DOVER-FOXCROFT — Brandon McLaughlin’s a masked man on the basketball court these days, the result of a broken nose suffered during a previous battle.
But there was no hiding any of the senior guard’s multiple skills behind that protective gear Wednesday evening, as McLaughlin amassed 22 points, 11 rebounds and five assists to lead Stearns of Millinocket to a hard-fought 64-59 victory over Foxcroft Academy.
“He’s definitely our go-to guy,” said Stearns coach Greg Marter of McLaughlin, one of three starters back from the 2009-10 team that lost to Foxcroft in the Eastern Maine Class C quarterfinals. “He’s been there consistently for us every single game.”
Not only did McLaughlin fill the stat sheet, his timing proved critical to this team’s ability to hold off a Foxcroft team that had graduated its top seven players from last February’s tournament entry.
The Ponies pulled within 52-50 with 4:57 left in the contest when Alex Clark hit a 3-pointer to cap off a possession that featured three straight offensive rebounds by junior forward Cody Coiley.
Then McLaughlin returned from a brief respite on the bench and immediately delivered the two decisive plays of the night, a 3-pointer from the right wing followed by a backcourt steal and drive to the basket 13 seconds later that produced a three-point play to extend the Stearns lead to 58-50 with 4:17 remaining.
“We told our bench players that they needed to step up and they did a better job today, but there were a couple of sloppy turnovers and Foxcroft got some momentum so coach put the starters back in there, and I knew that I had to step up and make some plays,” said McLaughlin.
Foxcroft (4-2) twice narrowed the gap to three points, the final time at 60-57 with 2:25 left when Chris Johnson scored after an offensive rebound by Austin Merrill, but got no closer as Stearns limited the Ponies to a Ryan Rebar drive during the game’s final two minutes.
Billy Eurich and Brandon Bouchard each added 10 points for Stearns, with Bouchard also grabbing six rebounds. Ethan Michaud contributed nine points on three 3-point goals, while point guard Brian Bouchard dished out five assists for the Minutemen.
Johnson came off the Foxcroft bench to score a team-high 18 points, including a 4-of-8 shooting effort from 3-point range. Gould added 13 points and Rebar 10 for the Ponies, who shot a combined 7-of-27 from beyond the arc.
“I told someone before this game that we can play very good, be average and be very poor all in the same game, and that’s how we played tonight,” said Foxcroft coach David Carey. ”That’s kind of been our M.O. and that’s all due to inexperience. (Stearns) has three starters back who have been to war, and that makes a huge, huge difference. They know what it feels like to be in these situations, and for us everything is new.”
Multiple defenses by both teams produced few results in a first half that included a combined 11 three-point possessions — nine 3-point shots and two three-point plays — by the teams and ended in a 33-33 stalemate.
Johnson, a junior guard, helped keep Foxcroft close by making 5 of 6 shots for 13 points in the first two periods to offset 12 early points and seven rebounds by McLaughlin.
But Stearns, which built an eight-point second-quarter lead only to have Foxcroft rally for a 29-28 lead on a 3-pointer by Johnson, threatened to break open the game again at the outset of the second half by outscoring the Ponies 8-2 to take a 41-35 lead after a fast-break basket by Eurich 2:03 into the third quarter.
The Minutemen (4-3) maintained held a 52-45 advantage at the end of the period, primarily by inducing seven Foxcroft turnovers and offensively working the ball inside, with Brian Bouchard, Brandon Bouchard and Eurich each scoring four points.
But Foxcroft was not without another comeback, as Clark scored first from the low post and later rewarded Coiley’s hard work on the backboards with a 3-pointer from the top of the key to make it a two-point game entering the final five minutes of play.
“A win’s a win and it’s a great win for us but it definitely wasn’t pretty,” said Marter. “We have a lot of work to do, but give a lot of credit to Foxcroft, they stepped up when they needed to, their outside shooting seemed to be way above the norm and that gave us some problems.”