Don’t try calling it an ordinary, 32-minute high school basketball game.
When teams — and communities — converge in Durham for the Division I boys basketball final four each March, it’s better to expect the extraordinary.
“It’s the court that most of these kids haven’t played on before,” Exeter coach Jeff Holmes said of Lundholm Gym. “The court’s bigger. The crowd’s larger. You’re using a brand-new ball. There are a few things, but obviously it’s a big game. The team that can handle it the best, it’s a little advantage for them."
Experience should be an advantage for both local teams in Wednesday night’s D-I semifinal games. Sixth-seeded Portsmouth (15-5) carries back-to-back league titles — and three consecutive state championships overall — into the early 5:30 tip-off against No. 2 Salem (18-2).
Exeter (19-0), the No. 1 seed that gets No. 4 Londonderry (17-4) in the late tip-off, is using last year’s near-miss in this round as a natural next step.
“I remember last year like it was yesterday, I think about it every day,” said Exeter sophomore Josh Morissette, who heaved the final shot of last year’s 68-66 semifinal loss to Dover — a 3-pointer that front-rimmed at the buzzer. “But this is a new group, and we’re more ready this year than we were last year. We’re ready to get by the semis and get past it.”
Try as you might, there’s just no simulating the electric atmosphere at Lundholm Gym, which can hold up to 3,000 spectators and typically flirts with capacity numbers for every final four game.
Come out too hot, and you’ll be gassed by the second quarter.
Come out too slow, and you could be down double digits in the blink of an eye.
“To start off the game everyone’s usually hyped up, running around and everything, a lot of energy,” Exeter junior Ryan Grijalva said. “As the game goes on, the team who’s more calm and cool with everything, focused, that usually decides the winner. I guess we’ve got to do that, but also play our game.”
“That crowd and that atmosphere is really special, and that’s kind of the difference between this year and last year," senior Ethan Imbimbo added. "Last year we were kind of new to that, other than the Winnacunnet game. It was kind of like a new monster for us. Now this year I think we’re ready to take that back and be more experienced and be more of a veteran team, ready to take home that win.”
Brewster, Boutin making marks
They’re not the first two guys who jump off the stat sheet, but both guys have made a mark during this latest tournament run for Portsmouth.
One on offense, one on defense.
Leading scorer Alex Tavares, ball-handling forward Calvin Hewett and sharpshooting guard Tommy Degnan will receive most of the defensive attention from Salem in Wednesday’s semifinal at UNH.
But the Blue Devils won’t want to sleep on sophomore point guard Coleman Brewster, who’s come off the bench and scored 15 and 14 points in the two playoff wins.
“Guys have a lot of confidence in him,” said Portmouth coach John Mulvey. “He’s a great shooter for us and can also make a couple plays off the bounce. He seems to be playing with a lot of confidence right now and that’s important for us.”
With Tavares in foul trouble in Friday’s 40-39 quarterfinal win at No. 3 Spaulding, getting good minutes off the bench was critical.
“It’s always good to see guys step up,” said Tavares. “Coleman Brewster stepped up huge for us, scoring-wise."
On the defensive end, junior guard Jacob Boutin has emerged as a key component for the Clippers.
“Jacob Boutin, I think, is huge for us,” said Mulvey. “He guards the ball a lot, takes a ton of charges. He doesn’t really score so you don’t hear a lot about him, but he works as hard as he can every single day. The guys feed off him and he’s been a huge part of what we’ve been doing.”
Center Zach Paradis and sophomore guard Kevin Cummings are the other players that make up Portsmouth’s eight-man rotation. Tavares is the only senior on the roster.
It was 10 years ago this week that Portsmouth ended a 15-year championship drought by beating Pelham, 61-46, in the Division II final at UNH.
The key figure in that game? Current Clippers coach Mulvey, who dumped in 20 of his game-high 26 points after halftime to up his then-program points record to 1,299 (Cody Graham passed him last season).
The title, which saw the sixth-seeded Clippers beat each of the top three seeds in the tournament, began a stretch that would see Portsmouth claim Division II three times (2009, ‘12 and ‘16), before moving up and winning Division I in 2017 and ‘18.
And, while Mulvey was the only basketball star on that 2009 team, there were plenty of athletes. Guards Mike Fransoso and Nate Jones, and forward Mike Montville all went on to play Division I college baseball (Fransoso and Montville are still in pro ball), and Bill Lane played football briefly at Plymouth State.