Monday, December 28, 2015

Lebanon Hangs On to Beat West in D-II Showdown

Manchester West and Lebanon. They are clearly two of the favorites this season in Division II boys basketball. If both teams don't make the Final Four it will be a shocker (along with Portsmouth). On Monday night on Day 3 of the Queen City Invitational Basketball Tournament (QCIBT) we got a sneak peak at what that Final Four game might look like.

Lebanon was clearly the better team for the first three quarters, as they led by as many as 14 when it was 50-36 with 1:20 left in the 3rd quarter. But then West stormed back, cutting the Raiders' lead to 9 points at the end of the 3rd and after a 3-pointer by Carlos Dominguez cut the lead to just 1, 54-53.

On the other end Graham Pickering grabbed a big offensive rebound, converting the put-back to make it 56-53 Lebanon. West got the ball, down 56-55. They got a shot inside but it was deflected and the Raiders came away with the loose ball. They quickly pushed the ball in transition, with star point guard KJ Matte zipping a pass ahead to Ryan Milliken for the layup to make it 58-55 Lebanon with just 30 seconds left.

The Blue Knights call timeout, still trailing 58-55 and with just 10.7 seconds remaining. Dominguez had already hit three 3's in the 4th quarter and teammate Joe Simpson drained four 3's already this game. But Lebanon played tough, in-your face defense and didn't let either player get a look. Senior forward Keenan Caron's shot from five feet behind the arc was no good, and Lebanon hangs on for the thrilling, nail-biter 58-55 win.

It was only a fifth place game in the QCIBT, but this game had the intensity of a NHIAA state tournament contest. And with the championship game of the tournament being a blowout, West vs. Lebanon was the best game of the day.

Matte was held to 8 points, but he did had 6 assists and 3 steals. Milliken led Lebanon with 14 points, while Chickering, Matthew Eylander and Gregory Grant each scored 10 apiece for a balanced Raiders' attack. Lebanon couldn't match West's size up front, as the Blue Knights start 6-foot-5 Caron and 6-foot-7 sophomore Akok Akok compared to Lebanon whose tallest player is 6-foot-3. Plus, Milliken is only 5-foot-9, whereas everyone West played is at least 6-foot. The Raiders might not be as big, but they are a bunch of scrappers who are tough, fearless and battle for every loose ball and rebound.

The teams went back-and-forth early on, trading big shots and playing up-tempo basketball. Caron faced up from the high post, used one dribble to get to the rim before finishing through contact. The West size continued to be a factor, as Akok rebounded his own miss and put it back in for 2. Milliken answered, hitting a skooth baseline pull-up jumper. Simpson (team-high 14 points) connected on his first 3 of the game, from the right wing. Akok made a nice block on 'D'.

Lebanon battled back, as Milliken made a good extra pass to Eylander for a layup. Matte drove hard to the hoop and flipped it in for a tough shot. Simpson countered for the Blue Knights with a strong drive and finish, but then Jeremiah Morton connected on a 3-pointer to answer right back for Lebanon to tie it up 9-9.

The Raiders kept building momentum from there, as Milliken makes another nice dish to Eylander for another layup. Lebanon has one of the top backcourts in the state with Matte and Milliken. Both kids can flat out score, but they are just as good at setting up their teammates. The scary part is, Matte is only a junior and Milliken is only a sophomore. Plus Eylander is only a sophomore and Chickering is only a junior. This team could win back-to-back titles.

Simpson hits another 3, this one from the left wing and West goes back on top 12-11. Matte answers for the Raiders with a 3 of his own from the top of the key to put Lebanon back ahead 14-12. Akok hits a jumper, but then Milliken drains a 3. Caron converts a put-back on the other end, as the teams race up and down the floor hitting shots.

Then Matte broke down his man off the dribble, penetrates into the lane, draws a second defender and then dishes it off Eylander for the layup. Grant comes off the bench and immediately hits a 3-pointer, and it's 21-16 Raiders after 1 quarter.

The offense slows down in the 2nd quarter, with Lebanon outscoring West just 12-9. Grant banked in a 3 from the top of the key. Then Grant connected on a jumper from the elbow - he provided instant offense off the bench. Blue Knights senior guard Corey Descoteaux drives to the rim for an and-1 finish. Simpson hit another 3, but on the other end Milliken drilled another 3 of his own. It was 33-25 Lebanon at halftime.

The Raiders extended their lead even more in the 3rd quarter. Caron buried a 3 from the left wing. Matte countered with a nifty hesitation dribble-drive move to get in the paint and then hit the floater in the lane. Akok (10 points) finished strong inside for an and-1.

Eylander converted a strong put-back, and on the next trip down Morton hit a tough pull-up jumper from the foul line over the outstretched arm of Akok. That made it 44-32 Lebanon and forced Manchester West head coach Danny Bryson to call timeout.

West came out of the timeout with more fight, as Akok blocked a shot and then Simpson buried his fourth 3-pointer of the game. But then Lebanon gained momentum right back, as Matte made a good dish to Grant on a screen-and-roll, with Grant catching the pass and finishing inside for 2 more. Just seconds later Lebanon got a steal and Milliken took the ball and raced all the way to the rim for the layup and a 50-36 Raiders lead - their largest lead of the game. Lebanon was really playing some good team ball with all five guys looking for each other out there. Dominic Plourde came in off the bench and gave West some added energy, scoring on a pair of strong finishes at the end of the 3rd quarter. It was 50-41 Lebanon as we headed to the 4th.

The Blue Knights came out with even more intensity and energy in the 4th quarter, really pressuring Lebanon out on the perimeter. The defensive pressure seemed to have rattled the Raiders a little, but then Chickering hustled in for an offensive rebound and put-back. Dominguez answered on the other end with a 3-pointer, and then just seconds later West got the ball back and Dominguez dished it to Plourde for the layup. Just like that the Lebanon lead was cut to just 6, 52-46. West cut the lead to just 5, but then Chickering dished it to Eylander for a layup. On the other end Dominguez drained another 3 to cut the Lebanon lead to 54-50 with 3:55 left in the 4th quarter.

Dominguez hit yet another 3, his third trey of the 4th quarter and the Raiders lead was now down to just 1, 54-53. But that's when Chickering converted a huge put-back to push it back to a 3 point lead, 56-53 and you know how the rest went by reading above.

This was a great game. Both teams really gave it their all out there.

"We were playing to win" said Manchester West head coach Danny Bryson"

"Some of our quick hitter plays we didn't run, because we know we'll see them again" said Lebanon head coach Kieth Matte, father of point guard guard KJ Matte.

These teams play again in February, and don't be surpirsed if they play each other again in March at UNH. If those games are as good as this one fans will be in for a treat.

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