Sunday, March 16, 2014

Fagula and Simpson Go Out on Top

You couldn't have scripted it any better. Legendary coach John Fagula entered Sunday night's Division I title game with 623 wins and 11 state championships in his illustrious 32 year career. Fagula is also the only coach in NH basketball history to coach a team that ended the season ranked #1 in the entire country. Win or lose though, this was his last game as Fagula announced prior to the start of the season that he would be retiring at the end of the year.

Win or lose, it would also be the final game in the great career of point guard Aliza Simpson. Simpson is this year's NH Gatorade Player of the Year, she had over 1,000 points and 500 assists for her career, she got D-I Player of the Year, Miss NH Basketball and had led the Lancers to the Final Four all 4 years. She'll be playing her college ball at UNH on scholarship.

Fagula had 11 state titles, but none since taking over at Londonderry 12 years ago. And Simpson had accomplished everything a high school basketball player could, except winning a championship. Well you can scrap that, as Londonderry pulled off the upset by defeating Bedford 57-56 to win the 2013-2014 D-I state title. Not only do Fagula and Simpson get to go out on top, but they end Bedford's 39 game winning streak in the process.

"Now I don't have to worry about any what ifs, I just get to ride off into the sunset" Coach Fagula said with a smile. "Aliza has brought an energy and work ethic that is hard to beat. Our other players try to keep up with her and it makes them better."

"I'm so happy I could do it for coach" said Simpson, who had a gutsy performance with a game-high 16 points, 6 assists and 3 steals despite playing on an injured knee which forced her to sit out 8 games this season. "Every goal I imagined came true."

Winning the championship was surely even sweeter for Simpson since she played AAU for the past several years with Bedford star senior players Ali Glennon, Rachel Collins and McKenzie Brown.

Bedford was heavily favored to win this game. They have their top 8 players all back from last year's championship team. The Bulldogs were a perfect 21-0 coming into this game, with most of those wins being blowouts.

"Everyone was saying that Bedford would win, it was just a question of if we could give them a game" said Fagula. "But I watched the film and I said, what do you mean? I think the question should be whether they can give us a game."

The storybook ending for Fagula and Simpson happened in large part thanks to Brittany Roche. The 5-foot-11 junior forward hit the game-winning shot in the semi-finals vs. Pinkerton and she did it again tonight. Londonderry had the ball with the score tied 54-54 and one minute left. Londonderry was working the ball around the perimeter looking for an opening, but Bedford was really buckling down on defense. With time running out, sophomore guard Jackie Luckhardt drove baseline. The Bulldogs closed the baseline off though, forcing Luckhardt to pass it. She dished it over to Roche, who was left open in the corner. Roche caught the pass and launched a shot from beyond the arc - it was good! The Lancers had just taken a 57-54 lead with 12.3 seconds left.

"That's my spot" said Roche, who also hit the game-winner vs. Pinkerton from the left corner. "It's where I make most of my shots. I was wide open, no one was guarding me. So I knew she was going to pass it to me. It felt good when I shot it, I thought it was going in."

It wasn't over yet, though. It was Bedford ball, they have a bunch of kids who can flat out shoot the ball, and 12 seconds is plenty of time to get a good look. Brown got a good look at a 3 from the left wing but the shot was no good. The ball went out of bounds, last touched by Londonderry. So Bedford would get one more shot at it, now with just 4.9 seconds remaining. The inbounds pass went to sophomore point guard Bri Purcell, who immediately turned and fired away a fadeaway 3-point attempt. The shot was no good either. Fellow sophomore guard Nicole Tucci grabbed the rebound and scored the put-back at the buzzer. But unfortunately Bedford needed a 3, not a 2. Londonderry had just pulled off the upset 57-56.

"Roche puts her time in" commented Fagula. "She's always over at the Sports Zone shooting around. She's the first one at practice every day."

Londonderry's bench stormed the court in celebration. It was an exhilarating win for the Lancers, and a heartbreaking loss for the Bulldogs.

"My team stepped up huge" said Simpson. "Brittany hit the 3, Jackie stepped up too - everyone did. We were the underdog and had nothing to lose."

Londonderry had to really dig deep and make big plays down the stretch in order to win, since they actually trailed by 5, 54-49 with just under 3 minutes left in the game. But then Luckhardt made a big play, driving to the rim on the right side and hitting a leaner for an and-1. That cut the Bedford lead to 54-52, and then Simpson hit a pull-up jumper from 15-feet to tie it up 54-54 with 1:45 left. You know how the rest went from there.

Collins got Bedford out to the early lead with a pair of 3-pointers in the 1st quarter. She hit a 3, then Simpson answered back with a 3 of her own before Collins buried another one to make it 8-5 Bedford. The Bulldogs got out on the fast break, and Collins made an easy layup to make it 12-7. Londonderry junior forward Casey Evans (7 points and 8 rebounds) scored inside with 2 seconds left in the quarter, and it was 12-9 Bedford after 1.

Scoring picked up early in the 2nd quarter. Simpson made a great pass Ashley Berube for a layup. Then Brown scored 2 more for Bedford, freshman Kelsey Coffey hit a 3 for Londonderry and Brown finished a put-back. The game was finally getting a nice flow and rhythm to it, and after a 3 by Lancers senior forward Elisabeth caron we were all tied up 17-17.

Gabby Hunter put Bedford back on top 19-17 with an 18-footer off the backboard. Simpson again answered right back with a 3, and Londonderry takes their first lead of the game, 20-19 with 3:35 left in the 1st half. Londonderry continued to play well, as Roche hit a 15-footer off a nice dish by Luckhardt. Then Luckhardt again made a nice pass, this time finding Tara Burke for a layup. Simpson the pulled up and hit a jumper from the elbow, capping a 9-0 run by the Lancers and it was now 26-19 Londonderry. At this point most of the fans in attendance were shocked as to what was happeneing out there.

Glennon made a nice play with an and-1 put-back at the end of the quarter, and it was 26-22 Londonderry at halftime. Bedford is a team with a lot of weapons and the most high powered offense in the state. However the Lancers 2-3 zone defense was giving them problems. It was forcing Bedford to take a lot of 3's, and although Collins did hit 2 of them as a team the Bulldogs shot just 2/10 in the 1st half from downtown.

"Coach was thinking that it's hard to make a 3-point shot in a championship game" explained Simpson. "So were were trying to force them to take 3's to take away their inside game."

Simpson hit another 3 in the beginning if the 3rd quarter, as Londonderry maintained a 7 point lead, 29-22. Brown made another strong put-back to cut the lead to 29-24. Purcell then slashed to the rim with a nifty move and finish and it was 29-26 Lancers. Then Bedford tie it up 29-29 on another put-back by Brown. Brown is so tough on the boards you really need to focus on boxing her out. Brown recorded a team-high 13 points and 12 rebounds. She is without question a scholarship level player.

Purcell broke the tie with a 3-pointer as Bedford re-takes the lead 32-29. Then on a baseline out of bounds play the Bulldogs get it to Glennon who makes a strong and-1 finish to make it 35-29 Bedford and cap a 13-0 run by the Bulldogs.

Londonderry responded, as Evans gave Brown a taste of her own medicine, grabbing an offensive rebound and finishing the put-back for an and-1. Luckhardt hit 2 foul shots and we were again tied back up, 38-38. Driscoll hit a runner off the glass at the buzzer (very similar to the shot she hit to win the title for Bedford last year) and it was 40-38 Bedford after 3.

The Lancers go back ahead early in the 4th, as Coffey hits a 3 from the top of the key with no hesitation and it's 41-40 Londonderry - that's a big time shot for a freshman! Simpson then drove, drew the defense and dished it to Roche for a layup - that was too easy! The Lancers now lead 44-40.

Then came a bad call, as Driscoll went to the rim hard, clearly got hit hard which should have been a foul. No whistle was blown though. Bedford kept on battling, as Glennon cut to the bucket, caught the ball and hit the layup. Purcell made another nice dribble-drive move, getting to the rim for 2 more to cut the Londonderry lead to 45-44.

All of a sudden though this game was turning into 'Foul-fest'. The flow and rhythm of the game had been lost, and there was a foul being called on a every play. And since both teams were in the bonus it meant seemingly every possession was resulting in free throws. Most of the calls were okay, it's just that both teams were struggling to play tough defense without fouling.

After a pair of foul shots by Tucci it was 49-47 Bedford. Jordan Marett came in, hit a shot in the lane off another nice pass by Luckhardt and it was all tied up 49-49 with 4:00 left in the game. Luckhardt had 10 points and 7 assists on the game.

That's when Bedford would take the 54-49 lead, as Brown hit 2 FTs, Brown made another put-back and Purcell hit 1 of 2 FTs.

How will Fagula be remembered?

"I think my teams have been consistent" Fagula concluded. "And I like to think that my kids if they choose to play in college I have prepared them well over the years to do it."

Who will replace Fagula at Londonderry? Surely it will be a very sought after position, considering the program's tradition as well as the pipeline of talent coming through the youth ranks. Fagula says he's staying out of the hiring process. However it should be noted that he has been the head coach at Londonderry for 12 years and Nick Theos has been his assistant coach all 12 years.

As for Simpson, she's one of the top players to come out of NH in recent years and will definitely be an asset for UNH.

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