MILO, Maine — One of the defining moments of the Penquis Valley boys’ basketball team’s run to this year’s Eastern Maine Class C championship came long before the Patriots stepped onto the Bangor Auditorium floor to begin tournament play.
It even came long before coach Tony Hamlin’s club first stepped into Oakes Gymnasium to begin preseason practices in November.
Penquis’ re-emergence as a top contender — the Patriots reached the 2012 semifinals only to fall in double overtime to eventual regional champion Lee Academy — was cemented just before the start of the new school year last fall, when high-scoring junior guard Isaiah Bess opted to stay true to his school.
The 6-foot-3-inch Bess, who this week was named the 2013 Eastern C tournament most valuable player, had considered transferring to another school for much of the summer, in part because of friendships he had developed during offseason basketball and in part to play at a larger school in a bid to increase his chances to play college basketball in the future.
“I was pretty close,” Bess said before practice Wednesday in preparation for Saturday night’s state final between 20-1 Penquis and 20-1 Boothbay, the final official game to be played at the Bangor Auditorium before it is torn down and replaced by the Cross Insurance Center under construction just a few feet away.
“I’d gotten a few texts from friends and some of them wanted me to come and play basketball with them. But I think I made the right choice in staying here,” Bess said. “I had a good, long talk with coach about staying around here because we had a good chance of winning the states, and now, luckily, we’re in the state game.”
Bess’ return gave Penquis a big boost in its quest for the program’s first state title since the Patriots defeated Boothbay for the gold ball in 2000. It also restored to form a group of players that has been trailed by high expectations since their earliest basketball days.
“I’ve grown up with most of these kids, we’ve been playing rec basketball and peewees and on travel teams together, and everyone was talking about how this might be the group that could bring the state championship back to Milo,” Bess said.
“Now that we’ve grown up a bit and are in high school, it’s becoming a little more realistic and now we have a chance Saturday to win a state championship.”
Bess’ teammates, including fellow returning starters Trevor Lyford, Tyler Pelletier and Cody Herbest, were glad he didn’t leave.
“He came back and, of course, we were thrilled to have him,” Lyford said. “Isaiah’s a great player and a great person to have on your basketball team. He does a lot of little things as well as some big things that a lot of people see.”
And while Hamlin believes Penquis would have had a good season even if Bess had left, he understands the difference-making capabilities his leading scorer has brought back to the lineup.
“I think if he had gone we’d be looking at maybe 12 or 14 wins because Trevor and Cody and Tyler are good players,” said Hamlin, who earned the 400th win of his 31-year coaching career when Penquis rallied past Houlton 46-41 in the Eastern Maine final.
“But Isaiah’s such a good offensive player, good and bad. I’ve changed a lot, he takes some shots that makes my hair catch on fire, but I’ve got to live with it because he’s 28 points every time he steps on the floor.”
The scoring supplied largely by Bess and Lyford, the duo known locally as “Salt and Pepper” that has combined to average nearly 45 points per game this winter, has complemented a defensive effort that yielded just 36.5 points per game during the regular season and an even less generous 29.0 points per game during the Eastern C tournament.
“This is, I think, the best defensive team we’ve had,” Hamlin said. “We’re quick, we’re really quick. They’re all lean and fairly long, they’re not carrying a lot of weight and their conditioning is good and they can get after it for the extended period of 32 minutes.”
A prime example of the Patriots’ ability to defend from start to finish came during last Saturday night’s EM final when Penquis limited Houlton to three points during the final six minutes of the fourth quarter and rallied for a 46-41 victory.
“We knew they hadn’t faced a defense like us, so we had to put the pressure on them,” Pelletier said, “and then we knew our shots were going to fall eventually and that’s what came through in the fourth.”
But to have their veteran coach — one known for three decades of fielding hard-nosed, defensive-minded teams — label them among his best is considered high praise by the players.
“That’s a big honor because he’s a man who prides himself on defense,” Lyford said. “He did when he was in college and he has with all the teams he’s coached. So to be one of his best is really something to take pride in, and we do take pride in the defensive end because that’s what’s got us this far and hopefully it shows up Saturday.”