BANGOR, Maine — The Bangor High School boys basketball team began this season perhaps most feared for its plethora of long-range shooting threats.
But when that emphasis produced just middling results through the first half of the schedule, the Rams refocused their priorities toward the defensive end of the court.
Coach Ed Kohtala’s club hasn’t lost since then, winning eight straight games to improve its record to 13-4 while advancing into a top-three ranking in Eastern Maine Class A.
“We really changed our emphasis after our first five or six games,” said Kohtala after Bangor’s recent victory over Mount Ararat of Topsham. “We were a little over .500 and we were shooting as well as any team I’ve been around, but it wasn’t getting it done. We made a few adjustments in some of the things we were doing defensively. I changed some of our approach in practice and our rotation to get more defense on the floor.
“Our percentages now are not as impressive, but we’re winning tough ballgames.”
Bangor’s defense has yielded just 44.9 points per game since their most recent losses, back-to-back defeats at Lawrence of Fairfield and at undefeated Hampden Academy on Jan. 4 and Jan. 7.
“Our guys have shown great discipline and maturity,” said Kohtala. “We had that tough stretch in the middle, a tough loss at Lawrence and we followed it up with a game at Hampden where I thought we played tough but we got blown out there.
“But in both those games I thought we played hard and defended well, and the guys just went to work from there as we’ve been digging ourselves out of a hole.”
Bangor is led by senior guards Xavier Lewis and Alex Campbell, the team’s top scorers, assist makers and perimeter defenders. Both have thrived in tandem after adapting their individual approaches to accommodate each other once Lewis transferred back to Bangor after spending his junior year at Lawrence of Fairfield.
“The way Xavier and Alex have worked together has been great,” said Kohtala on Tuesday after Bangor’s 82-51 Senior Night victory over Lawrence at Red Barry Gymnasium, “because even though they’re somewhat different in how they play, they’re both scoring two-guards, that’s what they are.
“But we asked X to give up some of that and be more of a playmaker and for AC, who I think is one of the best passers in the state, to give up some of that ballhandling and be more of an off-the-ball scorer. They’ve made it work and it’s a credit to both of them.”
Senior center Connor Adams has provided much of the complementary inside play as well as being an able lane-filler on the fast break, though his status is uncertain after he was sidelined by a knee injury during the win over Lawrence.
“What we’ve said from early on is we look to establish those three guys,” said Kohtala, “and as the defenses adjust that’s going to open up someone else and our guys have been unselfish in getting them the ball.”
Bangor has had to cope with injuries to Adams as well as senior guards Garrett Johnson (broken hand) and Hunter Boyce (foot), but the depth supplied by senior Nick Ashey, juniors Trey Kenny, Andrew Hillier, Liam Harrigan and Ben Hughes and sophomore Justin Smith has enabled the Rams to maintain their late-season momentum.
“Our bench has been tremendous,” said Kohtala, whose team concludes its regular season Friday night against Brewer at the Cross Insurance Center, “and because of injuries we’ve had guys go from playing to not playing but we’ve got other kids working very hard off the bench.”