Pelham's season has been well documented. They've gone undefeated in D-III and in the Christmas tournament they beat the only unbeaten team in D-I (Londonderry). They're everyone's pick to win the D-III title. But on Wednesday night in the semi-finals at SNHU, #5 seed Campbell came THIS close to knocking them out.
How'd they do it? They controlled the pace of the game. Campbell ran a very deliberate offense, running at least 20-30 seconds off the clock each time they had the ball while working it inside-out. There was even at least 2 or 3 possessions where the Cougars had the ball for over a minute. This combined with the fact that they took care of the basketball (only 8 turnovers) and that is how they took away Pelham's transition game which is their strength. Plus Campbell had success pounding the ball inside to sophomore forward Harrison Vedrani (game-high 16 points) who was a force scoring as well as kicking it out (teammate Kyle Shaw drilled three 3's). It was a tight battle the whole way, with neither team leading by more than 6.
Still, Pelham prevailed in the end. After a phantom travel call on the Pythons it was Campbell ball with 1:20 left in the 4th quarter, trailing 40-39. The Cougars called timeout with 49.2 seconds remaining. They held for the last shot. With under 10 seconds left they started driving to the rim. Vedrani got the ball near the foul line, the defense collapsed and he kicked it out to Shaw, whose 3-point attempt at the buzzer rimmed out. Pelham fans breathe a giant sigh of relief, as they held on for the thrilling 40-39 victory.
"We focused on not fouling and not letting them get a layup" said Pelham senior wing Ryan Cloutier (10 points). "We wanted to force them to take a 3. That was probably the most nerve racking game ever."
Campbell got a good look, from a kid who already hit three 3's - this one just didn't fall. A great game. Two good coaches. The kids gave it their all out there. It's a shame one team had to lose - the two best teams tonight at SNHU were Pelham and Campbell.
"That last possession they played defense the way they should have played all game" said Pelham head coach Matt Regan. "The rotations were there. We wanted to make them beat us on a jump shot."
Pelham advances to the D-III championship game back at SNHU on Saturday vs. Conant.
Right from the opening tip it was clear what Campbell's game plan was, as the Cougars worked the ball around for 1:20 on the game's first possession before Vedrani converted a layup. The Cougars wanted to slow the game down. They knew that Pelham thrives in a fast pace, up-tempo game. Campbell knew their only chance was to make it a half court game, grind it out and not let Pelham get their transition game going. They did just that, and nearly pulled out the win.
"We had them right where we wanted it" said Campbell senior wing Zach Bergeon, who started a Final Four game for the third year in a row. "Coach had a good game plan, we bought into it and executed it. They just made a couple more plays down the stretch."
"We knew they'd hold the ball like that" said Coach Regan. "And they can do that, since there's no shot clock. We just need to be disciplined.
With the number of Campbell possessions which lasted longer than 40 seconds, many fans came away from this game wondering why it wasn't played with a shot clock. They've got a point. I've been advocating for the NHIAA to implement a shot clock ever since I started this site in 2009.
"It would be nice if we had one" said Coach Regan. "I love playing in the Christmas tournament where they have a shot clock."
After the early layup by Vedrani, Pelham got the ball for the first time and immediately started taking quick shots to try and push the tempo. Senior guard David Rogers and senior wing Ryan Rondeau hit back-to-back 3's, followed soon by another 3-pointer by Rondeau (team-high 12 points) to cap a 9-2 run and make it 9-4 Pythons. Campbell came out in a zone defense and Pelham was making them pay.
Bergeon connected on a 3 of his own to cut the Pelham lead to 9-7. Vedrani drove to the rim for 2, tying it up 9-9 but then Cloutier hit a baseline jumper to put the Pythons back on top 11-9. Pelham junior guard Keith Brown (11 points and 8 rebounds) buried a 3, making it four 3's in the 1st quarter for the Pythons, who led 14-10 after 1 quarter.
Pelham went up by 6 (their largest lead of the game) early in the 2nd quarter, as Cloutier made a nice block on 'D', then ran the floor and tipped in a teammate's miss for 2. Shaw hit his first 3 of the game though and the lead was cut to 16-13. Vedrani finished strong inside for an and-1 to cut the deficit to 16-15.
Cloutier hit a turnaround bank shot and it was 20-15 Pelham. Shaw hit another 3, off the catch. Vedrani converted another and-1 finish inside. Pelham senior forward Dylan Silvestri was covering Vedrani but he was on the bench with 2 fouls and now Vedrani was dominating.
Shaw (11 points) drained his third 3 of the 2nd quarter, cutting the Pelham lead to 26-24 with 1:40 left in the 1st half. The game continued to be played in the half court, which favored Campbell. Vedrani finished another and-1, as Cam Deloretto (who replaced Silvestri and was tasked with covering Vedrani) picked up his third foul. The Cougars were all fired up, heading into halftime with a 27-26 lead.
"We tried to keep him out of the paint" said Cloutier when asked about Vedrani. "He was a beast tonight."
"The and-1's early are not acceptable" said Coach Regan. "We need to get our rotations better."
Pelham did a much better job on Vedrani in the 2nd half. He scored 13 in the 1st half, but just 3 in the 2nd. As the 2nd half began, the fan sections for both teams were loud and rockin' - it was a great atmosphere. Pelham regained the lead 30-28 as Silvestri zipped a pass to Brown on a flex cut for an and-1. Silvestri picked up his 4th foul though, and sat on the bench for the remaining 5:44 of the 3rd quarter and the first 3 minutes of the 4th.
Bergeon made a nice blocked shot from the weak side, and then Vedrani tied it up 30-30 with a put-back. Pelham closed the 3rd quarter on a 6-1 run though, as Rondeau slashed to the rim for a strong take and finish. It was 36-31 Pythons after 3. Pelham held Campbell to just 4 points in the 3rd quarter.
The Cougars continued to take their time on offense in the 4th quarter, as they took 30 seconds off the clock before senior guard Justin DiBenedetto drove ad kicked it out to senior guard Andrew Smarse for a 3-pointer from the left wing to cut the Pelham lead to 36-34. Vedrani then got the ball easily in the post, got fouled and went to the line. Pelham did a better job in the 2nd half, but still was struggling to deny Vedrani the ball in the post and keep him out of the paint.
Brown came up with a clutch basket, turning and leaning in for a bucket, scoring over 2 defenders to make it 38-34 Pelham with 4:25 left in regulation. Bergeon countered with a tough drive and finish through contact. That's when Pelham was called for the travel, which gave Campbell the ball back with one last chance at the win.
"I'll definitely miss playing with these guys" said Bergeon, who scored his 1,000th career point in the prelims vs. Mascoma. "It's hard to look back now, but this was one of the most fun games I've ever played in."