HOWLAND — Less than 24 hours after its first loss of the season, the Lee Academy boys basketball team responded with perhaps its best performance of the winter with a 61-42 victory over Penobscot Valley in a battle of Class C powers at Sereyko Gymnasium late Saturday afternoon.
The top-ranked Pandas, who twice relinquished 16-point leads a night earlier during a 68-62 loss at defending Class D state champion Schenck of East Millinocket, built another 16-point lead at intermission against Penobscot Valley.
But this time the 8-1 Pandas extended the margin to as many as 27 points in the second half as A.J. Harris hit three 3-pointers and backcourt mate Bryan James added a fourth to help give Lee a 51-24 advantage late in the third period.
“Our shooters have the green light to shoot,” said Lee coach Randy Harris, whose team will host Schenck in their rematch Tuesday night. “Sometimes in the fourth quarter I get a little nervous when they fire up a three when we’re up 17, but we’ll take it.”
James finished with a game-high 20 points, while Harris and 6-foot-4 sophomore point guard Arturas Makovskis each added 16. Makovskis also grabbed 12 rebounds, several leading to fast-break baskets by the Pandas during the second quarter when he and James combined for 18 points as Lee built a 29-13 lead.
Joe McCloskey led Penobscot Valley with 18 points and six rebounds, but the 6-foot-7 senior managed just 12 shot attempts as Lee successfully employed several defenses keyed by 6-7 sophomore Daniel He and Harris that were designed to prevent easy passes to him or to collapse around him whenever he got the ball.
“Every time we tried to double-team Joey,” said A.J. Harris. “He’s their only scoring threat, basically. I don’t know how many he had, but I thought we did a good job against him. We figured if he couldn’t score 20 on us, they couldn’t beat us.”
Lee, which outlasted Penobscot Valley on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer during the opening week of the season after holding yet another 16-point halftime lead, trailed just twice in the rematch, the final time at 10-8 on a basket by McCloskey with 2:07 left in the first quarter.
Harris answered with a 3-pointer to give Lee an 11-10 lead at the end of the period, and that ignited an 11-0 run that gave the Pandas the lead for good.
By halftime, Lee had limited Penobscot Valley to 6-of-24 shooting from the field while the Howlers also made just one of eight free-throw tries.
“We came out and missed some shots early and that put us behind, and they shot extremely well,” said Penobscot Valley coach Jamie Russell. “It looked like a Division I school playing a Division III school out there with their size and athleticism, it really did. We just looked really poor, we didn’t execute. A lot of that comes back on me, for whatever reason we do not come out well for big games.”
Penobscot Valley hoped a quick start in the third quarter would create doubt among the Lee players about their ability to maintain the lead, but the Pandas shot that idea down from long range.
Harris banked in his first 3-pointer of the second half from the left wing, and followed with two more 3-pointers from the same side of the court. And with Makovskis attacking the lane for three baskets and James dishing out three assists and adding a 3-pointer of his own, Lee put the game away.
Fourth-ranked Penobscot Valley (8-3) did score the final nine points of the third period to close within 51-33, but got no closer than 15 the rest of the way.
“In the locker room at halftime coach Harris said it couldn’t be like the last time we played them,” said James. “This time it was 0-0, and we came out and none of us looked at the scoreboard. We just wanted to beat them each quarter.”