Defense carries Conant boys’ basketball in quarterfinal victory over Gilford

Conant senior Manny Hodgson celebrates an and-one.

Conant senior Manny Hodgson celebrates an and-one. PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

Conant senior Manny Hodgson controls the ball during a second-half possession against Gilford.

Conant senior Manny Hodgson controls the ball during a second-half possession against Gilford. PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

Conant junior Jared Nagle drives for a layup against Gilford’s Mark Ulcker. 

Conant junior Jared Nagle drives for a layup against Gilford’s Mark Ulcker.  PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

Conant senior Lane LeClair keeps a possession alive as a pair of Gilford defenders close in. 

Conant senior Lane LeClair keeps a possession alive as a pair of Gilford defenders close in.  PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

Conant senior Jordan Nagle goes for a shot against a pair of Gilford defenders.

Conant senior Jordan Nagle goes for a shot against a pair of Gilford defenders. PHOTO BY BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

Teammates mob Conant senior Marcus Somero after his buzzer-beater 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter.

Teammates mob Conant senior Marcus Somero after his buzzer-beater 3-pointer at the end of the third quarter. BEN CONANT/BEN CONANT PHOTOGRAPHY

By BEN CONANT

For the Ledger-Transcript

Published: 02-19-2024 10:13 AM

Modified: 02-21-2024 9:08 AM


Conant’s trademark defense was on full display in Friday’s NHIAA Division III quarterfinal win over Gilford, as the Oriole boys showcased end-to-end intensity to knock off the defending champion Golden Eagles.

“Defense is always key for us,” said senior co-captain Manny Hodgson after the 39-32 win. “Coach Sauce (Eric Saucier), he always says we’ve just got to play defense and then we’ll get whatever we need on offense just by playing hard.”

Last winter, the Orioles were just a last-second Jalen Reese shot away from upsetting the Golden Eagles in the quarterfinals.

Gilford went on to win their fourth straight D-III title, but after graduating their core, the defending champs found themselves underdogs coming into this year’s tourney. Early in Friday’s game, the No. 9 Golden Eagles imposed their physicality on the No. 1 Orioles and held Conant without a field goal through the first 6½ minutes of game time, with junior center Cooper Perkins (17 points) leading the way and playing like a man possessed.

“Big kid showed up for them,” Conant coach Eric Saucier said. “He showed up. He outplayed any of our guys. We just kept saying in the huddles – ‘Guys, stick with it. Trust it. Shoot with confidence.’ ”

The Orioles trailed early, but a Jared Nagle steal-and-score cut Gilford’s lead to 7-6 at the end of the first quarter, and the junior scorer would hit another hoop – a three – in the second period to give Conant their first lead at 13-12. From there, it was a true back-and-forth game, with neither team able to gain enough momentum to separate. With points at a premium, each touch of the ball was crucial.

“Every possession matters, and we should know that from last year, losing at the buzzer,” Saucier said. “Every possession matters. Every point matters. You can’t give them freebies. We worked so hard defensively to get stops. You can’t give them easy baskets.”

Nagle (nine points) and Ben Sawyer (11 points) hit some key shots in the third quarter, but Perkins had the answer each time, scoring eight of his game-high 17 in the frame as the two teams alternated leads. Senior Marcus Somero nailed a 35-foot prayer at the quarter buzzer to put Conant up 27-25, but even that momentum shift was answered quickly, as Gilford came right back out and retook the lead to start the fourth.

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But as the game progressed, the Eagles’ pace and physicality paired with a comparative lack of depth and an influx of Conant defensive pressure took its toll on the reigning champs.

“We work hard, and these guys are in really good shape,” Saucier said. “We knew we had to tire them out, because we knew they could shoot and they were big, but if we could take their legs out, maybe they wouldn’t make shots towards the end. That’s what we want to do. We want to tire teams out because we know in the end we’re not going to outscore them. If we can make it a grind-it-out game, maybe get a five-point lead, six-point lead, or get a turnover here and there, that’s how we’re going to win. That’s just who we are.”

Hodgson (team-high 13 points) gave Conant a lead they’d never surrender on a free-throw line jumper with 6:59 left in the game. From there, Conant buckled down, made stops, forced turnovers and extended the gap to five on a Sawyer three. The Orioles were hitting big shots, but it was a defensive play that brought the house down and all but ended the game. Up by five with three minutes left, Conant turned the ball over and Gilford looked to have a breakaway layup, but high-jumping senior co-captain Jordan Nagle tracked the play down and smashed the ball off the backboard for a highlight block reminiscent of Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals.

“That was key,” Hodgson said.”If he doesn’t get that block, they get two more points and it’s a three-point game. That block really saved us.”

Hodgson put the game away at the line, hitting three of four free throws down the stretch for a win made all the more satisfying by last year’s loss.

“It feels so good,” Hodgson said. “After last year, we were like, ‘We’ve got to beat Gilford this year. We can’t lose to them.’ We’ve got a bunch of seniors, a bunch of juniors, we’ve got a good class, so we’ve got to play the game that we can.”

With the win, Conant (18-1) advances to the semifinals for the first time since 2019, also the Orioles’ most-recent banner year. In Tuesday’s semifinal, they get another much-desired rematch, this one against No. 4 Kearsarge (15-3), the only team to beat the Orioles this season. Expect another low-scoring grinder as the Cougars and Orioles fight claw-and-talon for a spot in the state championship.

“All you’ve got to do is win by one this time of year,” Saucier said. “It doesn’t have to be pretty – just survive and advance.”