This was a match up of 2 of the better boys basketball teams in Division I. They were both coming of impresses wins, with Nashua North going on the road and beating a good Spaulding team and Manchester Memorial crushing Dover by 22. And they are both now at full strength, as Ryan Gauthier and Anthony Farmer were playing in their third game back from suspension for the Titans and for the Crusaders Tong Akot is now back to 100% coming off a foot injury. All signs pointed to this being a great game - and it was.
It was clear that these were 2 VERY evenly matched teams. In fact with 0.7 seconds left it was all tied up 56-56. It was at that time when Memorial had possession and a chance to win the game in regulation, North played tough defense though, forcing freshman point guard Oumaru Kante to attempt a desperation shot from a couple feet behind the three-point line. North senior forward Mike O'Connor was called for a foul, sending Kante to the line for 3 shots. All he had to do was make 1, and unless North made a miracle last second shot Memorial would come away with the win. He made 2 of 3 FT's, and Jake Mellin's pass down down court to Javon Williams was deflected as the buzzer sounded. Memorial won it 58-56 in a game that LITERALLY went down to the wire.
"I just tried to take my time" said Kante, talking about his pressure-filled shots. "We really needed this win."
In that situation you hate to call a foul and have the game be decided at the line, you would rather have the players decide it. With 0.7 seconds left in a tie game you should only blow that whistle if someone really gets hit good. Should this game have gone to overtime? Probably. But at the same time these teams battled hard for 32 minutes with many swings of momentum - it would be unfair to say that last second foul call decided the game.
What can't go overlooked from this game was a great 2nd half coming by the Titans, led by 5'11" senior guard Ryan Gauthier. Gauthier had a sensational performance, with 27 points, 5 rebounds and 4 steals. He had 12 points in the 1st half to keep his team in the game, but he didn't get enough help offensively in the 1st half, and Memorial took a 35-27 lead into halftime. However it was the Titan's defense in the 1st half that was really a problem.
"We took the first 16 minutes off" said Nashua North head coach Steve Lane, who is in his first-year at the helm. "We want to run but they lulled us to sleep. It was my fault though."
While it might have been a one-man show offensively for North it was a team effort for Memorial. The Crusaders are a team with VERY little experience returning from last year, so for them to score 35 points in a half is really saying something. It was a combination of North not bringing the intensity on defense, not rotating over quick enough to get out on shooters but also some great ball movement an execution by Memorial.
Richard O'Brien hit a couple of wide open three-pointer in the 1st quarter for Memorial. That forced North to spread their defense, which in turn opened up the floor for Memorial to have driving lanes and openings for players cutting to the basket. Zoubel Iradakunda, (team-high 14 points), Kante, Majak Wenyin and Mike Torres were all able to break free inside for easy layups in the 1st half, as the Crusaders had a well balanced scoring attack. Torres was able to grab his own rebound and make a strong put-back for an and-1 finish, putting Memorial up 33-25 with 1:00 left in the 1st half.
To start the 2nd half Memorial kept the momentum going, with an 8-2 run out of the locker room. Kante hit a nice pull-up jumper from just inside the three-point line, and then O'Brien drilled yet another open three from the left corner. That gave the Crusaders a 43-29 lead with 4:40 left in the 3rd quarter. It was their largest lead of the game, and forced North to call a timeout.
"Oumaru doesn't consider himself a freshman" said Manchester Memorial head coach Mike Fitzpatrick. "He has good court vision. Him and Kabongo (Ngalakalundi) are developing well."
But that's when the comeback started for North. Out of that timeout the Titans picked up their defensive intensity. They started pressing full court, forcing turnovers and getting easy baskets on the other end. Gauthier had a good 1st half, but in the 3rd quarter he simply played at another level. He dropped 11 points in the 3rd quarter alone, scoring back-to-back hoops, followed by a baseline jumper by Dezron Wilson and then a three ball by Javon Williams (9 points). Yes it really happened THAT fast. Gauthier then scored again on a layup following a turnover that Memorial committed against the North press.
"That's the way we should play" said Coach Lane. "Our guys are all seniors, they want to close out on a positive note."
Gautheir then hit a 15-footer which cut the Memorial lead to 50-49 with 5:50 left in the 4th quarter. Gauthier and Williams were both playing terrific defense out on the perimeter, making it very difficult for Memorial to get the ball across half court let alone get into their offense. Then Liam Burke hit a BIG three-pointer, giving the Titans their first lead of the game 52-50 with 5:08 left in the 4th quarter. North had just completed a 23-7 run, going from being down 14 points in the 2nd half to now having a 2 point lead.
"We had too many turnovers" said Manchester Memorial head coach Mike Fitzpatrick. "North is going to be a tough draw in the tournament, though. Gauthier and Williams might be the best back court in the state."
Memorial answered back with a 6-0 run of their own, as Akot and Torres converted layups, followed by another shot in close by Akot. Memorial now was back in the lead, 56-52 with 3:26 left in regulation.
Over the last three and a half minutes of the game both defenses really tightened up and points were hard to come by. North was able to get out on the break though, and Gauthier went the length of the floor, sliced his way into the paint and finished with a nice finger roll to cut the Memorial lead to 56-54 with 2:10 left.
Jake Mellin (8 points and 7 rebounds) then made a great play to make a steal right at half court while pressing on defense, and then went hard to the basket, laying it in and tying the game at 56-56 with 1:24 left.
That's how the score would stay until Memorial got possession with 30 seconds left, which is when Kante got fouled shooting the three.
Fouling a kid shooting a three with 0.7 seconds left is a VERY tough way to lose. It really would have been interesting to see how this game would have ended up had it gone to overtime.
"I would have liked our chances" said Coach Lane, who played his college basketball at UMass Lowell. "We would have had the momentum on our side."
One last number I'll leave you folks with on this game - 5. Why 5? Well that's the number of starters North has COMING BACK from last year's team. It's also the number of starters Memorial GRADUATED off last year's team. That's right, North has all their top players back, and they're all seniors. Meanwhile Memorial had to replace all 5 starters, including all-state players David Madol (playing college ball at SNHU) and Shomari Morgan (playing college ball at Plymouth State). That makes tonight's win for the Crusaders even more impressive.