Girls’ basketball: No. 3 Pembroke’s strong season ends in state championship defeat

Pembroke’s Kaitlin Arenella hugs senior Annelise Dexter (21) after the Spartans lost to Concord Christian in the Division II championship game at UNH on Sunday.

Pembroke’s Kaitlin Arenella hugs senior Annelise Dexter (21) after the Spartans lost to Concord Christian in the Division II championship game at UNH on Sunday. CHIP GRIFFIN  / Photos By Chip

Annelise Dexter drives to the basket with CCA’s Emma Smith defending her during the D-II championship game at UNH on Sunday.

Annelise Dexter drives to the basket with CCA’s Emma Smith defending her during the D-II championship game at UNH on Sunday. CHIP GRIFFIN / Photos By Chip

Anne Phillips (5) dribbles to the basket against CCA’s Lilli Carlile during Sunday’s D-II championship game at UNH.

Anne Phillips (5) dribbles to the basket against CCA’s Lilli Carlile during Sunday’s D-II championship game at UNH. CHIP GRIFFIN / Photos By Chip

By ERIC RYNSTON-LOBEL

Monitor staff

Published: 03-10-2024 12:49 PM

DURHAM – The No. 3 Pembroke Spartans (18-4) don’t get rattled. That’s been their calling card all season.

But in the third quarter of Sunday’s Division II championship game against No. 1 Concord Christian (20-1), that demeanor was tested more heavily than ever before. 

Trailing just 29-26 to CCA heading into halftime, the Kingsmen came out of the locker room and dominated the subsequent eight minutes, outscoring the Spartans 22-7 in the quarter. Pembroke had no answer, and CCA walked away with a 65-53 win, the program’s third straight championship in its third different division. 

Pembroke’s season wasn’t fully defined by Sunday’s loss, though. The group entered 2023-24 with raised expectations after reaching the D-II quarterfinals last year with a relatively young team; led by senior Annelise Dexter, the Spartans opened the season winning their first 10 games. They finished the regular season 15-3 and beat No. 14 Timberlane, No. 6 Bow and No. 2 Laconia in the first three rounds of the playoffs on the back of Dexter’s strong play as well as that of senior Taylor Renna, junior Kaitlin Arenella, sophomore Kate Stephens and freshman Anne Phillips.

In Sunday’s loss, Arenella led the Spartans with 14 points (on 4-for-8 3-point shooting) and four assists, while Stephens and Phillips (four assists, three rebounds, two steals) each scored 12 apiece.

CCA effectively limited Dexter all game, holding her to just four points on 2-of-10 shooting. Still, her impact on the program — and on head coach Steve Langevin — won’t be soon forgotten.

“Anna’s an amazing player,” Langevin said. “You get lucky to coach someone like that. Most of it is done on her own. She spends a lot of time on her own, and she has that drive. She really wants to win. Basketball is her thing. A lot of the kids play other things or do other things, but this is her focus, and it’s special to get to coach somebody like that.”

Renna also played a major role in the program through her four years, working her way up from playing sparsely early in her career to being a leader on the floor this season.

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“She worked hard,” Langevin said. “She just kept at it, working harder and harder each year, trying to get to where she could play. She was only a 3-point shooter freshman year, but then she worked on her drives and doing everything, and her defense picked up a lot. For her, it’s leading a lot by effort.”

Meanwhile, the returning Spartans hope this isn’t their last trip to UNH to play in a championship game. It’s always a challenging journey to navigate, but with three starters returning next season, Pembroke should be positioned well to make another run at a title. 

For the moment on Sunday, as the players sat on the bench with tears in their eyes fixated on that helpless feeling only a big-game loss can bring, Langevin took a moment to appreciate all his group accomplished this season and how meaningful it was to play in the atmosphere UNH’s Lundholm Gymnasium provided.

“We don’t get crowds at the girls’ games,” he said. “It’s neat for them to get to play in front of all of this and to see what they could accomplish from where they came from, all the different towns, that this can be done. We haven’t been there since ’95. Quite a long time.

“It’s a special thing for all of them. Just the experience of being here is cool for them, instead of playing in front of 20 people.”

It’s also something that the returning players will surely use as motivation heading into next season. A lot changes for teams from season to season, but with the level talent Pembroke has returning, don’t expect this to be the last of the Spartans playing for a state title.

“We have a ton of kids back. Doesn’t mean we’re going to be back here — we’re losing Anna and Taylor — but we have a big group coming back, so we’re pretty excited,” Langevin said of the future. “I’m glad for all of them that they got to experience being here. That’s a pretty cool deal. A lot of kids never ever get to do that — and coaches. It’s always a nice thing to experience. It sucks for the end of today, but it’s something they’ll always remember.”