BANGOR, Maine — This was a game nearly a year in the waiting for Graham Safford, but the pent-up anticipation was no match for the quality of the performance that followed.
Safford, a junior guard who transferred to Hampden Academy last spring after helping Camden Hills of Rockport win the 2009 Class B state title, scored 26 points and had four steals in his Class A debut Friday night as the Broncos held off Bangor 56-49 at Red Barry Gymnasium.
“Ever since I moved here I’ve thought about when the season was going to start,” said Safford. “Then when we got the draw with Bangor, you knew it was going to be a big game so I just tried to get ready for it.”
Safford shot 9-of-14 from the field overall and 5-of-8 from beyond the 3-point arc — including a 35-foot buzzer-beater to end the opening quarter — as Hampden built an early lead in this clash of rivals considered among the favorites in Eastern Maine Class A this season.
“[Safford] had a really big impact,” said Hampden senior forward Jacob Moore, who had 15 points and seven rebounds. “He was getting his points but he also was getting everyone else shots, so it was good.”
Safford’s integration into a Hampden lineup that returned intact from the 2008-09 edition that was ousted by Bangor in the regional quarterfinals got off to a fast start.
He missed his first shot but went on to make three 3-pointers during the first quarter to force Bangor out of a 1-2-2 zone defense that Rams coach Roger Reed had installed just the night before.
“Being the veteran team that they are and having seen a lot of zones last year, they knew what to do,” said Reed. “We tried to take away their dribble-penetration but they hit some outside shots. You can’t take away everything.”
Hampden stretched its lead to 26-16 by halftime after Greg O’Donnell banked in a 3-pointer with 1:09 left in the second quarter.
The Broncos then threatened to blow the game open, as Safford took a steal in for a layup and Moore followed with a runner to extend the margin to 30-16 with 7:17 left in the third period.
But a Bangor team that returned just one starter from last year — junior forward Zach Blodgett —used solid play from junior guard Luke Hetterman to slowly narrow the gap.
Hetterman scorted six points in the third quarter to help close the deficit to 41-34, and while Bangor struggled to get closer due to turnover woes —23 for the game — the Rams got as close as 51-47 when Blodgett hit a 3-pointer off a feed from Jacques Larochelle with 1:14 left in the game.
Bangor got the ball back after a Hampden turnover, but the Rams missed twice from the field before Hampden put the game away by making 5 of 8 free throws in the game’s final 45.1 seconds.
“At halftime we had a 10-point lead, but we knew they weren’t going away,” said Safford. “We knew they were going to keep fighting back, so we had to stay with them and we did.”
Hampden finished the night 8 of 20 from 3-point land, compared to 4 of 10 for Bangor.
“I don’t think on a nightly basis we’ll make that many threes,” said Hampden coach Russ Bartlett. “Tonight we got in a good rhythm, but we also didn’t get a lot of shots in the paint.
“The ball has got to enter the paint with the dribble for us to be successful on a nightly basis, but tonight our ability to shoot the ball from the arc really stretched their defense.”
Clark Noonan led Bangor with 14 points and seven rebounds, while Hetterman had 11 points and Blodgett 10.
Noah Burditt added eight points and Nolan Turner grabbed seven rebounds for Hampden, which was outboarded just 25-24 by the taller Rams.
“We rebounded a lot better than we did during the preseason, but we have to finish games better,” said Moore. “I think if we do that we’ll be hard to beat.”