DURHAM – The fit wasn’t right at first. The court, crowd and atmosphere all felt a touch too big for Coe-Brown. Then Scott Spenard went off, and the fit looked perfect.
“I just wanted to be aggressive. The offense wasn’t going, so I tried to create for myself and fortunately we were able to get some confidence,” Spenard said. “And then we started clicking in all cylinders.”
Yes they did. Sparked by Spenard’s scoring burst, the No. 3 Bears unleashed their full-court athleticism, defense and playmaking to turn an eight-point first quarter deficit into a 10-point halftime lead and eventually a 63-52 win over No. 2 Milford (19-2) in Wednesday’s Division II boys’ basketball semifinals at the University of New Hampshire’s Lundholm gymnasium.
Coe-Brown (18-3) will face top-ranked Lebanon, the only team to beat Milford before Wednesday night, in Saturday’s Division II final.
“Pretty much the whole state of New Hampshire wasn’t looking at us. It was Milford and Lebanon are the two top teams, so we just kept plugging away,” Spenard said. “And once we got into the playoffs we said, okay, we’re set up to go to UNH (site of the final four) and we’re not just going there to play, we’re going there to win.”
The first five-plus minutes at UNH, however, were a little shaky for the Bears. Led by D-II First Team pick Ryan Banuskevich (team-high 15 points, six assists), Milford opened up a 12-4 lead late in the first quarter.
“It was a new atmosphere and new court that we hadn’t played on,” said Coe-Brown’s Sam Lupinacci, who was also named to the D-II First Team earlier this week, “so we had to get our legs underneath us there.”
Spenard (game-high 18 points) was the first Bear to find his legs. The junior went on a personal 7-0 run in the final 1:14 of the first quarter, scoring on two knifing drives and a wing 3 as the Bears cut the deficit to 12-11 after one.
“I thought he was going to go for 40 in the first half,” Lupinacci said of Spenard. “He was on fire.”
That fire spread to the rest of the team in the second quarter. The Bears tightened up on defense, got loose in the open court and showed off their depth. Not only did all five starters score in the second, Mike Mulligan came off the bench to chip in five points in the frame as Coe-Brown raced to a 32-22 halftime lead.
The court, and stage, that felt oversized in the first quarter suddenly looked good on the Bears, which wasn’t exactly a surprise to Coach Dave Smith.
“That’s kind of been our hope all year,” Smith said of his team excelling at UNH. “We play a lot of guards at once.”
While the court at Lundholm is bigger than any high school court in the state, the Bears do have some experience playing with extra space.
“One of the things that we thought coming in was that we had an advantage because our home court is pretty big, it’s one of the bigger courts in the league, so we run a lot,” Lupinacci said.
The Bears built that 10-point halftime lead despite the fact that Lupinacci, their leading scorer, didn’t have a bucket until the final second of the half. But it was a sweet bucket. With the raucous Coe-Brown student section counting down the final seconds, Lupinacci (10 points, four rebounds) slashed to the hoop and spun home a reverse layup as the buzzer sounded.
“They’re pretty loud. I actually do hear them and I try to pay attention to it,” Lupinacci said of the Coe-Brown fans. “They’re pretty involved.”
The Spartans used an 11-2 run in the middle of the third to cut Coe-Brown’s lead to 39-37 with 3:17 left in the third. But the resilient Bears countered with a 9-1 run to close the quarter, sparked by four points by Lupinacci and finished by a 3 from Spenard, to take a 48-38 lead going into the fourth.
Milford made another push in the final quarter, cutting the lead to 50-46 midway through the fourth. This time the Bears answered with free throws as seniors Brody Ashley (11 points, three assists) and Shawn Spenard (11 points, two steals) sunk six straight attempts to push the lead to 58-49 with 1:10 left.
Still, Milford had life after a 3 from Banuskevich and two missed free throws from Shawn Spenard gave the Spartans the ball in a two-possession game. But they missed their next 3-point bid and the elder Spenard went 4-for-4 from the line in the final :46 to ice the game.
“After (Spenard) had missed two I’m sure everyone was wondering, ‘Uh-oh, is he going to recover from that?’ And he did,” Smith said.
Now the Bears have two days to recover and figure out a way to beat Lebanon, something they couldn’t do on Feb. 27 when they lost at Lebanon, 74-58. That score will raise some doubts, but Coe-Brown is used to that.
“A lot of people didn’t think we were this good,” Scott Spenard said, “but now we’re in the championship.”
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)