BANGOR — Among the banners that had been hanging in the Gardiner High School gymnasium was one designed to honor all of the Tigers’ championships in boys basketball.
The problem was that while similar banners for other sports in the gym were full of reminders of championships past, this one was empty, so coach Jason Cassidy had it taken down last summer and hidden away beneath some football equipment.
“I couldn’t understand why it was up there,” said Cassidy. “There was nothing on it. It was a reminder of what we hadn’t done.”
Turns out it will be a brief stay in storage for that banner, as Gardiner ended generations of futility Saturday by winning its first Eastern Maine boys basketball championship with a 70-58 victory over top-ranked and previously unbeaten Mount Desert Island of Bar Harbor in the Class B regional final at the Bangor Auditorium.
“It’s crazy. I can’t explain it,” said Gardinder center center Aaron Toman. “To be the first team that’s done it, it’s unreal.”
The third-ranked Tigers (19-2) advance to Friday night’s state final in Bangor against Yarmouth, a 56-50 winner over previously unbeaten Falmouth in Saturday’s Western B title game.
MDI, coming off the best regular season in school history and seeking its first Eastern Maine championship since 1995, ended its season with a 20-1 record.
“I thought back to when we won the Eastern Maine championship, I was a freshman and I remember watching them the whole season,” said MDI coach and alumnus Justin Norwood. “Every time a certain person took a certain shot you thought, ‘That’s going in.’ Tonight we had certain guys taking certain shots that had been going in 20 games in a row, but they didn’t go tonight.”
Gardiner had no such difficulties making shots from the outset of this contest, connecting on seven of its first eight shots — and scoring after grabbing the rebound of the lone miss — while building a 15-7 lead midway through the opening quarter.
That start included a 13-2 run after MDI had jumped out to a 5-2 lead, with senior guard Jake Palmer scoring seven of his game-high 23 points on a 3-pointer, a jumper from the key and a drive through the lane.
“We were just hitting everything, it seemed,” said Toman, who added two mid-range jumpers to the Tigers’ early surge. “I don’t know if it was luck, but we had been shooting an awful lot in practice and today they just fell for us.”
MDI crept within 15-12 later in the period, but Palmer scored on a backdoor layup and Alonzo Connor followed in his own miss as Gardiner surged to a 20-12 lead by the end of the quarter.
And MDI was left to play catch-up the rest of the way.
“They hit their shots, there’s just no getting around that,” said MDI senior forward Jayson Burke. “We didn’t close out well on them, I thought, and they were just hitting their shots better than we were.”
Gardiner finished the opening half shooting 57 percent (16 for 28) from the field, and that earned the Tigers a 37-24 lead behind 12 points apiece from Palmer and Toman.
“Defensively I think the jitters got to us,” said Norwood. “We were missing assignments that we normally don’t miss, and credit to Gardiner, they shot the ball fantastic. They executed their offense and we really didn’t have an answer for it.”
MDI stayed within striking range thanks largely to its inside tandem of Burke and junior center Adam Gray, but every time the Trojans threatened a major comeback, Gardiner made another shot.
“I remember once when Connor hit a fadeaway shot from the left elbow with a guy in his face, I got a sick feeling in my stomach that it was not our night,” said Norwood. “And we missed a lot of bunnies. You just can’t overcome that kind of stuff.”
MDI trailed 49-36 entering the final period and drew as close as seven points on two occasions, the final time at 59-52 when Burke grabbed an offensive rebound and converted a three-point play with 1:57 remaining.
But Connor made a layup off a feed from Toman, and after MDI missed the front end of a one-and-one Justin Lovely converted a fast-break layup and the Tigers’ lead was back to double digits with less than 90 seconds to play.
Toman finished with 16 points and eight rebounds, while Lovely added 10 points for Gardiner and Connor had 10 points and 10 rebounds while also helping to hold MDI leading scorer Ben Walls without a field goal.
Gray led MDI’s offense with 17 points, while Burke had 15 points and 15 rebounds and senior guards Nick Shaw and Caleb MacDonald each scored 12 points.