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Basketball: Conant back in Final Four after beating White Mountains

  • Conant’s Connor Hart gets a finger roll to go against White Mountains Friday. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • The Conant boys' basketball team hosted White Mountains in the NHIAA Division III quarterfinals on Friday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Conant’s Gavin Motuzas celebrates after a Peyton Springfield and-one. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • The Conant boys' basketball team hosted White Mountains in the NHIAA Division III quarterfinals on Friday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Conant boys' basketball team hosted White Mountains in the NHIAA Division III quarterfinals on Friday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Conant guard Jake Drew gets a bucket over 6’5” White Mountains center Zeke Pribbernow during the NHIAA Division III quarterfinal game on Friday. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • The Conant boys' basketball team hosted White Mountains in the NHIAA Division III quarterfinals on Friday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Conant boys' basketball team hosted White Mountains in the NHIAA Division III quarterfinals on Friday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Conant boys' basketball team hosted White Mountains in the NHIAA Division III quarterfinals on Friday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Conant boys' basketball team hosted White Mountains in the NHIAA Division III quarterfinals on Friday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • The Conant boys' basketball team hosted White Mountains in the NHIAA Division III quarterfinals on Friday. Staff photo by Ben Conant—



Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Saturday, March 02, 2019 9:39AM

Conant’s goal this season? To get back the the Final Four at SNHU for the first time since 2016. The biggest obstacle standing in their way? 6’5” Zeke Pribbernow and White Mountains, the team that unceremoniously upset the Orioles at home in the first round of last year’s tournament. 

Conant head coach Eric Saucier and his team weren’t dwelling on the past Friday night as the No. 2 Orioles faced the No. 7 Spartans in the quarterfinal round of the NHIAA Division III playoffs.

“They’re a different team, and we’re a different team,” Saucier said. “I told the guys, I’m not looking at it as a revenge game. We’re a lot better than we were last year, they’re a lot better, it’s a whole new game, let’s just go on the court and do what we do.”

The Orioles started the game with a three-pointer from the top of the key by marksman Connor Hart (11 points); fellow junior Peyton Springfield piled up nine of his team-high 17 in the first quarter and Conant was up as much as 28-14 midway through the second.

The Orioles focused their defense on Pribbernow, who is one of the top centers in Division III.

“Zeke’s improved a lot,” said White Mountains head coach Mike Curtis. “He ended last year on a real high note and this year he’s averaged about 20 points and ten rebounds a game, so he’s really carried our team.”

Each time Pribbernow caught the ball, the Orioles’ zone collapsed and swarmed the big man, and while he seemed to be consistently getting good looks under the hoop, Conant stood strong and held him to eight points in the first half.

“We just tried not to foul, keep straight up, and make it as hard as we can for him to make the shots,” Hart said, “and hopefully he misses and we can get that board and get down the floor.”

With Pribbernow smothered, it was up to Griffin Crane to pick up the scoring load for the Spartans. Crane scored all ten of his points in the first half and capped off a 9-0 run with a floater at the halftime buzzer before sprinting straight into the locker room with the score now 28-23 Conant.

“Conant doesn’t lose on their court much,”Curtis said. “They definitely wanted us back from last year’s playoff loss, so with all those factors I thought our kids matched their intensity.”

Hart, Anthony Gauthier (9 points) and Jake Drew (9 points) all got buckets in the third quarter and extended the lead back out to nine. But after a pair of Springfield free throws in the closing seconds, Conant was discombobulated on defense and left Connor Bosse open for a three-pointer to make it 39-33.

“That shouldn’t happen,” Saucier said. “If we huddle and know what we’re in, that shouldn’t happen, and that’s the kind of stuff that can’t happen when we get to SNHU. We fought through it but that was unacceptable.”

The Orioles faced more adversity in the final quarter. Pribbernow found his touch and scored 13 of his game-high 21 in the second half, culminating in a three-pointer that cut the lead to 40-36 Conant. Then, Crane tossed Springfield to the floor on a rebound attempt and picked up an intentional foul. Playoff intensity was in full swing, and Conant didn’t back down.

Up six with under two minutes to play, Springfield was fouled in the backcourt. Saucier screamed from the sidelines for his team to sprint to the foul line, huddle up and confirm their defensive set, as he expects before every Oriole trip to the line.

“It’s about team camaraderie and being on the same page,” Saucier said. “All year I’ve been telling these guys, they’ve got to be more independent and not count on me … The fact is, when you get to SNHU, they’re not going to be able to hear me. They’ve got to start taking charge now. It’s their season. Everything we’ve done all year, it’s in – offenses, defenses – now it’s their turn to do it. They gotta get energized, they gotta on the same page.”

Senior Gavin Motuzas (nine points), Gauthier, Springfield and Drew combined to shoot 11-17 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter; White Mountains’ well dried up, and the result was a 55-46 Conant win and a trip to SNHU for the semifinals.

“It’s amazing,” Hart said. “That’s what we’ve been working toward all year. Ever since our loss at Campbell, we’ve had motivation to get here, and we’re finally there – I’m just glad that me and my team could get it done.”

For all of Conant’s basketball dominance over the past two decades, this will be the first Final Four appearance for almost all of the current roster.

“I can’t tell you how happy I am for them,” Saucier said. “Jake’s the only one who’s been to SNHU, but he didn’t play, he was a freshman. Even the juniors, when they were younger, they were in the stands rooting on guys – now they have a chance. I’ve told them during the year, you’re very fortunate. There’s a lot of players who play New Hampshire basketball that never have a chance. You guys have a chance, let’s make the most of it. And I thought they did tonight.” 

Conant (16-3) will face No. 3 St. Thomas Aquinas (16-4) in the semifinals at SNHU at 6 p.m. Wednesday. Conant beat the Saints 54-36 in January, for what that’s worth; Hopkinton had also beaten St. Thomas in the regular season before the Saints knocked off the No. 6 Hawks 60-52 on Friday.

St. Thomas features another of DIII’s best big men, senior 1,000-point scorer Andrew Cavanaugh and his floating baby hook. Cavanaugh and explosive guard Shawn Dekorne, who put up 24 and 10 in the win over Hopkinton, like a slower pace, and run one of DIII’s most effective halfcourt offenses.

On the other side of the bracket, No. 1 defending champion Somersworth will take on No. 4 Campbell. Campbell beat Somersworth 61-51 in the penultimate game of the regular season. 

The two teams who’ll  face off in Saturday’s final game will be decided during Wednesday’s Final Four doubleheader.

“It’s a big accomplishment to finally get there, but we want more,” Hart said. “We want to go all the way this year.”