CVU girls basketball team to state title game

“The best offense is a good defense,” an old sports cliché goes. The Champlain Valley Union High girls basketball team proved on Sunday night that sometimes old sports clichés still ring true.

The Redhawks shutdown Rutland’s offense on Sunday night, March 3, with an overpowering defense to take a 46-20 win that put the team back in the state title game at 7 p.m., tonight at UVM’s Patrick Gym.

Tonight’s title game is a rematch against St. Johnsbury, a contest the Redhawks won last year to take the state championship. It is also an opportunity for CVU to get a measure of revenge for the one game it lost this year. At the beginning of February, St. Johnsbury prevailed over the Redhawks by one point, 52-51, in Hinesburg. This came after CVU had beaten the Hilltoppers in St. Johnsbury 58-47 at the beginning of January.

Photo by Amy Vaughan. 

Elise Berger takes a shot against Rutland in a state semifinal matchup on Sunday.
Photo by Amy Vaughan. Elise Berger takes a shot against Rutland in a state semifinal matchup on Sunday.

Against Rutland in the semifinal, the Redhawks got really good up-tempo play from senior Elise Berger, who would push the ball up the middle of the floor, get into the lane, drawing two, sometime three defenders. Berger then often kicked the ball back out to guards Zoey McNabb and Merrill Jacobs for 3-pointers.

This is not a type of play that coach Ute Otley usually allows, but in Berger she has a unique talent. Previously, it has been a hallmark of CVU girls basketball that they don’t shoot threes quickly in transition.

But that has changed with Berger’s skill set.

“We haven’t had a point guard that gets in the lane like that and draws so much attention. Most teams can’t guard her with one person,” Otley said. “She’s just too big and too strong.”

The coach was pleased with the way Berger pushed the tempo against Rutland, particularly in the second half.

So, Otley has given her team the green light to hit the type of fast transition outside shots that have traditionally been taboo.

And it worked well for the Redhawks. Otley noted that it helped because it is “really disheartening when a team is scrambling to get back and your opponent is knocking down threes before you can mount any sort of defense.”

The Redhawks have focused on defense this season, the coach said, and when her players have lost that focus and been seduced into too much concern with scoring, they’ve had close games — their first matchups against Mount Mansfield and Burlington and their only loss to St. Johnsbury.

“I feel like these last five or six games the kids are really refocused,” Otley said. “You know, ‘Defense wins championships.’”

CVU altered its defenses to keep Rutland off balance and contain high-scoring guard Anna Moser. In their game during the regular season, a close 47-43 win, Moser had 23 points. On Sunday, the Redhawks held her to just 7.

Otley credited Nina Zimakas’ defense for being instrumental in keeping Moser at bay.

“If you can really make the other team uncomfortable with your defense, I just think your chances of winning go up dramatically,” she said.

Your chances of winning also go up if you win the turnover battle. CVU had seven turnovers for the game, while forcing Rutland to cough up the ball 22 times.

“It’s hard to win games when you turn it over more than 15 times,” Otley said.

At the half, CVU was up 21-14. Then, they cranked the defense up in the second half, only allowing Rutland to score 6 points.

Otley, of Charlotte by the way, is in her 13th season as CVU’s head girls basketball coach. Wednesday’s game will be the 10th time she’s taken the Redhawks to the state title match. And she had won six of those contests before tonight’s game.