Pembroke ready for long-awaited return to Division II final
The Pembroke basketball team, with head coach Matt Alosa, far left, cheers back at the student section after their 62-31 victory over Coe-Brown in the Division II Boys' basketball semifinal game Monday night, March 13, 2013 in Durham.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)
Pembroke's Rene Maher, left, works his way down court against Coe-Brown during the Division II Boys' basketball semifinal game Monday night, March 13, 2013 in Durham.
(JOHN TULLY / Monitor Staff)
When Pembroke Academy reached the final in 2010, it was the third straight trip to the final four for the Spartans. The team was also stocked with young talent, like freshmen Rene Maher and Matt Persons.
Pembroke seemed certain to make seasonal trips to the University of New Hampshire for the semifinals, and probably more. The Spartans went 17-3 each of the last two years, only to have both seasons end with quarterfinal upsets. But they’ve made it back to Division II’s biggest stage, today’s noon championship at Lundholm Gymnasium, and they’ll do it as the undefeated (21-0) top seed against No. 7 Souhegan (14-7).
“I think I was almost spoiled when I went there as a freshman,” Maher said. “Not that it was easy, but I was seeing myself as being there almost every year, and now it’s three years later and I’m finally back.”
Maher started in that ’10 championship game, a 52-46 loss to Milford, and finished with seven points. Persons played but didn’t score.
“Honestly I don’t remember a whole lot from that game,” Persons said. “I think I was in a little bit over my head as a freshman out there. I do remember the end of it, and I remember losing and how bad that was.”
Persons and Maher haven’t experienced that feeling too often at Pembroke, compiling a 74-9 record in their four years. And Persons may not have scored against Milford in the final, but he has scored more than 1,000 in his career, including a game-high 24 in the Spartans’ 44-40 regular season win at Souhegan on Jan. 15.
Pembroke played most of that game without junior Pat Welch, the team’s leading scorer, who was suffering from lower back pain at the time.
“That was kind of the first game I started getting going as far as scoring and really finding a rhythm,” Persons said. “I hit my first few shots and that’s big for me, getting that rhythm. I had some early rebounds, too, and that helps get you in the flow of the game.”
Persons had a similar performance in Wednesday’s 62-31 semifinal win over No. 13 Coe-Brown. He went 2-for-3 on 3-pointers and had four rebounds in the first half, and he finished with 12 points while holding Coe-Brown’s top scorer, Chris Laurion, to eight points.
But Welch was the star of the semifinals. The junior dropped 28 (21 in the first half) on 12-for-16 shooting, and now he’s looking forward to getting another shot at Souhegan, this time without the back pain.
“I really couldn’t do anything. I only scored four points,” Welch said. “I think it’s going to be a different game this time.”
Welch’s health will certainly make a difference, but Souhegan is a different team as well. The Sabers had to play through some injuries early in the season and hadn’t quite found their stride when they played Pembroke.
“I expected Souhegan to be one of the team that could get to the finals at the beginning of the year, and they’re here now,” said Pembroke Coach Matt Alosa, who led the Spartans to their last title (1991) as a player. “Their guys played football, they had some injuries, so now they’re finally getting into basketball shape and playing well. It’s going to be a good game.”
The Sabers are also playing with some special motivation. They’ve been playing to honor Tony Barksdale, a former Souhegan player who graduated last year and passed away two weeks ago.
Souhegan guard Brandon Len, one of the top players in D-II, has been wearing Barksdale’s old No. 42 during the Sabers tournament run – a 55-33 first-round win over No. 10 Hanover, a 69-65 quarterfinal upset against No. 2 Portsmouth, and a 53-45 semifinal win against No. 3 Lebanon. Like Pembroke, all of those teams beat Souhegan during the regular season.
Len, a 5-foot-10 senior, had a game-high 21 points and four assists in the semifinals. Jake Kennedy, a 6-3, 285-pound senior who has signed to play football with UNH next year, had 12 points and 12 rebounds against Lebanon, leading Souhegan’s dominance on the glass (34-20 rebound advantage).
Kennedy will be a handful for Pembroke big men Kafani Williams (6-4) and Dominic Timbas (6-5), but the two of them have already shown they can handle the playoff spotlight as they combined for 26 points and 17 rebounds in Pembroke’s 47-35 quarterfinal win over Pelham.
“Souhegan is a physical team, and if we don’t box out, they’re going to take advantage,” Maher said. “While I was watching their semifinal game I thought to myself, ‘Wow, it really looks like they’ve found their identity.’ When we played them they didn’t have that identity, and I think they played a lot better in the semifinals than they did against us.”
Maher, Persons and the rest of the Spartans have just one game left to forge the identity they’ve been wanting for years – champions.
“This has been in the works for a while,” Persons said. “It’s been our plan to get back here and we’re definitely pumped for this game.”
(Tim O’Sullivan can be reached at 369-3371 or firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @timosullivan20.)