer college line, Otley said.
“So, everybody’s shooting from further back, and it just changes the game. I’ve never seen any teams, that I’ve either coached or that I’ve played against, really shoot it well in here,” she said of the University of Vermont’s Patrick Gymnasium.
It wasn’t her first time at this hoops rodeo, so Otley came prepared with a game plan that accounted for these differences, encouraging her players to get the ball into the lane where things seem more normal for high school players.
Her Redhawks only made one of their 10 attempts at three-pointers, enough to keep St. Johnsbury honest and not ignoring CVU players with the ball outside.
Although there were five lead changes, those came early in the game, and when the Hilltoppers were able to pull in front they did not stay there long, holding the lead for less than five minutes total.
Eventually, CVU’s depth put the Redhawks on top to stay, although St. Johnsbury played gamely in a contest that was primarily decided by defense.
At the half, Champlain Valley was up 22-16. Although the Hilltoppers put together a 6-0 run early in the third quarter, the Redhawks responded with a decisive 8-0 run of their own to take a 36-25 lead into the fourth quarter. The final frame was basically all defense with CVU just managing 7 points to St. Johnsbury’s 4.
The difference in the game was CVU’s defense, their rebounding which picked up after the first quarter and her team’s depth, Otley said. “We had so many kids that could play that we were able to keep the intensity high when the other team was getting really, really tired.”
After getting beaten by Mount Mansfield in the semifinals last year, it was great to finally win a state championship, senior Addi Hunter said. “It’s so exciting, something I’ve wanted for a long time.”
“The starting five have played together so many years,” Adam Bunting said. He knows this team better than just his association with them as principal or that his daughter Maddie Bunting is a member of the team. He coached many of them in the eighth grade.
This was Otley’s sixth state title, but first non-COVID title since 2017. When quarantine shutdown play in 2020, CVU, Essex, Mt. Mansfield and Rutland were all named as Division 1 “quad-champs.”
St. Johnsbury and CVU have a history of meeting in title games. The Redhawks took the title over the Hilltoppers in 2017, but fell to them in 2018 and 2019.
From 2011 to 2019, CVU girls teams played in every state title match, winning five in a row 2013-17.
In the Friday, March 3, title victory, Hunter scored 16 points and grabbed 6 rebounds, while Elise Berger had 11 points, 3 assists and 4 blocks. Lauren Vaughan notched 6 points, and Kate Boget and Merrill Jacobs both tallied 5 points apiece.