Conant may have felt like they got overlooked this season in D-III. Everyone was calling Pelham the favorite, with a strong core coming back from a team that was in the D-II Final Four last year. Campbell and Conant made the D-III title game last season, but Conant only returned 1 starter compared to Campbell which has its entire team back.
Still, the Orioles beat Campbell during the regular season and they nearly beat Pelham. However if they wanted to get back to the finals, Conant would have to win in the semi-finals without their leading scorer Josh Degrenier, who was serving a 1 game suspension for an altercation during the Orioles' quarterfinal win over rivals Mascenic.
All of that makes #3 seed Conant's 52-43 win over #2 seed Berlin even more impressive. The Orioles led by as many as 20 in the 4th quarter (40-20) and they held the Mountaineers scoreless for the entire 3rd quarter. For that you have to give credit to Coach Saucier and his players.
"1 through 12, we push them all everyday and mix the lineups" said Conant head coach Eric Saucier, whose program has won 7 titles in the last 9 years. "Our defense in the 3rd quarter was outstanding - that's what did it for us."
Berlin had a size advantage inside with their bigs Nick Fodor and Levi Arsenault. They exploited it at times but not nearly enough.
"Eric does a great job year in and year out" said Berlin first-year head coach David Morrissette. "He had a great game plan, and took away our inside game. They played disciplined, and the credit goes to them. We try to play inside-out, get kick outs to Gallagher. But they collapsed hard when we got it inside. They closed out quickly, rotated and pressured the ball well. Tonight they were the better team."
Conant held Fodor to 8 points and Arsenault to just 4. Much of that was due to the defense and rebounding of Conant forwards Brandon Ford (8 rebounds) and Craig Bilodeau (11 rebounds).
"They're bigger than us, but we out-rebounded them 18-10 in the 1st half" said Coach Saucier. Our bigs did a good job."
With Degrenier out, stepping up for the Orioles scoring wise was junior guard Simeon Hodgson who had a game-high 19 points. The Conant High girls basketball team won the D-III state title this past Saturday, and Hodgson's younger sister Eva started as a freshman on that team.
Give Berlin credit for never giving up and battling back. In the 4th quarter Berlin cut the Conant lead from 20 down to just 5 (a 21-6 run). Freshman guard Evan Arsenault and Tommy Gallagher drained back-to-back 3's, followed by two more 3-pointers by Arsenault to cut the Conant lead to 44-34 with 2:00 left to play. Fodor converted an and-1. Berlin put a full court press and stole the ensuing inbounds pass. Gallagher hit another 3, making it five 3's and an and-1 by the Mountaineers in the last minute and a half of play. Foror scored again inside, and just like that it was 46-41 Orioles with 50 seconds remaining.
"I knew our seniors weren't going to g away without a fight" said Coach Morrissette.
Hodgson hit some clutch free throws late, and Conant held on for the 52-43 final.
Conant advances to the D-III title game back on SNHU on Saturday vs. Pelham.
"We know they're really good" said Coach Saucier about Pelham. "They have 7 basketball players, I have 1. It's going to take a lot to beat them."
Conant jumped out to the early lead in Wednesday night's semi-final. Bilodeau converted a tough put-back, hitting a baseline baby hook with a hand in his face. Berlin responded with a a pair of 3's by Dustin Moore and Gallagher against the Orioles' zone defense. Senior wing Nate Wheeler put Conant back ahead 7-6 with a 15-footer off a sideline out of bounds play. Levi Arsenault was tough on the boards on both ends of the floor.
Austin Demers converted a put-back for Berlin to put them back on top 8-7, but Wheeler drilled another 15-footer to put the Orioles back ahead 9-8. Kyle Dupuis showed good tenacity for Conant, sticking with it and stealing the ball right back after it was stolen from him. He then dished it to Ford who hit a foul lone pull-up. It was 13-9 Orioles after 1 quarter.
Berlin made a point to get the ball inside early in the 2nd quarter, resulting in a pair of quick buckets in the paint by Foder and Levi Arsenault. Conant guard JP Record answered with a fadeaway jumper along the baseline. Gallagher drained another 3 though, and the Orioles' lead was now just 17-16.
Hodgson showed good burst off the dribble, driving into the lane and finishing an and-1. Record followed that with a tough drive and leaner. Fodor scored inside though off some good ball movement for Berlin to find a seam in the zone. Conant led 26-20 at halftime.
The 1st half was played in the half court, with neither team looking to push the ball much in transition. It was a clean game though, with not many fouls or turnovers.
Then came the 3rd quarter, where Berlin was held scoreless and the Orioles outscored the Mountaineers 10-0. Conant showed good patient and ball movement in their half court set, resulting in a foul line jumper by Wheeler. Hodgson then buried a 3-pointer off the catch, and it was 31-20 Conant. It was their largest lead so far, as Berlin called timeout and Conant's fan section went crazy!
Hodgson then made a great hustle play, diving on the floor near the baseline to save the ball from going out bounds AND knocking it over to a teammate at the same time. Record and Hodgson then each had strong drives and finishes in traffic. The Orioles were now up 36-20 with 2:08 left in the 3rd quarter, forcing Berlin to call another timeout. That was the score after 3, as Conant had kinds of momentum.
They built on that momentum, with Record and Hodgson each driving to the rim for 2 more buckets to make it 40-20 Orioles.