BANGOR, Maine — The defensive goal of any high school basketball team during a given game often is less about specific possessions than its cumulative impact.
So while the Penquis of Milo of boys basketball team had been out-defended for the majority of its Eastern Maine Class C boys final against Houlton on Saturday night, that wearing-down process took its toll when it mattered most — as the Patriots outscored the top-seeded Shiretowners 15-3 over the game’s final six minutes to rally for a 46-41 victory at the Bangor Auditorium.
“We extended the floor a little bit late in the game and trapped them and turned them over and I think that bothered them,” said Penquis coach Tony Hamlin, who earned his 400th career victory with the comeback win.
“I also think they got a little tired, to be honest. They went into the zone to protect themselves from fouls, but maybe they were a little tired and then we hit some shots.”
The victory advances second-seeded Penquis (20-1) to next Saturday night’s state final against 20-1 Boothbay in what will be the final high school game played at the Bangor Auditorium before it is torn down and replaced by the Cross Insurance Center now under construction just a few feet away.
Penquis last played in a state championship game in 2000 when it defeated Boothbay 58-45, but the Patriots’ chances of having the opportunity to play for the gold ball this year didn’t look good for most of the regional title contest.
Houlton (19-2) led from the outset and built an advantage of as many as 11 points during the second half.
The Shiretowners still maintained a 38-31 buffer after two free throws by Kyle Bouchard with 6:02 left in the game — but those would be their final points.
Penquis’ Derrick Johnson scored a layup on a feed from Isaiah Bess and Trevor Lyford converted a fast-break layup after one of Houlton’s 14 second-half turnovers to close the gap to 38-35 with 4:21 left, and another turnover led to Bess tying the game with a 3-pointer with 3:51 to play.
A Lyford tip-in after a steal by Tyler Pelletier finally gave Penquis its first lead of the night, 40-38 with 2:50 left, and while Houlton was unable to get any late offense save for a 3-pointer by Nick Guiod with 26 seconds remaining, the Patriots made 6 of 8 free throws down the stretch to secure the victory.
“I got a little nervous, but last year we were down 14 to Lee [in the semifinals before falling in double overtime] and we just found a spark in the pit of our stomach,” said Bess, who shook off a slow start to score a game-high 22 points — including eight in the fourth quarter.
““I felt that feeling again tonight. We started rolling, Trev tipped one in and I hit a three and then we went off from there.”
While the offense came late for the Patriots, their defense was constant, particularly from Cody Herbest, a 6-foot senior who drew the primary assignment of checking Bouchard, a 6-4 sophomore who had averaged 29.5 points in Houlton’s first two tournament wins.
Herbest fronted Bouchard all night, and combined with help coming in from the weak side Penquis prevented the Shiretowners’ star from getting many easy looks at the basket.
“It’s been three months in the making,” said Herbest. “We work on defense every day in practice, and to guard him was the final test, I guess. We knew he’s a really good player. He’s huge, he’s strong, he has post moves and he can shoot from the outside. I told myself if I gave it 100 percent effort, who knows, I might be able to shut him down.”
Bouchard finished with just two field goals and 10 total points.
“Cody is a hell of a defensive player in the halfcourt,” said Hamlin. “He moves his feet and gets wide. He was a little afraid to guard him because Bouchard’s a big and strong kid, but he stepped up and did a great job.”
Guiod led Houlton with 17 points, 14 in the first half to help the Shiretowners build a 25-21 lead.
But Hamlin assigned Lyford to guard the Houlton point guard after intermission, and Guiod managed just the late 3-pointer the rest of the way.
“We just wanted to keep him in front of us,” said Lyford. “He gets to the rim and creates a lot, so I just wanted to keep him in front of me and make their other kids do something.”