BAR HARBOR — The Nokomis of Newport boys basketball team already had completed a breakthrough regular season — its 11 victories this winter one more than the program had won in the previous five years combined.
But validation of that resurgence came in an Eastern Maine Class B preliminary-round contest at Parady Gymnasium on Wednesday night.
Junior Chris Braley scored 31 points and grabbed 15 rebounds as coach Carl Parker’s club built a 19-point halftime lead and held on behind three late Ruel Libby free throws for a 56-51 win over Mount Desert Island.
For the first time since 2003, the Warriors are coming to Bangor.
“It’s huge,” said Braley. “That’s what the community wanted, that’s what everyone wanted, and we made it happen. The 11 wins didn’t mean anything coming into tonight, we might as well be 0-0 because it’s playoff time.”
The win advances the 10th-seeded Warriors (12-7) to a regional quarterfinal against second-ranked and unbeaten Ellsworth (18-0) at 9:05 a.m. Saturday at the Bangor Auditorium.
“We’ve been in a lot of tight games,” said Parker, whose roster boasts no seniors. “Other than Camden (Hills, an 80-46 Nokomis loss on Jan. 22), most of our games have been back and forth. We lost our share of them, but we stressed to the kids to keep working, keep plugging and keep believing and eventually you’re going to come through in one of those situations like they did tonight.
“The kids have really been focused, especially late in the season, and not only on the physical part of the game but the mental part of the game.”
Seventh-ranked MDI ends its season with a 14-5 record.
“We get good shots, but sometimes we just can’t knock them down,” said Trojans coach Justin Norwood, whose team shot just 34 percent (17 of 49) from the field and 60 percent (15 of 25) from the free-throw line. “I don’t know what we shot tonight, but it wasn’t good enough.”
Braley had 20 points and 10 rebounds in the first half alone as Nokomis surged to a 38-19 lead.
Braley and Spencer Hartsgrove each hit three 3-pointers during the second quarter as Nokomis went Showtime on the islanders, exploding for a 19-0 run to extend a 15-13 edge to a 34-13 cushion with 2:47 left in the period.
Braley dribbled between his legs before launching one 3-pointer and behind his back to set up another dagger from beyond the arc as even two MDI timeouts couldn’t slow the Warriors’ momentum.
“Obviously, having a player of Chris’ caliber helps a lot, but as a result of that other kids get shots, too, and as a coaching staff we really stress to them to shoot the ball, that you’ve got to have confidence in shooting the ball,” said Parker.
“I think Spencer had air balls on his first five shots, but he had the confidence to keep shooting.”
The 10-minute halftime break proved to be the worst thing to happen to Nokomis, however, as MDI heightened its defense resolve after intermission, particularly with junior guard Nick Shaw aggressively working to deny the ball to Braley and the Trojans effectively employing a 1-2-2 half-court trap.
Nokomis did not score a field goal for the first 7 minutes, 15 seconds of the third quarter, and MDI was able to cut its deficit to 39-31 on a layup by Dennis O’Neil with 1:20 left after one of six turnovers by the Warriors during the period.
Two late 3-pointers by Braley gave Nokomis a 45-35 lead entering the fourth quarter, and the Warriors still led by 10 entering the game’s final three minutes before Shaw scored on a drive and Caleb MacDonald hit a 3-pointer and a free throw to close the gap to 53-49 with 1:05 remaining.
Nokomis then missed three straight free throws — one by Libby and two by Braley — to give MDI the chance to draw even closer, but MacDonald missed a contested 15-foot jumper and Jayson Burke missed two free throws after Braley fouled out with 29.7 seconds left.
Libby made 1 of 2 from the line to push the Nokomis lead back to 54-49 three seconds later, and after MDI’s Ben Walls converted an offensive rebound to make it a three-point game with 12 seconds left, the Trojans got the ball back with a chance to tie after Nokomis was whistled for a five-second inbounding violation.
But O’Neil missed a 3-point try from the right of the key, Libby got the rebound and made two free throws after being fouled with 4.9 seconds left to put the game away.
“We didn’t have a great third quarter,” said Braley. “But we came back in the fourth quarter and finished out the game pretty good.
“Ruel hit some big shots down the stretch.”
Libby and Hartsgrove each finished with nine points for Nokomis, while Drew Wing and Ethan Pearl also made major contributions for the Warriors.
Walls led MDI with 14 points, while MacDonald scored 13 points and Burke added eight points and 12 rebounds.