By ANDY KIRKALDY
BRISTOL — About two seconds remained in the boys’ basketball game at Mount Abraham Friday evening when Otter Valley Union High School freshman guard Connor Denis launched a contested three-pointer from the arc’s right side.
Eagle senior Gavin Bannister had just scored with nine seconds to go to tie the score, 55-55. That bucket had followed an OV rally from down by 40-28 to open the fourth quarter, one sparked by two sophomores: In the fourth period, forward Drew Pelkey went for 10 points, and guard Logan Letourneau sank three three-pointers.
Denis’s high-arching shot hit the backboard, and then the front of the rim. The ball rolled slowly around toward the back of the iron.
As the final horn sounded, the ball dropped through the hoop. OV had won, 58-55.
A blue wave of Otters surged off the bench and washed over Denis, the game’s smallest and youngest player, who had come through in its biggest moment.
The Otters moved to 3-3 heading into a Tuesday visit from Mount Anthony, a record compiled all on the road and includes two close losses. OV Coach Mike Stark, was, like his team, pumped.
“We continued to claw back and claw back and didn’t give up. And this group has a lot of chemistry and they work hard, and they never give up. That’s what I love about this team,” Stark said. “And Connor Denis, game-winning shot, and he’s a freshman. How can you not love that?”
Stark also pointed to Pelkey, who stepped into a larger role after senior starting center Ben Adams injured an ankle during warmups, an obstacle for the Otters given the Eagles start the six-foot-five Bannister and six-foot-four junior Ian Funke.
“Drew Pelkey was a difference-maker for us tonight,” Stark said. “He’s had some injuries lately. For him to come back and have the game he had tonight was huge.”
Coach Martin Clark saw his Eagles fall to 2-3. He credited the Otters.
“They played hard. They’re a team that never gives up,” Clark said.
But he also pointed to his team’s turnovers and defensive errors.
“We made some mistakes there and let them back in the game,” Clark said. “In a close game anything can happen, and it did. We made a great play to get it tied, and they hit a great shot at the end. That’s the way the ball bounces some days.”
The first half ended with the Eagles holding a 23-20 lead after dominating the boards, 20-11 including team rebounds. But the Otters’ press troubled the Eagles’ passing and ballhandling, and the Eagles were at times careless with the ball (11 first-half turnovers) when they tried to force the ball inside against the OV zone.
“There’s no doubt we have to do a better job taking care of the ball,” Clark said.
Bannister, seniors Norman Benoit and Brenden Oxford, and junior Owen Frizzell led the Eagles with four points each in the half.
Stark liked his team’s work on the defensive end: “Defensively we were on point.” Offensively in the half, five points from senior guard Owen Thomas in the first quarter and six points from sophomore sub Lucas Politano in the second helped OV stay close.
In the third quarter the Eagles switched to a zone that offset the Otters’ quickness. They also took better care of the ball and apparently also took control of the game by outscoring OV, 13-5, including six transition points in the period.
Funke broke loose for six points in the third quarter, while Benoit scored four, and a three by senior guard Chance Denecker set the score at 40-28 heading into the fourth. At the other end Pelkey scored five of the eight OV points in the quarter.
The teams traded buckets to open the fourth, with Eagle sophomore guard Hayden Lutz cashing in a Denecker steal to answer a Denis three to make the score 42-31.
Then OV erupted for 13-2 run to tie the score at 44-44 with 4:04 to go, solving the Eagle zone and by attacking along the baseline.
“I think it worked in our favor because it was so high,” Stark said. “It helped our baseline cutters in their finishing.”
Clark said the tactic was sound, but the execution was not.
“The biggest thing was our low post, he was getting drawn up with everybody else,” Clark said. “We’ll learn from it.”
With only a Bannister layup answering for Mount Abe, Pelkey drove for three hoops in that surge, adding a free throw after one; Letourneau nailed a three; and Denis and senior Aiden Decker combined for three free throws.
Then the teams traded baskets before a Lutz three gave Mount Abe a 53-48 lead. Letourneau then sank two three-pointers to put OV on top, 54-53, at 2:35. At about 2:00 Denis hit a free throw to make it 55-53.
The Eagles got the ball back with less than a minute to go. Two non-shooting fouls took time off the clock until Bannister got position on the right block, took a feed from Funke, and laid it in over his left shoulder at 0:09.
Overtime loomed, but the Otters, Denis, and a friendly backboard and rim had other ideas.
Pelkey led the Otters with 16 points. Letourneau scored 12, Denis had eight; and Decker and Thomas chipped in seven apiece.
Stark said pulling out a close game on the road should give his team a shot in the arm.
“I think this is going to lift them to where we want to be,” he said. “This could be a huge confidence booster.”
Bannister scored 14 to lead Mount Abe, Lutz finished with 10, seven in the fourth quarter; Funke and Benoit notched eight apiece; and Frizzell added six. Denecker sparked the team defensively.
The positives Clark saw were good offensive balance and ball movement, and he expects improvement where it is needed.
“Up 12 in the second half, we should put it away,” Clark said. “We’re going to get better.”