Lebanon, Souhegan and Windham. It is not a surprise that any of those teams made the final four this year in D-II girls. They were all top 5 teams and title contenders in the preseason. Kearsarge was not. Kearsarge was the preseason #8 team in D-II. And while the Cougars did go 14-4 during the regular season 3 of those wins came against Division III teams, and they didn't beat one team with a winning record in D-II play all year.
However they went on the road in the quarterfinals and beat a very good Coe-Brown team 47-44. And on Monday night at SNHU they took on a red hot Windham team that was coming off double digit playoff wins over preseason title contenders Bedford and Hollis-Brookline. So even though Kearsarge was the #5 seed there was no question that they were the underdogs going against #9 seeded Windham who played a much tougher regular season schedule.
But on this night Kearsarge was simply the better team. They played smart, disciplined team basketball and tough defense. Sophomore guard Morgan Church had 15 points and 8 rebounds, while fellow sophomore Anna 'secret weapon' Cahill didn't play the whole 1st half but scored 13 points in the 2nd half. The Cougars took a 38-31 lead with 5:00 left and from there they held on for a 42-40 win to advance to the D-II title game where they will take on defending champion Souhegan on Friday night.
Keep reading for the rest of the recap.
Kearsarge was able to hold on despite the fact that Church suffered a knee injury with 2:30 left in the 4th quarter and sat out the rest of the game. One of their leading scorers, Brittney Page, was held to just 3 points. Another one of their leading scorers, Katie Levesque didn't score a single point and only played 14 minutes due to foul trouble. Speaking of foul trouble, Kearsarge center Margaret Doheny fouled out with a few minutes left. That was a tough loss because not only is Doheny one of their better players but she is the only girl who played for them tonight who is taller than me! On the other hand Windham had 4 girls play who are taller than me (I'm 5'8" by the way). So the fact that they were able to come away with the win shows the heart that this team has.
"We played the last 3:30 of the Coe-Brown game without Morgan and we pulled that one out too" said Kearsarge head coach Robert Bennett. "Anna had been struggling with her shot but she came up big tonight."
This was a back and forth game, with 7 ties and 5 lead changes. Windham had a shot to tie or win the game at the end but came up empty. They were down 42-40 and had the ball with 12.5 seconds left. At the time it seemed like taking it to the rim and playing for overtime would be a better idea since if it went to OT Kearsarge would have to play without both Church and Doheny. But Clairee Putnam got an open look from 3-point range and took it. The shot rimmed out, Kearsarge came away with the rebound and by the time Windham got over to foul them the buzzer had sounded. Game over.
"Clairee shoots 47% from 3-point land" said Windham head coach Joe Mason. "So I didn't mind her taking that shot at all. I give all the credit to Kearsarge, they played great defense. We also missed way too many free throws."
The Jaguars shot just 10/24 (41.7%) from the charity stripe. Junior guard Bernadette Connors played very well in the loss for Windham with a game-high 17 points to go with 4 rebounds, 3 assists and 3 steals. Connors as well as Putnam and junior point guard Kelsey Schiebel and senior forward Kerry White all hit big 3-pointers in the 2nd half as the scoring picked up on both sides as the game went on.
Still, the fact that Windham made it this far is quite the accomplishment considering they are only in their second year as a varsity program. It's hard to think of another athletic program in NH that has gotten so good so fast, although you also have the Windham football team which made it to the Division V championship game this past fall in only their second year as a varsity program.
Next season Windham returns 3 starters and 6 of their top 8 players of this year's team. Look for Putnam, Connors and Schiebel to form the best trio in D-II next season outside of Lebanon.
As for Kearsarge they will now go to work to prepare to play in the final vs. Souhegan, a team they have not played yet this year. Kearsarge will be heavy underdogs, especially if Church's knee isn't at 100%. But the fact that the Cougars have made it this far is a tremendous story.