Discipline, composure, toughness, experience, fundamentally sound, well coached. Oh yeah, and sharp shooting from the perimeter. All of these describe the performance by the White Mountains Regional girls basketball team in their convincing 46-31 victory over top-seeded Conant in the Division III semi-finals.
Most teams get flustered when playing on the SNHU court in front of a packed gym with all of those fans screaming and all of that pressure. Not the Spartans. This is the third Final Four in a row for senior guards Payton Curtis and Chelsea Payer. With Curtis, Payer, Katie Wood and Olivia Conway, they have 4 of their top 6 players back from last year's championship team.
"We just try to keep our cool as much as possible" said Curtis, who had 12 points on the game. "We saw the game before us, and those teams had lots of turnovers and bad passes. But we just run our plays and don't force anything. We all grew up playing together. Chelsea and I have been playing together ever since we were old enough to play basketball, probably since we were 5."
Curtis hit a 3-pointer to put the Spartans up 15-6 in the 2nd quarter. But then Conant battled back, as 5-foot-11 freshman guard Madison Springfield hit a 3 ball of her own and senior forward Teresa DiTommaso made a put-back inside. They were able to pull within 17-13, but then Wood (12 points, all coming via the 3 ball) hit a 3 to push the lead back up to 9, 22-13. That was the score at halftime.
Springfield (who was playing on the very court at SNHU where her older sister Brooke is currently playing her college ball) made a tough and-1 finish inside to pull Conant back within 6 at 22-16. But unfortunately for the Orioles that is when White Mountains broke the game wide open.
The Spartans then went on an 11-2 run, including one 3 by Payer followed by two more 3's by Wood. All of a sudden White Mts. simply could not miss! They were moving the ball well and hitting shots left and right.
"We've been practicing really well" said White Mountains legendary head coach Gary Jenness. "We shot lights out vs. Gilford (in the quarterfinals) with 10 threes in that game. Every kid in our program knows how to work hard and be successful. They're tough and they have all worked very hard."
Payer capped the 3rd quarter off with yet another 3-pointer (as a team they shot 7/13 from beyond the arc). This time she hit the shot at the buzzer, and from 7 feet behind the line. That made it 38-21 White Mts. headed to the 4th, and that was too big of a lead for the Orioles to come back from.
Conant may have had the best player on the floor (Springfield is only a freshman and is already being recruited by Division I colleges), but the Spartans clearly had the better TEAM. Springfield had 20 points and 12 rebounds (both were game-highs), but she just didn't have enough help from her teammates.
"Right from the beginning they really got in our face, prssuring us really hard" said Springfield, who is clearly the best freshman player in the state and is one of the favorites for D-III Player of the Year. "They played harder than us, and wanted it more. It's definitely a heart break. We all wanted a state championship."
But it wasn't meant to be. White Mountains had a good game plan, and they executed it.
"We knew Springfield was going to get her points, but we wanted to stop everyone else. Our goal was to keep her under 20. Even though she got 20, I thought Payer did a great job of making her work to get the ball up the floor. Payer isn't a scorer, but she leads our team in rebounding, assists and steals."
The Spartans are back in the finals, where Coach Jenness will try to win his 13th state title. They will take on Bow, who won the other semi-final 36-31 over Bishop Brady. White Mountains and Bow did not play in the regular season. The last time they played against each other was in last year's semis, when White Mountains prevailed.
As for Conant, they are a young team with not as much big game experience as the Spartans. They still had a very good season.
"I told them that they went 19-2, undefeated at home, and we went from a 12 or 13 seed last year to #1 seed this year" said Conant head coach Nick Hill. "Plus we only have 8 girls in the whole program, we can't even do 5-on-5 in practice."
With Springfield and players like Katie Chadbourne, Heather Bilodeau, Sarah Gonsalves and Kelsey Martin all coming back, the future is bright for Conant.
But the future is now for White Mountains, and if they play like they did tonight against Bow they will win their second straight championship. That would be a great way for Curtis and Payer to go out.