AUGUSTA, Maine — While Bangor High School’s tallest players were finessing their way through late foul trouble Wednesday afternoon, the Rams’ shortest player came up big.
Senior guard Denae Johnson scored six of her team-high 17 points during the fourth quarter as No. 2 Bangor defeated No. 3 Mount Ararat of Topsham 56-44 in an Eastern Maine Class A girls basketball semifinal at the Augusta Civic Center.
The victory earns the Rams their first trip to the regional championship game since 1999.
“It means a lot because in the past two years we’ve never even made it past the first round,” said the 5-foot-5-inch Johnson. “To make it to Eastern Maines is really something special. It’s really awesome.”
Bangor (16-4) will play No. 9 Cony of Augusta for the EM crown at 7 p.m. Friday. Cony, the defending regional champion, defeated No. 4 Lawrence of Fairfield 49-37 in Wednesday’s other semifinal.
Mount Ararat ends its season with a 16-4 record and Lawrence finishes at 14-6.
Sophomore forwards Mary Butler and Cordelia Stewart each added 13 points and eight rebounds for Bangor despite spending much of the second half in foul trouble.
The 6-foot-2 Stewart drew her fourth foul with 5:01 left in the third quarter while the 6-foot-1 Butler picked up her fourth 35 seconds into the final period. But neither fouled out.
“Maybe the coaches were panicking on the sidelines, but you looked out at the kids and they just don’t seem to panic,” said Bangor coach Katie Herbine. “We’ve talked a lot this year about being positive, that things are going to happen in the game of basketball and you’re going to throw the ball away or miss some shots, but you have to try to turn it around and make something positive happen.
“That’s been the biggest thing for these girls. They’ve learned how to stay positive and keep smiling and understand this is supposed to be fun.”
Johnson worked her way into the lane for nine points and six rebounds during the first two periods as Bangor moved out to a 30-21 intermission lead.
But as Bangor’s foul troubles mounted, Mount Ararat rallied behind 5-9 senior forward Mallory Nelson.
Nelson scored nine of her game-high 24 points during the third quarter as the Eagles pulled within 40-36, and with Butler soon drawing her fourth foul, Mount Ararat got as close as two points on four different occasions early in the fourth quarter, the final time at 46-44 on two Nelson free throws with 4:56 to play.
But Bangor — and Johnson — didn’t allow the Eagles any closer.
Twice she drove into the lane for baskets that extended the Rams’ edge to 50-44 with three minutes left, igniting a 10-0 run that closed out the game.
“The big thing for Denae this year is that she might miss a couple of shots in the past and wouldn’t [shoot] anymore without understanding that we still needed her to do it,” said Herbine. “Now she knows what her impact is and what her role is and she does her job.”
Butler followed with 1 of 2 from the free-throw line, then she fed Stewart for a layup with less than two minutes remaining to give Bangor a 53-44 cushion.
Nelson grabbed eight rebounds and made all 12 of her free-throw attempts for Mount Ararat, which went 16 of 20 from the line collectively.
In the second game, Josie Lee scored 21 points to lead Cony by the Bulldogs. Hayley Quirion added 11 points and Bayleigh Logan put in eight.
Nia Irving paced Lawrence with 14 points.
After taking a four-point lead at the end of the third quarter, Cony outscored Lawrence 19-11 in the fourth quarter to secure the victory.