AUGUSTA, Maine — The Lawrence Bulldogs already possessed the top low-post presence of recent-vintage Maine schoolgirl basketball in senior center Nia Irving.
But add in the 3-point shooting accuracy they displayed Friday afternoon, and it’s no wonder coach John Donato’s club will be playing for a second straight Class A state championship next weekend.
With Messalonskee of Oakland’s zone defense sagging back to help defend against the Boston University-bound Irving, unbeaten Lawrence knocked down 10 3-point shots — nine during the first half — in pulling away from the Eagles 59-44 in their North regional final at the Augusta Civic Center.
Irving, the tournament MVP, led the way with 16 points and 16 rebounds, but it was the combination of sophomore Hunter Mercier and senior Dominique Lewis who combined for eight 3-pointers during the opening two periods to help give Lawrence a commanding lead.
“I was feeling it,” said Mercier, who finished with 15 points, all on first-half 3-pointers. “My teammates talked to me before the game, and they were like, ‘We need you this game.’ I just wanted to help them win.”
Lawrence of Fairfield (21-0) will play the winner of Saturday night’s Class A South final between No. 1 York and No. 2 Greely of Cumberland Center in the state championship game at noon Feb. 27 at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland.
Messalonskee, which dropped two regular-season games to Lawrence by 24 points each, concluded its season at 17-4. Sophie Holmes led the Eagles with 19 points and 11 rebounds, while McKenna Brodeur scored 10.
“Realistically after the first quarter I thought we played well. We mixed some things up a little bit, but they hit shots,” said Messalonskee coach Keith Derosby. “We could say we didn’t do this or we could have done that, but you’ve got to give [Lawrence] credit. That’s just a great team, and kudos to all those players that when Nia takes a beating every night, [they] just step up.”
Mercier, who missed nearly all her freshman season of basketball after suffering a torn anterior cruciate ligament during a junior varisty game early last winter, came off the bench to bury five of Lawrence’s nine 3-pointers during the first half as the Bulldogs took a 39-23 lead.
Four of Mercier’s long shots were from the left corner as Lawrence worked the ball around the perimeter of Messalonskee’s 2-3 zone.
“That’s one of my favorite spots to shoot at,” said Mercier. “So I was pretty excited when I made a couple, and they were running zone, so I was open in the corner.”
By the time Mercier hit her fifth 3-pointer — and Lawrence’s ninth of the half in 16 attempts, good for 60 percent accuracy — from the right corner, Messalonskee had been forced to switch to a player-to-player defense.
Lawrence’s perimeter shooters cooled off after the break, with Camryn Caldwell adding the Bulldogs’ lone 3-pointer of the second half.
So Lawrence focused on working the ball inside to Irving, particularly with a high-low set involving sophomore forward Molly Folsom.
Folsom, who finished with six assists and six rebounds, found Irving open three times with lob passes from near the free-throw line, helping the Lawrence center score 11 points in the second half.
Messalonskee crept within 54-42 on a 3-pointer by Holmes with 3:55 left in the game.
But that was the Eagles’ last field goal, and Lawrence made five of its next six free throws to cap off the victory.
“The energy we had at the beginning of the game really carried us until halftime,” said Donato, “and then we kind of lost our intensity and was back on our heels and got in a little foul trouble.
“But when they had to pick it up, they did,” he said.