PORTSMOUTH — Karim Winn got the ball, put his head down and made a slashing drive for the rim. His 3-pointer from the bleachers had given his team life. This was about to put the Great Bay Community College men’s basketball team in a place few expected against powerful College of St. Joseph.
The Herons rallied from a six-point deficit with 1:05 remaining, squaring the game and earning five more minutes with a team many consider the toast of the Yankee Small College Conference.
That’s a far cry from the Nov. 5 season opener, when Great Bay unveiled its brand new program and lost by 50 to Northern Essex.
“It’s just unspeakable how much we’ve grown as a unit,” guard Lucas Gaynor said.
Winn scored 31 points, but momentum changed hands at the start of overtime. The Fighting Saints used a 9-0 run to escape Great Bay with a 92-87 win inside the new Student Success Center on Sunday.
The Herons enter the holiday break at 3-10 overall. They’ll be budding with confidence when the games go live again on Jan. 13.
“We talked about this first semester being a rocky start because we’re a brand new program,” Great Bay coach Dave Sokolnicki said. “They don’t really know what I want to do, and I told them as we build and grow we’re going to continuously get better. And they are, which is important.”
Great Bay got 21 points from Madbury’s Eric Leslie and 12 points on four 3-pointers from Newmarket’s Vinnie Khounxay. The team trailed 79-73 with the clock winding inside a minute before Winn’s driving score. It was 81-75 when Leslie hit a 3-pointer from the corner to make it a three-point game with 24.2 seconds remaining.
That’s when, after the Saints’ Da’Quan Abernathy made 1-of-2 from the line, Winn, a former star at Dover High School, lined up a 25-foot 3-pointer from the wing.
And buried it.
“To be honest, I saw the score, I saw the clock — I wanted it,” Winn said. “That’s just it. The shot speaks for itself. I wanted it.”
It pulled the Herons within 82-81, the closest they had been since a 44-44 tie early in the second half.
Abernathy went 1-for-2 from the line again, and the Herons, inbounding from beneath their own basket with 15.1 seconds remaining, trailed by two with the ball.
St. Joseph decided to go with full-court pressure. The Herons broke it by getting the ball to Winn and letting him streak to the rim.
“I’ve coached nine 1,000-point scorers in my career,” Sokolnicki said of Winn. “He’s about as talented as I’ve coached. He has the makings of something special, there’s no doubt about it.”
Great Bay, entering as underdogs to the now 8-3 Saints, traded its best punches in the first half, piecing together a 30-20 lead when Stratham’s Gaynor (11 points) hit two free throws.
“They did some things that took us out of our game and out of our element,” St Joseph coach Bob Walsh said. “They exposed us, which is what good teams will do.”
But his Saints got a 3-pointer from Joshua McAfee and exploded on a 17-0 run that took about 2 minutes. Khounxay finally stopped it when he hit from outside, but the Herons went into the half trailing 42-38.
“That’s when a lot of bickering was going on between the teams and they were getting in our heads,” Winn said. “So when we came out at the half we knew — shut that out, let’s play our game.”
It was Winn who tipped in his own miss for the first points of overtime, giving the Herons an 85-83 lead. Big forward Chris Conway responded with a make in the post, and guard Travis Threewitts’ sneaky offensive rebound and score gave the Saints the lead to stay; they outscored Great Bay 9-4 in overtime.
The Saints had five players in double figures, led by McAfee’s 16, and had seven score nine points or more.
The Herons walked off their still sparkling home floor knowing they can play with them.
“People are going to see us as underdogs the whole season,” Khounxay said. “I think going into playoffs and the second half of the season — I think we’re going to surprise a lot of teams.”