DURHAM — This time, when things got troublesome on the big floor at Lundholm Gym, Exeter High School had a championship-like response.
And now — for the first time in 21 years — the Blue Hawks are championship-bound.
Josh Morissette scored 10 of his game-high 25 points inside the final five minutes of the fourth quarter, and top-seeded Exeter answered No. 4 Londonderry's game-swinging surge with a punctuating run of its own for a 62-51 win — the team's first in the semifinals since 1998.
“It was a good win,” said Exeter coach Jeff Holmes, who coached that '98 team in the first year of his tenure. “It's the final four. They're a good team. We're happy to survive and advance.”
Exeter (20-0) will face second-seeded Salem (19-2) back here in Saturday's 3 p.m. Division I state championship game. The Blue Devils put on an impressive defensive performance in a 40-26 win over the two-time defending champ, No. 6 Portsmouth, in Wednesday's early semifinal game.
Londonderry got four 3-pointers from center Maxwell DesRosiers and closed its season at 16-5. Trailing 36-21 with 6:31 left in the third quarter, the Lancers sprung a surprise 1-3-1 zone defense at the Blue Hawks, and it fueled a 17-1 run to make the final quarter an edge-of-your-seat thrill ride.
It was reminiscent of Exeter's semifinal game against Dover on this floor last year, the Green Wave mounting a second-half rally and eventually making the biggest plays down the stretch in a 68-66 win.
Only this was the ending Exeter's been coveting. Down four to the 4-seed with 5:39 remaining, the Hawks closed the game with a 19-4 jolt.
“Last year they went on a little run and we panicked,” Morissette said. “This year, we were used to the crowd, and when they went on their run and took the lead, we didn't panic. We stayed within ourselves and we believed in each other, and that showed.”
The game was tied 49-49 when Morissette drilled a 3 from the corner and senior Kevin Henry — battling foul trouble throughout — pulled off his signature defensive move: He drew a charge.
Teammates helped pick a screaming Henry off the court, and on the next trip down, they had to do it again after he drove hard to the rim and scored, plus a foul.
The Exeter lead was 55-51 with 3:30 left, its cheering section was booming and the players on the court could feel it.
“We hit some big shots, made some big plays,” Holmes said. “Real happy for the guys. I think that experience is important. I think it helped them tonight.”
Henry picked up two quick fouls and had to exit with 5:07 left in the first quarter. He was limited to 18 minutes of game action total, but was at his most aggressive down the stretch. He still finished with 19 points, six rebounds and a pair of steals, shooting 6-for-9 from the floor and 7-for-8 from the free-throw line.
“I had to be a lot more careful, especially driving to the hoop,” Henry said. “I couldn't play as aggressive on defense as I would have liked to. But my teammates stepped up huge.”
A smooth Morissette jumper answered a bucket by Londonderry's Cole Keegan to make it 57-51 with 3:14 left. The Lancers then missed the front end of a 1-and-1 on two occasions, and a Morissette fast-break layup from Henry made it a 10-point game with 1:13 remaining.
The final minute was more like a countdown to a long-awaited celebration.
“It feels so great,” Morissette said. “I've dreamed about this since I was a little kid.”
The Lancers proved to be no easy out behind DesRosiers and point guard Jackson Cox (13), though All-State guard Ethan May struggled (five points on 2-for-15 shooting). The 1-3-1 zone they used to get back in the game was practiced for the first time this week.
“I thought it was huge, and they didn't really break it well,” Londonderry coach Nate Stanton said. “We did a great job. It kind of turned the momentum.”
The Blue Hawks began building its own momentum at the end of the first half, which ended on one of those plays you only see here at Lundholm.
Morissette, his team up seven and holding for the final shot, lobbed a pass that two Lancers should have intercepted. But the two players violently collided, falling to the floor and out of the play. The ball, meanwhile, took a fortuitous bounce to Cam Clark on the wing, who collected, launched and buried a 3-pointer at the buzzer for a 31-21 lead at the break.
The Lancers, with Henry on and off the bench, led for stretches of the first quarter, but the Hawks led 15-12 after the first eight minutes.
Grijalva was another Exeter catalyst, finishing with 10 points, six rebounds and two steals. The team got key minutes from Jake Ross and Nick Datillo in the second half after starting center Ethan Imbimbo exited with an ankle injury and couldn't return.
It all added up to a signature win that wasn't easy, but sure was sweet.
“I was real pleased with the guys when we were down,” Holmes said. “We made some plays.”
BLUE HAWKS 62, LANCERS 51
Reyes 0-0-0, DesRosiers 7-0-18, May 2-0-5, Cox 5-3-13, Keegan 2-2-7, Buttafuoco 3-0-6, Marsh 1-0-2, Haggett 0-0-0. Totals: 20-5-51.
Henry 6-7-19, Imbimbo 0-0-0, Clark 2-1-6, Grijalva 3-3-10, Morissette 9-3-25, Rose 0-0-0, Leonard 0-0-0, Ross 1-0-2, Gibbons 0-0-0, Datillo 0-0-0. Totals: 21-14-62.
Londonderry 12 9 17 13—51
Exeter 15 16 10 21—62
3-Point Goals—Londonderry 6 (DesRosiers 4, May, Keegan), Exeter 6 (Morissette 4, Grijalva, Clark).