Conant is the defending Division III champs, and going into tonight's action they were the heavy favorite to repeat and are also widely considered to be one of the top 8 teams in the entire state regardless of division. Their opponent on Monday night was Campbell, a team that is a perennial contender in D-III, but has only 1 returning starter and 0 seniors on the roster. Conant should have won easily, right? Nope, that's why they play the games!
Freshman forward Harrison Vedrani scored on a layup at the buzzer off a great pass by junior guard Andrew Smarse, and Campbell pulled off the upset of the year by defeating Conant 50-49 in front of a raucous Campbell High gym.
"We came into this game extremely focused" said Campbell junior forward Zach Bergeon, who overcame a slow start to finish with a team-high 14 points, despite having Conant's defense geared towards stopping him. "Because we knew we could beat them even though nobody else gave us a chance."
Campbell pulled off the upset, despite trailing 49-42 with just over a minute left. But then Justin DiBenedetto hustled for a loose ball and Kyle Shaw hit a lefty floater in the lane. Bergeon drives to the rim, gets to the line, makes both free throws and now it's 49-46 Conant with 40 seconds to play. Conant ball up 49-46, but they throw the ball away, it's stolen by Campbell, Bergeon lays it in on the other end and now it's 49-48 Orioles. Then Conant senior forward Eli Hodgson gets fouled but misses the front end of the 1-and-1, give Campbell the ball with 11 seconds left down 49-48. They get the ball to Bergeon, he tries to drive but has no opening so he tries to kick it out but nearly loses the ball. Smarse picks it up at the top of the key and fires a pass inside to a wide open Vedrani who up-fakes to avoid getting blocked then lays it in at the buzzer. The Campbell players, coaches and fans storm the court in pandemonium, and the Cougars upset Conant 50-49.
"Zach got caught up and the ball came loose" explained Smarse. "I picked it up and saw Harrison was open. My instincts just kicked in there. Harrison stepped up and played a big role."
Campbell showed that Conant is in fact beatable. This was a huge win for their team and program.
"This was great for our kids, I thought they played so hard" said Campbell head coach John Langlois. "That took a lot of heart and a lot of guts, especially with us having no seniors. Our mental toughness was very important."
Campbell jumped out to a 14-7 lead after 1 quarter, as the Cougars brought the intensity right from the opening tip on their home court. Conant was playing tough man defense, and their bread and butter is forcing turnovers with their 'D' and turning them into quick easy buckets on the other end. But Campbell did a nice job of protecting the basketball and not turning it over. On one early possession they moved the ball for over a minute before finally getting it to Vedrani (12 points) for 2. Then a tough drive and finish by Smarse put the Cougars up 4-0 early.
Shaw hit a layup off a flex cut, but Robert O'Brien (15 points) and Nathan Wheeler (9 points) hit mid-range jumpers and it was 6-4 Campbell. Smarse made another tough drive and finish, and then Michael Gray hit a jumper with a foot on the 3-point line to make it 12-7. Smarse made another nice dish to set up a teammate for a score, as Tyler Brennan finishes a layup and it's 14-7 Campbell headed to the 2nd quarter.
"We didn't show up to play" said Conant head coach Eric Saucier. "We gave up 50 points, we didn't defend. We gave up 14 points right away, we can't do that. We need to come ready to play every night."
Nick Panagiotes hit a 3 off a pass from Hodgson cross court out of the high post to get Conant back in it. Then O'Brien hit a smooth jumper from the elbow coming off a screen. He has a high, fluid release on his shot. Then O'Brien hustled back on defense to make a nice block. Vedrani went up strong for 2 more as Campbell maintained a 20-16 lead. Then after a quick bucket by Conant it was again Vedrani who scored inside. Then Wheeler hit a 3 and Bergeon knifed his way to the rim through a paid of Orioles defenders for a tough bucket. Things were starting to really get heated and physical at the end of the 2nd quarter, and Campbell led 24-21 at halftime. n the 1st half Conant was called for 8 fouls while Campbell was whistled for just 1.
Conant started to build some momentum in the 3rd quarter. O'Brien hit a quick jumper to get the Orioles within 1 at 24-23, but then Shaw answered back with a big play, driving hard to the rim and finishing with his left hand for an and-1. Then after going scoreless in the 1st half Hodgson finally got on the board with a nice spin move and fadeaway jumper in the lane. Then after jumpers by Wheeler and O'Brien the Orioles now had their first lead of the game, 31-28.
Campbell kept battling though, as Smarse made another strong drive and finish. But then O'Brien again sunk a jumper, hitting nothing but net on an 18-footer. Hodgson picked up his 4th foul with 1:04 left in the 3rd quarter with his team up 33-30. Vedrani made a FT, missed the second shot, but Bergeon was there for the rebound and put-back to tie it up 33-33. Josh Degrenier answered with a big 3-pointer to put Conant back on top 36-33. That was the score after 3, as O'Brien made another nice block to prevent a Campbell layup right before the end of the quarter.
Hodgson went back in the lineup with 4 fouls to start the 4th. A gutsy move by Coach Saucier, but it paid off as Hodgson went on a tear. Hodgson drained a 3-pointer from the top of the key which started an offensive flurry to begin the final quarter. Bergeon made a good take and finish, then DiBenedetto hit a 3 to cut the Conant lead to 39-38. Then Hodgson hit a mid-range jumper, followed quickly by a turnaround bank shot by Gray before Hodgson again hit a shot in close. The action was heating up, and the gym was rockin'! Hodgson had a quick 7 points in the first minute and a half of the quarter, as Conant now led 43-40. DiBenedetto hit a clutch pull-up jumper near the foul line to cut the Orioles lead to 43-42 with 4:06 remaining.
But then Conant went on a 6-0 run. O'Brien threw a lob pass up for Hodgson who caught it and in mid-air laid it in. Then it was Hodgson again, this time picking up a loose ball and hitting a floater. Conant went up 49-42 with just over a minute left and well, if you read above you know how the rest of the game played out.
Conant is still the team to beat in D-III but this game shows that they are beatable. Look fr them to learn from this loss and get better because of it. This will keep them hungry and prevent them from getting complacent.
"It's my job to keep us from getting complacent" said Saucier. "I need to do better at that."
As for Campbell it is a huge win for them. They now have to be considered a serious contender to get back to the Final Four in SNHU. There's still a lot of basketball left to be played this year, but one can't help but think how good these Cougars will be next year with the whole squad coming back and Conant losing their 3 best players.
"Coach Langlois really had us playing hard defense tonight" said Bergeon. "It helps playing against Coach Hazelton and Coach Gonzalez in practice too."