AUGUSTA, Maine — The Hampden Academy boys entered Saturday’s Class A state championship game determined not to have their state-championship dreams derailed for the second straight year.
There would be no such letdown for the Broncos this year, as Zach Gilpin poured in a game-high 23 points and coach Russ Bartlett’s club capped off an unbeaten season with a thrilling 45-41 win over South Portland in front of a packed house at the Augusta Civic Center.
Hampden, which fell to Deering in the state final last winter, claimed its first gold ball since 2005, while South Portland, gunning for its first state championship since 1992, finishes 18-4.
The Broncs (22-0) established regional tournament MVP Gilpin early, as he scored eight of Hampden’s first 10 points as the Broncos blazed out to a 10-2 lead, a far cry from the slow start that bedeviled Bartlett’s club in the regional final against Lawrence.
“I think we just came out focused,” said Bartlett. “We wanted to get out of the gates early tonight and that’s what we did.”
A packed throng of purple-and-white fans were treated to a scintillating thriller, and the Broncos showed their resolve down the stretch as South Portland attempted to complete its comeback.
The Red Riots closed within one with 2:41 remaining on a Tanner Hyland perimeter shot, but the Broncos were able to keep the ball away from South Portland for nearly two minutes, and the reward was a backdoor layup by Brian Fickett with 40 seconds left.
“We were just looking to take some time and get a really good shot,” said Bartlett. “They didn’t come out and pressure us for quite a while. It was kind of the time they gave us.”
The Red Riots also had four fouls to give at the time, so they couldn’t put the Broncos on the line by stopping the block.
After Fickett’s layup, a Hyland 3-pointer was off the mark, and even though Hampden’s Matt Palmer missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 19.5 left, a loose rebound bounced to teammate Tyler Norris, and he was able to hit the first of two free throws to ice it.
“It looked like to me it went toward the baseline,” South Portland coach Phil Conley said. “That’s the way the bounces go sometimes.”
Another Hyland desperation 3-pointer was off the mark after Norris converted his foul shot, and the full house on the Hampden side of the Civic Center erupted in celebration.
“We had to win that game, we couldn’t lose back to back state championships,” said GIlpin, who scored 18 of his points in the first half.
Gilpin kept his composure early after he was fouled hard in the midsection by Calvin Carr in the first quarter.
“I got hit in a spot where I never want to get hit again,” he said. “You’ve just got to let it go and keep the pedal down.”
The Riots adjusted their defense in the second half, putting the 6-foot-7 John Tolan on Gilpin, and it worked to some degree while Hyland, held to two first-half points, started to assert himself offensively.
“John did a very good job,” Conley said. “It took Tanner a little bit to get going but they were playing tough ‘D’ on him. Tanner’s a very good player, he had a great second half for us.”
Hyland scored 15 of his 17 points in the second half, keeping the Red Riots in the game, but Hampden never relinquished its lead.
“Tanner’s a great player, probably the best I’ve played against all year,” Gilpin said.
Fickett contributed 10 points and Matt Palmer seven for Hampden, while Tolan had 10 for the Red Riots.