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D-I girls basketball Final Four: How CVU, St. Johnsbury secured title-game rematch

A sequel to last year's championship game is set.

Top-seeded and defending champion Champlain Valley suffocated No. 4 Rutland in a 46-20 victory while second-seeded St. Johnsbury held off No. 3 Burlington's late surge in a 45-42 decision during Sunday's Division I high school girls basketball semifinals at University of Vermont's Patrick Gym.

After splitting their regular-season matchups this winter, CVU (21-1) and St. Johnsbury (19-3) will square off in a title-game rematch on Wednesday night at UVM. Tip-off is slated for 7.

"It’s great to be back and an awesome feeling," CVU senior Elise Berger said moments after her team's victory.

"We are excited to be back with another rematch with CVU," St. Johnsbury coach Jade Huntington said. "They are a great team and very well-coached. We have a lot to contend with."

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But before we get to that championship showdown, here's a closer look at how CVU and St. Johnsbury secured their title berths at Sunday's Final Four.

Hayden Wilkins powers St. Johnsbury past Burlington

After putting up goose egg in St. Johnsbury's loss at Burlington late in the regular season, senior guard Hayden Wilkins came out determined from the opening tip versus the Seahorses in the semifinals.

Wilkins dropped 15 of her game-high 19 points in the first half, finishing 6 of 12 from the field and 5 of 7 at the foul line to go with six rebounds, four steals, two assists and no turnovers in 29-plus minutes. Wilkins offered an array of pull-up jumpers, long-range 3s and drives, and that production, combined with her defensive effort, steered the Hilltoppers to 50% field-goal shooting through the first two quarters and a 28-19 halftime advantage.

"I knew coming in today I was going to have be there for my team and I know that they have their trust in me, so I just had to go out there and do my thing," said Wilkins, whose clutch shots last year at this stage lifted the Northeast Kingdom program to an overtime victory over Rutland.

St Johnsbury's Hayden Wilkins shoots a 3-pointer during the Hilltoppers' 45-42 win over Burlington in the D1 semifinals on Sunday night at UVM's Patrick Gym.
St Johnsbury's Hayden Wilkins shoots a 3-pointer during the Hilltoppers' 45-42 win over Burlington in the D1 semifinals on Sunday night at UVM's Patrick Gym.

While not scoring at the same clip as last winter, when she was the Metro player of the year, Wilkins has become a difference-maker in other areas of her game, Huntington said.

"I thinks she likes this gym, I think she likes this court an awful lot," Huntington said. "(Wilkins') been on a mission since midseason. It hasn’t always translated to points and I know that’s what everybody else sees on the outside. But her mission has been about this team and whatever she needs to do to get this team where it needs to go.

"If anybody’s been taking note, the kid has been playing hellacious defense."

The Hilltoppers pushed to a 36-24 margin with 2:40 left in the third on Adrianna Hever's basket following an offensive rebound. Burlington responded with a 7-0 spurt to close the quarter, and then extended that into 10 unanswered points when Rukiya Awayle opened the fourth with a 3-pointer.

In SJA's defeat at Burlington on Feb. 19, the Seahorses uncorked a 24-point fourth quarter for a 61-52 comeback win.

"They can light it up in a hurry. It’s almost like they hold on to everything they got and then they let loose in the fourth quarter," Huntington said. "We just talked about the fact that we needed to have enough in our tank and our heart and play with those extra guts on every possession."

Burlington's Nylah Mitchell gets position for a rebound during the Seahorses' 45-42 loss to the Hilltoppers in the D1 semifinals on Sunday night at UVM's Patrick Gym.
Burlington's Nylah Mitchell gets position for a rebound during the Seahorses' 45-42 loss to the Hilltoppers in the D1 semifinals on Sunday night at UVM's Patrick Gym.

After Wilkins went 1 of 2 at the foul line, Nylah Mitchell poured in a 3-pointer on the wing to level the game at 37. Kaia Anderson (10 points, 13 board) answered for St. Johnsbury with a driving layup; Awayle followed with a pair of free throws to knot the game at 39 with 5:49 to play.

Cassidy Kittredge and Wilkins sandwiched 1 of 2 efforts at the foul line around Anderson's second chance field goal to give SJA a four-point cushion, 43-39 with 2:30 on the clock. But BHS wouldn't go away. Bree McDonald canned a 3-pointer to draw BHS to within one.

After both teams traded missed shots, Anderson converted at the rim after Anna Ebert's offensive board and assist for a 45-42 margin. After a hurried offensive set, McDonald's 3-point heave in the closing seconds was off the mark and time ran out for a second attempt.

"I just wanted us to get the lead and that would’ve changed the momentum a little bit. But we just never got that," Burlington coach Bev Robertson said.

Mitchell led Burlington (16-6) with a double-double of 12 points and 10 boards. McDonald (six boards, five assists, two steals) and Awayle each added nine points. The junior-heavy Seahorses only graduate two seniors.

"I’m really proud of this team. They really stayed together and got to this point," Robertson said. "We will be back, hopefully stronger than ever."

CVU defense overwhelms Rutland to cruise into another final

CVU's Nina Zimakas shoots a three-pointer during the Redhawks' 46-20 win over Rutland in the D1 semifinals at UVM's Patrick Gym on Sunday night.
CVU's Nina Zimakas shoots a three-pointer during the Redhawks' 46-20 win over Rutland in the D1 semifinals at UVM's Patrick Gym on Sunday night.

CVU coach Ute Otley said her players experimented with different defensive looks in the first half as they tried to contain Rutland sharpshooter Anna Moser and power forward Jasmine Evans.

"In the second half, we came in with a clear plan," Otley said.

And it's one that should be showed in defensive training videos.

The Redhawks harassed Moser and her backcourt teammates, jumped passing lanes and kicked into a back-breaking transition offense to subdue the southern Vermont power and advance to the program's 21st title game and 10th in Otley's 13-year tenure in Hinesburg.

Ahead 21-14 at the break, CVU kept Rutland to six second-half points — and just two in the fourth quarter — on 2 of 8 shooting from the floor. Rutland also turned it over 12 times out of the break, leading to a dozen Redhawk points. After totaling 12 of Rutland's 14 first-half points, Moser and Evans combined for one point in the second stanza.

"We’ve been working pretty hard on it this week. We knew Rutland brought a special set of challenges with Moser and her range and Evans being just so strong in the paint," Otley said. "We really spent a lot of time trying to figure out how to make the other kids score the basketball and try and take those two kids out of it as much as possible."

Jasmine Evans works the ball into the low post during Rutland's 46-20 loss to CVU in the D1 semifinals on Sunday night at UVM's Patrick Gym.
Jasmine Evans works the ball into the low post during Rutland's 46-20 loss to CVU in the D1 semifinals on Sunday night at UVM's Patrick Gym.

CVU's 11-2 third quarter included Nia Zimakas' three-point play and 3-pointer in front of the CVU bench, Berger's steal and assist to Samara Ashooh and Alexandra Montgomery's post finish via Grace Thompson's bounce pass in the paint.

In the fourth, Merrill Jacobs converted a pair of Berger passes into field goals, the latter on a 3-point splash after Berger swiped possession and stormed up court with a drive and kick to balloon the margin to 40-18 with 4:55 to go.

"Our kids know, inside, outside 3s are allowed. If Berger drives up the middle of that lane and sucks in a crowd, you are allowed to be ready to catch and shoot, which is new for me," Otley said. "I would never have allowed that before, but Berger is a different kind of thing, we have to take advantage of that."

Berger paced CVU's balanced effort with 10 points, five rebounds, three assists and three steals. Jacobs added eight points with a pair of 3s and four others had at least five points. CVU finished with edges in paint scoring (24-8), points off turnovers (20-5), bench scoring (17-2) and second-chance points (10-2).

"Defense is something we focus on. It’s all talk and being on the same page, it’s what makes our defense really cohesive," Berger said. "And it shows ... six points in the second half is a big deal."

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Contact Alex Abrami at aabrami@freepressmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter: @aabrami5.

This article originally appeared on Burlington Free Press: VT high school girls basketball semifinals: CVU, St. Johnsbury advance