By: Jeremy Leveille
Conant and Pelham. They met in last year's D-III title game (won by Pelham) and they are the 2 best teams in the division again this season. Pelham won the first meeting back in December. On Tuesday night was round 2 - this time Conant got revenge with a 43-42 win.
"We lost to them four times in a row, so this feels good" said Conant senior guard Josh DeGrenier, who dropped a team-high 14 points in the win. "The last time we played them we didn't have Brandon (Ford) our center. When we got him back we knew we were ready for Pelham."
Pelham may have had the best player in the gym (defending D-III Player of the Year Keith Brown), but Conant played better team basketball. They led by as many as 12 (25-13 in the 2nd quarter), and despite a valiant comeback effort by Pelham, the Orioles held on for the victory.
A jump shot by Brown (game-high 25 points) tied it up 42-42 with just 1:20 left. Conant had one last chance to win it in regulation, with the ball and just 18.6 seconds left. Senior guard Simeon Hodgson drove to the rim and put a shot up at the buzzer. The shot was no good. So now we're headed to overtime, right? Wrong.
The officials called a foul on Pelham, sending Hodgson to the line. He made the first free throw but missed the second. Conant wins it 43-42, and the officials head off the court to a chorus of boos from the Pelham fans.
"We played the defense we needed to on that last possession in order to get to overtime" said Pelham head coach Matt Regan. "Sometimes it doesn't go your way."
Even Conant didn't think it was a foul.
"We got lucky on that last foul with Simeon, but I'll take it" commented DeGrenier. "I thought the buzzer went off before the foul was called."
At least it was on a regular season game and not the state tournament. Brown is the best player in the state and a class act - it would be a shame if his career ended on a call like that.
Conant led by as many as 12 points, but it was a close game throughout the 2nd half. The Orioles had a slim 38-36 lead after 3 quarters, but Brown connected on a mid-range jumper to tie it up 38-38 early in the 4th. Both defenses really tightened up though for the rest of the 4th quarter though, as the two teams combined for just 9 points the rest of the way. Ryan Nystrom made a nice weak side block for the Pythons, Ford made a nice block on 'D' for Conant and senior forward Cam DeLoreton took a charge for Pelham.
DeLoreto made a move to the bucket out of the low post for 2, tying it back up 40-40 with 4:30 remaining. DeGrenier put the Orioles back on top 42-40, slashing to the rim and finishing inside. Then Conant got the ball back, still up 42-40. They ran a stall offense, holding the ball from the 3:30 mark of the 4th quarter until there was just 1:47 left to play. To Pelham's credit though, they were able to play defense that whole time without surrending any points.
The Pythons got the ball back, still trailing 42-40. That's when Brown drilled a turnaround 18-footer to it it up 42-42 with 1:20 remaining. A big shot by a big time player. On the other end Ford tried to make a move along the baseline to the rim and up for a shot, but Brown stripped the ball away. Brown came away with the steal, somehow staying in bounds.
Pelham ball, with the scored tied 42-42. But Ford jumped the passing lane and grabbed a steal near mid-court with 32 seconds left. Conant ball, and their head coach Eeric Saucier calls timeout with 18.6 seconds to go.
"This is why we do this - for games like these, and to play in front of crowds like this" said Coach Saucier. We stuck to the defensive game-plan. The kids bought in and did what they had to do. Simeon did a great job on Brown. You can't stop Brown, you can only try to contain him and make him work on both ends of the floor. He's the best player in the state."
Brown opened the contest by hitting a jumper from the elbow out of a baseline out of bounds play. Conant senior forward CJ Bilodeau converted a tip-in for 2, but on the other end Nystrom drained a 3 for the Pythons. Pelham had the early lead, but Hodgson made a good dish on the fast-break to Bilodeau for the layup to cut the Pythons lead to 7-6. That bucket started a 12-2 run for the Orioles. Junior guard JP Record kept the run going by burying a 3-pointer from the left corner off the catch. That put Conant ahead 9-7 with 4:10 left in the 1st quarter and forced Pelham to call a timeout.
DeGrenier drove left and finished through contact. Bilodeau made a post move inside for 2, but DeLoreto answered on the other end by scoring in the paint. Conant sophomore guard Rowan Niemela drained a 3 off the catch from the elft wing, showing a smooth release. That gave the Orioles a 16-9 lead and capped their 12-2 run. Brown backed down his defender, turned and hit a tough fadeaway jumper with a hand right in his face to cut the lead to 16-11. It was 18-13 Orioles after 1 quarter.
"Coach writes a really good scouting report for us" said DeGrenier. "We were able to slow the game down, get into a rhythm and get the lead."
Conant kept pushing their lead, beginning the 2nd quarter with a 7-0 run. DeGrebnier and banked in a tough leaner for 2. Then the Orioles got out in transition, with Ford dishing it to DeGrenier who drilled a pull-up jumper from 15-feet. Ford was working hard on the offensive boards. Conant was showing good patience and discipline while running their half court sets. Ford dished it to Hodgson for 2 off a baseline out of bounds play. All five starters for Conant (plus one reserve) were already in the scoring column. Soon it was a 25-13 Orioles lead, their largest of the contest.
But then Pelham went on a 10-2 run to close out of the 1st half and get right back in the game. Brown made a strong drive from the perimeter into the paint for a finish through contact. Hodgson countered by banking in a tough floater. Brown showed good strength and tenacity on a put-back. DeLoreto missed a shot inside, but put-back his own miss for 2 more. Junior guard Kyle Frank zipped a pass over to Brown on the break, who used an up-fake before finishing inside. It was 27-23 Conant at halftime.
Brown cut that lead to just 1 early in the 3rd quarter, using a crossover dribble and step-back 3-pointer. The Orioles were only up 27-26 now. Brown then hit another tough shot, this time hitting a long 2-pointer after freeing himself up once again with a crossover dribble.
Ford hustled for an offensive rebound and put-back to push the Conant lead to 31-28. Frank helped keep the Pythons right in it, missing a 3 but then racing in for the offensive rebound and put-back. Then Frank drove and made a nice dish inside to Joe Pantaleo for the fast-break layup to cut the Orioles lead ton 34-32. On the other end DeGrenier hit a nice baseline floater.
"We played better defense in the 2nd half and that led to our fast-break" said Coach Regan. "In the 1st quarter we didn't play any defense."
The 2 teams continued to battle each other for every bucket. Brown made a steal and threw a pass ahead to Frank for a transition layup. Niemela answered for Conant, driving to the rim and taking it right at the bigger defender Brown. Niemela drew the foul, went to the line and hit both FTs. Brown countered by making a strong move baseline to to the rim for 2 more. He had 21 points through 3 quarters, and Conant was hanging on to a 38-36 lead as we headed ton the 4th.
This was a great game, and it will be a shocker if these same 2 teams don't meet again in the D-III title game at SNHU in March.
"We still have things to work on" said Coach Saucier. "We were too passive on offense. We need to attack the basket better, and we need to improve our free throw shooting."