Before they had won a game, or had a practice, or even picked a team, the Bears talked about it.
“It’s the first thing we said this season. We said we were going to address it once, that our goal was to get to the championship game, and we didn’t talk about it after that,” Coe-Brown senior Sam Lupinacci said. “We just put our heads down and really worked.”
The work led Lupinacci and the third-seeded Bears (18-3) to that unspeakable place – Saturday’s Division II boys’ basketball championship at the University of New Hampshire, where they will face top-ranked Lebanon (19-1) at noon.
“Before the first tryout, we had a meeting and our coaches said, ‘okay, this group should be primed to play in the last game of the year.’ That was pretty much the goal,” said junior Scott Spenard, who ignited Coe-Brown’s offense in a 63-52 semifinal win over No. 2 Milford and finished with a game-high 18 points.
The Bears traveled to Lebanon just three weeks ago and left there with a 74-58 loss. The Raiders got 25 points from senior point guard K.J. Matte, the 2016 D-II Player of the Year who missed the first 12 games of this season with a broken foot. They also got 20 points from senior guard Ryan Milliken, who assumed Matte’s scoring, playmaking and leadership duties this season and was named the 2017 D-II Player of the Year for his efforts.
While Lebanon probably enters Saturday’s final as the favorite, the regular-season meeting between these two was closer than it sounds. The Raiders played stifling defense early and took a 35-20 halftime lead, but Coe-Brown closed to within four in the third quarter behind Brody Ashley (19 points in the game) and Lupinacci (15 points).
“If we weren’t so sluggish in the beginning we would’ve matched up well against them,” Coe-Brown Coach Dave Smith said after that Feb. 27 meeting. “I think we’ll match up well against them if we get another chance to play them, hopefully.”
Smith got his wish, and the semifinals provided evidence for his match-up theory. Both teams thrived on the big court at UNH’s Lundholm Gymnasium with their guard play and athleticism. Coe-Brown’s four-guard lineup of Spenard, Lupinacci, Ashley and Scott Spenard was too quick and skilled for Milford. And Lebanon’s perimeter pressure defense led to turnovers and transition points in its 50-36 semifinal win over No. 4 Hollis-Brookline.
Lebanon uses a three-guard starting lineup with Graham Chickering, a First-Team D-II pick this year, joining Matte and Milliken. That’s a tough trio to top, but Coe-Brown counters with a First-Team D-II pick in Lupinacci, two D-II Honorable Mention players in Ashley and Scott Spenard, and a hard-nosed, defensive-minded senior in Shawn Spenard, just the kind of kid you’d want to go against talents like Matte and Milliken.
“We play a lot of guards at once, so the space (on Lundholm’s big floor) helps,” Smith said. “Boards can still be a problem, though, so our guys have to rebound.”
The Bears will look to 6-foot-5 senior Dylan Andrews to lead that rebounding effort. Andrews had a team-high seven boards in the semifinals, played tough post defense against Milford’s 6-5 center Evan Ryan, who finished 3-for-8, and showed his versatility by stepping out to hit a pair of 3-pointers.
Andrews is a great big in to have the middle of Coe-Brown’s four-guard set, but he’ll be going against a pair of 6-4 bigs from Lebanon in Chris Nulty and Matt Eylander. That means the Bears will need their guards to help out on the interior, and they know it.
“We have to play defense and secure rebounds. That’s the most important thing,” Scott Spenard said. “Our offense, we do care about it, but we know we’re talented enough where we’re going to generate buckets no matter what ... it’s just committing ourselves to the defensive end and making sure we limit their possessions by grabbing defensive rebounds.”
Lebanon lost in the championship game last year, falling to Portsmouth in a battle of unbeatens, 43-29. The Clippers are in D-I now and they still haven’t lost, sitting at 20-0 as they prepare for Saturday’s D-I final against Bedford. The Raiders aren’t necessarily sad that they won’t have to face Portsmouth in a rematch from last season.
“It is a different feeling (this year),” Matte told the Valley News on Wednesday. “When we were going up against Portsmouth, we knew we were taking on the best team in the state. They’re about to win again. I got all my money on them winning Saturday. I got all my money on both of us winning Saturday.”
This is the fifth straight year the Raiders have advanced to the semifinals, although they were 0-4 in the semis during this stretch before Wednesday’s win.
The Bears last trip to the finals came in 2003 and their last semifinal appearance was 2013. They may be the newcomers and the underdogs, but they’re used to that.
“People always overlook us,” Scott Spenard said. “They say we had a soft schedule or our record doesn’t matter. But we just said ‘okay, we’ll see you guys in Durham.’ ”
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or email@example.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)