ELLSWORTH — The Ellsworth boys basketball team had won its first five games of the season by an astonishing average of 32.6 points, which begged the question of how the Eagles would respond to a serious challenge.
That challenge came Tuesday evening from similarly undefeated Presque Isle. And while Ellsworth nearly broke the game open in the third quarter, coach Peter Austin’s club ultimately had to endure some real, live crunch time to preserve a 55-50 victory over the Wildcats in an early season Class B showdown at Katsiaficas Gymnasium.
“I was never comfortable,” said Austin, whose club — an Eastern Maine finalist last winter, moved into the No. 1 spot in the division after improving its record this season to 6-0. “We got up by 13, but I know Presque Isle’s a great team and would make their runs.”
Defensive spurts fueled Ellsworth’s latest victory, as the Eagles induced 24 Presque Isle turnovers, including seven during the third quarter when they built their largest lead.
“We had some periods of good transition basketball,” said Austin. “In the first part of the third quarter I thought we were doing a good job defensively and we were getting up and down the floor. We had some good steals, and we need to get up and down the court because we have seven or eight players who are really athletic.”
Senior guard Cote Card led Ellsworth’s offense with 18 points and seven rebounds, while Jordan Carter and Andrew Austin each had nine points and six rebounds and Tyler Palmer grabbed seven rebounds.
Travis Dyer paced 4-1 Presque Isle with 15 points, eight rebounds and five assists, while Alex Tuttle had nine points and seven rebounds and Andrew Legassie had eight rebounds.
Both teams were dealing with a little rust, as neither had practiced or played a game since Thursday, but Presque Isle got off to the quicker start as Dyer scored eight first-quarter points to stake the Wildcats to a 15-12 lead.
But Ellsworth’s trapping, full-court defensive pressure after made baskets and its long outlet passes after grabbing defensive rebounds soon began to pay off. Andrew Austin made all four of his field-goal attempts in the second quarter to help the Eagles grab a 25-21 halftime lead.
Ellsworth then scored the first nine points of the second half, with a 3-pointer by Card, a fast-break layup by Nick Holt and a second-chance basket by Palmer leading to a transition layup by Carter that gave the Eagles a 34-21 cushion midway through the third period.
The Ellsworth lead was 38-28 entering the fourth quarter, and the Eagles extended that to 47-34 on two free throws by Carter with 5:27 to play.
But Presque Isle clawed back into contention, with a 3-pointer by Legassie and a layup by Tuttle first drawing the Wildcats within single digits and Tuttle later hitting a jumper from the left wing and then feeding Wilder York for a fast-break layup to cut the deficit to 52-48 with 1:51 to play.
Ellsworth then came up empty after a 51-second possession, and while the Eagles got a free throw by Holt to push their lead back to five points with 47.9 seconds left, Dyer scored on a drive to cut the gap to 53-50 with 18 seconds left.
Holt then sandwiched two free throws around an Ellsworth timeout with 15.9 seconds to play to restore the Eagles to a two-possession advantage, and Presque Isle was unable to counter on its next possession.
“We had about 24 turnovers, that was the difference, and not to take anything from Ellsworth because they did a nice job, but at least half of those were careless, unforced and had nothing to do with Ellsworth,” said Presque Isle coach Tim Prescott. “They were just mistakes by the Wildcats, and if you give a good team like Ellsworth that many extra possessions you’re going to lose.
“I was surprised it was a five-point game. I thought the kids were great in the last 10 minutes to crawl back into it, but you can’t put yourself in that situation against a good team like Ellsworth.”