The Lebanon High girls basketball team is arguably the most consistent program in the state of New Hampshire. They have made the Final Four seven consecutive years, and even more impressive is they have made the quarterfinals a whopping 34 years in a row. For that you have to give head coach Tim Kehoe a lot of credit. He's had some great players over the years, but possibly none of them are better than senior guard Moriah Morton.
Morton goes after loose balls and rebounds with reckless abandon, she is always looking to push the ball up the floor and attack on offense, doing so with great explosiveness. She darts all over the court pressuring people on 'D' and plays with a tenacity and killer instinct that few players have. Simply put, you will be hard pressed to find a kid who plays the game harder. Except for maybe Dina Pitsas of Milford. Morton and Pitsas are hands down the 2 best players in D-II, they both have excellent all-around games, they're both hard workers, leaders and humble. It was a pleasure watching these 2 go against each other - they represent everything that high school basketball should be about.
Morton and her teammates were heavy favorites going into their semi-final match up with #4 seed Milford. Including the Christmas tournament they were 22-0 on the season and won every game by 23 points or more. So that is why even though they lost, Milford can take solace in the fact that they gave Lebanon their toughest game all year. Lebanon went on a 14-2 run to start the 2nd half and went up 42-19 with 3:53 left in the 3rd quarter. It looked like the game was all over, but Milford fought back. The Spartans hit 3 striaght 3-pointers (2 by Adelle Pitsas and 1 by Taylor Steinbrecher) to cut the Raiders' lead to 46-35 with 3:45 left. Nobody had been that close to Lebanon in the 4th quarter all year! But then they were able to hold on for the win, 56-41.
"We needed that, for someone to give us a push" said Coach Kehoe. "To Be in a game in the 4th quarter and needing to make free throws. We haven't had that a lot, so it was good for us."
Milford was making their first appearance in the semi-finals in 33 years. They have struggled as a program for years and didn't even make the tournament. To go from missing the playoffs to the Final Four is an incredible turnaround. Head coach Steve Signor has turned the program around since taking the job 3 years ago, and Dina Pitsas has established herself as arguably the best player in Milford girls basketball history. Pitsas has recorded over 1,000 points and 1,000 rebounds for her career.
"We going to miss her" said Coach Signor, about his star guard. "From the first day I met her she has been a true leader. She plays even harder in practice than she does in games. Our practices are 3-4 hours long and she set the tone for the rest of the team by buying in right away. She is a great all-around person."
Milford played a very good game, but they were going against a Lebanon team that is fast and tenacious on both ends of the floor. These Lebanon girls are on a mission. Coach Kehoe has won 4 titles already, but if he were to win it this year it would be extra special to be able to when a championship while coaching his daughter Emily. He has been coaching Emily, as well as Morton all growing up. Juniors Heather King and Samantha MacDonald have also been playing with this group for a long time.
Morton and Emily Kehoe have been on varsity all 4 years. They lost in the championship game as freshmen and sophomores and last season as juniors they lost in the semi-finals. They're on a mission to win it this year.
"Nobody has been here (to SNHU) as much as us, it's like our second home court" said Morton.
"We all play off each other so well, we don't have any drama" said Emily Kehoe.
See, they even play off each other well in interviews!
The key to Lebanon's win, was basically how they win most of their games. By pressing and running. They pressure the heck out you defensively, trapping all over the court to force turnovers. As soon as they get a steal or a rebound they immediately look up the floor to push the ball on the break and attack. They thrive off turnovers and turning them into quick layups on the other end.
"We're a team of runs" said Coach Kehoe. We switched up our press a little and switched to a trapping zone from straight man. Em did a nice job in the back getting deflections."
Lebanon had a couple of key runs to build their lead up. They started the game off on an 8-1 run, which was capped by a 3-pointer by MacDonald (she hit a couple of big threes and played tough defense all game). Then after Milford got the lead down to 10-7 off a 3 by Brianna Hoffman, Lebanon responded with a 10-0 run to go up 2-07 with 6:23 to play in the 1st half. Center Vanessa Fleury came up with a big put-back during the run, followed by a acDonald steal and jumper after she got the ball back from Morton. Right after that Kehoe got a steal, went hard to the rim, missed the shot but King followed it up. These girls are relentless, they force turnovers and put points up in a hurry! The key when playing them is to prevent those 10-0 runs, but that is much easier said than done!
"We have all worked so hard for this" said Emily Kehoe, who had 12 points and 3 steals in the win.
Milford gave it everythig they had all game, but when you give up runs of 8-1, 10-0 and 14-2 all in the same game it is tough to win. Still, it was by far the hardest Lebanon has had to work for a win all year.
"If you take away those 2 layups they got at the end off our pressure it was a 10 or 11 point game" said Coach Signor. These girls didn't quit all year, and they have put in the work during the off-season to get here. They are all very fit, and that allowed us to run with Lebanon all game."
Pitsas will now be going on to play at Springfield College. You can bet she will have a great career there as well, but unfortunately she won't be playing with Sdelle anymore.
"I love playing eth my sister" said Dina Pitsas. "Not playing with her anymore will be tough. I couldn't ask for better teammates."
Meanwhile, Morton had a great all-around game with 15 points, 9 rebounds, 9 assists and 4 steals. MacDonald continues to be the unsung hero for this team and is having a breakout junior season.
"We always knew she was good" said Morton. "When she was a freshman she didn't play a lot in games but in practices she always gave us a really tough time."