The road to a state championship game is rarely easy.
But the similar routes taken by the Hampden Academy and Dexter boys basketball teams epitomize the depth and the unpredictability of tourney time in Maine.
Hampden Academy, which finished the regular season nearly 60 Heal Points ahead of its nearest Class A North rival, barely led in any of its three regional tournament games at the Augusta Civic Center.
Yet the 20-1 Broncos survived considerable last-second drama to win those three contests by a combined seven points. That earned coach Russ Bartlett’s club a spot in Saturday’s 3 p.m. state final against undefeated York at Portland’s Cross Insurance Arena.
“I really think we start off a little slow because we’re young,” said Mikey Raye, one of just four seniors and two senior starters for Hampden. “Who wouldn’t be nervous? It’s a big gym, everyone’s here, everyone’s talking, social media is going crazy, so I feel like we’re nervous in the first half and then we pull it out in the second half.
“We focus, we calm down, we make the game slower and we make the adjustments we need.”
For Dexter, the story was much the same after an undefeated regular season good for second place in Class C North.
The Tigers trailed in the second half of all three tourney games at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
They were either tied or behind entering the final 2:02 of each outing before pulling out the victories. Dexter won the last two games on last-second 3-pointers by junior guard Parker Ponte, the second coming in the final against Central Aroostook of Mars Hill that some photos show may have come after the final buzzer.
Dexter (21-0) won its three North tourney games by a combined eight points and now faces defending state champion Winthrop (20-1) for the Class C state championship at 8:45 p.m. Saturday in Augusta.
“I told those guys I’d love you either way, whether we won that [Central Aroostook] game or lost that game, because we played with a tremendous amount of heart,” Dexter coach Peter Murray said after Saturday’s C North final.
The keys to both teams’ success were at least threefold — strong leadership, timely defense and good fortune.
Senior guard Bryce Lausier picked up the offense for Hampden when the Broncos needed it most. The Mr. Maine Basketball finalist averaged 13.3 points in the second half of those games and scored nine in the fourth quarter of the final as the Broncos erased a late 10-point deficit to outlast Cony 52-50.
The Broncos also came up big defensively, yielding an average of just 52 points in their victories over No. 8 Mt. Blue of Farmington (57-54), No. 5 Brewer (54-52) and No. 2 Cony.
“I thought we just showed a lot of toughness,” Bartlett said. “We didn’t ever hang our heads when we were behind. We found a way to fight back and we fought and fought and fought and that’s why we’re still playing.”
As for possible divine intervention, Hampden held on to defeat Brewer in its semifinal after the Witches’ Kyle Goodrich hit what would have been a go-ahead 3-pointer with 2.8 seconds left — a split-second after a timeout had been called.
The Broncos then watched a potential go-ahead layup by Cony fall off the rim with 3.1 seconds left in the title game.
“They must have some clean living somewhere,” Cony coach T.J. Maines said. “I think they’re really good and really well coached, and some of it’s their mystique, I think.”
Dexter’s effort was led by senior guard Nathan Richards, whose free-throw shooting helped the Tigers outlast No. 7 Central of Corinth 39-36 in the quarters before he scored 29 points in his team’s 55-52 semifinal win over Fort Kent.
Dexter’s defense also proved stout when necessary, limiting Central to 13 second-half points and Fort Kent to only 21 points after intermission. The Tigers held Central Aroostook scoreless over the final 1:50 after the Panthers had scored six straight for a 48-44 lead.
Then there was Ponte, whose primary role throughout the season involved defense. Now he will be remembered in tournament history for his back-to-back game-winners — both on feeds from Richards.
“I told him after the [final], people dream your life right now,” Murray said. “[Twenty-four] hours and you had that happen twice? People go their whole lifetime and never have a moment like that.”
Now Hampden and Dexter join fellow North champions Edward Little of Auburn (Class AA), Caribou (Class B) and Machias (Class D) in their quests to win the gold ball. It is Hampden’s fourth appearance in Bartlett’s 17-year head coaching tenure and Dexter’s first since 1986.
“A lot of the commentary after each game has been survive and advance, survive and advance, and there’s a lot to that,” Murray said. “Nobody’s going to give it to you, but our team has been resilient all year long. Even when we’ve gotten a little behind we’ve always found a way to get back. We just find a way, and that’s about the only way I can really describe it.”