DURHAM — For the third time this season, the Exeter High boys’ basketball team handled Salem. The first two wins were building blocks toward a good season, but Saturday’s triumph over the Blue Devils was one the Blue Hawks have waited 42 years for.

Exeter is atop the rest for the first time since 1977 after a 53-30 drubbing of Salem in the Division I state title game at UNH’s Lundholm Gymnasium. The top-seeded Blue Hawks completed an undefeated season by serving the third-seeded Blue Devils a taste of their own defensive medicine. Salem was held to single digits in three of four quarters while Exeter outscored Salem 30-11 in the second half.

“Coach Holmes was making it a huge key during our pregame for us to play defense,” Exeter senior Kevin Henry said. “They take their time on offense and work the ball around while trying to tire teams out. We just needed to stay strong and keep playing D. We continued to playing tough defense and that’s really what helped us win today.”

Henry, who recorded a double-double with 18 points and 12 rebounds, was part of a defensive effort that watered down Salem’s offense to the tune of 4-for-29 shooting (13.8 percent) over the final two quarters. Cam Clark, Max Rose and Ryan Grijalva contributed defensively to stopping Salem’s lethal guard duo of Zack Caraballo and Trevor DeMinico, who combined for nine points on 3-of-17 shooting.

“It’s how we beat them in the regular season,” said Exeter coach Jeff Holmes, whose team generated 16 points off 19 Salem turnovers overall. “We knew it was going to come down to defense. We were prepared to grind it out. We’ve been a great pressure defense team all year and that goes back to the good athletes we have out there.”

The Blue Hawks started the game on a 9-0 run and led by 11 at one point in the second quarter before Salem roared back to tie midway through the second frame. Three of Salem’s 14 first-half turnovers helped Exeter re-establish a 23-19 lead into halftime, but Salem coach Rob McLaughlin was ready for battle in the second half.

“I was thrilled coming into the half,” McLaughlin said. “We were very active defensively in the second quarter and capitalized with turnovers. If I had told you (Salem starter Kyle Poulin) was going to be on the bench for most of the first half and we’d be down four at halftime, then I would’ve taken it six days a week and twice on Sunday.”

McLaughlin admitted Exeter’s stingy man-to-man defense was tough to crack, but the Blue Devils’ shot selection and overall offensive mindset did not meet the standards it had set throughout the season.

“We got away from what we’ve done offensively,” McLaughlin said. “Our shots were definitely questionable in some spots. We moved the ball a little but started doing some one-on-one stuff, which hasn’t been us all year. I told the kids as much, saying we kind of went away from what got us here.”

Salem still had hope in the fourth, down 10 with 5:26 to play, before Exeter finished the game on an 18-5 run, which included a 10 straight points to start the spurt. The momentum for Exeter’s late breakaway came when Henry converted a three-point play at the front of the Blue Hawks’ 10-0 stretch.

“We’ve always talked about being a second half team,” Henry said. “We showed it again today. When we can come out and just score 10 straight points at any time, then we’re going to be hard to beat.”

Joining Henry in double figures were Grijalva and Josh Morissette with 11 points apiece.

Exeter was 5-for-10 from the field and 10-for-13 at the free-throw line in the fourth quarter.

jduball@unionleader.com