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Basketball: Progress, pain on display in ConVal’s semifinal loss

  • The ConVal boys' basketball team played Pembroke Academy in the NHIAA Division II semifinals at UNH on Monday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The ConVal boys' basketball team played Pembroke Academy in the NHIAA Division II semifinals at UNH on Monday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The ConVal boys' basketball team played Pembroke Academy in the NHIAA Division II semifinals at UNH on Monday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The ConVal boys' basketball team played Pembroke Academy in the NHIAA Division II semifinals at UNH on Monday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The ConVal boys' basketball team played Pembroke Academy in the NHIAA Division II semifinals at UNH on Monday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The ConVal boys' basketball team played Pembroke Academy in the NHIAA Division II semifinals at UNH on Monday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The ConVal boys' basketball team played Pembroke Academy in the NHIAA Division II semifinals at UNH on Monday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The ConVal boys' basketball team played Pembroke Academy in the NHIAA Division II semifinals at UNH on Monday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The ConVal boys' basketball team played Pembroke Academy in the NHIAA Division II semifinals at UNH on Monday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The ConVal boys' basketball team played Pembroke Academy in the NHIAA Division II semifinals at UNH on Monday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The ConVal boys' basketball team played Pembroke Academy in the NHIAA Division II semifinals at UNH on Monday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The ConVal boys' basketball team played Pembroke Academy in the NHIAA Division II semifinals at UNH on Monday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The ConVal boys' basketball team played Pembroke Academy in the NHIAA Division II semifinals at UNH on Monday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The ConVal boys' basketball team played Pembroke Academy in the NHIAA Division II semifinals at UNH on Monday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The ConVal boys' basketball team played Pembroke Academy in the NHIAA Division II semifinals at UNH on Monday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—



Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Tuesday, March 12, 2019 12:57PM

Progress through pain. Those were the Cougars’ watchwords this historic season, and both aspects came home to roost Monday night at UNH’s Lundholm Gymnasium as ConVal faced Pembroke in the NHIAA Division II semifinals. The progress? A 17-1 regular season, an 18-game winning streak extending into the playoffs, and a Cougar culture change. The pain? A Final Four loss at the hands of the Spartans and Division II Player of the Year Noah Cummings.

“We thought they were going to be very good,” Cummings said after the game, a 50-42 Pembroke win.  “Any team that is 17-1 is doing something right, and they’re a very good team and we knew they had really good players …We knew it was going be a very tough team.”

The wiry, decorated six-foot senior guard was the focus of ConVal’s defense, as the Cougars smothered him early on in an attempt to tire him out.

“We obviously know he’s a great scorer, great player, really wants to get inside,” said ConVal senior defender Manny Bowman, who stepped up to the matchup with no hesitation. “He’s a good shooter but we wanted to test his shot a little bit, especially on the college three-point line, it can be tough to get your shot down.”

Bowman and the Cougars kept Cummings to seven points on 3-7 shooting in the first half. Meanwhile, ConVal was getting good looks and running their offense, the senior leadership of Bowman, Max Richard and Ben Henry showing. The No. 2 Cougars, 19 years removed from their last trip to UNH, didn’t show even a flash of nerves against the No. 3 Spartans, who’d been to the semifinals last season and returned seven seniors.

“They never wavered,” said ConVal head coach Leo Gershgorin, who’d been named DII Coach of the Year on Sunday. “They didn’t even have jitters in the first moments of that game. I told the guys ‘You played like you’ve been here before! Pembroke was here last year. You just came in like you played here last week!’ It was incredible. It’s kind of our mindset, and I think it comes from our seniors, from the leadership they show.”

Six Cougars scored in the first half, led by sophomore guard Wyatt Davis, who put up five points off the bench. But the Spartans, no one-man team, got eight points from senior guard Sean Menard and a three from junior Shea Shackford and Pembroke led 21-20 at the half.

“They have three guys that are all really good,”said ConVal’s First Team All-State junior forward Mather Kipka. “They can all hit shots and they can all score. When you have three guys as good as that it’s really hard to take them all away. I thought we did a pretty good job of that during the game; obviously the end result wasn’t what we wanted but we stuck to our game plan.”

ConVal would lean on their bespectacled big man in the second half, and Kipka worked his superior footwork for a team-high 17 points while grabbing six rebounds. The back-and-forth game featured 16 lead changes, and both teams were neck-and-neck, trading buckets as finality drew closer.

Cummings had to catch fire at some point, and in the third quarter, he did, going 3-3 for eight points including a deep buzzer-beating three.

“He started to find his rhythm a little bit,” Bowman said. “We could have done some things a little bit better but overall he just hit some tough shots and that’s what you get when you play the best player.”

The Spartans and Cougars were at each other’s throats, looking for the killing blow. And for one eternal moment in the fourth quarter, ConVal looked poised to make that strike.

Davis found sharpshooter Connor Buffum – considered by many to be the best spot-up three-point shooter in the state – in the corner for a three-ball that tied the game at 39-39 with four minutes left. On the next play, Davis stole the ball from Menard, dove on the floor at midcourt to corral the ball, and flung it to Bowman. Bowman found Buffum in the corner again; he launched, the ball hung in the air, and rimmed out, and Pembroke’s Jared Dupuis grabbed the rebound. That gamebreaking shot was just out of reach.

“All season we’ve been doing it,” Gershgorin said. “Whether we’re up by one or two, or we’re down by one or two, we always make that shot, right? We always get up by one or two and we never look back, because defense is our strength. Tonight we just could not make that shot.”

ConVal would never regain the lead. On the next trip down the court, Cummings got into the paint, drew a foul, made the bucket and converted the free throw, and it was all but over for the Cougars.

“Division II Player of the Year, arguably one of the best players in the state no matter what division, we knew he was going to try to take over and he hit some big shots, and that’s what you’d expect from the Player of the Year,” Gershgorin said.

Cummings finished with a game-high 20 points.

ConVal left a few points on the line in the fourth quarter while Pembroke shot 9-10, and the Cougars could only watch as the Spartans closed it out.

“It kind of sucks,” Bowman said. “I’ll never suit up for a basketball game again, but it feels good knowing that we went out on one of the highest notes we can. We would have loved to win it but we know that we did a great job this season, had a great season, had a memorable season.”

Despite the pain, the progress at ConVal is evident.

“It wasn’t about records, it wasn’t about winning streaks, it was changing the way people perceive ConVal,” Gershgorin said. “I was joking around with the guys in there and I said ‘Thanks Manny, Max, Ben, thanks to our three seniors Tim, Makeen and Clay from last year, now every time we walk into a gym, no one’s going to say ‘Oh, it’s just ConVal.’ Now we’re going to get everybody’s best, so thanks a lot.’ Now we have high expectations for ourselves, and we have a lot of kids coming back...We’re going to hold the bar high now...Guys are going to be all in this summer. They’re going to continue to be all in because they want to get back here.”

ConVal’s final record is 19-2. Pembroke (20-1) faces No. 9 Kearsarge (14-8) for the Division II title Saturday.