Defense could decide D-II boys’ basketball final between Pembroke, Kearsarge

  • Pembroke’s Jack Lehoullier (14) defends ConVal’s Max Richard (2) on Monday during the Division II boys’ basketball semifinals at the UNH’s Lundholm Gymnasium. Ben Conant / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • Pembroke’s Jack Lehoullier (right) defends ConVal’s Wyatt Davis on Monday during the Division II boys’ basketball semifinals at the University of New Hampshire’s Lundholm Gymnasium. No. 3 Pembroke will take on No. 9 Kearsarge in the championship at UNH on Saturday at noon. Ben Conant / Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

  • Merrimack Valley’s Kyle Dube drives to the basket while being defended by Kearsarge’s Noah Tremblay (right) on Monday during the Division II boys’ basketball semifinals at the University of New Hampshire’s Lundholm Gymnasium. No. 3 Pembroke will take on No. 9 Kearsarge in the championship at UNH on Saturday at noon. Rich Miyara / NH Sports Photography

  • Kearsarge’s Ben Carl (right) drives to the hoop on Monday during the D-II boys’ basketball semifinals at the University of New Hampshire in Durham. No. 3 Pembroke will play No. 9 Kearsarge in the championship at UNH on Saturday at noon. Rich Miyara / NH Sports Photography

  • Pembroke’s Sean Menard lays in a basket on Monday during the Division II boys’ basketball semifinals at the University of New Hampshire’s Lundholm Gymnasium. No. 3 Pembroke will take on No. 9 Kearsarge in the championship at UNH on Saturday at noon. Rich Miyara / NH Sports Photography

  • Pembroke forward Jack Lehoullier goes up for a shot during the second half against Merrimack Valley on Tuesday, January 15, 2019. Monitor file

Monitor staff
Published: 3/15/2019 6:45:44 PM

Asked what they have to do to win Saturday’s Division II boys’ basketball championship, the two coaches sounded like echoes.

“We have to rebound and defend,” Pembroke Academy’s Rich Otis said.

“We’ve got to defend and rebound,” Kearsarge’s Nate Camp said.

That may not sound appealing to a neutral fan hoping for a high-scoring shootout when No. 3 Pembroke (20-1) meets the No. 9 Cougars (13-8) at noon at the University of New Hampshire. But there may not be much room for neutral fans in the bleachers at UNH’s Lundholm Gymnasium, and the coaches know what they are talking about – defense has ruled in the D-II playoffs.

Kearsarge has limited all three of its postseason opponents to fewer than 50 points. The Cougars beat No. 9 Souhegan, 42-39, in the first round, knocked off top-ranked and 2018 runner-up Oyster River, 50-49, in the quarterfinals, and then downed No. 5 Merrimack Valley, 59-46, in the semifinals.

That playoff defense is part of a larger trend for Kearsarge. Through the first 13 games of the season, the Cougars were giving up 57.6 points per game and went 6-7. During the last eight games, they have been allowing just 42.8 points per game and have gone 7-1.

“Defense has been the difference for us,” Camp said.

A big part of the development has been the learning curve of 6-foot-3 senior Jak Jallah, the football quarterback who decided the play basketball this year, and 6-1 freshman Adrian McCarthy. Those two are athletic enough to guard on the perimeter but big enough to help inside.

“It’s been those two guys, and also Ben Carl, Emerson Tyler, Nick LeBlanc, all those guys, being able to step up and get on Kyle and Noah’s level,” Camp said.

That would be Kyle Hernon and Noah Tremblay, Kearsarge’s two senior stars. The 6-6 Hernon doesn’t have to score to be effective (he’s averaging just 7.0 points per game in the playoffs) because he does all the little things, especially on the defensive end, that it takes to win. Tremblay is the team’s leading scorer and has averaged 19.3 points in the postseason, and he has the experience and athleticism to produce on the defensive end as well.

The Cougars will be facing a defense just as stingy as their own on Saturday. The postseason numbers are oddly similar for the two teams – Kearsarge has allowed 134 postseason points, a 44.7 average per game, and Pembroke has allowed 136 postseason points, a 45.3 average.

While the Cougars have seen a marked improvement, the Spartans have been locking teams down all year. They allowed 49.1 points per game during the regular season and have maintained that defensive pace in the playoffs. PA beat No. 14 John Stark, 82-51, in the first round, came back to beat No. 6 Kennett, 54-43, in the quarterfinals, and knocked off No. 2 ConVal, 50-42, in the semifinals.

Pembroke held Kennett to just 11 second-half points in that quarterfinal win and then kept ConVal to seven fourth-quarter points in the semifinals. Pembroke only has one true big man – 6-3 senior Jack Lehoullier – and he will need to stay out of foul trouble and play well on the defensive end, like he has all year, to help neutralize Hernon. But 6-2 junior Shea Shackford, 6-1 seniors Noah Cummings and Sean Menard and 6-foot senior Tim Pitman all play bigger than their size.

“We are going to have to be able to cover their pick-and-roll offense with Hernon and Tremblay,” Otis said. “They do a really nice job in the two-man game, so we’re going to have to decide how to defend that.”

Kearsarge will have a few more things to worry about when it comes to defending PA. Cummings, Menard and Shackford are all dynamic scorers who can hurt you inside and out. The three of them have combined for 141 points during the postseason, which is more points than all three teams have scored against the Cougars in the playoffs.

“I think they have good team chemistry, they’re well coached and they’re balanced with those three guys,” Camp said of Pembroke. “And Noah Cummings is a difference maker. He can get his own points, but more importantly he’s going to get other people involved, and when he does that, he makes them a huge threat to us on Saturday because he makes everyone around him better.”

Pembroke has been one of the favorites to win the championship all season long, and the Spartans certainly looked comfortable playing on UNH’s big stage in the semifinals. Otis expects that same level of poise on Saturday.

“We’re going to be ready,” Otis said. “Whether we win or lose, I don’t know, but I know my guys will be ready to go.”

The Cougars may have used a Cinderalla run of upsets to find their way to the big stage, but they also looked at home once they got there.

“I wasn’t sure how Monday was going to go. I was trying to get them ready by passing on some of the stories that I’ve heard over the years, you know, ‘You’re in the locker room at UNH and then you’re climbing up the stairs and every step the crowd is getting louder and louder,’ and I was just trying to get them ready, but they have to experience it for themselves,” Camp said. “And I thought they handled it really, really well. Better than expected.”

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




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