MILTON — Richard Walker’s career-high 32-point night was the push Missisquoi needed to avenge a home loss to Milton earlier in the month and drop the Yellowjackets in Milton last Friday, 70-64.
Walker exploded for 24 first-quarter points in what was an exciting game from start to finish.
Milton’s Brandon Button swished a 3/4-court buzzer-beater to end the third quarter and put the hosts in position to cut MVU’s lead all the way down to a single point early in the fourth. The Thunderbirds (9-7) pulled away late, though, thanks in no small part to an 18-for-20 effort from the foul line that included a perfect 7-of-7 in the fourth quarter.
Milton (7-9) weathered Walker’s mammoth first half and nearly pulled off a win behind Eric Menard’s 16-point, 10-rebound night and Button’s 12 points. The Yellowjackets held Walker to eight points in the second half but conceded 14 to Austin Sullivan, who finished with 20.
The biggest turnaround from Milton’s 86-66 win in Swanton on January 7 was fouls. Milton coach Chris Brown was quick to give credit to Missisquoi for converting its opportunities, but was clearly frustrated at a large difference in fouls called against the two teams Friday.
“First half I think it was eight fouls to zero midway through the second quarter before there was a foul,” Brown said. “Give MVU credit; they played disciplined defense. But that’s a tough one to deal with.”
MVU coach Jim Bose said the disciplined defense was intentional — not just due to the way the first meeting went, but also to having almost no bench Friday, thanks to injuries.
“It was a short personnel night. I had no subs tonight,” Bose said, noting he had to dip into his JV roster just to staff the varsity squad. “That’s why we played a lot of zone, and of course they came out and had something like nine threes on us tonight.
“I’ve got give credit to the five, five-and-a-half guys who played tonight, to stay in that game and not get in foul trouble. When we played these guys at home, we were in foul trouble in the first four minutes,” he said.
Missisquoi’s first-half surge came about from a combination of that disciplined defense and a career half for Walker, who opened the game with a 3-point play and got even stronger in the second quarter, when he dropped in 16 points.
Milton had jumped out to a 12-5 lead early and was ahead 14-13 after the first, despite a last-second three from MVU’s Nick Poissant.
Down 26-25 after a Ryan Brown three with just over three minutes to go in the first half, Walker scored all 14 Missisquoi points in the final three minutes, including a pull-up three on his only long-range attempt of the game and a layup at the buzzer off for a 39-33 T-Bird lead at halftime.
“Walker played great in the first half,” Brown said. “We had a hard time defending him; he was getting by guys, he was hitting shots. He gave them a lot of energy, and they responded well.”
The frantic pace slowed greatly in the third quarter as MVU sought to protect its lead and legs. Sullivan kicked off the quarter with a three and later dropped another after the Thunderbirds had run 45 seconds off the clock. Another Sullivan bucket on a baseline runner with 1:15 left had Missisquoi up 49-39 and seemingly in control before sloppy play and a tremendous shot brought Milton right back.
Holding for one more shot in the final seconds, a poor pass cost MVU possession and put the ball in Button’s hands for the obligatory snowball’s-chance-in-a-hot-gym attempt from his foul line. Button tossed a beauty that was on target the whole way and sent the home crowd into a frenzy, closing the deficit to 49-42.
“Brandon had a great game, he’s a great shooter,” Brown said of his junior, who hit his next attempt with a three early in the fourth and scored nine points in the second half. “He’s actually sick today, so I wasn’t sure what his energy level was. But he kept giving me the thumbs-up saying he could keep going, and he had a great game for us.”
Button’s gap-closer enabled Milton to up the pace again in the fourth and make a run. Sullivan and Walker each scored in response to an opening free throw by Milton to make it 53-43 before Button lit up the crowd once more with a somewhat shorter three than his prior one. Riley Wilkin answered that with a beautiful up-and-under layup for MVU. On the next possession Milton’s Kyle Apgar, who scored all seven of his points in the second half and pulled down four rebounds, drained a three to make it 55-49.
Walker put Missisquoi back up by eight with his 29th and 30th points of the night, coming from the free throw line. Milton followed with its best run since the first quarter. Button made all three free throws after an MVU foul, and Menard hit an elbow jumper. Logan Bean — who finished with nine points, five steals and three assists — swiped the ball and converted the layup to make it 57-56 game with 3:30 left in the fourth.
“We got it to within a point but they ended up closing the game,” Brown said. “We played well offensively as a whole. A lot of different guys hit shots.”
Cutting stopped the bleeding for MVU with an and-one play followed by a baseline layup, scoring seven of his nine points in the fourth quarter. A Menard 3-point play brought Milton close again, but was answered by a slash from Sullivan to put MVU up 64-59 with 2:10 left.
With the game at its most critical juncture, the play of the day didn’t belong to Walker, Sullivan or even Button.
After another steal by Bean and a layup or foul on the breakaway all but certain, Poissant raced from the opposite 3-point line and somehow caught Bean from behind, never leaving his feet and getting contact only on the ball as he blocked what could have been a devastating shot.
Milton failed to score off the ensuing inbounds and the next points were Walker’s final two, again from the line. A final steal and layup from Bean made it 66-61, but MVU answered with a brilliant long pass from Sullivan to an unmarked Cutting for an easy layup.
Ryan Brown finished with eight points, seven rebounds and three steals for Milton. Ben Hanson collected six points and six boards, and Chris Ryea added five points. Ian Jennings contributed a point and three rebounds, and Seth Herrity had three rebounds and three assists.