Merrimack Valley tops Coe-Brown in battle of Division II boys’ basketball unbeatens

Monitor staff
Friday, January 12, 2018

PENACOOK – There were only two undefeated teams left in Division II boys’ basketball going into Thursday’s games – Merrimack Valley and Coe-Brown.

Now there’s one.

After a huge win Tuesday night against defending champ Lebanon, MV (6-0) added another impressive notch to its season-opening winning streak with Thursday’s 54-50 decision against Coe-Brown (4-1), last year’s D-II runner-up.

“It was a big game,” Merrimack Valley coach Tim Mucher said. “We’re coming off an emotional win at Lebanon, first time since 1998 we won there, so we could have been still thinking about that game, but we weren’t. And any time you can play a game and have only one day off and then get another win, it’s a plus.”

Mucher said his team, “looked sluggish at times,” playing two games in three days. And Coe-Brown senior guard Scott Spenard, who finished with a game-high 21 points, said the Bears, “didn’t play as well as we could have.” But even if neither team played to its full potential, the game still delivered some entertaining drama.

“We knew it was going to be a tough game, so we tried to get as many people in the gym as we could,” MV senior guard Caleb LaClair said, “and it was a great atmosphere.”

The Pride found a little breathing room in the fourth quarter after an offensive rebound putback from Jake Hebert (team-high 13 points, seven rebounds) gave MV a 49-43 lead midway through the final frame. Spenard answered with a quick 3-pointer followed by a steal and coast-to-coast layup to cut the deficit to one, 49-48.

That’s when the Pride showed its composure by running through its offense until Kyle Dube (nine points, eight rebounds) found Jack Prewitt (eight points) for an open layup with 2:07 left on the clock, pushing MV’s lead to 51-48.

“They’re really methodical with their offense. They spent so much time on their possessions,” Spenard said. “As good as we can play defense, we can’t play good defense for two minutes straight. We’ll break down eventually.”

A drive from Spenard brought Coe-Brown back to within one point before Dillon McCarthy (six points) hit a free throw to give MV a 52-50 lead with 1:09 remaining. Both teams missed the front end of 1-and-1 free throw opportunities after that and Coe-Brown, still trailing by two, had the ball back with 30.6 seconds left.

The Bears brought the clock down and Spenard found Kyshaun Rowell (nine points) for a good look at a 3, but the ball bounced off the back rim. LaClair, the smallest player on the court at 5-foot-8, grabbed the defensive rebound, got fouled with six seconds on the clock and headed to the charity stripe with a chance to ice the game.

“I just take a deep breath and tell myself I’m going to make it and knock them down,” LaClair said of his free-throw routine.

That’s what happened with the first one, but before LaClair could shoot the second, Coe-Brown coach Dave Smith called timeout.

“I was getting a little anxious during the timeout. I couldn’t wait to get out there and end the game,” LaClair said. “He was calling that timeout trying to get me to crack, but I wasn’t going for it.”

No, he wasn’t. LaClair buried the second freebie to ice another win for the upstart Pride, a team that went 10-8 last year before losing in the first round of the playoffs. MV has been getting critical contributions from different players on different nights this season. The scoring has been balanced (six players scored six or more points on Thursday). Point guards LaClair and Ryan Defina take great care of the ball. The emergence of Dube, a 6-4 sophomore, has given the Pride an inside presence. The kids are executing Mucher’s matchup zone.

But perhaps MV’s biggest strength is its attitude, which starts with its six seniors – Defina, LaClair, Hebert, Prewitt, Liam Carey and Ryan Heath.

“The six seniors are great. We have workouts in the summer, and those kids have been at every workout for three years,” Mucher said. “So it’s a great group of kids. They’re loyal. They’re coachable and they want what I want, and there’s nothing better than being around kids that want to win as much as you do.”

The loss hurt the Bears, but they know there’s plenty of basketball left. Last year they lost the season opener before winning 17 of their next 18 games and reaching the D-II final, where they lost to Lebanon.

“The first game last year was a character-building game for us, and hopefully this will be, too,” Coe-Brown’s Smith said. “That’s the goal.”

(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3341, tosullivan@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)