AUGUSTA, Maine — It took the North Yarmouth Academy boys’ basketball team six years to get back to Augusta and just a few minutes for the Panthers to learn that they’re not quite at the level of the perennial title contenders.
Like the storied program known as the Valley Cavaliers.
Saturday morning, in a Western Class D quarterfinal at the Augusta Civic Center, fifth-seeded NYA hoped it could hold its own against the fourth-ranked Cavaliers, but before the game was four minutes old, the Panthers found themselves down, 10-0.
While NYA would eventually settle down and even get as close as three points, it never could make up for that initial sluggishness.
The Panthers were still very much in the game midway through the third period, down by only eight, 36-28, but Valley erupted and went on a 16-4 run to end the quarter and it never looked back.
The Cavaliers ended all doubt in the fourth period and never looked back en route to a 70-47 victory, which sent them into next week’s semifinals against top-ranked Forest Hills, while ending NYA’s best season in eight years at 13-6.
“We talked at halftime and throughout the game on being built on hustle and pride and not giving up at any point,” said Panthers coach Jason Knight. “We’ve come back earlier in the year and given ourselves a chance, but unfortunately, there just wasn’t enough time on the clock today.”
Back to the capital city
NYA was once a regular at the Augusta Civic Center, playing some memorable games on that floor, but the Panthers’ last appearance came in a 42-23 loss to Dirigo in the 2008 Western C quarterfinals.
This winter, NYA moved back down to Class D (where it resided most of its history) and had a resurgent season, losing only to Waynflete (twice), Old Orchard Beach (twice) and Hyde in posting its best record since the 2005-06 campaign.
Valley lost twice to top-seed Forest Hills and twice to Hyde, but won every other game and captured seven of its final eight.
NYA doesn’t face the Cavaliers in the regular season, but the teams do have postseason history, having squared off five previous times. Valley won each of them, with a 70-68 semifinal round triumph in 2005 the most recent.
Saturday, the Cavaliers came out like a team that had tournament experience, while the Panthers, understandably, showed nerves and fell behind.
The tone was set just seven seconds in, as senior Jordan Gillespie collected the opening tip and drove in for a layup to put Valley ahead for good. After sophomore Cody Laweryson made two free throws, senior Dylan Belanger scored on a putback and Knight had to call timeout.
“I tried to prep the guys as much as I could about the tournament and Augusta, but there were nerves those first couple minutes,” Knight said. “We had to call a timeout to settle them down a little bit. We knew coming in that they had an experience factor.”
While NYA responded defensively, it couldn’t get anything going on offense, committing numerous turnovers and eventually, the Cavaliers took a 10-0 lead behind a layup from senior Teagan Staples and a hook shot from sophomore Collin Miller.
Finally, with 2:47 left in the first, junior sharpshooter Chase Gendron knocked down a 3 from the left corner and the Panthers were on the board.
Laweryson answered with a 3 for Valley and Laweryson added a layup, but as time wound down, Gendron stole the ball and laid it in before the horn to cut the deficit to 15-5.
The Panthers were hindered in the first quarter by 10 turnovers.
When senior El Tayeb Dahia banked home a shot 15 seconds into the second period, it looked like a Panthers’ rally might be imminent.
Gillespie made a layup after a steal, but Dahia hit a bank shot, then drained a 3 and Gendron followed by making two free throws to make it a one possession game before Belanger, in the process of losing the ball, somehow managed to feed Miller for a layup.
Staples drove for a layup and Gillespie hit a leaner to make it 23-14.
After Dahia made two foul shots, senior Forrest Chicoine drove for a layup, was fouled and made the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play.
NYA could draw no closer, however, as the Cavaliers got a fastbreak layup, as Laweryson set up Miller, and Belanger made a jumper after a steal.
In the final minute, Dahia banked home a shot, but Gillespie scored on a runner in the lane and Valley took a 29-21 lead to halftime.
The Panthers hung tough despite their slow start, thanks to 11 points from Dahia and seven from Gendron, but 18 turnovers proved to be too much to overcome.
In the third period, NYA attempted to cut into the lead, but the Cavaliers didn’t buckle and eventually created some separation.
After Miller banked home a shot, Gendron converted a three-point play, but Laweryson answered with two free throws, then hit a 3. Gendron made a putback and Chicoine made a layup after a Dahia steal, making it a 36-28 game and forcing Valley to call timeout with exactly four minutes left.
Whatever Cavaliers coach Luke Hartwell said to his charges, he might wish he recorded it to use at a later date as Valley responded in emphatic fashion.
After Miller put back a shot on a third effort, Gillespie hit a leaner in the lane, Miller scored on a fastbreak layup from Laweryson and senior Cody Beane scored on a putback to stretch the lead to 44-28.
A Gendron layup after a steal from junior D.J. Nicholas momentarily stemmed the tide, but Miller converted a three-point play. After senior Ryan Hemenway made a layup for the Panthers, Gillespie answered with another three-point play and as time expired, senior Devon Gillespie hit a leaner and the Cavaliers were firmly in control, up, 52-32.
“We didn’t come out of that (Valley timeout) well,” said Knight. “What happened after that juncture, they got offensive rebounds. We didn’t do a great job boxing out today. They got some easy putbacks and transition when it was 2-on-1. That killed us in that stretch. That was difference I think.”
The fourth quarter was academic, but featured some highlights for both sides.
Gendron started the frame with a putback, but Miller countered with one for Valley. Miller added two free throws and on the fast break, Laweryson set up Miller for a layup and a 58-34 lead. After Gendron scored his final points on a leaner, Belanger made a layup. Freshman Jacob Sturgess made a foul shot for the Panthers, but Jordan Gillespie made a pair and Belanger added another to make it 63-37 with 4:03 to play.
After Hemenway made a 3, Staples answered with a layup. Chicoine then sandwiched a pair of 3s around a putback by Miller for his final points.
Down the stretch, freshman Austin Cates made a free throw for the Cavaliers, sophomore Luke Malloy added a putback and a late free throw from NYA freshman Haven Cutko accounted for the 70-47 final score.
The deep, talented and balanced Cavaliers got a game-high 23 points (to go with 10 rebounds and three steals) from Miller. Jordan Gillespie had 15 points and Laweryson also scored in double figures, producing 12 points, while also contributing five rebounds, three assists and two steals. Belanger had seven points (to go with nine boards, five steals and three assists), Staples six, Beane, Devon Gillespie and Malloy two apiece and Cates one.
Valley outrebounded NYA, 38-21, forced 31 turnovers (while committing 26) and made 12 of 17 free throws.
Gendron capped his strong season with 18 points, six rebounds and two steals.
Chicoine and Dahia (five steals) had 11 points apiece. Hemenway added five points, while Cutko and Sturgess each had one.
The Panthers finished 8 of 10 from the line.
“As hard as this loss is to feel, I’m glad my seniors got to get here,” Knight said. “I’m really proud of them. They brought NYA back to the tournament after six years and had our best record in eight years. They’ve grown a lot individually. There’s a lot we accomplished. We got a taste and we want to come back.”
The Panthers graduate Chicoine, Dahia, Hemenway, Mitchell Rand and Jackson Cohan-Smith, but expect to produce another strong season in 2014-15.
“We’re returning some key players,” said Knight. “Chase is a first-team all-star. D.J., for not having played basketball, had a great first year. We have some good freshmen. The pieces are there to keep building. I’m excited. We hope to get back here. The first one’s always the hardest. Hopefully, we learn from (today).”