By Matt Bosley
CLINTONVILLE - Spectators at this year's Hoops for Hope tournament were treated to an extremely high level of play from some of the best high school boys basketball teams from this area and beyond.
The tournament, which benefits both North Country Hospice and the ALS Foundation, featured the top teams from both the CVAC and MVAC as well as one of Vermont's perennial powerhouses.
First Round - Jan. 2
Harwood 46, Westport 45
In perhaps the most dramatic game of the tournament, MVAC-leading Westport was handed its first loss of the season with a heartbreaking last-second play.
Harwood, a school that graduates over 300 students each year and semi-finalists in last year's Vermont state championship, took an early lead as Eric Mackey scored 10 in the first half to help put the Highlanders ahead 23-17 at halftime.
The visitors would extend their lead to nine before the Eagles battled back, taking a 34-33 lead on a long-range jumper from Sean Davis with just under five minutes remaining.
The two teams would trade the lead for the remainder of the game as Harwood guard Steve LaRock traded scores with Westport's Bo McKinley and Nathan Gay.
Down by one with nine seconds remaining, Gay would connect on a go-ahead layup with three seconds left. However, on the ensuing play Mackey drew a foul on his last-second shot attempt and converted both free throws for the win.
Mackey was the leading scorer for Harwood with 14 and LaRock contributed 10.
McKinley finished with 16 points to go with four assists for the Eagles. Gay added 15 and 11 rebounds.
"I think we played a great game, both offensively and defensively," said Westport head coach Brad Rascoe. "We had a great second half; we came back, we did what we needed to do. It's just a learning experience. Hopefully, if we ever get in this situation again, we'll know exactly what to do, and the meaning of 'no foul' is engraved in their head a little more after this game."
Rascoe praised his entire team for their defensive effort.
"I think we kept them off balance for a lot of the game," he said. "We all made some nice stops."
AuSable Valley 69, Willsboro 39
Eleven players found their way into the scoring column for AuSable Valley as they extended their undefeated record to 6-0 with a decisive win over Willsboro.
The Patriots got off to a slow start, maintaining a narrow lead for the first six minutes of play. They gradually found their rhythm though, taking a 34-21 lead into halftime.
AuSable Valley's pressure defense proved troublesome for Willsboro as the Patriots used several traps to force turnovers, sparking a 12-2 run midway through the second half.
Ricky Lee and T.J. Burl led AVCS with 12 points and six rebounds apiece. Ryan Murphy added 10 for the Patriots.
T.J. Pierce led Willsboro with seven points, and Lucas Strong, Alex Hamel, and Alex Shepherd each pitched in six.
"AuSable Valley came out very aggressive on defense," said Willsboro head coach Jim Spring. "We're not used to seeing that kind of pressure very often in our league."
"The 14-day layoff didn't help us that much," said AuSable Valley head coach Jamie Douglass. "We came out a bit lethargic, but once we stepped up on defense, that's when we restarted."
Second Round - Jan. 3
Westport 60, Willsboro 19
The Eagles quickly rebounded from their loss to rout Willsboro in the consolation game.
With strong play from Nathan Gay and Curtis Mead, Westport jumped out to an early double-digit lead which rose to 32-9 at halftime.
The Eagles forced several turnovers from the Warriors and held them to just six field goals for the game. Alex Hamel accounted for much of Willsboro's offense with nine points.
Gay was key for Westport with 17 points. Bo McKinley added 12 and Mead nine. All eight Westport players on the roster scored.
Harwood 58, AuSable Valley 51
The team from Vermont proved too much for the host team once again as they repeated as Hoops for Hope tournament champions and serving AuSable Valley its first defeat of the season.
The game was tightly contested with several lead changes throughout. At one point midway through the first half, it seemed the Highlanders might run away with the game, going on an 8-0 run. The Patriots battled back, however, cutting Harwood's lead to just one before halftime.
Coming out strong in the second half, AuSable Valley built a four point lead. With six minutes left and the score tied at 40, Harwood clamped down on defense, forcing the Patriots to get their points at the free throw line where they struggled late in the game.
Meanwhile, the Highlanders surged on offense, finding a way to break through the Patriots' tenacious full-court defense.
Thomas Jacobs-Moore hit several big shots for Harwood and finished with 16 points. Toby Morehouse came off the bench to score 15, including three 3-pointers.
Jamie Hart led the Patriots with 15 points. Matt Hamilton and Ricky Lee each pitched in 9 to compliment their excellent defensive play.
"AuSable came out and put a lot of pressure on us and we had a hard time with that in the first half," said Ray Drake, head coach for Harwood. "We settled down a little bit in the second half and were able to make some nice plays handling the ball."
"I was impressed with AuSable," added Drake. "I think they played with a lot of heart and enthusiasm. I think they out-hustled us, but we were just lucky enough to make a few more baskets than they did."
"We had a lot of opportunities to win at the end," said AuSable Valley head coach Jamie Douglass. "We had some trouble shooting from the outside and missed some crucial foul shots down the stretch."
"Our guys played hard; they left it all out on the floor," added Douglass. "This was our first loss, but if we play like that in the CVAC, I think we're going to be very successful."
Douglass estimated that the proceeds from this year's tournament will exceed the $1,000 collected last year for its two charitable causes, thanks to good attendance and contributions from participants.
2009 Hoops for Hope All-Tournament Team
Most Valuable Player: Eric Mackey (Harwood)
Defensive Player of Tourney: Matt Hamilton (AVCS)
First Team: Thomas Jacobs-Moore (Harwood), Toby Morehouse (Harwood), Bo McKinley (Westport), Alex Hamel (Willsboro), Ricky Lee (AVCS)
Second team: Nathan Gay (Westport), Curtis Mead (Westport), Ryan Murphy (AVCS), Jamie Hart (AVCS), Steve LaRock (Harwood)