DURHAM — They set a tone at the beginning and closed things out at the end like they’ve been doing it their whole lives.
It all added up to a once-in-a-lifetime feeling.
The top-seeded Exeter High School boys basketball team rode standout Kevin Henry (18 points, 12 rebounds) and a stifling defense, and pulled away from No. 2 Salem, 53-30, in the Division I championship game Saturday at Lundholm Gym.
It was the program’s first state title in 42 years and one the core has been chasing these last few years but not quite catching.
“This is a dream come true,” said sophomore forward Josh Morissette, who finished with 11 points and seven rebounds. “I’ve been coming here since I was a young kid, seeing the champions wearing the net around their necks. It always felt like a dream but right now it’s a reality.”
The Blue Hawks won going away to finish their perfect D-I season at 21-0. Up 33-25 early in the fourth quarter, they rolled off a 12-0 run to put the game away.
“Amazing,” said Henry. “We’ve had 58 practices this year and worked our butt off at every single one of them. Coach gave us a philosophy at the beginning of the season, to work hard to get to where we want to be, and I think we showed that today.”
Six-foot-6 forward Ben Laycock led the Blue Devils (19-3) with eight points and 17 rebounds. They were hurt by leading scorer Kyle Poulin missing almost the entire first quarter after picking up two quick fouls, and shot just 11-of-48 (23 percent).
“They set the tone,” said Salem coach Rob McLaughlin, of the Blue Hawks’ defense. “I think we got a little bit hesitant after (Exeter) drew three or four charges.”
This was the first time either program had been in a state championship game in more than a decade. Salem was trying to win its first title since it went back-to-back in 2007 and ‘08.
“It really is a dream come true,” said senior point guard Cam Clark, who chipped in seven points and six rebounds. “As a kid you dream about moments like this, especially having played ball with a lot of these kids since grade school. There’s really no better feeling.”
The first half was a tale of two quarters, with a start that couldn’t have gone any better for Exeter.
Poulin, who averages better than 20 points a game for the Blue Devils, was whistled for two offensive fouls on his team’s first two possessions. That ended his quarter and removed their top offensive threat from the game.
Exeter took advantage, with Morissette, Henry and Ryan Grijalva (11 points) all making two baskets to stake their team to a 14-5 lead after one quarter.
“They set the tone early,” said Exeter coach Jeff Holmes. “We tried to tell the guys, ‘Show your hands defending. Get deflections instead of reaches.’”
Back came Poulin for the second quarter and back came the Blue Devils. Down by 11, they began turning defense into offense and got a couple of inside transition baskets by Laycock. A Jared Burns 3-pointer tied the game, 16-16, with three minutes to play.
Free throws by Max Rose and Henry, who was playing with two fouls, stood as the last points of the half, and the Blue Hawks took a 23-19 edge to the locker room.
“I wanted to be more aggressive on defense, like last game, but my teammates really stepped up,” said Henry. “Josh played great. Ryan Grijalva played great. Max (Rose), Cam … I’m so proud of them.”
The Blue Hawks won the second half with defense. Playing one of the state’s great defending teams, they created their own havoc, making 12 steals in all.
“I thought their defense was excellent,” said McLaughlin. “They really clogged up Kyle and set the tone early that they’d be real active.”
And the finish? All they could ask.
The game-clinching 12-0 run started when Salem guard Trevor DeMinico was whistled for a fourth foul — and then a fifth, when officials gave him a technical for arguing.
Henry drained the technical free throws, then set up Clark for a hoop under the basket. A three-point play by Henry and a couple Grijalva baskets made it 45-25 with 4:04 to play.
”In practice, we always practice late-game situations,” said Henry, “whether we’re up or down, and I think that helps us so much. We really took our time.”
And now they have an achievement for all time.
“It really is crazy, man,” said Clark. “It feels good to be a (champion) here now.
Morissette and Henry were among those wearing the cut-down nets around their necks afterward. Their fans, who packed one side of the bleachers, reveled in the perfect end to a perfect season.
And Holmes, whose 22-year tenure at Exeter has been marked by some late-playoff near-misses, got his hands around the elusive prize at last.
“I don’t care what anyone says,” said Holmes. “Winning a championship isn’t easy.”
BLUE HAWKS 53, BLUE DEVILS 30
Caraballo 2-2-7, DeMinico 1-0-2, Laycock 2-4-8, Burns 1-0-3, Poulin 2-0-4, Spampinato 2-0-4, Ference 1-0-2. Totals: 11-6-30.
Clark 3-0-7, Grijalva 5-0-11, Morissette 3-3-11, Henry 5-8-18, Rose 0-4-4, Gibbons 1-0-2. Totals: 17-15-53.
Salem 5 14 4 7—30
Exeter 14 9 10 20—53
3-Point Goals—Salem 2 (Caraballo, Burns), Exeter 4 (Morissette 2, Clark, Grijalva). Fouled out—DeMinico, Caraballo.