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Experience Pays Off for Raiders in Tourney Opener

Lebanon — The Lebanon High girls basketball team has a place to go for intestinal fortitude on nights when such support is required.

You might call it a reservoir, built on years upon years of state tournament appearances and victories. It holds experience and example on how to respond in the face of a challenge, and it ultimately pushed the fifth-seeded Raiders to a 47-40 NHIAA Division II tournament-opening win over No. 12 Oyster River on Tuesday night.

As the Bobcats (8-11) continued to stay with Lebanon (14-5 league, 17-5 overall) and the discomfort level in Lang Metcalf Gym continued to rise, having been there and done that made the difference. Senior Heather King produced the game’s key basket and four free throws in the last 1 minute, 42 seconds to help the hosts avoid a big uh-oh.

“I think that’s the history of the program,” Lebanon coach Rob Marsh said. “That’s the makeup of the kids. The kids want to win. That’s the way they’ve been brought up.”

To the Raiders’ credit, Marsh noted, his players never let the evening’s adversities get them down. Oyster River certainly provided plenty.

For one, the Bobcats’ starting frontcourt of 6-foot-1 forwards Claire Salmon and Sara Messler with 6-3 center Claire McCarthy presented Lebanon its tallest challenge of the season. With her lanky arms, McCarthy played more like 6-10, blocking two of Lebanon’s first seven shot attempts, finishing with eight blocks and altering numerous other attempts.

True to her and Lebanon’s nature, however, King took the challenge head-on. With the Raiders holding a precarious 38-36 lead, the senior curled around a high screen, met McCarthy and sank a scoop under the Bobcats’ outstretched arm for a four-point lead with 1:42 to play. The hoop effectively ended the visitors’ upset bid.

“I think we all came together as a team and we knew that we could beat them,” King said. “We just push each other to work harder and work hard on defense. It was just a team coming together.”

That reservoir of Raider experience has a way of dipping back into the past.

Lebanon ran to an undefeated state championship last winter on the backs of an athletic, press-oriented team. This year’s Raiders have frequently had to be more deliberate on offense, but can still go to the transition to gain distance when needed.

An 8-for-32 effort from the floor netted Lebanon only an 18-17 halftime advantage. Marsh had the Raiders kick the fast break into gear and Lebanon gained some separation with an opening 8-2 salvo on a King power and three transition buckets between Jennifer Laramie and Samantha MacDonald (12 points).

But the Bobcats didn’t flinch. Salmon, McCarthy and Messler scored Oyster River’s last seven points of the period, and the visitors trailed only 30-26 entering the final quarter.

“We had to be ball-tough,” Oyster River coach Dave Burrows said. “Their game is high-pressure, get it down the floor on the fast break and get into transition defense. … I just thought it half our game.”

Lebanon kicked up its trap as the half evolved, stretching its advantage to 38-30, keyed by a pair of Laramie layups. The Bobcats again didn’t let the game get away: Salmon sank a foul-line jumper, McCarthy (13 points) converted two free throws after drawing MacDonald’s fifth foul and Messler (13 points) hit a layup off her own steal with 2:06 left to close within 38-36.

“I knew I had to pressure them up,” Marsh said. “In order for us to get a turnover here, a deflection there, I knew we had to pressure up. That’s why we went after them.”

Messler drew a King foul on her bucket, but missed the chance to cut the gap to a single point on the ensuing free throw. King ducked under McCarthy on Lebanon’s next possession, then led the march to the line in the final seconds as the Raiders converted seven of eight to clinch an unexpectedly difficult — but not unaccustomed — playoff victory.

“I knew coming in it was going to be a challenge,” Marsh said. “We did not hang our heads. We stuck together. They made a run at us, and we stuck together.”

Free Throws: Members of the Lebanon boys basketball team cheered on the girls wearing the ladies’ road uniforms. Either that or the snug look is back for spring. … Junior Vanessa Fleury struggled with her shot, but compensated with a team-high nine rebounds for the Raiders. King finished with seven caroms as Lebanon owned a 33-29 edge on the glass. … Salmon collected eight rebounds to lead OR. … The Raiders visit No. 4 Merrimack Valley in Friday’s quarterfinals. The Pride — whom Lebanon beat in overtime at Metcalf Gym in mid-January — controlled No. 13 St. Thomas, 76-54, in another Tuesday night tournament lidlifter.

Greg Fennell can be reached at gfennell@vnews.com or 603-727-3226.