MILO — Few of the Lee Academy boys basketball players had experienced the intensity opposing teams face when they enter Oakes Gymnasium, so longtime coach Randy Harris offered his unique description of that environment before his Pandas squared off against Penquis in a battle of Eastern Maine Class C powers Saturday.
“I told them it was like going into a bee’s nest,” said Harris. “The other example I used was two big-horned sheep banging heads. If you don’t bang as hard as the other sheep does, you’re going to lose.”
Penquis fed off its boisterous crowd early in the contest, but Lee gradually settled down, using balanced offense and suffocating halfcourt defense to surge past the previously undefeated Patriots 61-47.
Both teams are now 7-1.
“Coach told me it was going to get rowdy and it was going to get loud,” said senior guard D.J. Johnson, one of four Lee scorers to finish in double figures. “We just had to overcome it, play hard and get rebounds and the game would come to us.”
Johnson, senior guard Jasil Elder — one of the few returnees from Lee’s 2011 state championship team — and 6-foot-4 senior forward Haris Karagic each scored 14 points for the Pandas. Johnson added seven rebounds and five assists, while Elder had six rebounds, four assists and three steals and Karagic contributed seven rebounds and three blocks.
Brad Kong, a 6-8 freshman center, came off the Lee bench to add 10 points, nine rebounds and four blocks.
“They’re bigger, faster and stronger,” said Penquis coach Tony Hamlin. “When you’re playing against 6-4 and 6-3 and 6-2 and you’re 5-10, guess what, you can’t get by them and they can get by you.”
Isaiah Bess led Penquis with a game-high 24 points, including an 11-of-15 performance from the free throw line, but the sophomore forward was hounded by several Lee defenders and was unable to create many open shots from the Patriots’ halfcourt sets.
Overall the Patriots made only 13 of 60 field-goal attempts, or 21.7 percent as Lee yielded just eight baskets that weren’t the result of offensive rebounds, steals or loose-ball plays.
“In the halfcourt I thought our defense was very good,” said Harris. “We’ve got some very good on-the-ball defenders, not as many as Penquis, but we thought we could throw some different looks at them.”
Penquis also entered the contest allowing just 32.4 points per game, but Lee capitalized on its transition offense as well as its rebounding strength to generate its scoring chances after a first quarter during which the Pandas managed just nine points.
“We said once we got the defensive rebound to look for the guards and push the ball,” said Johnson. “We’re a lot more athletic than most teams, and that’s how we get our easy buckets.”
Lee opened the second quarter with 14 unanswered points to erase a six-point deficit, a run ignited by a driving basket by Johnson after a Penquis turnover, a free throw by Jason Wu and a follow-up basket by Johnson that pulled Lee within 15-14 just 59 seconds into the period.
Dustin Sawtelle gave the Pandas the lead for good with a 3-point shot, and Karagic followed with two layups and two free throws to extend the margin to 23-15 before Penquis ended a 3-minute, 45-second scoreless drought with two Bess free throws.
“We took care of the ball a lot better,” said Johnson. “We’ve got shooters and we’ve got size, so once we get past halfcourt we can score the ball. We just got out and ran and played with more intensity and energy.”
Bess made two more free throws and a jumper to help the Patriots close within 27-23 at intermission, but in one sense the opening 16 minutes was an opportunity lost for Penquis.
“We had four misses from point blank in the first half, and I told the kids if those shots go in we go into the locker room ahead instead of behind,” said Hamlin. “But every time we missed one of those we fouled and they got points out of it instead.”
A jumper by Bess made it a two-point game 44 seconds into the second half, but Lee answered with another big run, this time a 14-1 surge to take firm control of the contest.
Johnson followed two Elder free throws with back-to-back 3-pointers to stretch out the Pandas’ lead to 35-26, then Wu and Elder sandwiched offensive-rebound baskets around a runner by Johnson after a Karagic steal to give Lee 41-26 cushion.
Penquis got no closer than 10 the rest of the way.