March 24, 2019
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Hampden leads balanced Eastern A boys field

John Clarke Russ | BDN
John Clarke Russ | BDN

The talk of balance within this year’s Eastern Maine Class A boys basketball tournament field takes Roger Reed back a generation, 20 years ago, to be exact.

The Rams hadn’t won a regional championship in 30 years entering the 1992 tournament, but persevered through close call after close call to end that title drought.

Third-seeded that year, Bangor edged Caribou 69-67 in overtime in the quarterfinals, then upended No. 2 Old Town 46-44 in the semifinals before ousting top-ranked Waterville 53-43 in the championship game.

What followed a week later was even more memorable, the epic 81-79 five-overtime loss to South Portland in the state championship game — something that just served to show that the parity in Class A was statewide that year.

The way Reed sees it, the 2012 postseason could see similarly close contests in Eastern A given how the regular season evolved.

“We won three tough games in that [1992] tournament to get through, every game was close,” he said. “That’s the way it was then, and this year’s tournament looks like it could be that way again. There aren’t going to be many blowouts.”

Here’s some evidence to support Reed’s theory.

The Hampden Academy Broncos are 17-1 and top-ranked heading into their tournament opener against Erskine Academy of South China on Saturday night, yet six of their games have been decided either in overtime or by three or fewer points during regulation time.

Second-ranked Lewiston, the only team to defeat Hampden during the regular season, had seven games decided by five points or less en route to its 15-3 finish.

Third-seeded Mt. Blue of Farmington has had six of its games decided by three points or less, while No. 4 Lawrence of Fairfield, 12-6 overall, is 6-4 in its 10 games decided by six points or less.

As for its part, fifth-ranked Bangor (13-5) endured three overtime games as well as six others decided by eight points or less during the regular season, while the rest of the final eight in the division — Brunswick, Edward Little of Auburn, Cony and Erskine Academy — all had their share of close calls, too.

Parity anybody?

“This is as deep a tourney field as I’ve seen in my nine years, with the real possibility of a lower seed running the table much like the ’05 Broncos,” said Hampden coach Russ Bartlett, who guided his 2005 team from the No. 9 seed entering the EM tournament all the way to the state championship.

Hampden, the preseason pick of Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A coaches to win the division this year, has lived up to those expectations so far thanks to the leadership of senior guard Christian McCue and a deep roster.

But the gap between the Broncos and the rest of the field has proven to be razor-thin so far this winter, meaning there likely will be few easy outs at the Augusta Civic Center.

“One [factor] is surviving your first game, getting the nerves out and finding a way to win that first-round game,” said Bartlett, whose team rallied from a five-point halftime deficit to defeat Erskine Academy 64-45 in their only meeting of the regular season on Jan. 16.

“If you’re able to do that and get to the semis you must understand that all four of those teams left are good and capable of winning it all.”

Bartlett believes that the field is so competitive that success or failure in any game could depend on specific individual and team matchups.

“The next factor is how you match up with your opponent,” he said, “finding a weakness and trying to exploit it while attempting to do what you do well and also attempting to take what they do well and ‘slowing’ it down.

“Finally you need a little luck, whether that means avoiding foul trouble or having someone play a little better then normal.”

Ask anyone involved in this year’s tournament to pick a favorite, and Hampden and Mt. Blue are the most frequent responses — but always with a caveat.

“I think the tournament’s going to be one of real interest this year because there are going to be seven or eight teams in there that can knock you off,” said Reed. “If you don’t have a good game, the opposition team can beat you. It hasn’t always been that way, but it used to be that way all the time and I think that’s the way it is this year, too.”

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