KITTERY, Maine — All season long, Will Stuart has seen his opportunities to score — and followed through.
Now he sees an opportunity.
The fifth-seeded Traip Academy boys basketball team took care of business early against No. 12 Buckfield in its first-round playoff game Thursday, using defense to grow a lead and winning handily, 61-26.
Now, the Rangers (14-5) are hoping to make a mark at the Augusta Civic Center when they play No. 4 Boothbay (14-4) in the Class C South quarterfinals on Monday night, a year after going up as an eighth seed and giving the No. 1 team a battle.
“We have more experience,” said Stuart, who scored 16 points. “We’ve been up there before. Nothing’s going to be a surprise this time. We’re going to know what to expect going on.”
First-year coach Ed Szczepanik knows the court in Augusta is 10 feet longer, which he thinks could benefit his team, which likes to run. But defending those extra 10 feet — like they did in the first half Thursday, holding the Bucks (5-14) to 2-of-26 shooting — will again be a key.
“Really, we’ve been building our team on the defense all year,” said Szczepanik. “That’s all it’s been. If we don’t defend, if we don’t get stops, if we don’t get consecutive stops, we’re not very good. We run a lot better off of stops then out of taking it out of bounds.”
Sophomore guard Jordan Polanco matched Stuart’s 16 points. But it was defense that set the tone, led by another sophomore — Will Davis — the team’s designated shut-down guy, who held Bucks threat Tyler Gammon (four points) without a field goal.
“I’m obviously not a primary scorer so I try to help the team out in whatever way I can,” said Davis. “I think we’ve all done a better job since the start of the season improving on defense.
“And my teammates have my back. They’re always in help defense.”
Noah Wiley scored 15 points to lead Buckfield, whose shooting night ended at 9-of-55.
The only down note in a happy gym came early in the fourth quarter, when Buckfield forward Abram Cormier landed awkwardly after making a putback and suffered what appeared to be a broken leg. He was attended to on the court for a good 15 minutes and left on a stretcher as players from both teams gathered together at the exit.
Down 18-6 after one quarter and 32-9 at halftime, the Bucks warmed up a few degrees but it was too late to scare the home team.
“That was a first for us all season and we talked about it at halftime,” said Buckfield coach Kyle Rines. “I said, ‘You couldn’t have picked a worse time to have our worst shooting night.’ Credit Traip with a little bit of pressure, but we didn’t feel like all our shots were bad shots. It was unfortunate.”
It ended up as a lower-scoring rematch of last year’s prelim game here, which the Rangers won by a 78-44 score.
“Traip’s a good team and we’ve struggled all year,” said Rines. “I was proud of the way we played defense. We were trying to hold them under 60 but they have some good shooters — Polanco is a good shooter and, obviously, Will Stuart is a great ballplayer.”
The Rangers made 11 3-pointers, an area where they’ll need to stay warm against a bigger Boothbay team on Monday, one they didn’t face during the regular season.
But they’ll appreciate this one for a bit first.
“The biggest takeaway is it’s nice to get a playoff game under our belt,” said Szczepanik. “Finishing in fifth vs. fourth means we get to play a home game, which I think is good for us. When we play as well as we’re capable, we look really really good. That’s what I saw tonight. I’m excited to see what Augusta brings and how well we play up there.”