Girls’ basketball: Concord Christian reaches another level in D-II championship victory

Concord Christian celebrates winning the 2024 Division II girls’ basketball championship at the University of New Hampshire on Sunday.

Concord Christian celebrates winning the 2024 Division II girls’ basketball championship at the University of New Hampshire on Sunday. CHIP GRIFFIN / Photos By Chip

Concord Christian celebrates winning the 2024 Division II girls’ basketball championship at the University of New Hampshire on Sunday.

Concord Christian celebrates winning the 2024 Division II girls’ basketball championship at the University of New Hampshire on Sunday. CHIP GRIFFIN / Photos By Chip

Concord Christian’s Kate Smith shoots over Pembroke’s Taylor Renna during Sunday’s Division II championship game at UNH.

Concord Christian’s Kate Smith shoots over Pembroke’s Taylor Renna during Sunday’s Division II championship game at UNH. CHIP GRIFFIN / Photos By Chip

Lilli Carlile (33) splits between Pembroke’s Anne Phillips (5) and Taylor Renna as she drives to the basket during the Division II girls’ basketball championship at UNH on Sunday.

Lilli Carlile (33) splits between Pembroke’s Anne Phillips (5) and Taylor Renna as she drives to the basket during the Division II girls’ basketball championship at UNH on Sunday. CHIP GRIFFIN / Photos By Chip

Kayden Rioux fires a shot for Concord Christian during the Division II championship at UNH on Sunday.

Kayden Rioux fires a shot for Concord Christian during the Division II championship at UNH on Sunday. CHIP GRIFFIN / Photos By Chip

By DAN ATTORRI

Monitor staff

Published: 03-10-2024 12:47 PM

DURHAM – The Concord Christian Academy girls’ basketball team seemingly always plays with the highest level of intensity. In the second half of the championship game, the Kingsmen found an even higher gear.

The No. 3 Pembroke Academy Spartans (18-4) held the top-ranked Kingsmen (20-1) to a 3-point lead at halftime, but Concord Christian dominated the third quarter and controlled the boards from start to finish to wrap up its inaugural – and only – season in Division II with a 65-53 victory at the University of New Hampshire’s Lundholm Gymnasium.

Junior Lilli Carlile had 29 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and two steals, sophomore Emma Smith had 23 points, nine rebounds, five assists and three steals, and the Kingsmen held Pembroke senior Annelise Dexter – a D-II Player of the Year candidate, All-State First Team selection and 1,000-point career scorer – to four points.

The Division IV champions in 2022 and D-III title winners last year, the Kingsmen are used to playing in big games. You don’t win three championships in a row without overcoming your share of challenges and the Spartans, with their versatility and depth of talent, presented Concord Christian with its biggest one yet.

CCA led 29-26 at halftime, but a 22-7 third quarter gave the Kingsmen control of the game with a 51-33 lead heading into the fourth.

“They rose to the challenge,” Concord Christian head coach Rebecca Carlile said. “I was nervous at halftime. Pembroke came out ready to play. They came out in the third quarter with a next level effort defensively.”

“At halftime we needed to settle down and just play our game,” Lilli Carlile, coach Carlile’s daughter, added. “We needed to pressure them and get them uncomfortable on the dribble, and play our fast-paced game like we do.”

Within three minutes from the opening tip, the Kingsmen already had an 8-2 lead.

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Some timely 3s from Spartan junior Kaitlin Arenella (14 points, 4-for-8 3-point shooting) helped Pembroke build a 13-12 lead at the end of the first quarter and kept the game close at halftime.

But Concord Christian’s tempo and intensity simply could not be matched after that.

Less than two minutes after the break, Taylor Rioux had a steal and passed to Carlile on the fast break for the first points of the half. With 3:42 left in the quarter, Rioux (four points) sunk a layup off an assist from sister Kayden, capping a 15-2 run to give CCA a 44-28 lead.

CCA outrebounded Pembroke 18-7 over the final 16 minutes of the game and had a 39-19 advantage on the boards in total. 

“My girls always come out with intensity but they can turn it up an extra level when the game is on the line,” coach Carlile said. “They knew Pembroke was coming, they weren’t going to lay down and let us beat them. It was close enough where (we) weren’t going to let that happen.”

It’s a similar story to what happened when CCA defeated Pembroke 65-55 on its home floor on Jan. 30. The Spartans led 51-50 with 6:15 left in that game before the Kingsmen upped the tempo to take control. 

Repeating that feat against such a strong opponent with more height and a deeper bench wasn’t easy.

“We knew we had contain (Dexter) as best we could; we knew weren’t going to be able to stop her,” coach Carlile said. “Annelise is a great player, it was a total team effort to keep (Pembroke) off the board. We have to box out, all five of us. If you look at our roster, (Pembroke) is bigger than us.”

Emma Smith marked Dexter for most of the game, eliminating Dexter’s dominant right-hand from most of the action, while senior Taylor Rioux (four assists) provided excellent help on Dexter, and sophomores Kate Smith (eight rebounds) and Kayden Rioux (two steals) contributed significantly to the defensive effort.

It’s been a historic journey for the Kingsmen, who had an enrollment of 106 based on the current NHIAA classification. The enrollment criteria for D-II is 550-899 students. Next year, Concord Christian will square off against D-I teams that have enrollments of over 900.

When Taylor Rioux, the program’s only senior, was a freshmen, her team didn’t go beyond the D-IV prelims.

“Us (the Rioux sisters), the Smiths, the Carliles, we’re all one big family. We’ve been playing together since we were little, and I couldn’t ask for a better team and coaches. I was surrounded by family,” Taylor said. “I don’t think it matters the size of the school. It matters who is on the team, your coaches, the energy you bring. And I think they’ve got it next year too.”