Eagles’ Oliver steps up

Posted Feb. 20, 2009, at 9:36 p.m.

AUGUSTA, Maine — Limited to just one 3-point field goal through three periods Friday afternoon, Holly Oliver stepped up when Messalonskee of Oakland needed a leader and propelled the Eagles to a 41-37 victory over top-ranked Skowhegan in the Eastern Maine Class A girls basketball final at the Augusta Civic Center.

The 5-foot-11 junior guard had an assist and a basket during a run of six straight Messalonskee points early in the fourth quarter after Skowhegan had taken its first lead since the end of the first quarter.

Then she helped secure the victory with four straight free throws in the game’s final 46 seconds to give Messalonskee its first regional championship since winning the Class B state title in 1987.

“Some of my teammates were saying how they were scared to go to the free-throw line because they had missed or something, so I was like ‘OK, give it to me,’ because I knew I could knock them down,” said Oliver, named winner of the Al Halliday Award as the Eastern A tournament’s outstanding player-sportsman.

“I was nervous, but I couldn’t get myself too worked up because then I would miss,” said Oliver, “so I didn’t think too much about it, I just took my shot.”

Oliver finished with nine points and six rebounds to go with 11 points from Kaitlyn Deering and seven points each from Ariana Perry and Hannah Dexter.

Brown had 10 points and five rebounds for Skowhegan.

The win advances third-ranked Messalonskee (19-2) to Saturday night’s Class A state final, also at the Augusta Civic Center, while Skowhegan ends its season at 17-4.

This game was an intense, physical battle between two central Maine rivals that had split two regular-season meeting, and defense proved pivotal to Messalonskee’s success as the Eagles limited Skowhegan 6-footers Kaley Brown and Mackenzie Smith to a combined 15 points and 10 rebounds while also holding the Indians’ pe-rimeter shooters to a 1-for-11 afternoon from beyond the 3-point arc.

“We were outsized with both Smith and Brown, and they both are outstanding players,” said veteran Messalonskee coach Brenda Beckwith. “I think the key for us was to prevent their perimeter players from getting wide-open looks, and we also did a great job of shutting down their sideline fast break.”

Neither team led by more than five points in the contest, including a 27-22 Messalonskee lead on a 3-pointer by Perry with 3:48 left in the third quarter.

Skowhegan got back-to-back inside baskets from Smith and Jaimi Poland on its next two possessions to make it a one-point game, and eventually took a 31-30 lead on a mid-range jumper by Brown 18 seconds into the fourth quarter.

But Oliver fed Deering for an inside basket, then scored herself from the low post and grabbed a defensive rebound to ignite a fast break capped off by Jessica Bridges’ layup to give Messalonskee a 36-31 cushion with 4:42 left.

Skowhegan crept back within 36-35 and had a chance to regain the lead, but Liz Noddin missed two contested shots before Oliver made two free throws with 45.8 seconds left.

Brown’s layup with 22 seconds left again enabled Skowhegan to draw within a point, but Messalonskee got Oliver the ball again, and again she connected twice from the line with 16.9 seconds left.

Skowhegan’s Whitney Jones then missed a 3-pointer, and Perry made the second of two free throws with 1.4 seconds left to make it a two-possession game.

“Part of playing here at the Civic Center is that it’s always back and forth, the teams are so tight,” said Dexter. “You just need to bounce back and be there at the end. That’s all that matters in the end.”

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