By Tris Wykes
EXETER, N.H. – If you’re a high school coach, there might not be a better present than seeing your young charges revel in the raw joy and camaraderie of winning a state title. So it was that Lebanon High boys basketball boss Kieth Matte rang up his 52nd year Saturday after a 40-33 defeat of Pelham in the NHIAA Division II finals at Exeter High.
The 15-0 Raiders whooped, hugged and scarfed pizza after capturing their first championship since 2017 and their third dating back to 1998. They took time to serenade Matte, who is also the school’s assistant principal, with a raucous rendition of “Happy Birthday” and one last team huddle around the title plaque.
Lebanon point guard Braeden Falzarano had 13 points and Jack Stone and Calvin Bates each had 8 points. Karsten Hansen and Nyeoti Punni both had 4 points and Cole Fabry had 3 points on a long bucket the roused the Raiders faithful. The Raiders sank 13 of 15 free throws during the fourth quarter to squeeze Pelham out.
Physically absent but present in spirit were guard C.J. Childs and center Cam Davio. The juniors are preventatively quarantined because of exposure to a classmate with the Covid-19 virus and watched the title game from home via online streaming. Childs’ absence was particularly difficult – the football linebacker was also the hoops team’s defense stopper on many occasions.
“This wasn’t just for us, but for those guys as well,” said Falzarano, whose team had its 2020 campaign wiped out by Covid in the postseason. “I can’t imagine what it must be like to watch and not be here.”
Lebanon won because its collective defensive will, digging in and making it clear to Pelham (15-2) that not just every possession was going to spark a battle, but every time that a Python touched the ball.
“They’re a good team and they made a run, but (Matte) always preaches communication on defense and that was the key,” Bates said.
Lebanon led, 7-4, after a quarter and 17-10 at halftime. The Raiders were ahead, 23-12, during the third quarter but surrendered its last 10 points and clung to a 30-29 advantage with 4 minutes, 53 seconds to play.
Lebanon overcame a pair of 1-point deficits early in the fourth quarter and began to pull away after Punni, posted up on the right block, executed a nifty spin-and-layup on his defender, whom he caught leaning outside.
“At the beginning of the year, we weren’t sure he was going to be our (post player),” Matte said. “But we knew we needed to play a kid that talented. We knew we had to get that kid on the floor.
“I don’t think he was crazy about the idea, and then he just embraced the role. He’s always been sort of a perimeter player. He can dribble and he can shoot, but we needed someone (inside) and he stepped up.”
Stone hit 5 of 6 free throws during the final 4 1/2 minutes. The first of that steak put his team up, 36-32, with 1:08 on the clock. He nailed a pair from the charity stripe with 34 seconds remaining and another with 12 seconds to go.
“Once they started to foul us, I knew we were going to win,” said Matte, who usually deploys seven or eight players but went with six Saturday. “Not only did we get the (free throws) but they had to go against out set defense instead of getting breaks in transition, where anything can happen.”
Falzarano, who played out of position all season at the point, withstood a pounding Saturday during his many drives to the hoop. He said the battering was worth it for the brotherhood he feels with his teammates, some of whom he’s played with since elementary school.
“Right after we won tonight, Karsten came over and asked if I remembered us talking about winning a (high school) state title in seventh grade,” Falzarano said. “He had just come into our school from Grantham and Jack came in from Plainfield. We have kids from all over the area but we’re one team.”
Notes: While “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” by Marvin Gaye and Tammi Terrell played postgame from a portable speaker in the Exeter High weight room, Punni used his phone to record himself and his teammates dancing to the 1967 tune. “I wouldn’t have thought that was the music they’d be listening to,” said a surprised Lebanon parent walking past… Pelham’s athletic trainer brought her service dog, a Golden Retriever, with her to courtside. The 4-year old pup wasn’t fazed by the fans shouting, clapping and stomping… JV players Nick Brill and Talen Patkul were brought up to take the roster spots of Childs and Davio… Parking was somewhat complicated outside the high school building as dozens of drivers and their vehicles backed up for Covid-19 vaccinations… Asked if he expects to win another title in 2022, Matte paused and answered in the affirmative. “When you start with Braeden and Jack, that’s a pretty good core,” he said… Hansen, Bates and Logan Sanchez will be Lebanon’s graduation losses later this year.
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