Conant boys’ basketball falls to St. Thomas Aquinas in state final

Conant senior Manny Hodgson looks to make an entry pass during the Division III boys' basketball state championship game at Keene State College Saturday. The No. 1 seed Orioles lost 38-34 to St. Thomas Aquinas. 

Conant senior Manny Hodgson looks to make an entry pass during the Division III boys' basketball state championship game at Keene State College Saturday. The No. 1 seed Orioles lost 38-34 to St. Thomas Aquinas.  PHOTO BY TIM GOODWIN

Conant senior Manny Hodgson attempts a 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the game.

Conant senior Manny Hodgson attempts a 3-pointer in the closing seconds of the game. —PHOTO BY TIM GOODWIN

Conant senior Jordan Nagle pulls up for a jumper over St. Thomas Aquinas’ Anthony Settineri.

Conant senior Jordan Nagle pulls up for a jumper over St. Thomas Aquinas’ Anthony Settineri. PHOTO BY TIM GOODWIN

The Conant boys' basketball team huddles prior to the Division III championship game at Keene State College Saturday.

The Conant boys' basketball team huddles prior to the Division III championship game at Keene State College Saturday. —PHOTO BY TIM GOODWIN

The Conant student section cheers on the team.

The Conant student section cheers on the team. PHOTO BY TIM GOODWIN

Conant senior Lane LeClair and junior Ben Sawyer battle for a rebound.

Conant senior Lane LeClair and junior Ben Sawyer battle for a rebound. PHOTO BY TIM GOODWIN

Conant junior Ben Sawyer sets up the offense during the first half.

Conant junior Ben Sawyer sets up the offense during the first half. —PHOTO BY TIM GOODWIN

Conant junior Jared Nagle applies full-court pressure during the first half. 

Conant junior Jared Nagle applies full-court pressure during the first half.  —PHOTO BY TIM GOODWIN

Conant junior Jared Nagle drives to the basket during the first half.

Conant junior Jared Nagle drives to the basket during the first half. —PHOTO BY TIM GOODWIN

Conant junior Ben Sawyer drives to the basket past St. Thomas Aquinas’ Will Mollica.

Conant junior Ben Sawyer drives to the basket past St. Thomas Aquinas’ Will Mollica. PHOTO BY TIM GOODWIN

Conant senior Jordan Nagle goes up for a contested shot over St. Thomas Aquinas’ Carson Couperthwait.

Conant senior Jordan Nagle goes up for a contested shot over St. Thomas Aquinas’ Carson Couperthwait. PHOTO BY TIM GOODWIN

Conant senior Lane LeClair knocks down a 3-pointer during the final minute of the game.

Conant senior Lane LeClair knocks down a 3-pointer during the final minute of the game. —PHOTO BY TIM GOODWIN

By TIM GOODWIN

For the Ledger-Transcript

Published: 02-26-2024 10:12 AM

Modified: 02-27-2024 9:59 AM


As the buzzer sounded at the conclusion of the NHIAA Division III championship game Saturday night, Conant boys’ basketball head coach Eric Saucier pointed to his chin.

After coming up short in the pursuit of a 13th state title in the storied history of Conant basketball with a 38-34 loss to St. Thomas Aquinas at Keene State College, the longtime Orioles coach had a simple message for his team -- Keep your heads up.

“We never gave up, we never put our heads down. We’re 19-2 and lost to the better team today,” Saucier said. “Sometimes you can work your butt off and you’re not going to win and that’s a life lesson. You’re going to face adversity. Sometimes you’re going to work your tail off and you’re not going to get results, so you keep your head high.”

Despite not reaching the ultimate goal of a championship, Saucier said he was proud of what his team accomplished this season, including 17 straight wins to begin the campaign en route to clinching the No. 1 seed in the D-III tournament.

“Any time your kids have an opportunity to play for a state championship in front of this crowd that’s a once-in-a-lifetime chance,” Saucier said. “We didn’t reach our goals. They were just a better team today, but we had a good season.”

Conant played its brand of in-your-face defense that has been the calling card of Saucier-led teams over his 16 years as head coach, holding the No. 2-seeded Saints, a team that averaged 62.7 points per game in the regular season and 62 in the first two rounds of the playoffs, to below 40 points for just the second game all season. The only other time that happened was in St. Thomas’ only loss of the season – to the Orioles on Dec. 21.

“They’re a very good offensive team and we held them to 38 points,” Saucier said.

However, Conant’s offense just couldn’t find a consistent rhythm for much of the state title contest. At times, patience won out as open shots or drives to the basket were passed up. Then there were stretches like the opening five minutes of the third quarter where the offense sped up and the Orioles didn’t wait for a higher-percentage shot to develop. It all led to a number of missed shots, which takes away from the ability to run the full-court pressure that Conant is known for.

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“The press isn’t going to be effective if you can’t score,” Saucier said. “It’s not like we didn’t get open looks; we just didn’t hit them.”

The Orioles scored eight points in the first quarter, four each from senior captain Jordan Nagle and junior Ben Sawyer, on 4-9 shooting. They held the Saints high-powered offense to just 11 points – nine by freshman Cole McClure – and trailed by three after eight minutes. The defense ramped it up a notch in the second, allowing just four points, but Conant could only muster six of their own, including four more from Nagle, on 1-6 from the floor and went into the half down 15-14.

“It’s not that we were too patient,” Jordan Nagle said. “I just don’t think we were aggressive enough, trying to attack the rim.”

The third quarter is where the game started to get away from the Orioles. Over the eight-minute frame, Conant failed to hit any of its eight shot attempts, scoring just a single point on junior Jared Nagle’s free throw with about two minutes remaining.

“Shots weren’t falling,” Jordan Nagle said.” They just didn’t go in tonight.”

The Saints, on the other hand scored, eight straight to open the frame on a McClure three-point play after he was fouled on a baseline layup and a three from the corner courtesy of the Saints’ freshman. Will Mollica’s turnaround jumper with 2:30 left in the third capped off the 8-0 run to give St. Thomas a 23-14 edge.

“There was a five-minute stretch in the third quarter where we got away from what we do (on offense),” Saucier said. “It was like two passes, shot, two passes, one pass, shot and that’s not us. That’s when they went on their run and that’s the difference right there.”

Trailing 23-15 entering the fourth, the Orioles knew it was going to take a more-aggressive approach on both ends of the floor if they were going to capture the title.

“We tried our best to keep it a low-scoring game and I think we did a pretty good job of that,” Jordan Nagle said. “A low-scoring game is what we wanted; we just weren’t scoring enough.”

Jordan Nagle hit a pair of free throws to start the fourth to cut the deficit to six, but a baseline floater and two free throws increased St. Thomas’ lead to double digits.

Conant trailed 30-21 with just over three minutes to play before Sawyer hit the Orioles first three of the game and Jared Nagle converted a baseline jumper to pull within four. Jordan Nagle fouled out with 2:09 to play and McClure hit both free throws to push the Orioles’ deficit back to six. Another jumper from Jared Nagle once again pulled Conant to within four, but a pair of free throws and Mollica’s three-point play increased the Saints lead to nine with 47 seconds left. Despite a three from senior Lane LeClair and a Dylan Adams layup in the closing seconds, the third-quarter deficit proved to be too much to overcome.

“It’s just that grit. We put in all the effort we’ve got and that’s all we can do,” said senior Manny Hodgson, who finished with four points, four rebounds and two assists.

In all, the Orioles scored 19 in the fourth, shooting 50 percent from the floor (5-10) and went 7-10 from the free throw line. Converting on the offensive end finally allowed Conant the chance to press and trap, but a number of fouls put St. Thomas in the bonus early and they converted 11-15 from the line in the final frame.

“You never want to give free points because we work so hard defensively to make them earn everything,” Saucier said.

For the game, the Orioles shot just 30% from floor, including 2-14 from three.

“We missed a lot of shots today,” Saucier said. “You’ve got to make shots in the state championship if you’re going to win.”

In addition to the tough shooting night, Conant committed 14 turnovers, which led to 11 Saints points.

“You can’t turn it over 14 times against a team like that,” Saucier said. “That’s 14 opportunities we didn’t get to shoot the basketball and of those 14 opportunities, you score twice it’s a tie ballgame.”

Jordan Nagle led the way for Conant with 10 points and five rebounds, while Jared Nagle added eight points, four rebounds and four steals, and Sawyer chipped in seven points. McClure led all scorers with 20 points, and Mollica finished with eight to go along with 10 rebounds.

Conant won 17 straight to start the 2023-2024 season before losing to Kearsarge in the regular-season finale. Despite the loss, the Orioles earned the No. 1 seed in Division III and a first-round bye. They knocked off four-time defending champion Gilford, 39-32, in the quarterfinals and avenged their only loss with a 35-30 victory over Kearsarge in the semifinals.

The Orioles finished 19-2 and held 17 opponents under 40 points, including all three playoff games. They played 11 of the 13 other teams in the Division III playoffs, and a total of 14 games against playoff teams

“It was an incredible season. We stuck together, we did what we could, just not the outcome we wanted,” Hodgson said.

Since playing in the school’s first championship game in 1984, Conant has appeared in a total of 18 Class M/Division III finals. The first of the school’s division-record 12 titles came in 1985. Conant won back-to-back championships in 2001 and 2002 and then rattled off five straight from 2006 to 2010. They again won consecutive crowns in 2013 and 2014. The last boys’ basketball title came in 2019.

But the wait for a 13th banner to be hung in Pratt Auditorium will continue.