Sunday, February 21, 2016

Cushing Beats Phillips Exeter in a Good One

Saturday afternoon in Exeter it was a NEPSAC showdown with Cushing Academy going on the road to take on Phillips Exeter Academy. These are two very good basketball teams. Exeter is 13-5 on the season, while Cushing is 15-6. They both play very competitive schedules. This was an intense, hard fought game played at a high level. Both squads really got after it defensively. It was another level compared to NHIAA basketball.

The Kirsch brothers Max and Mitchell (Atkinson, NH) start for Exeter, while JT Thompson (Stratham, NH) is a key reserve. Max Kirsch, a 6-foot-5 wing forward dropped 10 points. He is a senior who has committed to attend and play at Claremont McKenna College in California. Thompson is a 5-foot-10 senior guard who will attend the US Naval Academy.

It was a fun match-up to watch - the size and athleticism of Cushing vs. a blue collar, disciplined, fundamentally sound Exeter team. Cushing Has a dominant big in 6-foot-8 Jarrod Simmons and a backcourt of Makai Ashton-Langford and Wabissa Bede - both of whom will be playing D-I college ball. Cushing clearly had more individual talent. However if Exeter could play better team basketball, dig in on defense and make enough shots they could beat them.

Exeter nearly pulled it out. They had leads of 8-0 and 11-1 in the 1st half. The Big Red led 25-20 at halftime. With 4:00 left in the 2nd half it was tied up 51-51. But in the end it was the team with more size and individual talent that won. Cushing made more plays down the stretch, and they win it 65-58. Exeter played hard, but they came up just short.

"We let it slip away" said Phillips Exeter Academy head coach Jay Tilton. "We didn't make the plays defensively when we had to."

Exeter jumped out to the early 8-0 lead, with all 8 points coming from senior wing Perry DeLorenzo. He hit a pair of 3-pointers and a 15-footer. The Big Red were moving the ball well in order to get DeLorenzo open looks. Exeter was playing a tough, active, aggressive 2-3 zone on defense to try and negate Cushing's size advantage inside and also to try and keep Ashton-Langford and Bede from penetrating into the lane. This strategy was working early on, as the Big Red took an 11-1 lead.

Max Kirsch made a good move in the low post, backing down his defender (who was 3 inches taller than him) before hitting a tough, turnaround leaner with his left hand and with his defender all over him. Good move and shot by Kirsch, who is one of the team's captains. That put Exeter up 16-7 with 9:30 left in the 1st half.

"I'm proud of this group" said Coach Tilton. "They're fun to coach. It's the best executing team I've ever coached. They are an unselfish, tough group."

Max Kirsch then made a nice dish to a cutting teammate for a layup and a 25-18 Exeter lead with 1:20 to play in the 1st half. The Big Red led 25-20 at halftime. Exeter was playing a zone on defense, and they were patient on offense. It was a half court game, not much transition or teams taking shots early in the shot clock. As a result it was a low scoring 1st half.

Coach Tilton had to be pleased with the fact that his squad held a Cushing team with so much size and offensive firepower to just 20 points in the 1st half. Unfortunately, that size and offensive firepower took over in the 2nd half, as Cushing scored an impressive 45 points in the 2nd half.

The Kirsch brothers were making plays early in the 2nd half. Max turned and hit a hook shot out of the low post, and then on the other end of the floor he took a charge. Exeter gets the ball back, and Mitchell hits a 3-pointer off the catch. He had a hand right in his face, but used a high release to get the shot off. That put the Big Red up 30-23. Then Mitchell Kirsch made a tough drive and finish through contact off the glass for 2 more. He finished with 7 points, while his older brother Max chipped in with 10.

That's when the momentum swung over to Cushing, as the Penguins went on a 12-2 run to to take a 35-32 lead with 12:13 left in the 2nd half and force Coach Tilton to call a timeout. Cushing extended their lead to 37-32 and make it a 14-2 run. The backcourt of Ashton-Langford and Bede is the real deal, they're both legit play makers.

Exeter fought back, as Tommy Mobley hit a big 3-pointer on the fast-break to put them back on top 40-39. Then Max Kirsch drained a 3 of his own off the catch from the left wing to make it 43-41 Exeter. That capped an 11-4 run for the Big Red. Unfortunately for them, that would be their last lead of the game. Ashton-Langford really started to take over, finishing and-1 off a baseline out of bounds play to make it a 51-43 Cushing lead with 6:29 left in the 2nd half to cap a 10-0 run.

It continued to be a game of runs, as Exeter stormed back and after a 3-pointer by DeLorenzo it was all tied up 51-51 with 4:05 left in regulation, capping an 8-0 run by the Big Red. This game had six lead changes in the 2nd half alone. Cushing went back on top, but Exeter kept fighting till the end. Max Kirsch made another nice pass to a cutting teammate for a layup. That cut the Cushing lead to 57-55 with 1:30 remaining.

Exeter was hanging tough, but had trouble getting stops in the 2nd half as Daylon Carter hit a pair of clutch 3's in the 2nd half. Max Kirsch connected on another 3-pointer, cutting the Cushing lead to 63-58 with 9.5 seconds left. Cushing hung on from there for the 65-58 win.

Exeter has four NH natives on the roster, including the Kirsch brothers, Thompson and junior guard Ben Swett (Exeter, NH). The Kirsch brothers would have gone to Timberlane, while Thompson and Swett would be going to Exeter High but you can't blame a kid for wanting to attend Phillips Exeter - the #1 boarding school in the entire country.

The Kirsch brothers are gritty, tough, hard nosed players who love to compete. They play the game the right way. You can expect Max to be a contributor at Claremont McKenna College, and for Mitchell to play a vital role for whichever college he ends up at (he's only a junior now). Their father David Kirsch led Timberlane to back-to-back Class I titles in 1981 and 1982, and then played his college ball at Babson.

Over the past few years Cushing has had Kaleb Joseph, Matt Barr and Robert O'Brien play for them. Joseph (Nashua, NH) is now playing at Syracuse, Barr (Exeter, NH) is now playing at Bentley, and O'Brien (Jaffrey, NH) is now playing at Endicott.

Some of the recent alumni from the Exeter program include Connor Green (Bedford, NH) who is playing at Amherst College, Harry Rafferty (Durham, NH) who is playing at Wesleyan, Curtis Arsenault (Berlin, NH) who is playing at Plymouth State and Duncan Robinson (New Castle, NH) who is playing at Michigan.

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