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Lani Buskey and her Pinkerton Astros look primed for the Division I tournament. (Thomas Roy/Union Leader)

Joe Duball's High School Basketball: Don't look now, but here comes Pinkerton


FLYING UNDER the radar in Division I girls’ basketball has been a simple task for many teams this season with the elite play of Bedford and Bishop Guertin of Nashua.

However, Pinkerton of Derry finds itself in a unique position as the end of the regular season nears. Pinkerton (13-1) has joined the rest of the league in the shadow of Bedford and BG, but the Astros have played as well, if not better, than the two clubs in the spotlight this season.

“I think we like the approach of being the underdog,” Pinkerton coach Lani Buskey said. “When there isn’t a lot being said about you, there is that opportunity to lurk and be that surprise that people aren’t expecting.”

Working in the Astros’ favor is a roster that mirrors that of the last year’s club, which went 16-5 and appeared in the D-I quarterfinals. Buskey lost just two seniors from a year ago while returning stalwarts like point guard Amanda Lemire, off-guards Courtney Velho and Tori Overko, and center Taylor Frost.

“A coach is always playing in the moment but looking ahead as well,” Buskey said. “We have a fantastic group of seniors that are the soul of this team while the underclassmen are the heart. They’ve come together and are in it together.”

It’s hard for Buskey to single out catalysts for the Astros’ success while receiving contributions up an down the roster. The most consistent producers, though, have been Lemire and sophomore forward Brooke Kane.

Buskey deems Lemire “the quarterback” of the Astros, whose offensive efficiency has been dictated by the junior’s ability to facilitate and get to the basket. Lemire’s skills are enhanced by her exceptional ball handling, which could be the best of any guard, boy or girl, in the state.

“She is the composure (of this team) and sets the tone,” Buskey said. “She has a great style of play that comes with her maturity. You add her skill into that and she is just lights out.”

Kane played sparingly as a freshman last season while still getting a feel for her own game. The 6-footer has made big strides in her second varsity season, where she now leads the Astros in scoring most nights while offering elite rim protection defensively.

“The big thing with getting her in there last season was about teaching her lessons,” Buskey said. “We wanted to get her to a state where you can handle being the best player on the court.

“I handed her the reins this year, telling her she was going to start and that other teams are going to know she is the best player out there. It was time for her to step up and has while handling it well.”

Velho, Overko and Frost have all offered consistent secondary offense behind Lemire and Kane, while the rest of the Astros have spotted in with timely scoring efforts throughout the season.

The variety of outlets for offense has been a boon to Pinkerton this season. The Astros struggled to score consistently last season while depending on its league-best defense to win games. The defense remains a vital part of Buskey’s system this year, but Pinkerton has also scored 50 points or more in 11 games and 60-plus in six contests.

“We had a big talk at the beginning of the year about how it’s easy to defend a team that has just one or two girls scoring,” Buskey said. “I explained that we need something from everyone. Four girls in double digits is better than two scoring 20 points. They’ve embraced that team style and we have those role players giving us seven- or eight-point efforts now.”

Despite all the Astros have achieved to this point, their status as contenders will be defined over their final three regular-season games. That closing stretch includes homes games against BG on Friday and Bedford on Feb. 24.

The only losses for the Cardinals (12-1) and Bulldogs (14-1) this season have come against each other. Few teams have matched BG and Bedford’s respective strengths or exposed their flaws, but Buskey believes her Astros can do both.

“Those are two incredibly talented and well-coached teams, but I think my girls can match up well,” Buskey said. “My girls have a never-die attitude. They’re willing to play an ugly game of basketball to win, which has kind of been our mentality. We want to be aggressive and make a team not want to play us again.

“If we play like that and have five girls playing on the court with confidence, I think we can hang.”

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YOU WOULDN’T consider an undefeated team underrated, but the Newfound of Bristol girls can be characterized as just that. The Bears are a win away from an 18-0 regular season that coach Karri Peterson said many, including her own team, did not see coming.

Despite consistent contendership in recent years, Newfound always tends to fall among the most surprising teams in Division III, according to Peterson.

“I think people just don’t expect the program to come back year after year,” Peterson said. “We had a 15-3 record last season and there wasn’t anything about coming back weaker or stronger. There aren’t these up-and-down years. We seem to come back every year and kind of pick up where we left things.

“Especially in Division III, you’re not expected to have somebody ready to take over when you lose your best players. Younger players find a way to step up into a different role and that’s been the main thing for us this year.”

Peterson pointed to the rises of Amanda Johnston and Ashlee Dukette, as prime examples of the Bears’ seamless transition between personnel. Johnston has started the last three seasons but has upped her scoring average from seven points last season to 12 a game this year. Dukette has offered a similar uptick, going from 12 to 19 points in a year’s time.

Overall team improvements in certain areas on a year-to-year basis have also kept Newfound consistent. A greater focus on rebounding at both ends of the floor is at play this year.

“Rebounding has gone from a big weakness to a strength this season,” Peterson said. “You can’t really prepare for a team that boxes out and rebounds well. We’ve got three 5-foot-10 girls going across the middle for us that are crashing on everything.”

Newfound’s perfect season would earn the team Division III’s No. 1 seed and first-round bye when the playoffs begin. The Bears haven’t been to a state final since 2007 and last won a championship in 1972.

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ONLY A handful of teams across the NHIAA boys’ and girls’ ranks remain undefeated like Newfound. Here’s the forecast for each club’s chances at perfection:

Portsmouth boys (14-0): As I mentioned last week, the Clippers have benefited from a strong home schedule leading up to their stretch run. They’ll play half of their final four games on the road. If there were a chance for Portsmouth to stumble, a trip to Winnacunnet of Hampton on Feb. 24 is it.

Milford boys (14-0 after beating Timberlane on Wednesday night): The Spartans have been on thin ice of late in regards to finishing perfect. The bumps in the road could be attributed to scheduling, as Milford is in the midst of a stretch of four games in seven days. The schedule spaces out after Friday’s bout with Pelham, but the road to 18-0 is the toughest of any undefeated club. Tilts with fellow D-II contenders Lebanon and Hollis/Brookline remain for the Spartans.

Littleton boys (15-0): A visit to Groveton tonight stands in the way of Littleton’s second perfect regular season in as many years. The Crusaders served the Eagles their only loss of the season in a 57-50 decision on Jan. 27. Don’t count on the encore being any easier for the Crusaders, who will be hard-pressed to neutralize Groveton’s Corey Gadwah as they did the first time.

Lebanon girls (15-0): The last of the obvious hurdles for the Raiders was passed in Tuesday’s win over Kingswood of Wolfeboro (11-5). The final three games on Lebanon’s schedule are against teams with sub-.500 records.

Sunapee girls (16-0): This team is a locomotive. Well on their way to a second consecutive perfect regular season, the Lakers are riding a 64-game winning streak spanning the last few seasons. A third consecutive D-IV title looks imminent. One question worth asking: Are the Lakers the best girls’ team in the state? That’s debatable, but I know I’d pay to see them duke it out with BG, Bedford or Pinkerton.

High School Basketball appears in Thursday’s New Hampshire Union Leader during the season. To reach Joe Duball, e-mail jduball@unionleader.com.


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