Hanover boys basketball turnaround ends with runner-up finish

Hanover High basketball players, from left, Sam Bagatell, Jackson Lobb, Caleb Buskey, Freddie Mierke and Allie Muirhead watch the final minute of their 51-41 loss to Pelham in the NHIAA Division II title game on March 10, 2024, at the University of New Hampshire’s Lundholm Gym. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission.

Hanover High basketball players, from left, Sam Bagatell, Jackson Lobb, Caleb Buskey, Freddie Mierke and Allie Muirhead watch the final minute of their 51-41 loss to Pelham in the NHIAA Division II title game on March 10, 2024, at the University of New Hampshire’s Lundholm Gym. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. valley news photographs — Tris Wykes

Hanover High's Ryan McLaughlin prepares to shoot a free throw during his NHIAA Division II team's title-game clash with Pelham on March 10, 2024, at the University of New Hampshire's Lundholm Gym. McLaughlin scored a game-high 17 points but Hanover lost, 51-41. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission.

Hanover High's Ryan McLaughlin prepares to shoot a free throw during his NHIAA Division II team's title-game clash with Pelham on March 10, 2024, at the University of New Hampshire's Lundholm Gym. McLaughlin scored a game-high 17 points but Hanover lost, 51-41. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. —Tris Wykes

Hanover High boys basketball coach Ben Davis addresses his NHIAA Division II team during a break during its 51-41 loss to Pelham in a championship game at the University of New Hampshire's Lundholm Gym. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission.

Hanover High boys basketball coach Ben Davis addresses his NHIAA Division II team during a break during its 51-41 loss to Pelham in a championship game at the University of New Hampshire's Lundholm Gym. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. valley news — Tris Wykes

Hanover HIgh's Christian Blix (21) splits Pelham defenders Brady Hegan, left, and Dom Herrling during the NHIAA Division II teams' title game on March 10, 2024, at the University of New Hampshire's Lundholm Gym in Durham, N.H. Pelham won, 51-41. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission.

Hanover HIgh's Christian Blix (21) splits Pelham defenders Brady Hegan, left, and Dom Herrling during the NHIAA Division II teams' title game on March 10, 2024, at the University of New Hampshire's Lundholm Gym in Durham, N.H. Pelham won, 51-41. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. —Tris Wykes

Hanover High's Jaysen Oriol drives against Pelham's Connor Travis during the NHIAA Division II teams' championship game on March 10, 2024, at the University of New Hampshire's Lundholm Gym in Durham, N.H. Pelham won, 51-41. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission.

Hanover High's Jaysen Oriol drives against Pelham's Connor Travis during the NHIAA Division II teams' championship game on March 10, 2024, at the University of New Hampshire's Lundholm Gym in Durham, N.H. Pelham won, 51-41. (Valley News - Tris Wykes) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. —Tris Wykes

By TRIS WYKES

Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 03-11-2024 7:31 PM

DURHAM, N.H. — One of the greatest turnarounds in Upper Valley sports history came up short of a fairy-tale ending Sunday when the Hanover High boys basketball team fell to Pelham, 51-41, in the NHIAA Division II final at UNH’s Lundholm Gymnasium.

The Bears, who lost their first 11 contests last winter during coach Ben Davis’ first season, won 25 of their next 28 games before losing to the Pythons, who have claimed the last two division crowns.

Davis, 38, is retiring from an 18-year coaching career to become Lebanon High’s athletic director beginning in July.

“I don’t think anyone gave us a chance to be in this game at the start of the season, and losing it really hurts,” Davis said. “The farther you go in the season, the more it stings to have it end.”

Hanover’s Christian Blix said Pelham’s experience made the difference. The Pythons feature players who also play football, a sport in which their school has won four consecutive state titles.

“It was a close game, and in the fourth quarter it got even closer and we had to execute,” said Blix, whose team led, 34-32, after three quarters but made only one of its nine field-goal attempts during the final stanza.

“They’d been in that position before, and we hadn’t,” he said. “That was their only advantage, and it came up big for them in the end.”

Blix, a senior forward, and sophomore post man Jaysen Oriol had been consistent double-digit scorers this season for Hanover, which last won a state title in 2007 and entered the final on an 18-game winning streak.

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The duo combined for only 13 points and eight rebounds on Saturday, leaving the offensive load to sophomore point guard Ryan McLaughlin, who poured in a game-high 17 points and added six rebounds.

“I got into foul trouble early and they started to pack the paint, and it was hard for us to get the ball to Jaysen,” Blix said. “My shot wasn’t going in, and we were missing some layups that we should have made.

“It’s hard on such a bright stage when there’s pressure on every possession and you have to be almost perfect to win a game.”

Said Davis: “On our drive-and-kick opportunities, we weren’t able to capitalize on some of the scoring chances we got.”

Hanover committed turnovers during its first three possessions, and Pelham (20-1) converted them into a 6-0 lead. The Bears, however, roared back for a 9-6 advantage and led, 11-8, after a quarter.

Hanover trailed at halftime for the first time this season, 24-20, and Pelham finished with six players scoring at least six points and Dom Herrling scoring 15.

“I think we were exhausted at the end,” Davis said, noting that Lundholm’s floor is larger than Hanover’s.

“We spent a lot of energy, and then foul trouble changed our rotations a bit. We switched between man and zone (defense) more than we would have if that hadn’t been the case.”

Davis, a former Dartmouth College assistant whose previous stops included a four-year stint as head coach at NCAA Division III Mount Ida College in Massachusetts, arrived from St. Johnsbury Academy to become Hanover’s hoops boss and assistant athletic director two years ago. His move to Lebanon is a boost for the Raiders and a blow to the Bears.

“He instilled a culture of winning basketball, where everyone believes in everyone,” said Blix, noting that Hanover’s players have been told assistant Denver Greene, a former Mascoma High JV boys basketball and varsity girls soccer coach, will replace Davis. “It’s going to be hard without him, but this is a special group of guys.”

Blix was Hanover’s lone senior starter, but as is often the case in these times, there’s speculation that one or more of the four potential returnees is the target of prep-school recruitment.

Blix, who like Davis blinked back tears while speaking after the game, said the season was a series of special memories.

“I could be happier at how the season ended but not about the people I got to spend it with,” he said.

Tris Wykes can be reached at twykes@vnews.com.