Last night I saw an excellent basketball game in a packed gym between Alvirne and Winnacunnet. The Warriors lock up the top seed in Class L, and finish the regular season 15-3 with a come from behind 66-61 win over the Broncos.
Winnacunnet is the top seed, Alvirne is going on the road in the prelims. But that did not show tonight. Overall, I saw two evenly matched teams going at it. Alvirne actually led this game 48-36 with 3:29 left in the 3rd quarter. Winnacunnet didn't get it all back it once, it's not like they went on a 12-0 run at any point. But they're a scrappy team. Little by little, they scratched and clawed their way back into the game.
The Warriors cut the lead to 4, 49-45 after 3 quarters. To start the fourth Ryan Dunn hit a layup and then Harry Knowles made a pair of free throws. Just like that the lead was gone and it was tied 49-49. Brand new ballgame with 7:30 left.
At that point the gym was really rocking. Even though Winnacunnet is over 45 minutes away from from Alvirne, they brought a ton of fans with them. When the Warriors were making their run they really started to make some noise. And the Alvirne student section was matching them. It was one of the loudest gyms I've been in all season, and it made for a tournament atmosphere.
Shortly Winnacunnet took their first lead of the game on a free throw, then a bucket gave them a 52-49 lead. The Warriors were flat out making more plays down the stretch. They had a couple layups late either in the half court are on a secondary break where the Alvirne defense broke down and left somebody wide open underneath.
Alvirne wasn't going away though. Caleb Donnelly, who had 17 points on the game, made a big sreal and finished on te other end to cut the Winnacunnet lead to 58-57. Donnelly and Warriors star guard Jesse Gould were covering each other all game long, and it was a great matchup. Both players played solid defense on the other, and made each other work for every basket.
After a Winnacunnet basket, it was 60-57 Warriors with under a minute left. With the Warrior defense keying on Donnelly, senior Cody Lambert was left open in the corner. He drilled a three to tie it up at 60 with 47 seconds left.
Only about 5 seconds later though, Steve Cronan hits a jumper and it's 62-60 Winnacunnet. When Alvirne had the most success last night they were pounding the ball down low to their bigs, Ryan Sweeney and Sean Moyen. Down 2 with 30 seconds left that's what they did once again. Moyen gets it in the low post, gets fouled and goes to the line for 2. He had a chance to tie it up if he made both. He made the first but missed the second.
Often times in a close game it comes down to free throws. Alvirne shot just 11/24 on the game from the line. Winnacunnet on the other hand, was excellent from the line, shooting 18/22. That right there is pretty much the difference in the game.
So Winnacunnet is up 62-61 with 20 seconds left, Knowles goes to the line and makes both shots. Knowles was clutch last night, He went 9/11 on free throws, and lead the team with 16 points on the game.
"When the spotlight is on, when the crowd is the loudest and the stage is the biggest, there's nobody better" said Winnacunnet coach Jay McKenna. "He loves to be hated, and he thrives under the pressure."
So then Alvitne has the ball, down 64-61 with 13 seconds left. Everyone in the gym knows that the Broncos want Donnelly to take the shot. But Gould was all over him, and wouldn't let him get open. Instead, Lambert ran off a screen to try and get open for a shot. Sophomore Tony Bealieu was running the point and his pass to Lambert was off. It resulted in a loose ball and it was stolen away by Dunn. Dunn makes both free throws, game over. Winnacunnet 66 Alvirne 61.
When Alvirne made up their 12 point 3rd quarter lead, it was because they were going down low to Sweeney and Moyen. Sweeney scored 10 points...in the first 2 minutes of the 2nd half! He was getting excllent position down low, was finishing and was making his oul shots. He was the main reason why Alvirnbuilt their 12 point lead with 3:29 left in the 3rd. But he only scored 2 points the rest of the way. But then the Broncos started to go away from their inside game.
"We started to pick up our intensity on defense and started helping out better down low" said McKenna.
Winnacunnet is the top seed in the boys Class L tournament. I'm not sure they're the best team right now, though. That would be BG and Pinkerton. Winnacunnet and Dover are right behind. Knowles made a big difference last night. He missed 2 games earlier and in the BG game it was his first game back after missing a week. They're a different team with him in the lineup. Knowles is healthy now and playing well. That is why Winnacunnet is as good as anyone heading into the tournament. There really is no favorite, which is going to make this such a fun playoff. There 4 favotes with BG, Pinkerton, Dover and Winnacunnet. You have to consider Merrimack in there too, Memorial could make a run and West is dangerous now that Valentin is back in the fold. And even though Stevens is out you can't count out Trinity. And don't forget about Salem either! I think Alvirne is also dangerous. They need to get better at finishing games though.
Before the season nobody thought Winnacunnet would be THIS good. I had them ranked preseason in the 9-13 range. So for them to finish 15-3 and as the top seed is a great accomplishment.
"I didn't know how good we would be" McKenna said. But there were two things that happened early im the year that made me think we were as good as anyone. One was when we scrimmaged Merrimack in the preseason. They very highly touted and we played evry well against them. And the other thing was the Trinity game. Even though we lost, we knew they were also one of the top teams and we were right there with that at the end."
Lastly, you have to consider McKenna the favorite for the Class L Coach of the Year Award. I know I spoke at length earlier this week about how I strongly feel all awards shouldn't be voted on until AFTER the tournament. But as of right now, McKenna is the pick.
"It would be a tremendous honor" he said. "But what I'd rather have would be a state championship. I won one as a player, and other than getting married and the birth of my child it was the greatest moment of my life. I want that for these kids, they deserve it."