Exeter and Winnacunnet. Arguably the biggest rivalry in the state. When these teams square off it's always a big deal. On Thursday night in Hampton it was a packed house with both student sections rockin'. It was a tournament atmosphere. Not only that, but both teams are capable of making a run to the Final Four. It was an evenly matched, highly competitive game with no shortage of big plays, big shots and intensity.
In the end (as most close games do) it came down to which team made more stops and hit more shots in the 4th quarter. Winnacunnet led 51-47 after 3, but Exeter outscored them 14-5 in the final period. As a result, the Blue Hawks win it 61-56 and got to celebrate on their arch-rivals' home floor.
"This atmosphere, with our crowd - it doesn't get any better" said Exeter sophomore guard Cody Morissette.
"This is a big game" said Exeter senior guard Bryant Holmes. "We mark it on our calendars and always look forward to it. We grinded it out and got the win."
Holmes hit a 3-pointer early in the 4th quarter to put the Blue Hawks on top 52-51. It was his fifth 3 ball of the contest. Holmes (son of Exeter head coach Jeff Holmes) and Morissette (son of former Rivier College head coach Dave Morissette) both tallied a game-high 16 points in the victory.
"It was a good team win" said Bryant Holmes. I hit a shot in the beginning, and after that they were sticking to me good. But you always want to get the ball moving and that's how we got the win."
Both squads took (and made) a ton of 3-pointers. It was a huge part of this game. Right after Holmes hit that 3, Winnacunnet sophomore guard Zach Waterhouse (11 points) hit a 3 to put the Warriors back ahead 54-52. It was Waterhouse's third 3 of the game. On the other end of the floor Morissette answered back with a 3 of his own, as the Blue Hawks were back on top 55-54. This game had a six ties and over 10 lead changes.
"We didn't play well in the 3rd quarter, so coach told us that in the 4th quarter we had to step it up" said Morissette. "We stepped it up on defense."
Exeter definitely stepped it up on 'D', because they only allowed the Warriors to score 2 points during the game's final 3 minutes (and 0 points in the final 2 minutes). The Blue Hawks used some good ball movement in the half court, finding senior wing Tim Larkin (8 points) inside for a layup. That made it 57-54 Exeter with 2:43 left in regulation.
"I talked to my guys at halftime about how in back-and-forth games like this it's just 1 or 2 plays that could decide it" said Coach Holmes. "It's a matter of who steps up and makes those plays."
Winnacunnet senior forward Patrick Witt (8 points) countered by hitting an 18-footer from the baseline off the catch, cutting the Blue Hawks lead to 57-56. Larkin makes a big play on 'D' to take a charge. The Warriors regain possession, trailing 59-56 with just 47 seconds remaining. Waterhouse got a good look at a 3, but it was no good. Winnacunnet gets the offensive rebound, but it's stolen away by Exeter. Winnacunnet is forced to foul. Morissette makes 1 of 2 FTs, so it's a 2 possession game, 60-56. The Warriors need a quick score, but Mike Lewis' 3-point attempt is no good also. Holmes is fouled with just 7 seconds left, he makes 1 of 2 at the line and the Blue Hawks win it 61-56.
"On defense we stuck to our philosophy - switch on screens, communicate and help on the ball" said Morissette.
Both teams began launching 3's right from the opening tip. Waterhouse hit a 3 off the catch from the corner, followed by a 3 by teammate Liam Viviano (team-high 15 points) from the right wing to get Winnacunnet off to the early 6-2 lead. Holmes countered by connecting on his first 3 of the evening. The 3's kept coming, as Viviano sunk another one, getting the friendly come court bounce.
Junior face-up forward Stephen Natola took a charge for Exeter. Off a baseline out of bounds play, Holmes hit another 3, this time off the catch from the left wing. Then Winnacunnet got a steal, and quickly pushed it ahead to Waterhouse for a transition layup. Warriors senior guard Anthony Primavera (12 points) made a tough slash to the rim and finish through contact, as the Warriors led 13-10. Just seconds later Winnacunnet got another steal, and this time it was Primavera with the easy layup on the break to make it 15-10. Primavera used a crossover dribble to free himself up for a mid-range jumper to make it 17-10. The Warriors kept pushing the basketball and scoring, as Waterhouse made a good extra pass inside to Witt for a layup.
On the other end Holmes hit his third 3-pointer of the 1st quarter, this time from the right wing. Witt drained an 18-footer off the catch from the baseline. Senior wing Kevin Eaton came off the Exeter bench and connected on a 3 with just 1 second left, cutting the Winnacunnet lead to 21-18 after 1 quarter.
The Blue Hawks got more production from their bench, as sophomore wing Alex Swett took a charge. The Winnacunnet zone was starting to slow down the Exeter offense. The Warriors continued to lead, as Primavera drove and dished inside to senior forward Tyler Aversano for an and-1 finish. Nik Ramsdell came off the Exeter bench and drained a 3. Just seconds later Waterhouse answered back by nailing another 3 of his own. However, Waterhouse was staring down his defender (Larkin) the whole way back down the court as he jogged back on defense. Was it solid gamesmanship, or poor sportsmanship? You decide.
Ramsdell then countered by hitting another 3 of his own, putting Exeter back on top 27-26 (did I mention there was a lot of lead changes?). Winnacunnet meanwhile got yet another steal defending the Exeter half court offense. The Blue Hawks made some adjustments and did a better job of limiting their turnovers in the 2nd half.
The Warriors re-take the lead, but then Exeter takes it right back on another 3-pointer by Morissette. He had to release it quick, because Winnacunnet was doing a good job of challenging the Blue Hawks shooters, even while playing a zone defense. Warriors sophomore wing James Morse gets into the action by draining a 3 off the catch from the left wing, and we were all tied up 34-34 at halftime.
Morissette hit a mid-range pull-up jumper early in the 3rd quarter, followed by a strong drive and finish by teammate Colin Coute to get Exeter back on top 38-34. Then Winnacunnet went on an 11-2 run. Viviano made a nifty hesitation dribble-drive move and and-1 finish. Coute hit a tough turnaround jumper with a hand in his face to answer back.
Waterhouse made a steal in the back court and dished it over to Primavera for the layup and a 45-40 Warriors advantage. Exeter answered that 11-2 run back though, as Holmes buried another 3 on the other end. Then Blue Hawks junior guard Nick Sowers made a nice steal at 3/4 court and took it all the way in for the layup. That tied the game back up 45-45 and got both student sections amped up!
"When Nick Sowers made that steal and layup - that was a huge play" said Morissette.
Primavera made another crossover into a mid-range jumper. Swett got the ball inside and finished in traffic to tie it back up 47-47. Viviano and Primavera both converted quick transition layups at the end of the 3rd quarter, and it was 51-47 Warriors after 3.
"They're not afraid to make big shots" Coach Holmes said about his standout backcourt of Morissette and Holmes. "But tonight we had a lot of guys step up. Kevin Eaton with that 3, Nick Sowers with that steal, and Ramsdell played well off the bench - he can shoot it."