DURHAM – Every time Coe-Brown showed the ball, a Lebanon hand swiped at it. Every time the Bears drove the lane, a Lebanon body flashed in the way. Every time they even thought about a shot, a Lebanon defender contested.
“Those three guards, Ryan (Milliken), KJ (Matte) and Graham (Chickering), they’re really good on-ball defenders,” Coe-Brown junior Scott Spenard said. “And if we tried to get by them, they also had a really good system where they’d help, jabbing at us … Usually with a regular team we’re talented enough to go right by and get layups, but they locked on me and Sam (Lupinacci) and Brody (Ashley) and it was just tough for us all day.”
Despite the stifling defense, Coe-Brown trailed by only two in the final seconds of the third quarter of Saturday’s Division II boys’ basketball title game. But that’s when Milliken, the D-II Player of the Year, went on a personal eight-point spurt that swung all the momentum and led to a 59-42 championship win for top-seeded Lebanon (20-1).
After losing in the semifinals in 2013, ’14 and ’15, and falling in the finals last year, the title felt fitting for the Raiders, who also won Class I championships in 1967, ’80 and ’98.
“It is satisfying, but it’s more satisfying to me because these kids have had such a good run over four years that I want them to be able to say we’re a special team,” Lebanon Coach Keith Matte said. “They only lost two games at home in four years, they made it to the Final Four every year, they made it to two finals, and it’s special that at the end of the day, they get to call themselves champions.”
The Raiders scored just 29 points when they lost to Portsmouth in the 2016 D-II championship game, and early in Saturday’s game at the University of New Hampshire, it looked like both teams might struggle to break the 30-point mark.
The third-seeded Bears (18-4) turned the ball over three times in the first three minutes and made just one field goal in the first quarter. But they also held the Raiders to 2-for-12 shooting in that opening frame and the game was tied, 6-6, after one.
Lebanon found its range in the second, going 6-for-9 in the quarter. That wasn’t the case for Coe-Brown, but the Bears wore a path to the free throw line in the second and went 8-for-8 shooting free throws once they got there. So even though they were 2 of 14 from the floor in the first half, the Bears trailed by only five, 21-16, at halftime.
“Our offense just really wasn’t good tonight. We never got into rhythm,” said Coe-Brown senior Brody Ashley, who hit six of those free throws in the second quarter and finished with a team-high 14 points. “That Milford game (a 63-52 Coe-Brown win in Wednesday’s semifinal) we turned it on once we got out in transition, but tonight we weren’t really able to do that.”
Which is exactly how Lebanon wanted it.
“We worked a lot on transition defense,” Matte said. “The way we run our offense, guys end up in the baseline corners, which makes us vulnerable to transition, and we really focused on sprinting out of those spots and finding Spenard, because he’s a special kid and a special player, so that’s kind of what we did.”
Matte said he also wanted his team defense, “to guard the gaps, we know they like to drive it, and just contest.” That’s exactly what the Raiders did in the first half and for the first four minutes of the third quarter as they built a 29-21 lead. Instead of getting frustrated at that point, the Bears responded.
Lupinacci (six points, five rebounds) hit a jumper on an assist from Scott Spenard. Jacob Snow came off the bench to score off an offensive rebound. Spenard (six points, four assists) finally found an open alley in the paint for a layup. And when Ashley got free on the fast break for a layup, Lebanon’s lead was down to 31-29 with :10.8 left in the quarter.
The Coe-Brown crowd was going wild and it seemed certain the Bears would go into the fourth with momentum on their side. Instead, Milliken (game-high 23 points) drilled a pull-up 3-pointer on the other end with :02.5 on the clock to give Lebanon a 34-29 lead after three. He hit another 3 just 20 seconds into the fourth and 15 seconds later, he buried a pair of free throws. Just like that, the Raiders were up by 10, 39-29.
“That pretty much broke our back,” Spenard said.
Shawn Spenard (six points, three steals) answered with a 3, but it was only temporary respite for the Bears. Lebanon went on a 17-4 run from there, going 9 of 10 from the line in that stretch (they were 24-for-26 for the game), to put the game out of reach.
“We just had to chase from there (after Milliken’s eight-point burst) and chasing leads to bad shots and bad offense, and their defense didn’t help us either, so that was pretty much what happened and their lead blossomed to 20,” Scott Spenard said. “Those last few minutes, I didn’t know what to feel. I just wanted to play hard and leave it all on the floor because it was the last four minutes of the season.”
Those last four minutes shouldn’t be the way this Coe-Brown season is remembered. After going 11-9 last year, these Bears took major strides forward and left little doubt they belonged among the D-II elite.
“A lot of people didn’t expect us to get here and in the locker room we were just talking about it, we’re always going to be a brotherhood,” Ashley said. “It really was a hell of a run to end my senior season with a bunch of guys I really love. It really was a great year.”
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)