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12th-Seeded Danville Stuns Whitcomb in Opener

South Royalton — Even as his Whitcomb Hornets were steppin’ out of the Vermont Division IV girls basketball tournament, third-year coach Dennis Wood remained confident the program is steppin’ up.

Behind the play of senior twins Erika and Melanie Pastula, No. 12 Danville built a double-digit lead after halftime and fought off repeated comeback attempts to oust No. 5 Whitcomb last night, 58-46, at the South Royalton School. Down by as many as 13 points in the third quarter, the Hornets (14-7) closed to within one possession of the Indians (9-12) with 2½ minutes to play before the visitors’ free-throw shooting took its toll.

Whitcomb had a hit-and-miss night from the perimeter and was downright off-target from the charity stripe. Wood was looking forward afterward, however, having seen his squad post its first winning season and earn a first-round home-away-from-home game for the first time since 2004-05.

“We had a core group of athletes that were young when I started; they’re juniors now, so I think we’ve built the program up so we should have success year to year,” Wood said. “We just have a problem with numbers.”

Some of Whitcomb’s numbers, however, are simply going up.

Wood, with a daughter in the program, took over in 2010 despite not having coached a varsity basketball team since a 12-season stint with the Whitcomb boys ended in 1994. After a six-win debut, the Hornets improved to 10-10 last winter and went back to the state tournament for the first time since two years before Wood’s return to the bench.

Having not achieved 14 victories since 2003-04, Whitcomb progressed further by earning last night’s “home” game, played at SoRo because the Hornets’ floor is too small.

Senior Reba Hart had a team-high 16 points in her final high school game for Whitcomb. Promising still for Wood is the knowledge that two other top scorers, junior Ashley Stearns (13 points) and freshman Lindsey LaPerle (eight), will return to continue the progress.

“We’ve got to be happy with our regular season,” Wood said. “Luck of the draw: We got a very tough 8-12 team that was much bigger than us and killed us on the boards.

“I was proud of the girls. They came back in the third quarter and made a game of it. We had them worried. If we made a few more foul shots, a few more shots … if, if, if.”

Whitcomb committed just six turnovers in the first half, but five came consecutively in the mid-second quarter to help Danville reverse an 18-15 deficit. Melanie Pastula opened a 10-0 burst with an easy basket set up by her sister’s assist, and junior Mary Hahr closed it with her only two buckets of the evening.

Down 27-19 at the half, Whitcomb clawed back on multiple occasions only to come up painfully short of its goal.

“We moved the ball real well tonight, which was our game plan, and it worked,” Danville coach Dean Valentine said. “Our shooting was ecstatic tonight (23-for-57). We don’t shoot like that normally.”

Baskets from Mackenzie Delia and Stearns closed Whitcomb’s gap to 27-23 to open the third quarter, but a third chance to get closer still went begging on of a turnover. Danville responded by reeling off the next eight points and 10 of the next 13 for a game-best 39-26 advantage.

The Hornets didn’t quit. Two LaPerle runners around a Begin free throw prefaced a Hart hoop to end the period, bringing Whitcomb to within 39-33. Stearns missed a 3-pointer at the buzzer, but Hart opened the fourth with a mid-range jumper and the Hornet faithful buzzed with enthusiasm. The deficit stood at 47-44 after LaPerle sank the first of two foul shots with 2:38 to go.

That’s when the Hornets’ free-throw shooting failed them. Whitcomb converted just one of eight chances at the line in the fourth period; Danville — no great shakes at 12-for-20 on the evening — made seven out of eight in the final two minutes to pull away.

The Indians, taller at every position, also owned the glass to the tune of a 52-29 rebounding advantage. Melanie Pastula recorded 19 caroms to go with 12 points, while Erika Pastula notched a team-high 16 points.

“If we could get them to miss, we didn’t get them one-and-done and get the rebound,” Wood said. “They were so big at all positions, girls a foot taller than them trying to box them out.”

Still, it’s progress for Whitcomb, which has all of 38 girls in its high school grades. And that has Wood lookin’ up.

“We just have to get enough numbers up, somehow,” he said, “so that we can build on the program.”

Free Throws: Whitcomb was hampered by an illness to senior Cambry Zullick, who normally plays center for the Hornets. Zullick gave it a go in the first quarter but was unable to continue. … The hosts were 19-of-63 from the field and a tepid 3-for-24 from beyond the 3-point arc. … Teresa White added 10 points for the Indians, which will visit No. 4 Concord tomorrow night in the quarterfinals. … Danville and Whitcomb traded D-IV state titles a while back, with the Hornets conquering the Indians in 1996 and Danville returning the favor a year later. Danville has made six state finals since then, winning four. … Whitcomb loses Delia, Hart and Zullick to graduation.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.