BANGOR, Maine — It couldn’t have been any more of a poetic ending for Holly Preston.
Her Shead Tigerettes were nursing a one-point lead and needed one more stop to defend their Class D North girls basketball championship, and Preston made the type of play that big-time players make in championship moments.
Preston’s steal of a Southern Aroostook inbounds pass and subsequent layup just before time expired sealed the deal on the second-ranked Tigerettes’ thrilling 32-29 victory over the top-seeded Warriors at the Cross Insurance Center on Saturday morning.
Shead (19-2) had rallied from an eight-point halftime deficit to earn the right to play in the Class D state final on March 4 at 1:05 p.m. in Bangor. The Tigerettes will take on South champ Vinalhaven, which dispatched Forest Hills of Jackman 61-45 in Augusta.
Southern Aroostook of Dyer Brook finishes its season 19-1.
It was a struggle for both teams offensively at times but, as was the case in the semifinals on Thursday against Washburn, the Tigerettes won this one with their defense.
With Shead leading by one with eight seconds remaining, Preston did her best Malcolm Butler impression, fighting through a double-screen and stepping in front of the Warriors’ Kacy Daggett to pick off the inbounds pass and convert a breakaway layup just before time ran out.
“I almost blacked out that last minute, I can’t really remember it,” admitted Preston, whose 14 points led all scorers. “I just saw the ball in the air, grabbed it and took off.”
The Tigerettes did an outstanding job of packing in their defenders on the play and denying the Warriors’ post players any lob passes.
“Pack it in, defend the big girls and close out on the shooters,” said Preston.
After an evenly-played first quarter, the Warriors were able to steadily inch out to an 18-10 halftime lead as they held the Tigerettes to one field goal.
But there was no panic in Shead’s locker room, and the Tigerettes started the second half on an 11-1 run. Madison Greenlaw and Cassidy Wilder contributed all the points, mainly off of back-door layups, as Preston was able to start penetrating Southern Aroostook’s defense.
“I wanted all of our team to get some good looks and that was important to me,” said Preston, who dished out four assists.
Preston was also to overcome foul trouble as she played much of the fourth quarter with four fouls.
“She kept her head and didn’t pick up that fifth foul,” said Shead coach Dean Preston, Holly’s father.
The teams went into the final quarter tied, and the Warriors took a 3-point lead with 5:21 left after a long jumper by Katelyn Slauenwhite.
Two free throws by Greenlaw and a driving layup by Preston gave Shead the lead back with 3:58 left, but the Warriors answered with just under two minutes remaining on a Kassidy Mathers runner off the glass.
Preston’s one-hander in the lane on Shead’s next possession gave the Tigerettes the lead for good.
Greenlaw (10 points) and Wilder (eight points) played exceptional roles for Shead down low and were able to counter Southern Aroostook’s height.
The Warriors were looking to get the ball to Kassidy Mathers (10 points) on the final possession.
“We ran Kassidy off a double screen as our primary option and our secondary was a lob for a big [a post player],” said Southern Aroostook coach Cliff Urquhart. “They did a great job of stepping in there.”
Southern Aroostook was out of timeouts prior to the final sequence, so it wouldn’t have been able to stop the clock after Preston’s layup.
Sydney Brewer grabbed nine rebounds for the Warriors.