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Basketball: ConVal heading to Final Four

  • The ConVal boys basketball team advanced to the Division II Final Four with a 53-45 victory over Lebanon on Saturday night, the first semifinal appearance since making it to the championship game in 1999-00. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • The ConVal boys basketball team advanced to the Division II Final Four with a 53-45 victory over Lebanon on Saturday night, the first semifinal appearance since making it to the championship game in 1999-00. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • The ConVal boys basketball team advanced to the Division II Final Four with a 53-45 victory over Lebanon on Saturday night, the first semifinal appearance since making it to the championship game in 1999-00. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • The ConVal boys basketball team advanced to the Division II Final Four with a 53-45 victory over Lebanon on Saturday night, the first semifinal appearance since making it to the championship game in 1999-00. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • The ConVal boys basketball team advanced to the Division II Final Four with a 53-45 victory over Lebanon on Saturday night, the first semifinal appearance since making it to the championship game in 1999-00. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • The ConVal boys basketball team advanced to the Division II Final Four with a 53-45 victory over Lebanon on Saturday night, the first semifinal appearance since making it to the championship game in 1999-00. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • The ConVal boys basketball team advanced to the Division II Final Four with a 53-45 victory over Lebanon on Saturday night, the first semifinal appearance since making it to the championship game in 1999-00. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • The ConVal boys basketball team advanced to the Division II Final Four with a 53-45 victory over Lebanon on Saturday night, the first semifinal appearance since making it to the championship game in 1999-00. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • The ConVal boys basketball team advanced to the Division II Final Four with a 53-45 victory over Lebanon on Saturday night, the first semifinal appearance since making it to the championship game in 1999-00. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • The ConVal boys basketball team advanced to the Division II Final Four with a 53-45 victory over Lebanon on Saturday night, the first semifinal appearance since making it to the championship game in 1999-00. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • The ConVal boys basketball team advanced to the Division II Final Four with a 53-45 victory over Lebanon on Saturday night, the first semifinal appearance since making it to the championship game in 1999-00. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • The ConVal boys basketball team advanced to the Division II Final Four with a 53-45 victory over Lebanon on Saturday night, the first semifinal appearance since making it to the championship game in 1999-00. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • The ConVal boys basketball team advanced to the Division II Final Four with a 53-45 victory over Lebanon on Saturday night, the first semifinal appearance since making it to the championship game in 1999-00. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • The ConVal boys basketball team advanced to the Division II Final Four with a 53-45 victory over Lebanon on Saturday night, the first semifinal appearance since making it to the championship game in 1999-00. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—



Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Sunday, March 10, 2019 2:26PM

The goal of reaching the Division II Final Four may not have seemed realistic for a team coming off a 6-12 season and its third straight missed postseason.

But ConVal boys basketball coach Leo Gershgorin knew this year’s group was capable of doing something special. He had seen the work they put in, and not just since they convened for preseason practices in November, but really since last season ended. This group was dedicated to turning around the once proud program that had seen its fair share of downs since making its last significant playoff run in the season that spanned the last two centuries.

After a 1-1 start, the Cougars rattled off 16 straight victories to finish the regular season with a 17-1 record, earning the No. 2 seed. And with Saturday night’s 53-45 win over Lebanon in the quarterfinals, ConVal returns to the final four for the first time since 1999-00 to face Pembroke – riding an 18-game winning streak and an all-time confidence.

“At the start of the season, our No. 1 goal was to get to the Final Four, make it to UNH. With all the offseason work we did this summer, all the games and practices and all the hard work we put in, we felt we deserved a spot,” said senior Max Richard. “It’s a great feeling, everyone always talks about how great ConVal used to be and we’re just trying to get it back to where it was.”

They had to withstand Lebanon’s best shot, which came during a 7-0 run to start the second quarter and what would eventually lead to an eight-point deficit with about two minutes to play in the half. ConVal had taken a 12-11 edge after the first thanks to Richard’s buzzer-beating three, but there were defensive lapses in the second, in large part to a temporary switch to a 3-2 zone that allowed the Raiders’s top two scorers, Wade Rainey and Jonathan Willeman to combine for 12 in the quarter.

“We have really good chemistry that keeps us together when we get down, so we didn’t let it faze us,” Richard said.

Then the momentum swung back to the Cougars. With a Mather Kipka free throw and Connor Buffum three, ConVal trailed by just four with less than a minute left. The Lebanon student section did it’s best to rush senior Ben Henry’s final shot with a quickened countdown, but Kipka was there for the offensive rebound and putback with .3 remaining to enter the half down 25-23.

“We were happy with where we were at. It was a two point game and we knew it was going to be close game,” Gershgorin said.

ConVal spent all but one minute of halftime in the lockerroom and didn’t put up a single warm-up shot. They already knew what needed to happen to win, it was just a matter of going out and executing.

“We just kept our composure. They hit a couple shots, but we knew we were fine,” Buffum said.

Typically a team that will go at least eight deep, Gershgorin opted for the group of starters Richard, Buffum, Kipka, and Henry and inserted junior Del Bonsu-Anane to start the third. He didn’t make a single substitution in the quarter.

“We figured out those five were playing really well, and you got to go with your guys,” Gershgorin said. “With the guys who are ready for the moment.”

Buffum hit a pair of threes and Bonsu-Anane’s pull-up jumper in the lane sparked an 8-1 run for a 31-26 lead. Caleb Smith’s lay-up with 2:54 left was Lebanon’s only field goal of the quarter, while ConVal went on to score the final nine points for a commanding 40-28 advantage with eight minutes to play.

“It was all in the defense. When we play good defense it helps our offense,” Buffum said. “So we were taking advantage of those bad misses and turning it into offense.”

All told, the Cougars outscored the Raiders 17-3 in the third, thanks to nine of Buffum’s team high 16 points and Bonsu-Anane’s impact on both ends. He limited Rainey to three second half points and created a match-up nightmare for the junior big man. He scored seven of his ten points in the second half, twice getting Rainey to bite on a pump fake from the top of the lane, only to drive for a lay-up.

“We knew it would be all about our defense, all about getting stops. The ball is going to go in eventually for us, so we had to get stops,” Gershgorin said.

ConVal could have put it out of reach much earlier, but struggled to convert from the free throw line despite being in the bonus with just less than five minutes left, going 9-for-18 in the fourth. But on two of those misses Bonsu-Anane was there to grab the offensive rebound to extend possessions, and more importantly, eat up the clock.

“Time was now on our side and we wanted to keep it out of their hands,” Gershgorin said.

Lebanon twice got as close as six in the final two minutes, but ConVal wasn’t about to let its season end slip away. They had a goal to achieve.

Four of ConVal’s five scorers were in double figures, led by Buffum’s 16 and 10 each from Richard, Henry and Bonsu-Anane. Kipka added seven. Willeman led all scorers with 18, but had only five after halftime. Smith had nine and Rainey added eight.

“We were doing well, so coach was just keeping it the same unless anything happened,” Bonsu-Anane said of the lineup change. “We played well the whole second half, so that’s why he kept us in.”

ConVal has only been to the playoffs three times since that 1999-00 team that made it to the finals 19 years ago, and until this year hadn’t hosted a playoff game in the same time frame.

And there was a moment where Gershgorin realized what he had.

“It was that Souhegan game, the Hope for Gus game at home. Souhegan is a really good team and we were leading that entire game and then they tied it up and we went to overtime. We go down two in overtime and they had all the momentum. When we pulled that out, the resiliency they showed, I turned to my coaches and said this isn’t fake, this is real. We have an opportunity to really make some noise,” Gershgorin said.

They knocked off Milford 47-39 in the preliminary round – the only team to defeat the Cougars back on Dec. 20 – leading to one final game on the home floor. You have to go back to the 1993-94 season to find the last ConVal team to win 17 games in the regular season, which just so happens to be the last time the program won a state championship.

That team finished with 20 victories and a shiny NHIAA plaque to put in the trophy case, something this ConVal team would like to replicate, starting with its Final Four date with Pembroke at UNH Monday night.

“We had three tournaments, one of them was even in Maine, we had games in Massachusetts every week, and we knew since we put in all that work we were going to do something this year.” Bonsu-Anane said.