AMHERST – The Souhegan High School boys basketball team was in need of a spark.
The No. 4 Sabers had scored just five points over an almost eight-minute stretch during the first half of Wednesday’s Division II preliminary round game against No. 13 Hollis Brookline. And when Tim Rencken drained a 3-pointer for the Cavaliers, Souhegan trailed for the first time.
The next offensive possession looked like a disaster for the Sabers, as the ball was bobbled around down low before finally finding Brandon Len behind the 3-point line. The junior didn’t hesitate in drilling a 3 to put Souhegan back on top.
Len hit two more 3s in the next two minutes, starting the Sabers on a 13-3 run and Souhegan made its free throws late to hold off HB 57-52.
Despite missing two starters – Ben Petersen and Shaun McKenna, who were suspended due to violating team rules – the Sabers move on to face No. 5 Bedford, which defeated No. 12 Bishop Brady, in the quarterfinals on Saturday.
Len finished with a game-high 26 points, including four 3-pointers, and he was 5 of 6 from the free throw line in the final two-plus minutes to help the Sabers (17-2) hold on to the win. Jake Kennedy added 13 points for the Sabers and Tyler Ford had 10.
“You look at Brandon and you realize what I think a first-team all state player looks like, a kid who just says get on my back and I’ll carry you,” Souhegan coach Mike Heaney said. “I’m really proud of them. This was how a tournament game should be. It doesn’t matter the opponent, it doesn’t matter their record, and it’s more interesting that their locals. It’s the kind of game that if you survive it makes you better for the tournament.”
It was the fourth meeting this season between the two teams. HB won by four when the teams meet in the Chick-fil-A Holiday Tournament, but Souhegan took both regular-season meetings, including a 16-point win on Feb. 21.
Going into the playoff rematch, the Cavaliers (8-11) knew what they needed to do to win and almost pulled through.
“We had to hold them below 60 points and we did that,” HB coach Mike Soucy said. “I think they were fighting some nerves over the first 16 minutes of the game, but they settled down. They did what we asked them to do. They never gave up. We got down by 11 and battled back. How many chances did we have to take the lead?”
The Cavs had a few, despite trailing by eight at halftime. Souhegan stretched the lead to 35-24 midway through the third quarter, but a couple timeouts by Soucy helped HB refocus and get back in the game. HB outscored Souhegan 12-7 over the remainder of the quarter and trailed 42-36 going into the fourth.
“I wanted to remind them, especially when I took those early timeouts, that we needed to get stops,” Soucy said. “We were just trading baskets. I blew those early to make sure they dug in deeper. After we had that second timeout, we seemed to compete a little bit better. It kind of turned the tide for us.”
The Sabers took advantage of the timeouts to gather themselves as well.
“We weren’t playing great even though we were up,” Heaney said. “We talked about them getting a 4-0 run or a 6-0 run, but they can’t get a 12-0 run.”
HB cut the lead to four to open the fourth quarter, but Len hit another 3 to stretch the lead to seven. The Cavs answered with a 5-0 run to pull within two with 4:38 remaining and HB had a chance to tie when James Wilson stepped to the free throw line with 3:31 to go.
But Wilson missed both, Souhegan grabbed the rebound and Len hit a jumper to put the Sabers up 47-43. A putback by Mike Chase and a free throw by Wilson made it a one-point game, but every time the Cavs got that close, Souhegan found a way to make it a two-possession game.
A putback by Rencken, who finished with 17 points, cut the lead to one, 51-50, with 35 seconds left, and the Cavs had a chance to take the lead moments late, but missed the front end of a one-and-one. HB was forced to start fouling and the Sabers started making their free throws, going 6 of 8 in the final 30 seconds.
“Brutal,” Heaney said of having to play HB four times in a season. “They’re so good defensively, they play so hard, but thankfully we got the win. They’re never going to quit. You’ve got to close out games and make free throws down the stretch.”
The Sabers get another familiar foe in the quarterfinals. Saturday’s game will be the third meeting between Souhegan and Bedford since Feb. 17, and the teams played in the regular-season finale in Amherst on Feb. 29.
Souhegan won that game at home, while Bedford won on its home court. The teams will play at 7 p.m. Saturday at Souhegan.