On a big night in NH hoops, I traveled north up route 114 to see John Stark host Kearsarge. The boys from North Sutton pull out a comeback win 46-43. Stark led by as much as 11, when it was 23-12 in the second quarter. They also led by eight, 31-23 late in the 3rd quarter. Kearsarge didn't get their first lead until there were just 5 minutes left in the game.
This honestly was not the most well played game for the first 3 quarters. But that definitely changed in the 4th quarter. There were 5 lead changes in the last 5 minutes alone. Kearsarge went on a 13-4 run late 3rd quarter and beginning of the 4th. As part of the run, senior guard Cam Heffron made an outstanding drive and and-one finish. The Cougars took their first lead of the game, 36-35 with 5:37 left. That's when the action really started to pick up, because as soon as the Cougars finally got the lead Stark came back down the court and 6'5" senior Ethan O'Neill nailed a three to give the Generals the lead right back 38-36.
Then Kearsarge tied it up at 38, off a very nice pass by Heffron. As soon as that happened, Stark answered right back to retake the lead on a 15 footer by O'Neill. It was 40-38 Stark with 3:26 left. Then the Generals got a big play on defense from junior forward David Morgan to take a charge and Stark had the ball with a minute left down 42-40. But then junior guard Steve Johnstone got called for traveling on his way to the basket and it was Kearsarge basketball. He was out of control on the drive. In that situation you have to slow it down a little bit and relax.
Stark was then forced to foul and sent Kearsarge junior guard Jake Broom to the line. He made both shots and it was 44-40. With just 27 seconds left, thing were looking pretty bleak for the Generals. But if there's something they can do it's shoot it from the outside. Especially junior guard Greg LeBlond, whose range is as good as anyone in the state not named Fitzpatrick or Burt. LeBlond had already hit one shot in the third quarter from 25 feet away. This time he drilled one from 23 feet away to cut the Cougar lead to 1. It was 44-43 with 17.3 seconds left.
Stark once again had to foul. Once again it was Broom who went to the line and once again he made both shots. 46-43 Kearsarge with 12 seconds left.
So the Generals had one last chance. They needed a three to send it to overtime. LeBlond brought it up. He was looking for a screen so he could come off of it and fire. Nice defense by Kearsarge though, they didn't allow him any room to get a shot off. He came to the left wing and then had to pass it back out to the top of the key. O'Neill attempted a three at the buzzer. But it hit the rim and fell to the floor. Game over. Kearsarge wins 46-43.
The difference in this game was tempo. Stark likes to play a "fast-paced, run and gun, push the ball up court and shoot a lot of three's" style of play. Kearsarge on the other hand is a half court team. Even though this was a very low scoring game throughout, the pace was still in Stark's favor. It was a fast paced game, they just weren't hitting enough shots. If they did they probably would have broken this thing open and ran away with it.
But in the last 4 minutes of the 3rd quarter and for most of the 4th quarter Kearsarge got Stark to play their style. They slowed the game to a crawl, especially when they took the lead in the 4th quarter. Not only did the Cougars slow the game down, but they got very good play from their guards out on the perimeter. This allowed them to slow the game down and maintain possession of the basketball for 20-30 seconds or more without turning it over even against John Stark's pressure defense. The credit here has to go to Kearsarge guards Heffron, Broom and junior Doug Gregory. Coach Camp's team slowed the game down, took the wind out of the Generals' sails, and that was the difference in the game.
One thing that I found very interesting about this game was the difference in scoring balance between the two teams. Kearsarge won this game, despite the fact that they didn't have anybody score more than 11. On the other hand, John Stark scored 43 points, and 36 of those 43 came from two players!
For Kearsarge, Broom had 11 and Heffron had 10. They had 5 players score between 6-10. It was a very balanced effort for the Cougars. Heffron has the ability to score more points, as does 6'2" junior Brett Bascom. But Heffron was more of a distributor tonight. The other night Heffron scored 35 points against Coe-Brown.
"They were really playing up on Heffron tonight" said Kearsarge head coach Nate Camp. "Stark's coach, Mike Smith is the son of Coe-Brown's coach Dave Smith. So I know that after we played Coe-Brown Dave Smith probably called his son up and told him to not let Heffron score!"
For Stark, O'Neill poured in a game-high 20, and LeBlond scored 16. The Generals have 4 players capable of scoring 20 on any given night. Two of them are O'Neill and LeBlond. The other 2 are senior guard Tim Plunkett and junior guard Steve Johnstone. Those two players however, combined for just 6 points.
All of that being said, I was terribly impressed by either squad tonight and I wouldn't be surprised to see both exit the tournament in the first round.
John Stark relies way too much on the three ball. If their shooting is on, I guess they could win a game or possibly two in the tourney. But they would really have to be on from the outside. And they'll need more than just O'Neill and LeBlond to do the damage.
Kearsarge plays good team basketball, and they're very well coached. But they just don't have enough talent to beat the top 6 or 7 teams in Class I. They also lack size, as they didn't play anyone taller than 6'2" tonight.
I was very impressed with Heffron's all around game tonight. He had 10 points and 5 assists. But what he does for Kearsarge goes far beyond the stat sheet. He makes plays when they need it most. He cool under the pressure. He's a very good defender. He's not flashy and he's not going to wow you with athleticism. But he just does everything well and helps his team in so many ways.
LeBlond reminds me a lot of Alex Burt. I know that comparison might seem crazy considering Burt is the #1 ranked senior. But watch both players play. The body type and skill set of the two players is very similar. Both like to shoot it from way behind the arc. Both are combo guards who can play off the ball with with it in their hands. LeBlond might even be quicker off the dribble than Burt. And he's also a slightly better defender. And both players could be better at passing and creating easy shots for their teammates. If LeBlond keeps getting better he could be even more similar to Burt next year.