By: Jeremy Leveille
It was #3 seed Manchester Central vs. #6 seed Bedford in a heavyweight battle. Even though Central was the higher seed, you got the feeling coming in that this game was a tossup, since Central barely beat #14 seed Keene in the prelims while Bedford crushed a red hot Salem team by 23. It was the quarterfinals, but with how good both of these teams were playing it could have been a Final Four game.
These teams did not disappoint, as they went toe-to-toe, going at each other hard on defense and trading big shot after big shot on offense. In the end Central was just a little bit better, and as a result they are headed to play in the D-I Final Four at UNH next week. Led by their ‘Big 3’ of senior guards Jaylen Leroy (game-high 25 points), Jonathin Makori (22 points) and Evan MacDonald (15 points), Central beat Bedford in overtime 73-66.
Give Bedford credit, as they showed a lot of heart and grit to comeback from a 10 point deficit in the 4th quarter to force OT. Things were looking bleak for the Bulldogs at the end of the 3rd quarter. MacDonald hit a layup in transition, Leroy buried a 3-pointer from four feet behind the line and it was 41-31 Little Green after 3 quarters. Central was all pumped up as they headed to the bench, as they had their largest lead of the game. It seemed like they were going to win this one easily.
That’s when Bedford made their comeback. They battled in the 4th quarter, slowly chipping away at the Central lead. Little Green junior David Baraka took the ball from ¾ court all the way to the rim for 2. But then Bedford 6-foot-7 junior forward Colby Gendron (13 points) took it inside for 2, followed quickly by a drive and finish by teammate Josh Koehler. Central’s lead was now down to 3, 46-43, as the Bulldogs were on a 9-2 run.
Makori made a killer crossover, got to the rim and flipped it in for 2. Leroy hit another 3, but then Bedford senior guard Brayden Moreno (team-high 15 points) drove and finished an and-1 to cut the Little Green lead to 51-47 with 2:09 left in regulation.
Then Moreno (son of Bedford assistant coach Frank Moreno) did it again, hitting a clutch 3-pointer to tie it up 51-51. Central answered back, making a nice back door pass to Leroy for an and-1 finish as they went back ahead 54-51 with 1:06 left in the 4th quarter.
You can never count these Bulldogs out of it, though. They got it to Gendron on the right wing. He took his man off the dribble, 1-on-1. Gendron bulled his way to the bucket, turned, spun and finished on 2 defenders for an and-1. What a play by Gendron! His free throw was good, and it was tied back up 54-54 with 36.3 seconds left. Central ball, but Bedford played tough defense, and the only shot the Little Green could get off was a contest 3-pointer attempt by Makori. His shot was no good and we were headed to overtime tied 54-54.
Bedford rode that momentum into OT, as senior point guard Justin Hayes drained a 3-pointer, putting Bedford up 57-54. It was the Bulldogs’ first lead since late in the 2nd quarter. But that lead would not last long, as Makori drove and finished an and-1 of his own to tie it back up 57-57. Makor kept attacking the basket, as he came down on the fast-break and used another crossover dribble to get inside for 2 more. That put Central back on top 59-57. Then it was Makori again creating off the dribble, as he drove and kicked it out to MacDonald, who sunk the clutch 3-pointer – nothing but net! It was now 57-52 Central with 1:53 left in OT.
Bedford was forced to foul, Leroy knocked down some clutch free throws and as he did the Central student section was chanting “M-V-P! M-V-P!” The Little Green hang on from there for the 73-66 win.
A tough loss for Bedford, and they’re left wondering what if they didn’t have key players like Moreno and Koehler off the floor at key times with foul trouble. But they gave it their all, and they lost to a very good Central team.
Central got out to the early lead in the 1st quarter, as an offensive rebound led to a 3-pointer by Makori. Then a 3 by MacDonald made it 6-0 Little Green. Bedford countered with a 7-0 run, as Koehler drove to the rim, took the contact and banked in a leaner, and-1. The Bulldogs had a nicely executed fast-break, with Hayes getting it ahead Hughes, creating a 2-on-1 break – Hughes dished it to Josh Bauer (12 points) for the layup. Bauer slashed to the rim for 2 more, capping the 7-0 run and making it 7-6 Bedford.
Hughes hit a fadeaway jumper and Bedford got a steal which led to an easy layup by Bauer. It was 11-8 Bulldogs – they were now on an 11-2 run. Makori connected on another 3-pointer, and it was tied up 11-11 after 1 quarter.
Bedford went back ahead early in the 2nd quarter, as Bauer pushed it hard up the floor and dished it to Moreno for a layup to make it 13-11 Bulldogs. Leroy converted an and-1 put-back just seconds later, and Central went back ahead 14-13. On the other end Moreno drove the lane and hit a floater, as Bedford went back on top 15-14.
The Bulldogs extended their lead to 17-14 as Gendron made a strong move inside for 2. Leroy drained a 3, tying it up 17-17. A layup on the other end by Bedford junior forward Eric Brown put the Bulldogs back ahead 19-17. Back and forth we went, as MacDonald drilled a 3-pointer to put Central back ahead 20-19. Hayes made a tough drive and banked in a leaner to tie it up 22-22 with 1:40 left in the 1st half. Central led 24-22 at halftime.
Central came out of the locker room with an increased level of focus and intensity. They outscored Bedford 17-9 in the 3rd quarter. Makori hit a 3 off the catch from the left wing early in the 3rd quarter. Then Baraka converted and and-1 to make it 30-24 Little Green. Bauer hit a 3 from the right corner, cutting the Central lead to 30-27. But Central closed the quarter on an 11-4 run and led 41-31 headed to the 4th quarter.
The D-I semi-finals at UNH will be #3 Central vs. #7 Winnacunnet and #5 Merrimack vs. #9 Manchester Memorial. The top 2 seeds both lose in the quarterfinals. Only one of the top 4 seeds makes it to UNH. A 7 and a 9 seed both make it to the semis. This all sounds crazy, but it shouldn’t be surprising given how much parity there is in D-I and how wild this season has been. It should be a great Final Four, and it’s anyone’s guess which team will come out on top.