MANCHESTER – Before last season, Kearsarge Coach Nate Camp gave his team the cryptic goal of “3 12 3.” It stood for March 12 at 3 p.m., the start time for the 2016 Division III boys’ basketball championship.
The Cougars reached that goal last season, but lost in the title game. So Camp tweaked the numbers, and the goal, before this season. It was “3 11 11”, which stood for March 11 at 11 p.m., the time when the 2017 D-III final would be finished and Kearsarge would be celebrating its first boys basketball title in school history.
The tweak worked, the coach was prophetic and the party is probably still raging beneath Mount Kearsarge after the top-ranked Cougars downed No. 3 Stevens in Saturday’s championship, 51-46, at Southern New Hampshire University.
“We wanted to finish what we started,” said Kearsarge’s Tayler Mattos, who finished with 22 points, 12 rebounds and seven blocks.
The 6-foot-8 Mattos has been a mountain for the Cougars (20-2) all season, and he stood tall again on Saturday, but his performance was overshadowed by his classmate and co-captain, Tommy Johnson. The 6-foot guard put on a show under the championship lights, scoring 27 points as he unleashed his full offensive repertoire – pull-up jumpers, spin moves, crossovers and twisting drives to the rack.
“I like the big stage. It’s great playing in front of a lot of people, our community. It’s great,” Johnson said. “You dream about this as a kid. You really look forward to this day and I’m glad it came true and we ended with a win.”
That was about the extent of Johnson’s self praise. The junior insisted it was his teammates’ screens and passes that led to his shooting, and he answered most questions about himself with sentences starting with “We.” But his coach wasn’t afraid to speak for him.
“They did a good job of defending Mattos and bumping him off the block, and Johnson just took over the game,” Camp said. “He was just dialed in. I can see it in his eyes. Before the game I was just looking at him and he’s got a different level of intensity that I don’t think many people in the state understand and he has the ability of getting in the zone and taking over and you saw that tonight.”
If you already did the math, you realized Johnson and Mattos scored all but two of Keasarge’s 51 points. Sophomore Kyle Hernon got the other bucket, which came with 2:50 left in the third. Camp has heard the “two-man team” critique all season, but when you have a pair like Mattos and Johnson, why wouldn’t you ride them?
And to be fair, the other Cougars contributed plenty. Joe Storozuk was steady with the ball when Johnson didn’t have it. Hernon grabbed seven rebounds and formed an intimidating wall in the paint with Mattos. Noah Trembley never stopped during his 21 minutes of playing time and Jordan Bryk had five rebounds off the bench.
And they all were instrumental to the defense, which held Stevens to just five points in the fourth quarter and 14 total points in the second half.
The Cardinals started the game hot, taking a 7-2 lead in the first two minutes. Kearsarge tightened the defensive screws from there and, behind eight first quarter points from Mattos, took a 12-8 lead after the first.
The second quarter started like the first, just more so. The Cardinals hit five of their first six shots in the frame, including 3-pointers from Noah Spaulding (eight points) and Nick O’Brien, and sprinted to a 20-12 lead.
Again Kearsarge responded, this time behind 10 second-quarter points from Johnson, who found the zone with a floater in the lane and never left. But Stevens countered with team-wide ball movement, finishing with five assists on nine second-quarter field goals and took a 32-24 lead into halftime.
The shots kept falling for the Cardinals early in the third. They got 3-pointers from Zach O’Brien (16 points) and Parker Smith (eight points), and Smith’s trifecta gave them a 38-28 lead with 5:29 left in the third. Despite the deficit, the Cougars didn’t panic.
“They’re really resilient,” Camp said. “They have that calm, cool, collected look to them ... that’s the kids, that’s the community. These kids have been raised here and they’re tough, tough kids.”
After Smith’s 3, Kearsarge outscored Stevens, 6-2, for the rest of the third and trailed 41-38 going into the fourth.
That lead was erased on the first bucket of the final frame, a 3 from, who else, Johnson. He added a fast break layup after that and then Mattos slapped his signature play on the game. He stepped out to block a Smith jumper from the free throw line, scooped up the loose ball and took it the length of the floor for a layup and a 45-41 Kearsarge lead.
From there, it was all about defense, and Johnson and Mattos were leading on that end, too.
“Those guys bring everybody else up to their level,” Camp said. “And although we didn’t have all the guys hit big shots, they all believed and now all of a sudden you get them buying in on the defensive end, and that’s where we won the game tonight. And Johnson was barking at his teammates, ‘You got to defend,’ in the timeout, ‘We got to get stops.’ ”
They listened. Stevens scored just once in its final six possessions and the Cougars killed clock on the other end, spreading the floor with Johnson controlling the ball and, eventually, creating a layup and a pair of free throws for Mattos to ice the win and the title.
“My phone has been blowing up since Wednesday (after the semifinal),” Camp said. “All these alumni keep calling and saying, ‘Go finish it.’ ”
They can stop calling now. The job is finished and the “3 11 11” party has started.