By MICHAEL PEZONE
NEWPORT, N.H. — For the first time in more than a decade, the Newport boys basketball team is headed to the final four.
The third-seeded Tigers (19-1) avenged their only loss of the regular season thanks to a gutty defensive-effort that allowed the team to pull away for a 53-44 victory in their Division III quarterfinal against sixth-ranked Hopkinton (15-5) on March 2.
Coach Steve Lavolpicelo’s squad will travel to Southern New Hampshire University on March 5 to take on second-seeded Conant (19-1) in the semifinals. The Orioles beat No. 7 Somersworth, 75-51, in their quarterfinal matchup.
“We didn’t want to get back at them, we just wanted to move on,” said Newport leading scorer Andrew Houde, referring to his team’s 58-52 loss to the Hawks on Feb. 4. “The first time we really forced some shots, and today we got a lot of good looks and rebounded a lot better. They killed us on the boards the first time.”
Newport led by double-figures for the majority of the game, until a layup from Jake Nelson (11 points) with 52 seconds left cut Hopkinton’s deficit to 48-40. Spencer Coronis put the Tigers back up by 10 with a pair of free throws, but four straight points from the Hawks — including a Collin Paraskeva 3-pointer — pulled the visiting team within six with less than 30 seconds left.
The Tigers didn’t budge further, however, capitalizing on a pair of blocks from Houde and a steal from Coronis to keep Hopkinton from scoring again. Coronis hit three more free throws down the stretch to clinch his team’s first trip to the final four since 2000.
“We knew if we wanted to be a final four team, we’d have to get big stops,” Lavolpicelo said. “We base our whole team around our defense and it paid off tonight. Our defense was the best it’s ever been tonight — the best it’s been since I’ve been here.”
Unlike their first-round game against Kearsarge in which the Tigers trailed 9-0 before scoring their first points, Lavolpicelo’s squad came out ready to play against the Hawks. Newport forced five turnovers in the first quarter alone, and ended the frame on a 9-0 run to take a 12-point lead into the second.
Coronis scored nine of his 17 points in the opening quarter, including seven of his team’s first nine. Lavolpicelo credited the sophomore for jump starting Newport’s offense, and settling his teammates into a rhythm.
“Spencer’s capable of playing like that every night, so it’s awesome seeing him blossom in these moments,” Lavolpicelo said. “He started the game confident, and that just kind of got our offensive juices going.”
Steve Auger (game-high 20 points) opened the second quarter with a 3-pointer to pull Hopkinton within nine, but the Tigers responded with treys from Derrick Pare and Houde to take a 28-17 lead into halftime. Newport kept firing after the break, and increased its lead to 15 by the start of the fourth behind buckets from Houde, Wade and Coronis.
Houde finished with a team-high 19 points for the Tigers, followed by Coronis (17 points), Wade (10 points), Zach Whalen (four points) and Pare (three points).
As happy as Lavolpicelo was with his team’s offensive success, Newport’s third-year coach said he was most pleased with its ability to neutralize Hopkinton on the glass after having severally struggled with that facet in their earlier meeting.
“When we played them the first time, they won the rebounding battle 50-28, and we were in the game to win it,” Lavolpicelo said. “I told the guys, if you can narrow that gap and win the rebounding game, we’re going to be successful. And I don’t know what the stats are, but we certainly did a much better job. The kids deserve a ton of credit.”
Up next for the Tigers will be a Conant team that’s won five titles in the past seven years. The Orioles head into the game in the midst of a 12-game win streak, including victories over No. 18 Monadnock (70-34) and No. 7 Somersworth (75-51) in the tournament.
Newport didn’t face Conant during the regular season, although Lavolpicelo said he has seen the team play.
“They’re very talented and very deep,” he said. “We’re going to obviously work on some things and try to prepare for them the best we can. If we defend like we did tonight, and make some shots like we did tonight, we’ll have a chance to win.”