By Jean LeBlanc
BERLIN — Brothers Roger and Randy Belanger combined for 26 points, helping the Berlin Unified team to a thrilling 28-25 victory over the ConVal Cougars in a Division I semifinal Unified basketball game played in Berlin on Thursday.
The win advances the No. 3 ranked Mountaineers (9-0) to the finals against No. 1 ranked Exeter (11-0) on Saturday (10 a.m.) at the University of New Hampshire in Durham.
The loss ended the season for the Cougars (7-2).
The game was played with a tremendous amount of physical enthusiasm and one that had its controversial moments that had to be cleared up via a telephone call to the NHIAA late in the contest. More on the phone call later in the story.
In the end, the Mountaineers ability to convert foul shots, led them to their victory and a chance to play in the finals for the second year in a row.
The first quarter was an up and down the floor affair that saw both teams try to use their fast-breaks against each other. There was also some very hard fouls on some drives to the basket. When the dust settled, after eight minutes of play, the Mountaineers led 11-10. Roger Belanger had a hoop and three free throws, brother Randy had two hoops, and Julia Gray hit a 12-footer.
Isiah Debarros four hoops and Dylan Coyne one bucket, providing the ConVal offense.
The second quarter turned into a defensive battle. Both defenses refused to let players get off clear shots, contesting everything. There was only one basket made in the second session and that basket was made by the Cougar's Coyne just as the buzzer sounded for halftime. The only Berlin point in the second quarter was a Randy Belanger free throw, making it a 12-12 contest.
The third quarter saw four lead changes and some very intense full-court basketball. By the quarter's end, Berlin outscored ConVal 11-10 to take a 23-22 lead into the fourth quarter. Roger Belanger, who was heating up, had four hoops, while Randy had a hoop and a foul shot.
Debarros two hoops, the Coyne brothers one each, and a Andres Tourgee bucket, provided the scoring for the visiting Cougars.
Leading by a point, the game took a turn in favor for the Mounties. On their first possession, Randy Belanger got a brief look at a three-point shot. Belanger never hesitated and took the open shot, knocking it down to give the Mounties a 26-22 lead. The hoop brought the hometown crowd to its feet. Moments later his brother was in the paint and was able to convert to give the game its biggest lead for either team, 28-22.
ConVal's Tourgee hit a hoop to make it 28-24. Berlin called a timeout with 2:54 to play. This is where the controversial problem was taken care of with a phone call. The Unified games are usually played with three players and a maximum of two partners. The partners are usually not allowed to score, but can if they get a nice pass from a Unified player. Most schools do not allow their partners to shoot. ConVal wanted to have all five Unified players on the floor, so that any of them could shoot at any given time. Berlin contested the fact that it was giving the Cougars an advantage (all five could shoot), because Berlin had only three players that could score. The call came back and it was agreed that the Cougars were allowed to use all five players.
The Mountaineers went into a stall, with partner Jon Demers doing the bulk of the ball handling, along with senior Tiffiney Poirier. ConVal sat back in a zone defense and the Mounties ate up big chunks of time on the clock, drawing the ire of the ConVal fans in attendance. The Cougar players had to foul to put the Mounties into a one-and-one foul shooting situation.
A turnover led to two foul shots for ConVal's Tourgee. The Cougar hit one free throw, making it a one possession game, 28-25 with 54.2 seconds to play. Berlin called timeout. The players huddled around Coach Karen Turgeon and got their final instructions.
Demers and Poirier, along with Roger Belanger worked with one another and kept the ball away from the visitors. Demers was fouled with 11 ticks remaining on the clock. Demers is a partner and went to the foul line drawing the attention of the ConVal coach asking for a change. Randy Belanger went to the line for the one-and-one. His shot went halfway down and came out, getting rebounded by the Cougars. However, before the ball could even be advanced down floor, Demers pilfered it and dribbled out the final eight seconds of play, sending the Mountaineers to the finals for the second straight season.
"Both teams battled all game long," said Coach Turgeon. "They had some really athletic athletes that we worked hard to stop. We have been working on our foul shooting and it has helped the last two games. The partners work extremely hard rebounding and making things happen for the athletes. It has been very beneficial finishing in third place because it allowed us to play at home in front of our awesome fans."
For the game, ConVal got 12 points from Debarros.
Berlin got 15 points from Roger and 11 markers from Randy Belanger. Julia Gray had the other bucket for Berlin.
The Unified players were extremely excited and chanted repeatedly, "We're headed to the ship baby!"
Senior partner Julie Downs summed it up best after the contest. "Walking into this season, I was ready to play just as hard as any other sport, but this time it was different. I was playing for something bigger than just myself. I was playing to win for someone other than myself. How I felt or what was going on with me didn't matter anymore. I didn't want to be a basketball star, I didn't even have a want to try and score. I was playing for all the smiling faces you see. Playing unified basketball has taught me that team achievement is 100 times more fulfilling than personal achievement at any time. On Saturday, I am going to walk on the court at the University of New Hampshire for my last high school basketball game ever. Win or lose, this is it for me. So you can bet that i will be wearing my heart on my sleeve for these kids and this team."
It's No. 1 Exeter vs No. 3 Berlin at UNH at 10 a.m.. Neither team has suffered a loss in 2016-17. It will also be the first time that a school other than Keene, will have bragging rights to holding a Unified basketball championship.
Con Val 10 02 10 03 25
Berlin 11 01 11 05 28