BANGOR, Maine — All season long, there has been tremendous pressure on the Woodland High School boys basketball team.
Coach Troy Cilley returned his entire roster from the previous season, when the Dragons reached the Eastern Maine championship game and lost to Central Aroostook in overtime.
Saturday morning, with the Panthers from Mars Hill defending their Class D regional title, a senior-laden Woodland ballclub didn’t seem the least bit fazed by the situation.
Senior point guard Chad James went 6-for-6 from the foul line in the fourth quarter to help the fourth-seeded Dragons earn the program’s first EM championship with a 48-36 victory over No. 2 Central Aroostook at the Bangor Auditorium.
“There wasn’t a lot of nervousness,” said the speedy James, who sparked Woodland with a game-high 14 points along with five rebounds and three assists. “There was just going to be a lot of disappointment if we came out and didn’t produce.”
Woodland (15-7) plays Western Maine champion Richmond (17-2) in Saturday’s 2:35 p.m. state title game in Bangor.
Even that pressure won’t be overwhelming to Woodland.
“There were a lot of expectations all year long,” Cilley said. “We struggled with it a little bit. I think the expectations were too high for the regular season, and every loss was like the end of the world to us, even though it wasn’t.”
The Dragons exhibited poise and patience, utilizing their considerable experience advantage to overcome the youthful Panthers (18-4).
“We really held our composure and we’ve been doing that the whole year playing some pretty tough games,” said senior guard Ben Sears (13 points). “We definitely had to keep our heads in it the whole game.”
Woodland’s boys completed the Class D sweep, led by a quartet of senior starters that also included Aaron St. Pierre and Eddie Flaherty.
“We’ve been at this, this senior group, ever since we were in fourth grade,” James said. “It’s nice to bring one back home for the boys.”
Woodland prevailed in a game dominated by defense. Its tight man-to-man helped limit CAHS to 30 percent shooting and the Panthers converted only four of 11 free throws.
“We didn’t run our stuff,” said CAHS coach Tim Brewer. “Whether it was their defense, or our failure to execute, we didn’t do what we needed to do to get the job done.”
The Panthers also played solid defense, holding Woodland to 35 percent shooting. However, the Dragons were 9-for-19 in the second half because of their ability to establish dribble penetration for more high-percentage shots.
“We like to open up the floor and take it to the hole,” James said. “We take care of the ball and we make every shot at the hoop an opportunity.”
Woodland also went 14-for-20 from the foul line, including 8-for-11 in the fourth quarter.
“They know what we need to do,” Cilley said. “We think along the same wavelengths. Having a veteran group just makes it so much easier on a coach.”
Woodland spotted the Panthers a 7-2 lead, then took the lead late in the first half and never relinquished it. The Dragons built a 10-point bulge with a 9-2 third-quarter run.
With Woodland up 23-20, Flaherty (six points, 10 rebounds) scored from underneath and St. Pierre drained a 3-pointer before Logan McLaughlin scored on a putback for the Panthers.
Flaherty scored again from inside and James threw in a runner to make it 32-22 with 39 seconds left in the quarter. CAHS never got closer than four after that.
“We knew we had to stay under control and take care of the ball because they’re a really good defensive team,” Sears said. “We tried our hardest to go to the hole and stay in control of the game.”
Corey Rolfe contributed eight points and 11 rebounds for the Dragons.
Manny Martinez led the way for Central Aroostook with 14 points. Caleb Kelly added eight points and Kasey Brewer grabbed 10 rebounds.