AUGUSTA, Maine — The fact the Hampden Academy boys basketball team may have more offensive weapons than most of its competition has been one key to its success this winter.
But the Broncos’ defense has proven to be the deal-breaker for opposing teams in recent weeks, as evidenced Wednesday night by their 47-37 victory over Bangor in an Eastern Maine Class A semifinal at the Augusta Civic Center.
Coach Russ Bartlett’s club, which had a height advantage at nearly every position on the court, largely relegated Bangor’s offense to the perimeter — which is not the Rams’ preference.
Bangor shot just 30 percent (15 of 50) from the field, and that combined with a big night by the biggest of the Broncos — 6-foot-7 senior center Fred Knight — advanced top-seeded Hampden to a Friday night showdown for the regional title against third-ranked Mt. Blue of Farmington, a 52-49 semifinal winner over Edward Little of Auburn.
“We stressed defense coming into this game,” said Knight. “Defense wins championships, there’s nothing more true than that.”
Bangor, the defending state champion, ends its season with a 14-6 record — with three of the losses coming against Hampden.
They were just much better than we were tonight,” said Bangor coach Roger Reed. “I thought defensively they were very, very good, and I thought they were very patient offensively. They got the ball to people in good spots with good spacing, and I thought Fred was tremendous tonight.”
Knight finished with a game-high 16 points and seven rebounds as well as being a constant defensive presence near the basket along with 6-6 classmate Logan Poirier (five points, six rebounds, four blocks).
“We work on it, we preach it, and I thought by about the 12-game mark our defense came of age,” said Bartlett. “We played it in stretches early in the year, but I think since the Brunswick game (a 38-37 road win on Jan. 13) we’ve really guarded much better and if we can keep Fred and Logan out of foul trouble you don’t get many second-chance opportunities, and that’s what we did tonight.”
Matt Palmer, a 6-4 junior, also played a key defensive role in limiting one of Bangor’s top perimeter threats, 6-foot sophomore guard Xavier Lewis, to one field goal.
“We talked about Xavier being a big X-factor tonight and trying to eliminate him from the game plan so we didn’t help off him, which is a lot of respect to give a sophomore,” said Bartlett. “But I felt like all of our other guys matched up well with them, so if we could make sure he didn’t score double digits I felt like we could win.”
Senior guard Christian McCue complemented Knight’s offensive output with 15 points and sophomore guard Zach Gilpin added eight points for the Broncos, who improved their record to 19-1 with their 12th consecutive victory.
Bangor got off to a quick start, with senior center Ellis Throckmorton hitting three early jumpers as the Rams held a 14-13 lead at the end of the first period.
But with Throckmorton and frontcourt mate Robbie Brookings each going to the bench with two fouls, Bangor couldn’t maintain its own inside presence against the taller Broncos and its offense soon was sent outside to find any open space, and the Rams went 0-for-6 from 3-point range during the second quarter.
Hampden, meanwhile, not only took control of the inside defensively, but also had Knight at his accurate shooting best as he made three jumpers and all four of his free throws in the first half, a 10-point effort that helped stake the Broncos to a 23-20 lead.
The Broncos then extended that margin to 31-22 with four minutes left in the third quarter after Palmer (five assists) fed Poirier for a layup and Knight for a fadeaway baseline jumper.
Bangor answered with a layup by Zach Campbell and an inside basket by Patrick Stewart (11 points, 12 rebounds) to cut the gap to five, but Hampden held a 34-27 lead at the end of the period and then outscored the Rams 8-2 over the first four minutes of the fourth quarter to build a 42-29 cushion.
We were preaching defense Monday and Tuesday and in the locker room before the game tonight,” said McCue. “They’re a great defensive team so our offense might not be as reliable as usual but if we could use defense to win the game, that’s what it’s all about.”