Basketball

Conant wins second straight DIII title with 40-36 win over Campbell

  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.
  • The Conant boys basketball team beat Berlin 39-38 in the NHIAA DIII semifinals on March 14, 2014.

Eric Saucier is smiling now. After promising the Orioles at the beginning of the year that he wouldn’t crack a grin until they won the state championship, the Conant head coach went back into the locker room after Sunday’s 40-36 title win over Campbell and beamed from ear to ear.

“It feels great,” Saucier said. “It always feels good to win. All the hard work, all the time you’ve put in, all the 7 a.m. practices, it’s all for this moment, and I couldn’t be happier for the kids. That’s who it’s all about. It’s not about me or my coaches, it’s about the kids’ smiling faces and the joy they get from winning and the joy the parents get from watching them growing into young men. That’s why I do it and that’s what it’s all about.”

Like any good general, Saucier made sure his soldiers were straight all season long, getting major contributions from the top to the bottom of the roster.

“I make sure that I’m just as hard on the No. 14 as I am on No. 1,” Saucier said, “because you never know when the moments are going to come. So in practice, if guy No. 10 messes up, I’m just as hard on him as if Eli [Hodgson] or Rob [O’Brien] mess up, because of those moments. They have to be ready.”

That preparation served the Orioles well during the championship weekend; after falling behind early to Berlin in the semifinal, the team fought back, with DIII player of the year contender O’Brien scoring the first 11 Conant points. In the second half, Hodgson took over, bullying his way to hoop to establish his dominance in the paint. But late in the fourth quarter while clinging to a one point lead, Hodgson fouled out and O’Brien took a vicious foul along the sideline that left him on the court writhing in pain, clutching his shoulder. O’Brien was forced to leave the game, and sophomore forward CJ Bilodeau was called upon to shoot the 1-and-1 in his stead. Bilodeau calmly knocked down what O’Brien called “the biggest free throws of our season” and gave Conant a three-point cushion.

“It’s unbelievable,” Bilodeau said. “Last year, I would have never expected it, I would have been the last guy off the bench to shoot those free throws. But I put in the work in the offseason, I got to the line because I knew that’s what it was going to come down to.”

After a timeout, O’Brien gritted it out and returned to the floor. Berlin brought the ball back down; Tommy Gallagher went inside and earned a trip to the line, where he hit both to bring Berlin to within one. The Mountaineers wisely fouled O’Brien with about 36 seconds left, sending him to the line. His form clearly affected by his shoulder injury, O’Brien missed the first; Josh DeGrenier squirmed through the tall trees to chase down the long rebound, but he slipped a sliver of sneaker sole on the baseline, and it was Berlin ball for one more possession.

The Mountaineers ran down the clock before the shifty ballhandler Gallagher weaved his way to the hoop for a great look with five seconds left; the layup rimmed out and landed in the lane, where a scrum of players from both sides descended on it. As the pile of bodies in the paint fought over possession, the horn sounded, and Conant’s bench briefly emptied in celebration; however, the referees got together and ruled that a jump ball had been called with .5 seconds remaining — possession arrow to Berlin. The Mountaineers got exactly what they needed and wanted on the final inbounds play, as they lobbed it in to 6’4” center Nick Fodor, who was cutting straight for the hoop. He caught the alley-oop in mid-air and got the layup off in plenty of time, but it bounced off the iron and Conant stormed the court in earnest this time with a 39-38 win and a trip to the title game.

In the championship, a rematch of last year’s tilt with Campbell, it was another less-than-likely player who carried the Orioles when it counted: senior guard Nick Panagiotes.

Panagiotes, who hadn’t scored more than four points in any playoff game, broke out for 13 points on 4-of-5 from downtown.

“I was shooting yesterday in practice,” Panagiotes said, “and we were running through some plays and I missed like four in a row. Coach was like, ‘Nick, you’ll get them tomorrow. You’ll shoot great.’ He does it every time, he calls it like he sees it, and that’s how it came out. It was great. I’m glad for him, because I respect him so much, and without a coach like him, we wouldn’t have team like this.”

O’Brien, Kyle Carland and Hodgson were stellar as always in the title game; Carland held Cougars star Zach Bergeon without a field goal in the first half, and once Carland picked up his third foul guarding the wiry forward, Hodgson stepped in to lock him down.

“I loved it,” Hodgson said. “I wanted to cover him the whole game. I would have covered him the whole game if I didn’t get in foul trouble but I’ll take whatever I can get.”

Things got testy between the two big men down the stretch.

“We were definitely talking to each other,” Hodgson said. “I know he’s a great player, but I’m a competitor too so that’s all it was. We were just fired up, it’s the championship game. He’s one hell of a player.”

Bergeon finished with 18 points on 13-of-14 from the line and only two field goals. Hodgson again fouled out, finishing with six points; O’Brien fouled out as well with 14, and both were given resounding ovations as they left the court. Campbell made it interesting down the stretch, and Conant missed a few free throws that could have iced it, but in the end, Conant held on for a 40-36 victory.

“It’s a great feeling knowing that we worked hard all season just for this moment,” O’Brien said after the game. “Us and Campbell are a great rivalry, probably one of the best rivalries in the state, and it just felt good to know that all this hard work paid off.”

Carland was happy to add another title to his belt, and to do it against a bitter rival that’s one of the only teams to get a W against Conant in the last two years made it extra special.

“They’ve caught us off guard twice,” Carland said, “one last year and another one this year, but it doesn’t count. Regular season, we’re not trying to be undefeated, that’s not our goal. Our goal is to win a championship, and that’s what we did today. Knowing that we won a championship and beat Campbell definitely adds a little warmth to the heart.”

Conant’s ultimate goal was to win the title, which they did; they knew all season long that the way to achieve that was through defense, specifically by holding their opponents below 40 points. They achieved that as well; not a single Conant opponent cracked 40, and the Orioles points against average was a stellar 34.7 ppg. Both O’Brien, who averaged 15 points throughout, and Hodgson, who averaged 14 points and 10 rebounds, could be called the tournament MVP (and should garner consideration for DIII player of the year as well). But regardless of individual accomplishments, this was a top-to-bottom well-rounded team that got major contributions from everyone on the roster. Whether it was the defense-minded Panagiotes coming alive and scoring, Bilodeau coming in and hitting free throws, Nate Wheeler’s intense defense (and his pre-game ritual of mac-and-cheese, which he ate before every Conant win dating back to last season) or DeGrenier’s ball-management and free-throw shooting, everyone played their part.

“My boy Josh DeGrenier came out and stepped up big time,” Carland said. “and all I could really do was hug him after the game and say ‘Thank you for having my back.’”

Even the players who didn’t get to play much throughout the season or in the playoffs had their roles to fill too, as senior Anthony Gonsalves reflected back at Conant High School for the championship celebration after riding back from SNHU to a hero’s welcome that came complete with police and fire escort and a fireworks display.

“Obviously I didn’t play a lot, but I played a lot in practice, and I knew I got better as a person,” Gonsalves said. “Just having the feeling of winning, even just riding on the bus back with all the fire trucks, I had a satisfying feeling. It’s just great memories. I’ll remember this forever no matter what. I love my teammates like we’re a family, and they support me no matter what. I just feel like I belong. So even though I didn’t play, I’ll remember this forever, and even though I didn’t play, I still left my mark on this team and I helped my teammates get better every day.”

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