Friday, January 7, 2011

Mascoma Boys With Thrilling Comeback Win, Ends Conant's Streak

"Rivalry Week" Continues here on the NH Notebook. We've already covered Oyster River/Portsmouth, Milford/Souhegan and Epping/Newmarket. Next up is Conant/Mascoma, the biggest rivalry in Division III basketball.

Mascoma came back from a 15 point deficit to not only defeat their rival Conant, but they also ended the Oriole's winning streak, becoming the first NH team to defeat Conant since Stevens High did it back in the 2008-2009 season.

Behind a great defensive effort which led to 20 Conant turnovers, the Mascoma boys basketball team defeated Conant on their home court 47-43 on Friday night in a simply thrilling high school basketball game.

Great Atmosphere, Great Rivalry
Folks, if you haven't gotten a chance to see a game at Mascoma High you should, because it is quite a treat. The first thing you will notice (especially if you go on a night when they're playing Conant) is that the place is jam-packed with people. I was able to JUST BARELY find a seat for this game, among the Mascoma parents section (nice people, by the way). The next thing you'll notice is that it looks much more like a middle school gym than a high school one. Then you have one of the more unique gym setups in the state, with a state that runs along the sideline behind the team benches, and on top of the stage you have the scorers table, and it's also jam-packed with even more fans. The court is an old-school looking hardwood. It all makes for a real small-town, authentic, genuine high school hoops atmosphere. Lastly, I always like when teams warm up to good music before the game. Tonight at Mascoma they were playing an underground hip hop favorite, Gang Starr's "Full Clip" which ironically I was listening to on my hour and 40 minute drive to the game.

Ok, back to the game itself...

All Conant Early
For the vast majority of the 1st half it was VERY clear who the better basketball team was. It was the defending champion Conant Orioles. Mascoma guard Ethan Dickinson drilled a three-pointer on the right wing showing a nice catch-and-release with no hesitation. The Royals went up 3-0 but then Conant went on an 11-0 run to take an 11-3 lead just 3 and a half minutes in. The Orioles were showing good patience and ball movement on offense despite some tough, pressure defense by Mascoma. Defensively Conant was playing tough man-to-man defense, forcing turnovers and limiting the Royals to one shot. Conant head coach Eric Saucier had to be happy with his team's start, especially in such a hostile environment.

Conant star forward Ezra Hodgson took his second charge of the game early in the 2nd quarter. Sophomore guard Jake Carlson then drilled a three-pointer off a nice drive-and-kick by senior guard Dan Sirois, and the Oriole's extended their lead to 18-6. Moments later Mascoma's star big man Conner Torrey picked up his second personal foul and would then sit for the last 5 minutes of the half. Conant took advantage of this by extending their lead to 30-15 late in the 2nd quarter, for their largest lead of the game. 6'1" sophomore guard Devin Springfield continued to be a viable scoring option for Conant, as he had a pair of nice drives and finishes at the rim, and finished the half with 8 points (he ended up with a game-high 15 points). Springfield is a lefty, and Mascoma was allowing him to drive left. As a result they were getting burned. Hodgson had 7 points in the half to go along with Springfield's 8.

"We went down early because we knew they lost a lot of good players from last year so we were a little surprised at how good they were" explained Torrey, who overcame a slow start to finish the game with 10 points, 11 rebounds and 2 blocks.

Royals guard Codie Wardwell showed good speed and explosiveness in the open floor on a coast-coast-finish, but Mascoma still trailed 30-15 late in the 2nd quarter.

Impressive Comeback by Mascoma
That's when the momentum swung COMPLETELY in Mascoma's favor.

The Royals got back-to-back threes from seniors Tim Perrier and Wardwell right before halftime, and just like that the Conant lead went from 15 to 9.

"Those were big shots for us" said Mascoma head coach Jim Barry. "It definitely made it more manageable for us, trying to come back from a 9 point lead in the 2nd half as opposed to 15."

Coach Barry's team kept the momentum rolling to star the 2nd half. They came out of the locker room with a ton of energy, and after another three-pointer by Perrier on the secondary fast-break the Conant lead was only 34-30 with 5:24 left in the 3rd quarter. The Royals were on a 15-4 run, they forced Coach Saucier to call a timeout and the home crowd was going nuts.

"Our defense was the difference" said Coach Barry. "We let them spread the floor on us and hit shots in the 1st half, but in the 2nd half we got them to pack it in tighter."

Mascoma junior Jonathan Fitzgerald then hit a bank shot from 15 feet away and the lead was now only 36-33 Conant. The shot gave Fitzgerald his first points of the game, as the 6'2 wing player would score all 10 of his points in the 2nd half.

Everythign continued to go the Royal's way. Wardwell took a charge. Then Torrey hustled back on defense to block a shot on the break. Perrier then laid it in for Mascoma (he also had 10 points on the evening) and just like that it was a 1 point game, 36-35. That was the score after 3 quarters. Mascoma was on a 20-6 run, and everyone in the gym was on the edge of their seats to see what would happen in the 4th.

Springfield drilled a big-time three to put Conant back up 39-35 with 6:10 left to play (the kid is clearly one of the better sophomores in the state).

But then Fitzgerald continued to make big plays for the Royals. First he came out of nowhere to hustle to the ball, dive on the floor for it and prevented a Mascoma turnover - a GREAT hustle play. Then with his team trailing 43-41 with 2:14 left, Fitzgerald drove hard to the basket on the right side, then laid it in off the glass, plus the foul. He made the free throw, Mascoma now led 42-41. It was their first lead since the very beginning of the game when they were up 3-0.

Conant would only score 2 more points the rest of the way, and Mascoma got the win 47-43.

The Royals played OUTSTANDING defense late, as Conant scored just 6 points in the 3rd quarter, and only mustered 7 in the 4th.

"We had over 20 turnovers" lamented Saucier. "You're not going to win games turning the ball over 20 times, especially on the road. They were largely due to our inexperience though. Other than Ezra no one else on our team has experience playing in these types of games."

Leading the way defensively for Mascoma was Torrey, who was not only tough on the boards but he made it VERY difficult for Conant to get any points inside whatsoever. You have to give him credit for continuing to battle hard in there after a tough 1st half.

"Conner's not a solid player" said Barry. "He's a spectacular player."

Welenc = Mascoma's "Glue Guy"
I often make references to certain players being a "glue guy." This means that they might not be a star player but they are the guy on the team who is nonetheless very valuable to the team because they do many of the little things needed to win games, they keep everyone on the same page. They're the glue that makes the team stick together. For Mascoma that player is senior Kyle Welenc. Welenc can play inside or out, hustles after loose balls, is very unselfish on offense and is one of the most underrated defenders in Division III.

Wrapping it Up
After the final buzzer sounded, the Mascoma student section stormed the court and celebrated along with the team. It was a HUGE win for the Royals program, who has been knocked out of the playoffs by Conant each of the past 2 years. They not only end the Oriole's winning streak vs. NH teams, but the Royals also improve their record to a perfect 6-0 on the season (and that's not even counting the wins they had over the holiday break over Division II teams Hanover and Kearsarge).

"This is almost as good as winning a championship" said an ecstatic Torrey after the game.

After watching tonight's game I would not be at all surprised to see these same 2 teams make it back to the D-III final four at SNHU once again. Conner might get his chance at a championship.

The Bottom Line
While this was a BIG win for Mascoma, home court had a lot to do wit it. Once the Royals got their run started their crowd really got into it and it made it very tough for Conant to stop the bleeding. These are 2 very good, evenly matched basketball teams. And they both have BIG home court advantages. If this game was in Jaffrey Conant wins it. But it was in Canaan, so Mascoma won it. If they meet again in the final four at SNHU we'll find out who's really better because it will be on a neutral floor.

here's no debating the fact that these are 2 of the top contenders for the boys Division III title. In D-III it's Conant, Mascoma, along with Berlin and Bow. Raymond might be in that group too, we'll see.

Berlin goes the entire regular season without playing any of those other top teams. But they do play Somersworth, at Somersworth which will be the only game all year they even have a remote chance of losing.

Wardwell Receives Honor
Before the game Mascoma senior guard Codie Wardwell was presented with a certificate for winning the NHIAA's Student Athlete of the Month award for December. Congrats to Codie!

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