AUGUSTA, Maine — There’s a sense of finality lurking in the air every time Lawrence of Fairfield boys basketball coach Mike McGee steps onto the Augusta Civic Center court this tournament week.
Each time he and the Bulldogs take pregame warmups, make halftime adjustments or go through postgame handshakes, it could be the last time they do that together.
McGee announced earlier this winter that he will end his 28-year head coaching tenure at his alma mater at the end of this season, but his players are hoping to extend that run for up to two more games — Friday night’s Eastern Maine Class A final against top-ranked and undefeated Hampden Academy and a possible state championship game on Saturday, March 2, also in Augusta.
“I don’t want it to end,” said McGee, who has led Lawrence to two state titles and five Eastern Maine championships since taking over as the Bulldogs’ head coach at the start of the 1985-86 season.
“I tell the kids that I’ve been where they want to go, and this is a special group, they’re hard-nosed and they get it done. I tell them I’ve been there and I want to take them there to experience it because they’re just great kids and I love them.
“That’s why I picked this group to go out with.”
Third-ranked Lawrence is 16-4 this winter after Wednesday’s 49-41 semifinal victory over No. 2 Edward Little of Auburn — the 350th win of McGee’s coaching career — and with each passing game there are feelings both of excitement and sentimentality.
“The sad thing about them losing me is they know what to expect from me,” said McGee. “They know they’ve got to play defense and they’ve got to be hard-nosed or you’re just not going to play. They know that and I think from that there’s a huge amount of trust.”
Lawrence will enter Friday night’s game as the underdog against a Hampden team that is the defending regional champion and 40-2 over the last two seasons.
The Broncos have defeated Lawrence twice already this winter, 62-37 at Hampden on Dec. 18 and 51-35 at Folsom Gymnasium in Fairfield on Jan. 29.
But Lawrence was not at full strength in either of those contests, with its tallest player in 6-foot-4-inch senior Nick Noiles sidelined for the first meeting and junior guard Xavier Lewis sitting out the second encounter due to mononucleosis.
Both have been back throughout the Bulldogs’ tournament run.
“I just wanted to put them in a championship situation,” said McGee, “and now whatever happens happens.”
Coach Russ Barlett’s Hampden club has been the dominant team in Eastern Maine Class A since the opening tap of opening night this season.
No one has come within single digits of the Broncos in any of their first 20 contests, with Hampden outscoring its regular-season foes by an average of 27.2 points per game and No. 8 Mount Ararat of Topsham (78-35) and No. 5 Lewiston (65-35) by an average of 36.5 points during their EM quarterfinal and semifinal victories.
It’s dominance based on balanced team play led by junior forward Zach Gilpin and senior forward Matt Palmer and the collective determination to go one step further than a year ago, when the Broncos reached the state final only to fall to Deering of Portland.
“For the six returners it’s a sour taste in your mouth from [the end of] last season, that was the worst feeling I’ve had in a long time,” said Hampden senior forward Tyler Norris. “I think the new kids have grown to understand that’s all we care about, that’s all we want and that’s all we came to do, to play basketball and win that gold ball.”
Bangor, Cony in ‘battle of Rams’
The Bangor High School girls team will attempt to win its first Eastern A crown since winning the 1982 state championship when it faces defending regional titleist Cony of Augusta ln Friday’s 7 p.m. regional final at the Augusta Civic Center.
Bangor last played in a regional final in 1999 at the Bangor Auditorium, when Heather Ernest-led Mt. Blue of Farmington rallied in the fourth quarter for a 45-41 victory en route to the first of back-to-back state titles for the Cougars.
Coach Katie Herbine’s second-seeded Rams (16-4) are coming off Wednesday’s 56-44 semifinal victory over No. 3 Mount Ararat of Topsham. Bangor used solid perimeter work sparked by senior Denae Johnson and intelligent inside play by sophomores Cordelia Stewart and Mary Butler — each of whom played virtually the entire fourth quarter with four fouls without fouling out — to help quell a Mount Ararat comeback bid.
“We’ve got great senior leadership, and our sophomores and our freshmen play much older than they are,” said Herbine. “[Stewart] and Mary did a great job of playing big inside without committing that fifth foul.”
Cony, meanwhile, not only advanced to the state final a year ago but is one of the storied girls basketball programs of the last quarter-century statewide, having won 12 Eastern Maine titles and seven state crowns since winning its first in 1987.
This year coach Karen Magnusson’s club has reached the EM final the hard way after an 11-7 regular season left Cony with the ninth and final playoff seed in the division.
Cony won a road prelim game at No. 8 Brewer, then stunned top-ranked Edward Little of Auburn 52-35 in the quarterfinals before subduing a youthful Lawrence of Fairfield team 49-37 in Wednesday’s semifinals.
Cony has been led by its only returning starter from a year ago and one of just two seniors on its roster in 5-foot-8-inch Josie Lee, who has averaged 18.5 points and 13.0 rebounds in the last two games.
Bangor defeated Cony 64-46 in their only regular-season meeting at Augusta on Jan. 4. In that game Bangor relegated Cony’s offense to the perimeter, where it made just 6 of 26 3-point attempts and shot just 25 percent overall (15 of 60).
The 6-foot-2-inch Stewart, the 6-1 Butler and 5-10 senior Rachel Taft give Bangor a distinct height advantage over a Cony team with no player taller than 5-9, but Bangor will have to cope with Cony’s team speed in this battle of the Rams.