DURHAM — If you follow Thoroughbred racing or watch the Kentucky Derby every year, you’ve probably heard the expression “pace makes the race.” Well, the pace of play may be the biggest factor in determining the winner of Saturday’s NHIAA Division I boys’ basketball championship game.
Top-seeded Exeter (20-0) will face second-seeded Salem (19-2) in the second game of a doubleheader at the University of New Hampshire. Third-seeded Pembroke Academy (20-1) will meet ninth-seeded Kearsarge (13-8) in the Division II championship game at noon, with the Exeter-Salem contest scheduled to begin at 3 p.m.
Salem relies on defense and prefers a deliberate offensive style. Exeter will likely benefit from a faster pace and would be perfectly comfortable in a high-scoring contest.
“Salem’s a great defensive team,” Exeter forward Josh Morissette said. “They want to keep it in the 40s. We just have to play our game.
“Especially against us, because we’re like a run-and-gun team, they’re going to want to slow it down. Thirty seconds a possession, and we’re gonna want to get them going. Speed them up. Press them. Get up on them to try to speed them up and try to make them make mistakes, so we can do what we do best — run and take the (fast) break. Score easy.”
Exeter advanced to the championship game by beating ninth-seeded Alvirne 73-50 in the quarterfinals and fourth-seeded Londonderry 62-51 in the semifinals. Morissette made four 3-pointers and led all scorers with 25 points against the Lancers. The Blue Hawks were the only team that had a bye in the preliminary round.
Salem’s path to the Division I final featured a 74-52 victory over 15th-seeded Goffstown in the preliminary round; a 65-54 victory over 10th-seeded Nashua North in the quarterfinals; and a 40-26 triumph over sixth-seeded Portsmouth in the semifinals.
Salem’s Michael Ference held Portsmouth’s Alex Tavares, one of the state’s top scorers, to four points in the semifinals. Portsmouth did not score a point in the fourth quarter of that game.
“Even on nights when our offense wasn’t clicking, our defense has really kept us in there and won games for us,” Salem coach Rob McLaughlin said. “You’re not going to change what you do at this point. They can score in bunches and they have a variety of guys who can do it. We really need to take care of the ball because if they get a couple easy ones they can get rolling.”
Forward Kyle Poulin (13 points) and guard Zack Caraballo (10) were Salem’s leading scorers against Portsmouth. Ben Laycock, a 6-foot-6 forward, collected a game-high 14 rebounds for the Blue Devils.
Saturday’s game will be the third meeting of the season between Exeter and Salem. The Blue Hawks beat the Blue Devils 43-33 in Exeter during the regular season. Exeter also beat Salem 59-56 in the Queen City Invitational Basketball Tournament in December.
This is Exeter’s first trip to the Division I final since 1998, when it lost to Concord. The program won its only championship in 1977, when Exeter beat Pembroke Academy in the Division II championship game.
Salem is seeking its first Division I title since 2008, when it beat Trinity in the final. Salem also beat Trinity in the 2007 Division I championship game.
“They like the halfcourt,” Exeter coach Jeff Holmes said. “They do a really good job with interior defense and they’re real athletic with Poulin and Laycock. They’re good. Obviously it’s one versus two. Should be a hell of a game.”
Pembroke vs. Kearsarge
This matchup features two of the top players in the division. Pembroke point guard Noah Cummings was named the Division II Player of the Year, and Kearsarge guard Noah Tremblay was a Division II First Team All-State selection.
It will also be the first time the teams have met this season, as the Spartans and Cougars did not face each other during the regular season.
Cummings tossed in a game-high 20 points to help Pembroke defeat second-seeded Con-Val 50-42 in the semifinals. Pembroke forward Sean Menard made three of his six 3-point attempts and finished with 15 points in that victory. Forward Shea Shackford added a game-high 11 rebounds.
Pembroke beat 14th-seeded John Stark 82-51 in the preliminary round, and eliminated sixth-seeded Kennett 54-43 in the quarterfinals.
Tremblay led all scorers with 23 points when Kearsarge knocked off fifth-seeded Merrimack Valley 59-46 in the semifinals. Guard Carl Benjamin added 10 points and nine rebounds in that game, and Kyle Hernon finished with nine points. Tremblay and Hernon each started as sophomores for the Kearsarge team that won the 2017 Division III championship.
The Cougars beat eighth-seeded Souhegan 42-39 in the preliminary round, and upset top-seeded Oyster River 50-49 in the quarterfinals.
Pembroke has won seven Division II championships, which is the most of any school. The Spartans last won the Division II title in 2014, when it beat Portsmouth in the final.
Saturday’s action at UNH will kick off with the Unified championship game between top-seeded Berlin and second-seeded Exeter (10 a.m.). Berlin has been the Unified runner-up in each of the last three seasons. Exeter beat Berlin in the 2017 and 2018 championship games.