MILO, Maine — Lee Academy did everything it could to keep Penquis star Isaish Bess in check Tuesday night – even going as far as dedicating two defenders to him for a few third-quarter possessions.
But little deterred the 6-foot-3 junior forward, who scored 29 points and grabbed 10 rebounds as the Patriots defeated Lee 53-42 in a key Class C boys basketball game at Oakes Gymnasium.
Penquis, ranked second in Eastern C, is now 12-1 after its second victory of the season over the Pandas.
Lee, ranked third in the division, falls to 9-4.
“This is a tournament kind of win for us, we needed this win because our schedule is kind of weak,” said Bess. “This maybe cemented us in second place, so if we can keep our heads straight we can go into the tournament in second place.”
Penquis never trailed after spotting Lee a 1-0 lead, but never was it easy for coach Tony Hamlin’s club against the taller Lee squad.
But Bess, despite being the focus of the Pandas’ triangle-and-two defense along with teammate Trevor Lyford, found opportunities to generate offense in the open court.
“We played the triangle-and-two that I thought worked very well,” said Lee coach Randy Harris. “[Bess] had close to 30 points, but he had 18 or 19 not against the triangle-and-two but because we didn’t block him out or we fouled him and he made free throws or he got steals and run-outs.”
Bess finished the night shooting 10 of 18 from the field and adding seven free throws to provide the Patriots much of the offense they needed.
“He’s the best player I’ve had between the top of the circles,” said Hamlin of Bess. “In the open court this kid can really make it happen.”
After securing the lead, Penquis used a 2-3 zone defense to relegate Lee’s offense to the perimeter, where the Pandas made just 3 of 18 3-point attempts.
“They’re not a great 3-point shooting team, so we played zone hoping we could make them shoot 3’s and then if we boxed out we could get the ball and go play some offense,” said Bess.
Tyler Pelletier added seven points — on 7-of-8 free-throw shooting — along with five assists and four rebounds for the Patriots, while Cody Herbest had five points and seven rebounds and Lyford also scored five points.
“Isaiah in the open court is almost unplayable,” said Hamlin. “Their triangle-and-two caused us some problems, but we had some kids step up. [Jason] Durant hit a big three late in the game, Pelletier played really well and Herbest did a good job.
“But for us to win with Trevor scoring only five points bodes well for us because he’s generally going to score 15 or 16 points.”
Senior guard Julian Diggs led Lee with 17 points and six rebounds, while 6-5 forward Cherif Fall crashed the offensive backboards for 13 points and a game-high 13 rebounds.
The Pandas shot just 31 percent (15 of 49) from the field overall.
“We didn’t have much of an effort defensively on Saturday against Penobscot Valley [a 63-55 Penquis win], so we got after it a little bit with them,” said Hamlin. “This was the first really quality game we’ve played at home, and defensively I thought we were pretty stout.”
Bess scored 15 points in the first half to help stake Penquis to a 22-15 lead, then scored twice in the opening 40 seconds of the third quarter after two Lee turnovers to expand the Patriots’ advantage to double digits.
But Lee wouldn’t go away, getting a five-point play of sorts when Fall was fouled as he scored an inside basket and Diggs converted a three-point play after he rebounded the miss of Fall’s free throw to cut the deficit to 26-20.
And when Penquis stretched its lead back out to 39-26 after a fadeaway jumper and a fast-break three-point play by Bess, Diggs responded with a 3-pointer and a fast-break three-point play of his own to draw Lee within 39-32 by the end of the third quarter.
Another fast-break layup, this time by Lee’s Alpie Erkin, closed the gap to 39-34 15 seconds into the final period, but the Pandas went scoreless for the next 3½ minutes as Penquis scored seven unanswered points – a 3-pointer by Durant and four free throws — to reassume command with a 46-34 lead with less than five minutes remaining.
Lee got no closer than eight points the rest of the way.