BREWER, Maine — Most of the preseason talk in Eastern Maine Class A basketball circles involved their most intense rivals — Bangor and Hampden Academy.
But as midseason is in full swing, the Brewer Witches are letting their play do the talking.
Coach Ben Goodwin’s club is now 3-0 against its Penobscot County brethren after outlasting Hampden 64-62 before a standing-room-only crowd Saturday night.
The top-ranked Witches built a 16-point, third-quarter lead, then withstood a furious Hampden comeback to finish off a sweep of their season series against the third-rated Broncos.
“Hampden’s one of the best teams in the state, and to beat them twice sends a message to everybody that Brewer’s here,” said senior center Nate Carson. “Brewer’s for real.”
Tickets for this game were at a premium, so much so that the doors to the cozy confines of the Brewer High Gymnasium were closed more than a half-hour before game time with a large crowd still waiting outside hoping for a chance to gain entry to this showdown.
And the game lived up to that anticipation. Brewer took control early behind the all-around play of senior swingman Dom Drake, then held off a Hampden rally that drew the Broncos even at 59-59 when Nolan Turner stole an inbounds pass and drove in for a layup with 44 seconds left in the game.
Brewer’s Jordan Richards made both ends of a 1-and-1 three seconds later to restore the Witches to a two-point lead and, after Hampden came up empty on its next possession, Carson — who had two key defensive rebounds and a blocked shot in the final minute — hit two from the line to give the Witches a 63-59 edge with 19.6 seconds to play.
Turner made a 3-pointer from deep in the left corner to make it a one-point game with four seconds left, but Drake made 1 of 2 from the line with 2.2 seconds to play and Hampden was unable to get off a quality shot as time expired.
“Usually we’re a second-half team, but I think we just thought we had it in the bag and they came back,” said Drake, who finished with 23 points on 9 of 14 shooting from the field along with five rebounds, four steals and three assists.
“But we just had to keep playing as a team, which is all we talk about.”
Carson added 15 points, six rebounds and three blocked shots, while Ray Bessette had 10 points, six rebounds and six assists for the 9-1 Witches.
Jacob Moore paced 7-3 Hampden with 17 points, eight rebounds and three steals. Noah Burditt added 13 points while Christian McCue came off the bench to score 12.
Drake had 14 points in the first half as Brewer built a 35-20 lead. The Witches were particularly effective with their mid-range offense, while Hampden struggled with its own — connecting on just 28 percent (7 of 25) of its field-goal tries overall before intermission.
“In the first half we missed probably four shots at the rim that weren’t really even contested shots, and it ended up being the difference in the game,” said Hampden coach Russ Bartlett. “If we’d made those, we’d only have been down six or seven at halftime and that would have made a big difference, but we just dug ourselves such a deep hole.”
Burditt made two baskets in the opening minute of the third quarter to pull Hampden within 35-24, but the Broncos’ challenge soon grew even more formidable when standout guard Graham Safford picked up his third and fourth fouls and was relegated to the bench.
Drake then scored three straight baskets and Carson scored inside off a Tyler Bessette assist to extend Brewer’s lead to 43-27.
But Hampden wasn’t conceding anything. Moore led the Broncos on a modest run to close out the period, converting a 15-footer and a three-point play and later stealing the ball and feeding McCue for a layup to cut the gap to 51-38 by the end of the period.
Hampden then scored the first seven points of the fourth quarter to draw within 51-45 on a 3-pointer from the top of the key by McCue.
Carson quelled that momentum with a pair of inside baskets, but Moore later hit a 3-pointer and Burditt scored after grabbing an offensive rebound to pull the Broncos within 59-57 with 3:02 to play.
“They’re a talented team, I’ve got to give them respect,” said Carson. “They came back, but we just had to keep our composure and not quit. We knew we were physically fit, and it came down to how mentally tough we were.”