MARK LAUTENSCHLAGER looks for a passing lane in playoff action against Hanover on Wednesday. Jeff Lajoie. (click for larger version)
March 10, 2014NORTH CONWAY – Ryan Vajentic only had one thing on his mind: don't let it be his last game.
The Kennett High School senior forward tossed the eighth-seeded Eagles on his back in the final minute of their Division II first round tournament contest on March 5. Vajentic hit back to back three-pointers in the final minute of the fourth quarter, and Kennett rallied from a four-point deficit with 50 seconds remaining to hold serve with a 44-40 victory over ninth-seeded Hanover High School.
"This is my senior year... I didn't want it to end," said Vajentic, who finished the night with 16 points. "Sometimes you just feel it. I wanted the ball late in the game, I wanted to do everything I could to make sure we kept playing."
Hanover (11-8) led 40-36 as the clock ticked under one minute to play, but Kennett didn't go away. Vajentic brought the crowd to its feet with a three that cut the lead to 40-39 with 50 seconds left. After a timeout from Hanover, the Eagles set up a full court press. Head coach Steve Cote admitted his squad was looking for the right player to foul and send to the free throw line.
"We were trying to pick our spot to foul but obviously getting a steal in that situation is preferable," the coach explained.
With the press swarming Hanover's Tim O'Rourke, Kennett point guard Brandon DiLucchio swooped in and got his hand on the ball, tipping it away. Vajentic eventually gained possession on the wing, and he rose up and drilled another three with 38 seconds left to send the packed house into a frenzy. Just like that, the Eagles had a 42-40 advantage.
"We didn't want to foul (O'Rourke) because he hadn't missed a free throw yet but I could tell he was starting to worry about getting the ball over (half court) before a 10-count," said DiLucchio. "I was able to sneak behind him and get a piece of the ball."
The Marauders still had time to get the game-tying shot, and after turnovers from both squads, Hanover called timeout with possession and 12.1 seconds remaining. The squad threw a lob pass inside to big man Ben Lynch, and he went up for what would have been the tying layup. But the tandem of Mark Lautenschalger and Will Pollard managed to get a piece of the ball, and Pollard hauled the rebound in before being fouled with 6.0 seconds left.
Down the other end, Pollard calmly sank both free throws, securing the victory as time ran out on Hanover's season.
"In the past, we've struggled to play in the present," said Cote. "I told the guys it's a 32-minute game. You have to stick with it the entire way and they found a way to get it done in the end."
The entire atmosphere surrounding the game was electric. With the last home playoff game in program history taking place over 16 years ago, some on the Kennett roster weren't even born the last time the Eagles hosted a tournament tilt. The line to get into KHS ran well outside, and the student section was jam packed and loud all night long.
"The crowd was a huge element of our win," said Vajentic. "There was so much energy coming from them that it really pumped us up. Part of our plan this year was to get a home playoff game and this was exactly what we were hoping for."
"They were unreal," he said of the fan support. "We haven't had a crowd like this all season long. In our game against Plymouth we had a good crowd with probably 50 students or so. But today, you saw what it was like. Probably 200 students yelling, pep rally in school to get ready for it. It was just awesome."
Kennett struggled for much of the first half, especially on the offensive end. The Eagles trailed 14-9 after one quarter and 20-16 at halftime.
"Our shot selection was really poor in the first half," admitted Cote. "As the game went along, we found more opportunities to go to the rim and that opened up the outside for us to hit open looks. No question both teams came out tight though. We let our emotion get the best of us and took a lot of quick shots. We played good enough defense to hang around and at the half I told the guys that the butterflies are now gone, you know what you need to do."
The butterflies were indeed gone in the final minutes, as Vajentic's heroics lifted Kennett into the D-II quarterfinal round by holding serve at home.
"That just shows how much confidence we have in Ryan," said DiLucchio.
Cote wasn't surprised to see his best players step up with the game on the line.
"The big guys on our team like the spotlight," the coach said. "They want the ball in those situations when the pressure is on the line. That's what you're looking for from your leaders."
Nick Graziano joined Vajentic in double figures with 10 points on the night, while Pollard tossed in eight for the Eagles. DiLucchio added six points in a busy night on both ends of the floor.
The Eagles made the trip to Pembroke to take on the top-ranked Spartans on Saturday night in the Division II quarterfinals, where they dropped a 44-22 decision to close out the season.