BANGOR, Maine — The Bangor High School boys basketball team was supposed to be rebuilding this winter.
Coach Roger Reed resigned over the summer after 27 seasons and eight state championships, and only one returning player had ever started a varsity game before.
The Rams were picked to finish no better than seventh in Eastern Maine Class A in a preseason coaches poll, but here they are with a week left in the regular season at 12-4 and challenging for a top-four finish after senior guard Sean Tocci converted a four-point play with 13.1 seconds remaining Friday night to lift Bangor to a 43-41 victory over Edward Little of Auburn.
It’s just the latest narrow escape for this seemingly inexperienced team now guided by former University of Maine assistant coach Ed Kohtala, whose club has a 4-0 record in overtime contests this winter.
“From the get-go coach told us that the key to us winning this season was being a family, and we’ve become one of the best families around,” said Tocci.
That familial feel was in evidence during the game’s deciding play, which began after a Bangor timeout with 24.7 seconds left.
Tocci had two 3-pointers from the left corner rattle in and out just moments earlier, but when he found himself left open beyond the top of the key, classmate Matt Cosgrove passed him the ball again and his high-arching 3-pointer dropped through the net as he was being fouled to erase a 41-39 deficit.
“During the timeout coach drew up a play and Alex Campbell looked at me and goes, ‘this one’s yours,’” said Tocci. “I got the ball and came off a screen and handed it off to (Matt) Cosgrove, but my guy ended up leaving me open and Cosgrove got it back to me.”
Tocci added the free throw to give the Rams a stunning two-point lead.
“We joke with Tocci that it’s not crunch time this year, we call it Tocci time,” said Kohtala, “and he stepped up and made a huge shot.”
Edward Little (14-2) was unable to generate a quality scoring chance in the final seconds, with Quin Leary’s contested shot from the top of the key wide left as time expired.
Campbell led Bangor with 10 points, all in the first quarter as the Rams built a 17-11 lead.
Tocci and senior forward Tyler Kenney each added nine points, with all of Tocci’s scoring coming in the fourth quarter.
Both Tyler and Sean were playing JVs as juniors last year,” said Kohtala, “and to hang in that long and want to continue to pay those dues and continue to work at it, I’m very proud of them.”
Sophomore forward Lew Jensen led Edward Little with 12 points on four 3-pointers, while senior forward Sean Ford scored 10 points for the Red Eddies, who made just 4 of 15 free-throw attempts.
“When we have the ball up four with two minutes left, that game’s over,” said Edward Little coach Mike Adams. “That game’s done. Then we had two huge turnovers and we missed free throws, and take nothing away from Bangor because they deserved to win, they beat us, they played better. But it’s really disappointing because we had players who didn’t respond to a big game, and that’s frustrating.”
Both teams struggled offensively during this contest, Edward Little without starting point guard Ian Mileikis (mononucleosis) and Bangor battling foul trouble to its leading scorer in Campbell and its top low-post threat in junior center Conner Adams.
But after falling behind by as much as 28-19 early in the third quarter, Edward Little rallied behind the two 3-pointers from Jensen to take a 33-30 lead into the final period.
Jensen’s fourth 3-pointer gave the Red Eddies a 40-37 lead with 5:36 left and Ford went 1 of 2 from the line two minutes later to make it a four-point game.
But it wasn’t enough to put away the resilient Rams.
Tocci took a steal in for a layup to cut the Bangor deficit to 41-39 with 1:58 to play, and another EL turnover along with two missed front ends of 1-and-1 opportunities from the line enabled the Rams to stay close enough to win another close call.
“You build teams on the foundation you inherit, and this team’s been built on a foundation that couldn’t be stronger,” said Kohtala. “Both the players and myself, we’re so blessed to be building on coach Reed’s foundation. We don’t own this program, we’re just stewards, we’re the ones in charge of taking care of it and we’re doing well in that role right now.
“There’s a lot of people out there to whom we feel responsible, but we feel privileged. We’re just blessed to be building on a foundation of excellence.”