PORTSMOUTH — For a team that’s long been about toughness, defense and preparation, the look in the mirror on Jan. 11 was not a pleasant one.
That’s the night the Portsmouth High School boys basketball team played one of the most forgettable first quarters in program memory, falling behind at Salem, 16-0, right out of the gate and trailing 20-2 after one.
It was 32-13 at halftime. A strong third quarter saw the Clippers trim the gap to single-digits, but the 58-43 final was a reminder that this edition isn’t good enough to not play all four quarters.
“We went in there and they outplayed us, out-toughed us at the beginning, everything,” said first-year Portsmouth coach John Mulvey. “We woke up at halftime and had a good third quarter, but we need to be ready from the beginning.”
No. 2 Salem (18-2) and No. 6 Portsmouth (15-5) meet up again Wednesday in the semifinal round of the Division I tournament at UNH (5:30 p.m.). Among the points of emphasis? Starting strong.
“We go on runs but sometimes it’s not enough,” said Clippers forward Calvin Hewett. “That’s why the start’s so important.”
The final four is here, with a heavy Seacoast flavor. Two days after the N.H. Basketball Coaches Organization released its All-State teams — with the D-I first team being comprised exclusively of players from Exeter, Winnacunnet, Portsmouth, Spaulding and Dover — the semifinals will be contested with a local squad in each game.
Top-seeded Exeter (18-0) will play No. 4 Londonderry in the second semifinal (7:30 p.m.). The winners will be back here on Saturday (3 p.m.) for the championship game.
Portsmouth has won the last two D-I titles (and three straight state titles overall) but didn’t look like a final four team early on. Minus leading scorer and All-State first-team pick Alex Tavares, it got blown out at Winnacunnet in its opener; the loss at Salem contributed to a ho-hum 4-4 start.
“Offensively, we were not where we’re at today,” said Hewett. “And, defensively, we’ve just got to work together. We’ve come pretty far.”
Since opening 4-4, the Clippers have won 11 of their last 12. Seven of those wins came by single-digit margins, including a 92-83 overtime win against Bedford on Feb. 15, and tight playoff triumphs against No. 11 Central (69-65) and No. 3 Spaulding (40-39).
“That experience, playing in tight games like that, is second to none,” said Mulvey. “I think we feel comfortable in those types of situations, going back to that Bedford game here. … We’re not blowing anybody out; most of our games have been close and that experience is great.”
Give the Clippers the edge in UNH experience — Tavares and Hewett have been March regulars at Lundholm Gym since they were freshmen — but Salem’s body of work this season should make it the favorite.
The Blue Devils are maybe as complete a team as there is in Division I. Six-foot-2 forward Kyle Poulin is averaging better than 20 points a game — dropping in 29 and 18 in two playoff wins — and guards Zack Caraballo and Trevor DeMinico are threats from the perimeter or slashing.
Additionally, the development of 6-foot-6 center Ben Laycock could pose a matchup problem. He scored 10 points, grabbed eight rebounds and blocked seven shots in a quarterfinal win over No. 10 Nashua North.
That balanced scoring has the Blue Devils averaging 60.9 points a game. By contrast, Portsmouth is allowing just 49.
So what do the Clippers need to do, besides not fall behind by 18 in the first quarter?
“We need to communicate and play our defense,” said Tavares. “We know that they’re going to come out right off the bat and execute. … We need our start to be sound and solid.”
Tavares, who is averaging 23.7 points a game (and better than six rebounds and assists), will be the focus of the Blue Devils’ defense. But the Clippers will also look to get offensive contributions from Hewett, their perimeter shooters and backup point guard Coleman Brewster, a sophomore who’s chipped in 15 and 14 points in the two playoff wins.
The two-time champs won’t be the favorites at UNH. But they’ll be there.
“I think a lot of people are surprised that we’re still playing, but I don’t think we are,” said Mulvey. “We’ve thought all along that we had a good team that had a chance against anybody.”
“I can see us getting better every game,” said Tavares. “I think winning these past two close playoff games is just proving it even more. We’re ready for UNH.”