MANCHESTER — Coaches develop tendencies if they hang around long enough. Conant High of Jaffrey boys’ basketball coach Eric Saucier admitted as much after Saturday’s Division III championship game at Southern New Hampshire University.
Saucier also made it clear that the third-seeded Orioles took home the title, upsetting defending champion and top-seeded Somersworth 61-38, due in large part to having his players break from a norm he had applied to the program the last 10 years. Conant’s key reversal was employing a zone defense, a scheme Saucier rarely considers, that crippled the Hilltoppers’ offense and sent them to their lowest scoring output of the season.
“I don’t know if they were ready for the zone we threw at them because it was only the second time I had ever done that in 16 years of coaching,” Saucier said. “I’ve always been man-to-man all the way back to playing in high school and college. It’s always worked for us. If it ain’t broke then don’t fix it, but we knew we had to bring something different with their offense.”
Somersworth scored 57 points in the quarterfinals and then 61 points with a gawdy 57.5 percent shooting in Wednesday’s semifinals. What Saucier recognized from Somersworth’s playoff work and its 12-point regular-season loss to the Hilltoppers on Jan. 31 was that Somersworth was most dangerous when it was given space and penetrated.
What’s one of the best ways to limit space? A zone defense. It was the right choice, too, as Somersworth shot 31.3 percent overall on the way to its season-low scoring.
“It was just a matchup 3-2 zone. It’s our same man-to-man principles and concepts, but with a different look,” said Saucier, who added that he last used the scheme in a semifinal win over Berlin in 2015. “If the ball went into the post, we wanted to take the top guy and double (Somersworth’s Evan Gray). We did it a couple times where he had to dribble back out and then we were lazy on him a couple other times. It gave a different look and kept us out of foul trouble there too.”
Gray, likely the leading candidate for D-III Player of the Year, scored 13 points. The senior’s output came by way of 5-of-10 shooting from the field and going 2-for-5 from the free-throw line.
“Our goal was to come in and frustrate Evan Gray as much as we could,” Conant senior guard Jake Drew said. “We knew the offense could not run through him. A lot of those guys are good when they’re open, but they have trouble creating their own looks. Once we shut down Gray, it was hard for everyone else to get (into the paint) and kick opposite.”
Between slowing the Hilltoppers’ roll and turning many of their one-and-done possessions into 17 fast-break points, Conant had everything working its way as it led wire-to-wire. Additionally, the Orioles had offensive balance with four starters in double figures, including Drew with a team-high 16 points.
“I always believed we were going to win, but I never thought it would be by that much,” Drew said. “We knew when they get frustrated then they start to take bad shots. It just boiled down to who was going to be more disciplined and wanted it more.”
Conant’s 19-8 second quarter really broke the game open as it generated a 32-16 halftime edge, but Saucier never wanted his Orioles to get too far ahead of themselves.
“We did talk a lot about it being one possession at a time,” Saucier said. “Get a stop and get a score, then get a stop and get a score. We needed to be patient. If they did get a lead, we just couldn’t try to get it back all at once. We needed to stick to the game plan and the guys did it.”
Being able to maintain discipline is what has made Saucier and Conant an annual contender during his tenure there.
“He’s the best basketball coach I’ve ever had and clearly things work because we’ve won so many games,” Drew said. “It’s my first championship, but it’s like his sixth. Things are obviously working with that type of success.”