Orford — The Rivendell Academy girls basketball team figured keeping Oxbow’s Sara Walker off the glass would be essential to winning its first-round Vermont Division III playoff game.
Walker had other plans in store, however, as the senior co-captain hauled in 20 rebounds to help the No. 10 Olympians defeat the seventh-seeded Raptors, 49-39, on Wednesday in Orford.
“(Walker’s) an excellent player, tough on the boards,” Rivendell coach Hank Tenney said. “She was getting rebounds from the foul line on her foul shots. … She’s my kind of player; she’s really a tough competitor, so I have a lot of respect for her. I’m just glad she’s a senior.”
Senior leadership — in the form of Walker (13 points), Kayleigh Trojanowski and Alex Giesing — was a key factor in the Olympians’ victory, according to their coach, Barry Emerson.
“Honestly, I think having three seniors that don’t want to lose right now (was a difference-maker),” Emerson said. “Rivendell, they don’t have any seniors, so those girls are probably thinking, ‘We’ve got another day.’ ”
The regional rivalry between the two schools was already compelling in nature, but sprinkling playoff consequences into the mix made for an intense contest that was played at a dizzying pace.
The Raptors (14-7) were the aggressors early on, closing the first quarter with a 10-0 run to grab a 15-6 lead.
Rivendell called a timeout after Trojanowski found teammate Mariah Shumway on a long lob pass from a sideline out-of-bounds play in front of the Olympians’ bench. The Raptors responded with baseline jumpers from Casey Ghio and Sienna Carter, a free throw from Mikayla Stever, a 3-pointer by Mikayla DeBois and a driving Stever layup — all in a row.
Stever (five points) and Carter (six points), both logged valuable minutes as freshmen coming off Rivendell’s bench.
“They played very good ball for their first time in tournament play,” Tenney said.
The second quarter belonged to the Olympians.
Jessie Daigle ended Oxbow’s nearly four-minute scoring drought with a layup to halt the Raptor run. Oxbow soon regained the lead at 18-17 after an impressive hustle play by Jillian Smith. The junior dove out of bounds below the baseline to keep an offensive rebound alive following a foul shot by Walker.
The ball ended up back in the hands of Walker, who was again fouled while driving to the hole. This time, the chairwoman of the boards knocked down both free throws and, on the next play, Trojanowski found Shumway with a nice bounce pass in transition.
Trojanowski finished with a game-high 14 points, and Shumway added 12 for Oxbow.
Rivendell, down 24-23 at intermission, opened the third quarter with a 3-pointer by Leah Rutherford, but Oxbow responded with a pair of free throws and a jump shot by Shumway, followed by two free throws and a jumper by Trojanowski.
The Raptors, who entered the fourth quarter down five, got a much-need 3-pointer from DeBois (12 points) followed by a Riley Thomson layup. But Oxbow, which split two games with the Raptors during the regular season, turned the tide again with a Trojanowski jumper and a 3-point play by Walker.
Oxbow’s preparation was likely aided by its membership in the formidable Capital League. The Olympians played 13 Division II opponents this season, while the Raptors — a Central Vermont League member — played none.
Emerson’s team looked generally stronger than its now 9-12 record may have suggested.
“This is the third year we’ve gone on the road as an underdog and won,” Emerson said. “The schedule helps a lot, but this isn’t a good position to be in. Nobody wants to be the 10 seed. … We’re lucky that this was a 14-minute trip. If you draw Enosburg or something in the first round, that’s not going to be any fun.”
Tenney agreed with his counterpart’s assessment of the Olympians’ strength of schedule.
“To me, that’s not an upset because they play a much tougher schedule than we do,” Tenney said. “Record-wise, we might have had the higher seed, but we weren’t the overall favorite. … We’re (in) a tough bracket. The winner of this game has to play Thetford, and that’s no picnic.”
Oxbow will face the No. 2 Panthers (16-5), its Capital League rivals, on Saturday in Thetford.