ELLSWORTH, Maine — The number 73 had been gnawing at the collective psyche of the Hermon boys basketball team for more than a month — since the Hawks began their season with a 73-72 loss to Ellsworth.
These days, coach Mark Reed’s club is barely giving up 73 points every two games.
Hermon showed off its newfound defensive intensity Friday night and gained some sweet redemption in the process with a 55-41 victory over Ellsworth in the rematch of Class B contenders at Katsiaficas Gymnasium.
The win was the seventh straight for the 9-2 Hawks, who have allowed an average of 38.1 points per game during that streak.
“Since the first game of the season we’ve really been working on defense a lot,” said Hermon junior guard Colton Gross. “Coach came into the locker room after that [first Ellsworth] game and said that will be the last time you’ll see 73 on the scoreboard unless it’s us scoring 73.
“Our goal since then has been to keep teams under 40, and we’ve been working very hard to do that.”
The Hawks’ defense kept Ellsworth confined largely to the perimeter, limiting the 8-4 Eagles to 34.7 percent shooting (16 of 46) from the field.
“The kids have really started to take pride in their defense, and they’re enjoying the teamwork that it requires to be good defensively,” said Reed, in his first year at Hermon after eight seasons at Brewer. “I’m really proud of them for that, they’re working very hard every night and maturing every day.”
Gross led Hermon’s offense with 19 points, while younger brother Taylor Gross, a sophomore point guard, added 16 points — with the duo combining to make 8 of 10 free throws over the final 3:36 of the fourth quarter as the Hawks scored the game’s final 10 points.
Hermon also got solid complementary inside play led by senior center Andy Ball (seven points and seven rebounds) and senior forward Alex Pedersen (seven points, six rebounds).
Junior forward Ryan Petros scored 16 points for Ellsworth.
Hermon never trailed after Colton Gross made three 3-pointers in the game’s first 4 minutes, 5 seconds to help stake the Hawks to an 11-4 lead.
But Ellsworth wouldn’t let the Hawks pull away, and coach Peter Austin’s club finally tied the game at 32-32 on a drive by Kaleb Danico with 1:37 left in the third quarter.
But Hermon turned up its defense, forcing three Ellsworth turnovers as the catalyst for a 10-2 run good for a 42-34 lead early in the fourth quarter after Kevin Tarr stole the ball and fed Taylor Gross for a layup.
A follow-up basket and two free throws by Petros rallied Ellsworth within 42-38 before Hermon countered with the game’s defining play. The Hawks worked 58 seconds off the clock before Colton Gross drove to the basket and converted a three-point play to restore Hermon to a seven-point cushion with 3:54 remaining.
“Lately in practice we’ve been working on plays for particular moments in the game just like that,” said Gross. “We wasted some time off the clock, and the coaches told us that when we see the gap to take it and we always body up for contact, so the moment presented itself and we took it.”