A Saber Surge
Playing for Fallen Teammate, Souhegan Ousts Lebanon
Lebanon’s David Hampton snatches a rebound during last night’s game against Souhegan in the NHIAA Division II semifinals at Lundholm Gymnasium in Durham, N.H. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Lebanon senior Katie Colt and junior Jake Mellish yell in protest as a basket evades Lebanon last night. (Valley News - Libby March) Purchase photo reprints »
Durham, n.h. — The members of the Souhegan High boys basketball team wore black T-shirts bearing “TONY 42” on their backs as they warmed up. Saber students spelled the name on their chests. They chanted Tony Barskdale’s name from the depths of their throats.
So, in truth, the Lebanon Raiders never had a chance. They spent an entire evening playing a basketball game five against six.
An unimagined run through a tournament that sprang from unimaginable circumstances continues for seventh-seeded Souhegan. With senior guard Brandon Len leading the way, the Sabers ousted No. 3 Lebanon from last night’s NHIAA Division II semifinals with a 53-45 win at UNH’s Lundholm Gym.
The Sabers’ revival has come out of a sense of grief and a sense of honor. Barksdale, a Souhegan honor student and former basketball player, died on March 2 following an off-campus fraternity party near Boston University, where he was a freshman.
In the 11 days since, Souhegan (14-7) has returned to the on-court form the state expected following a 16-2 campaign last winter that ended unexpectedly. The Sabers have found their purpose, and it goes beyond simply winning.
“I don’t see it as just me wearing it; we kind of talk about the 42 as an idea — we all wear it,” explained Len, who has worn Barksdale’s No. 42 shirt, instead of his own No. 11, since the playoffs started. “The 42 means that we play with our heart. We never give up. We go hard on every single play, because that’s what Tony did.
“The 42, as for the jersey, it’s just a jersey. But the 42 we all wear.”
Lebanon (16-5 league, 17-6 overall), making its first trip to UNH in 13 years and its deepest incursion into states since 1998, surrendered the game’s first nine points and never led. The work required to come back drew brief reward, when junior Kalin Sou swished a right-corner 3-pointer with 2:18 to play for a 44-44 tie.
“All we needed,” Lebanon coach Kieth Matte lamented, “was one stop.”
Len never let the Raiders get the chance.
After a miss from Tanner Kent, Len flipped a pass to a wide-open Zackary Simmonds for a left-corner 3-poitner with 1:40 left that put Souhegan ahead to stay. The Sabers scored nine of the game’s last 10 points, Len sealing the deal with four free throws in the final 35.7 seconds.
“It feels like you don’t have to coach a lot at that moment,” Souhegan coach Mike Heaney said of having Len in a win-securing situation. “If you call a timeout and run a set play, he’s going to take care of the ball. He’s going to make free throws if he’s fouled.”
The Sabers came up a game short of the finals two years ago and were quarterfinal upset victims last winter. With nine seniors returning, many picked Souhegan as a state title favorite only to see the Sabers sputter most of the year.
Barksdale, whose death has since been attributed to an alcohol overdose, according to published reports, has become a rallying point of sorts for both the school and the town of Amherst, where Souhegan is located. He would have turned 19 on April 26.
Losing a former teammate in the manner that they did has given the Sabers the one thing they lacked: “Heart,” Len said. “We honestly didn’t compete night in and night out. We showed up for the games that were big on paper, and some other games we let slip out of our hands.”
Souhegan’s opening 9-0 run came at Len’s expense. The guard sustained a cut lip on a hard foul from Lebanon’s Nic Shepherd, who aggressively went for a block on a breakaway layup try. Len would have to leave the game for repairs in the middle period, but not before scoring eight of Souhegan’s 17 first-quarter points.
Len ended the stanza with a fadeaway 3-pointer over Sou for a 17-8 cushion. The Raiders gamely worked the deficit to 22-19 in the next three minutes as Shepherd and senior Dave Hampton each potted two hoops during a 10-2 burst.
A late surge returned Souhegan’s nine-point lead by halftime. Len tried another buzzer-beater fadeaway, a miss that Kent put back for a 32-23 advantage at the break.
“We knew they were good, and we knew we could play with them,” said Matte, whose Raiders earned a 70-54 win over the Sabers at Lang Metcalf Gym on Dec. 19 in the second game of the regular season. “We just had to stay with it. We didn’t quit.”
Len dropped two perimeter jumpers after halftime, one from beyond the arc, but Souhegan’s offense stagnated as the Raiders picked up the pace. Vinnie Guerin and Dominick Morrill (team-high 15 points) both drained triples to start the third, and Morrill added two more late hoops — including another 3 — to get Lebanon to within 40-34 entering the final period.
Morrill and senior Dylan Drew took away 6-foot-5 Jake Kennedy, Souhegan’s sole inside scoring source, and Hampton (10 points) did his utmost to shake Kent, his shadow, out of his high tops. A Hampton trifecta with 5:08 to go brought Lebanon to within a possession of the lead for just the second time all night; when Kennedy (12 points) scored off a Len entry pass on the next touch, the Raiders clamped down again and used a Shepherd layup and Sou’s triple to tie the game.
“We sped them up finally, stopped turning it over, and we made our run,” Matte said. “It took so much to get us back in the game, I think we just kinda ran out of gas a little bit.”
Guerin rebounded a Hampton 3-point miss following Simmonds go-ahead triple, got clobbered by an off-balance Kennedy — no foul was called — and lost the ball out of bounds. Given the chance to close the game, Souhegan did behind a Kennedy lane turnaround with 51 seconds to go and Len’s four free throws.
Lebanon can understand the notion of loss. Senior Matt Cowles, the Raiders’ only inside player, left the team for ongoing personal issues in January, leaving Matte and his players to reinvent their style of play while never leaving D-II’s top four.
The Raiders hadn’t been to Lundholm without a ticket stub since the 1999-2000 quarterfinals. Matte wants to make Durham a destination now.
“Souhegan’s been here; two years ago they were in the semis,” Matte noted. “I think that plays a big part in them coming out here and being OK and us coming out a little jittery. It’s just a different feeling.
“I just told the kids we need to remember the senior class; they got us here. Now we have the experience. We’re going to try and live in this building.”
Something else resided in Lundholm last night — maybe not a ghost, but perhaps something more tangible built out of tragedy.
“We’re just so motivated as a community,” Len said. “Out there, it’s still basketball. But our community, our team, our school, has rallied around us. That’s what more important, what we’ve done outside of basketball. …
“With the passing of Tony, it just gave us more motivation. We don’t play to win games. We play to honor Tony.”
Free Throws: Kent got the chore of marking Hampton one-on-one and did well in holding Lebanon’s star guard in check. Hampton did leave Kent looking for a tire rotation and alignment, however, causing the Souhegan defender to stumble the floor on his first basket of the night, a pull-up 3-pointer late in the first quarter. … Kennedy added 11 rebounds for a double-double. The Sabers outrebounded Lebanon as a team, 34-20. … Len draped his arm around Hampton after the game, offering encouragement. “I’ve been playing against Dave since sophomore year and, in my opinion, he’s one of the best shooters in the state and one of the best players in our division,” Len said. “I told him, ‘Don’t hang your head for a second.’ I’m proud of him; I’m proud of the way he competes.” … No. 1 Pembroke, a 62-31 winner over No. 13 Coe-Brown last night, will play Souhegan in Saturday’s noon championship game back at UNH. … Lebanon loses Hampton, Drew, Guerin and Dylan Cox to graduation. Hampton said after the game he’s continuing to evaluate options for playing in college next season.
Greg Fennell can be reached at email@example.com or 603-727-3226.