AUGUSTA, Maine — The preparation for this year’s boys basketball season began before school started, according to senior center Cody St. Germain of Dirigo High of Dixfield.
“Last summer — for the first time, I think — everyone showed up for almost every individual workout with coach [Travis Magnusson],” said St. Germain. “Everybody had their eye on the prize.”
That prize was the state Class C championship, which Dirigo had not won since 1983.
The Cougars were back for the fourth straight year Saturday night at the Augusta Civic Center, facing a familiar foe — the defending state champion Lee Academy Pandas.
This time, it went the Cougars’ way as St. Germain and senior forward Ben Holmes powered the Cougars to a 74-67 victory over the Pandas.
Lee defeated Dirigo 65-55 in last year’s final.
“It was a great game [Saturday],” said Magnusson. “[The Pandas] are so athletic, they’re almost like a college team.”
But Magnusson found his players were up to the challenge.
“They pushed us to play our best game all year,” he said.
St. Germain scored a game-high 26 points, including a free throw and three field goals as the Cougars (21-1) pulled away in the fourth quarter. The free throw tied the game at 58 with 6:16 remaining, two baskets helped push the lead to five points at 64-59 and the third one gave his team a 71-65 margin with 1:25 to go.
Ben Holmes scored six of his 16 points in the fourth quarter for the Cougars.
The Pandas (19-3) tried to hit 3-pointers to get back into it, but none found their mark. Free throws finished the scoring for both teams.
“It was a battle, for sure. … It was the kind of game we anticipated,” said Lee senior guard DJ Johnson.
“We had our chances, we just didn’t get enough stops,” said Lee coach Randy Harris.
Josh Turbide and Caleb Turner added nine points each for Dirigo.
Boubacar Diallo sparked the Pandas with 19 points, Jasil Elder had 16, Johnson 12 and Haris Karagic 11.
The game was tied at the end of each of the first three quarters as neither team could hold a lead.
Dirigo pulled ahead initially, taking a 13-8 edge in the first four minutes, but Diallo’s eight points highlighted an 11-2 run — with two of his 3-pointers as bookends — and Lee was suddenly up 19-15 with 2:10 left in the first.
Dirigo tied it at 19-19 to end the first quarter, then St. German scored five of his seven second-quarter points to give the Cougars another short-lived lead.
Elder, a senior guard, turned that around with five points during a 12-3 Lee run, kicked off by a Johnson 3-pointer, that tied the game at 39 at the half.
Elder stayed hot in the third quarter, scoring seven of the Pandas’ 14 points, but Lee’s 53-50 lead was wiped out by Hunter Ross’ 3-pointer at the buzzer.
That’s when St. Germain and Holmes started making life miserable for the Pandas.
“St. Germain, we had no answer for him,” said Harris.
“They had trouble with Cody down low,” said Magnusson, but Holmes was important down there, too.
“In the beginning, we were settling for outside shots,” said Holmes. “We needed to attack the rim more, so I did.”
St. Germain also answered that call.
“He’s so good, we want him to attack the basket,” said Magnusson. “He needed to make special shots and he did.”
“He has long arms and good moves around the basket,” said Johnson.
Harris accepted the blame for not calling timeouts to make defensive changes, instead trying to make them on the fly.
As a consequence, said Harris, “[Josh] Turbide hit two 3s in transition.”
Defensive changes worked for Dirigo.
Karagic scored six points in the first quarter, and Diallo started slicing in for layups and hitting 3-pointer for 10 first-quarter points.
That slowed then stopped in the second half when the Cougars went almost exclusively to man-to-man defense.
“The key was we locked them down defensively. We got the defensive stops we needed,” said Magnusson.
The Pandas weren’t able to get open as easily and often got only one shot.
“We would go dry on a possession and they would go down and score,” said Harris. “That’s a recipe for disaster.”
St. Germain, who only played eight minutes last year because of foul trouble, was happy to be able to help his school pull off the win.
“We’re the closest-knit team in the state,” he said. “It’s awesome how close everybody is.”