BANGOR, Maine — The Houlton Shiretowners didn’t wait around to send a message that they planned to be back in the Eastern Maine championship game.
Coach Rob Moran’s team pounded the ball inside early and often, building a 17-point lead on its way to a 60-44 Class C boys semifinal victory over Penquis of Milo Friday at the Cross Insurance Center.
Houlton (20-0) will face third-seeded Lee Academy (17-3), a winner over Calais in the early game, in Saturday’s 8:45 p.m. regional championship game.
“We’ve been fortunate enough to play in this Eastern Maine championship game every year I’ve been in high school,” said Houlton junior Kyle Bouchard. “We haven’t been able to pull it out and we’re obviously pretty hungry to try and finally get there this year to the state championship.”
The Shiretowners capitalized on their post muscle with juniors Bouchard and Christian Crane, who stand 6-foot-5 and 6-4, respectively.
Bouchard scored 18 of his team-high 22 points in the first half and Crane got loose for eight second-half points as Houlton controlled the paint. Bouchard pulled down 11 rebounds and Crane added four as the Shiretowners came away with a commanding 29-11 advantage on the boards.
“With their size, they get to the offensive boards so much,” said Penquis coach Jason Mills. “It was almost to the point they just shot it so they could go rebound it. They’re just so much bigger and stronger than us.”
Houlton also got to the foul line frequently against Penquis’ 2-3 zone and sagging man-to-man defenses. The Shires converted 25 of 29 free throws behind Nick Guiod, who went 12-for-12 from the line, and Bouchard, who made 10 of 12.
The Patriots attempted only seven foul shots and made four.
Guiod wound up with 14 points and four rebounds and Isaac Cone netted seven points while Jake Drew contributed six points and five rebounds along with his defensive efforts against Penquis senior standout Trevor Lyford.
Lyford sparked the Patriots with a game-high 23 points and Noah Allen hit three 3-pointers on his way to 11 points.
Houlton shot 52 percent (17-for-33) from the field while Penquis wound up 16-for-37 (43 percent).
The Shires scored the game’s first seven points, including a conventional three-point play by Bouchard, Cone’s 3-pointer and a low-post move by Elyjah Crockett.
Houlton made its big surge in the second quarter with a 12-2 run that included six free throws. Bouchard scored the first seven points on a steal and layup, a basket off a lob pass from Guiod and three foul shots to help the Shires make it 28-11 with 3:22 left in the half.
“We did have pretty good offensive execution this game compared to our last game,” Crane said. “That buffer point there at the beginning [the lead] helped considerably, considering that’s pretty much what we ended the game with.”
Lyford spearheaded a Penquis rally to open the second half, connecting for seven points amidst a 10-2 burst that cut Houlton’s lead to 34-29 only 1:33 into the third quarter.
“We were down 32-19 at halftime,” Mills said. “We wanted to have it down to single digits going into the fourth quarter.
“We made them sweat a little bit,” he added. “I told them in the locker room, ‘I’m proud of you guys, you left everything on the floor.’”
However, Houlton demonstrated its poise and patience on the offensive end the rest of the way and eventually pulled away in the fourth quarter.
“At the end, especially, we wanted to be deliberate,” Moran said. “We had an eight- or a 10-point lead and I knew we could build it. We have good free-throw shooters most of the time.”