Conant and Pelham. They were the 2 best teams in D-III last year (Pelham gave Conant a much tougher game in the semis than Gilford did in the finals) and they are the two best teams in D-III again this year, too. On Thursday night the reigning NH Gatorade Player of the Year Madison Springfield (committed to Holy Cross) led her defending champs Conant team into the 'Snake Pit' for a showdown against a fearless and hungry Pelham squad.
Pelham was the better team for the first three quarters - but folks, that's why they play four. Led by their 'Big 3' of Springfield, Sarah Gonsalves and Megan Wheeler the Orioles went on a 9-0 run to go from a four point deficit to a five point lead. In a game that was close throughout, that run turned out to be the difference. Conant wins it 60-55. Springfield dropped a game-high 29 points to go with 17 rebounds, 4 blocks, 4 assists and 4 steals. Theo Orioles have now won 27 consecutive games.
"In the beginning we let them get some open shots, but then we got together on defense and played as a team more" said Springfield. "I tried to look for my teammates - we have five players out there, not just one. We're a young team, so it was big for them to get this experience, grow and in the end they came through. It was a big game for us."
These same two teams meet again later in the season, at Conant. And it's hard to imagine them not meeting again in the D-III finals.
"I think we can beat them" said Pelham head coach Bob Shepard. "That's what we learned tonight."
What will they need to do next time in order to dethrone the champs?
"I think we need to step up on defense, hit key shots and finish strong" said Pelham junior guard and captain, Lilly Shlimon, who poured in a team-high 18 points in defeat.
That is easier said than done against a team as good as Conant.
"They're good, but we have the best player in the state" said Conant head coach David Springfield, referring to his daughter Madison.
Pelham came out on Thursday night in a pressure man-to-man defense, extending their 'D' far beyond the 3-point arc. Conant nearly coughed up the basketball, but somehow Springfield got it inside for a tough finish. Then Pelham 6-foot-1 sophomore forward Danielle Sirois (14 points) hit a jumper from around the foul line to tie it up 3-3. Her teammate Jessica Lessard (10 points) hit a 3-pointer off the catch from the right wing. Conant called a timeout, and then out of the timeout Lessard grabbed a steal and Shlimon buried a 3.
After a finish in transition by Sarah Ratcliffe the Pythons were on a 12-0 run and were on top 13-5 (the largest lead either team had all game).
Conant battled back, going high-low as Springfield zipped a pass to Gonsalves for a layup. Pelham countered, as Olivia Gagnon dished it to Shannon Morin, who gave it back to a cutting Gagnon for a layup and nicely executed give-and-go play. Springfield then hit a step-back 3, and on the other end Shlimon drained a 3-pointer of her own from the top of the key. It was 18-14 Pelham after the 1st quarter of play.
The Orioles re-took the lead early in the 2nd quarter with another 3 by Springfield followed by another layup by Gonsalves. Shlimon connected on another 3 to put Pelham back ahead 21-19. Sirois made a nice post move, scoring inside over fellow 6-footer Gonsalves. Taylor Banish buried a 3 for Conant, who now trailed 23-22.
Springfield came over from the weak side to make a nice blocked shot on 'D'. Shlimon answered right back with a jumper from the elbow and teammate 5-foot-11 sophomore forward Caitlin Riordan converted a tough finish with her left hand. The Pythons lead was now 27-22 with 3:20 left in the 1st half.
Springfield finished the 1st half with a pair of high level plays. First she drove and made a great dish to Gonsalves for a layup. Then on the next time down the floor she missed a 3-pointer, but followed her shot, stole the ball right back from Shlimon in the back court and then took it in for the layup through contact. Still, Pelham had a 31-27 lead at halftime. It was an intense, hard fought half of basketball.
The 3rd quarter was evenly played. Springfield took it hard to the bucket, but Lessard took a charge on her. Then Lessard made a strong drive to the rim and finish. Conant responded, as Wheeler drilled a 3-pointer from the corner followed quickly by a pull-up jumper by Springfield from the elbow. That put the Orioles back on top 34-33 with 6:46 left in the 3rd quarter, forcing Pelham to call a timeout.
The Pythons went back ahead out of the timeout, as Lessard drilled another 3 off the catch to make it 36-34 PHS. Shlimon threw a nice pass ahead on the break to Ratcliffe for a layup. Then just seconds later Springfield answered, hitting a 3-pointer from four feet beyond the arc. Sirois continued to be a factor inside, again gaining favorable inside position and scoring over Gonsalves as Pelham led 40-37 with 4:34 left in the 3rd quarter.
Wheeler drained another 3, this one from the right wing. Then Shlimon made another good pass ahead to push the break, feeding Ratcliffe for another transition layup. Banish answered for Conant with a good drive and finish. Then Springfield dribbled around a screen set by Gonsalves, stopped and popped the jumper at the elbow for 2 more. It was 46-44 Pelham as we headed to the 4th quarter. We had ourselves a good one in Pelham!
"It was the perfect time for us to play them with it being the fifth game of the season" said Coach Springfield, a former star player at Conant and then at Franklin Pierce. "We like playing them."
"They have a great player and a great coach" said Coach Shepard.
Conant not only scored the final 2 points of the 3rd quarter on the Springfield jumper, but they scored the first seven points of the 4th quarter, making it a 9-0 run. Gonsalves connected on a long 2 (had a foot on the line) off a kick-out by Springfield to tie it up 46-46. Then on the next trip down Springfield hit a turnaround bank shot out of the post. Just seconds later Wheeler drilled another 3 from the corner, again off a kick-out by Springfield. That capped the run, put the Orioles up 51-46 with 6:27 left in regulation and forced Pelham to call a timeout.
Not only was Springfield the game's leading scorer, but she was grabbing boards, making good passes - oh yeah and anytime there was a loose ball she was always the one on the floor diving for it.
"I just try to tell myself every game to play my heart out" said Springfield, whose older sister Brooke just wrapped up an outstanding four year career playing at SNHU and her older brother Devin is a sophomore playing at Keene St. "I try to not force shots, play hard on defense, look for my teammates and try my best on rebounds."
It wasn't over yet though, as the Pythons fought back. Shlimon slashed to the rim for a good lefty finish. It was difficult for Pelham to string baskets together late though, thanks to the great defense of Springfield. She blocked a shot attempt inside by Lessard, and then after a nice foul line jumper by Sirois (using a very quick release) it was Springfield again with a nice block. Then on the other end teammate Mariah Chamberlian hit a baseline jumper to make it 58-53 Conant with just 1:38 left in the 4th quarter and forcing Pelham to call another timeout.
Teams might be able to hang with Conant for 3 quarters, but to do it for all 4 quarters and win against a team that good (and with a player as good as Springfield) is going to be quite the challenge.
"We said we needed to score 60 to beat them" said Coach Shepard. "We came up just 5 points short. We gave up some easy baskets in the 2nd half that we didn't in the 1st half. We'll work on that."
Springfield scored inside for 2 more to make it 60-53 and the Orioles held on from there for the 60-55 win.