BANGOR, Maine — Two years ago they were upstart finalists, and last year as favorites they reached the brink of a crown only to see a late lead disappear in the title game.
A dominant defense finally enabled the Houlton boys basketball team to break through Saturday night as the Shiretowners subdued Lee Academy 49-33 in the regional final at the Cross Insurance Center.
Top-ranked and undefeated Houlton (21-0) will play in next Saturday’s state final in Augusta against Western Maine champion Waynflete of Portland.
“It’s an unbelievable feeling,” said Houlton junior forward Kyle Bouchard, whose team fell to Lee in the 2012 EM final and then to Penquis Valley of Milo a year ago. “I’m real happy right now but not quite satisfied. We’ve got a week’s worth of practice and we’ve got to come out ready to play next Saturday for a state championship.”
Third-seeded Lee Academy ended its season with a 17-4 record.
Senior point guard Nick Guiod led Houlton’s offense with a game-high 17 points, seven during the fourth quarter as the Shiretowners maintained a double-digit lead.
Bouchard added 13 points, nine rebounds and five assists, and also teamed with frontcourt mates Elyjah Crockett and Christian Crane to prevent Lee big men Cherif Fall and Frang Tsoungui from generating offensive momentum near the basket.
“I thought we did a good job in not allowing them easy layups,” said Bouchard. “They hit a couple of tough jump shots, but we really cut down on their easy looks.”
But the Shiretowners’ defensive effort was all encompassing, as the backcourt tandem of Jacob Drew, Isaac Cone and Guiod combined to allow just nine points from Lee’s starting guards and the Pandas shot a modest 31 percent (13 of 42) from the field.
“They had a lot of good shooters so we knew we couldn’t help,” said Drew. “We had to leave Christian and Kyle and Elyjah on their post players and let them fend for themselves because if we tried to help them the guards were going to get wide-open shots. The game plan was just to play hard-nosed defense.”
Houlton built a 30-11 halftime lead behind 10 early points from Bouchard and seven from Guiod.
When Lee then scored the first nine points of the second half, Shiretowners’ coach Rob Moran switched the 6-foot-4-inch Bouchard to point guard, where he was able to see over the Pandas’ pressure and stabilize the Houlton attack.
“We had wanted to do that but he didn’t do it for a couple of times but I made a point to tell him to get back there and he did and did a good job,” said Moran. “Kyle’s just such a versatile player.”
Lee was still within 32-23 when Guiod hit perhaps the biggest basket of the night, a 3-pointer from deep in the left corner after taking a crosscourt pass over the defense from Cone.
“They had a really good trap on their 1-3-1 and they had really tall guys up front,” said Guiod, “so I went to the corner and Isaac threw a long skip pass and luckily I was open.”
Bouchard then drove into the lane and fed Crockett for a layup, and Houlton’s lead was back to 37-23 late in the third period.
Lee got no closer than 11 the rest of the way as Guiod went 5 of 6 from the free-throw line during the game’s final 2:16.
“Basketball’s a game of runs and we understand that,” said Guiod. “But we withstood the blows at first, and then we hit a couple of shots to get going again and that was all we needed.”