There’s no better rivalry in high school basketball than Conant versus Mascenic. But even those on the Vikings’ side have to admit that the scales are historically tipped toward Conant. After all, the Orioles have had multiple undefeated seasons and hold the Division III / Class M record for most state championships (11). And while a Mascenic win on Tuesday night might not have changed history, it would, at least, make it.
“We get a lot of flak from different people saying a rivalry isn’t a rivalry when it’s one-sided,” said Mascenic head coach Jay Starr. “It’s going to take a while to even it out, but I think we’re getting there.”
Mascenic came into Tuesday’s game without a road win at Conant since December 2001. The Vikings hadn’t swept a season series from the Orioles since the Don Gutterson days back in 1994. But after a 52-49 win in New Ipswich back in December, Mascenic was already halfway there.
The gameplan was simple for Mascenic: shut down senior captain James Record, the division’s fifth-leading scorer at 18.5 ppg and Conant’s main playmaker.
“It runs all through him, it seems,” said Mascenic senior co-captain Brett Stauffeneker. “He gets to the hole and dishes for an open look or he gets an open jump shot. So we really just focused on shutting him down and getting out on the shooters.”
Normally, a 2-3 zone can be exploited by Conant’s wingmen, but with the Orioles missing senior Drew Marro, there was one less shooter to find on the perimeter.
“I think our defense really tightened up bigtime,” Starr said. “In a zone it can be tough to get out on shooters, but we've been playing these guys for a number of years ... To get out on this wing was a challenge a few times, but we made some adjustments and I think we got out there pretty good.”
In fact, the Orioles would only hit one three-pointer. Meanwhile, the Vikings, who make their hay from the outside, hit five, four coming from senior co-captain and 1,000-point scorer Daimon Gibson.
Mascenic took a five-point lead into the half, but quickly surrendered it, as Conant’s Jake Drew (16 points) stepped up and aggressively filled the scoring void for the Orioles.
“I try to help my team win whatever way I can,” Drew said. “Playing defense or offense, whatever I can do to help.”
Conant tied the game at 21 on a Record (12 points) basket, but Mascenic came surging back. Gibson hit all four of his threes in the second half, ballooning the lead to 13 in the opening minutes of the fourth quarter, when he buried a contested three to make it 40-27 Mascenic.
Against another team, in a another building, that lead might have been safe, but not at the Pratt.
“We always fight,” Drew said. “Never count us out. We work until the game’s over.”
Record, Drew and Tate Niemela (7 points) helped Conant battle back, and Mascenic found themselves trying to stall the ball and eat the clock, up seven with 2:30 remaining.
“This is a real tough team to pull the ball out against,” Starr said, “because their defensive pressure is just through the roof.”
Conant cut the lead to 43-38 and fouled who they wanted to foul, DJ Turner. Turner hit one of two, and Niemela answered back with a quick layup. Down three, Conant fouled Turner again. This time, he’d hit both, and put the game out of reach, 45-40.
“DJ Turner hit some huge free throws for us,” Starr said.
Conant head coach Eric Saucier said the game simply came down to who made the most shots.
“That’s what it came down to,” Saucier said. “I was happy with our effort, we’re getting better, and that’s all I can ask. We just didn’t make shots — I can’t get mad at guys for not making shots, I never will. Our effort was there, we played good defense. We did what we needed to do, we just didn’t score the basketball enough.”
Games like this, in front of a packed house in the Pratt, are just what both teams need to ready for the playoffs. Conant started the year as a young team, full of freshman, but Saucier said that now, they’re battle-tested.
“They’re not young kids anymore,” Saucier said. “We’re at the end of the season, they’re all varsity players, so now it’s time to step up.”
Stauffeneker, too, saw the value in that experience.
“I think it’s just preparing us for that playoff atmosphere,” Stauffeneker said. “I think it’s huge for us.”
Stauffeneker finished with a game-high 20 points along with eight rebounds and five blocks.
Things don’t get any easier for Conant. On Thursday at 6:30 p.m., they travel to Kearsarge (13-2), winners of 12 straight after knocking off Hopkinton and Stevens. Next Tuesday, it’s Monadnock (9-7). Right now, Conant is 10th in DIII at 10-5.
“It’s a good stretch for us before the playoffs,” Saucier said.I don’t really care where we fall. As long as we play hard and play defense, we’ve always got a chance.”
Mascenic is now 8th in DIII at 11-4. On Friday night, they host Sanborn (5-9), with a special 6 p.m. start time to accommodate a ceremony to honor Gibson, who scored his 1,000th point on the road. After that, it’s Wilton-Lyndeborough on Wednesday and a trip to No. 1 Hopkinton (13-1) next Friday.
“I think our schedule all season has gotten us prepared for the tournament in a couple weeks so I'm pretty happy about that,” Starr said.