Central Aroostook faced an unfamiliar and uncomfortable situation during Saturday night’s Class C girls basketball state championship game.
The Panthers from Mars Hill found themselves trying to negotiate Winthrop’s relentless full-court pressure without dynamic point guard Maci Beals, who was on the bench with four fouls.
Her absence created problems for Central Aroostook but rather than wither, the Panthers pulled together.
Central Aroostook survived a determined charge by the Ramblers, then used Beals down the stretch to grind out a 67-61 victory at the Augusta Civic Center.
Central Aroostook (19-4) won the program’s first state championship since 1982 while setting the Class C state game record with eight 3-pointers.
“That’s probably the first meaningful minutes she’s not played [this season],” coach Dillon Kingsbury said of Beals, who was the C North tourney MVP.
“That’s what a phenomenal group they are. One player goes down. It’s not panic mode, it’s step up.”
Winthrop wound up 19-3.
Beals paced Central Aroostook (19-4) with a game-high 20 points. Senior Bre Bradbury tossed in 14 points and grabbed seven rebounds, while junior Libby Grass (8 rebounds) and sophomore Liberty Fulton and netted 12 points each.
Kena Souza led Winthrop with 15 points and eight rebounds, Aaliyah WilsonFalcone posted 14 points and nine rebounds and Madison Forgue added 11 points.
Bradbury assumed much of the ballhandling duties in Beals’ absence and sophomore guard Libby Grass helped out. Kira Fitzherbert, Sydney Garrison, Liberty Fulton and Abi Haines all pulled together.
Beals picked up her fourth foul on Madison Forgue’s putback amid a conventional three-point play less than three minutes into the quarter. With her out, CA committed five turnovers and Winthrop manufactured a 14-2 run.
“It definitely was a little bit nerve-wracking,” Bradbury said.
“I knew when Maci got into foul trouble I had to step up and I just tried to stay calm and take care of the ball.”
WilsonFalcone scored five points during the rally as her steal and layup gave the Ramblers their first lead of the game (42-40) with 2:02 left.
“Their pressure’s pretty good,” Kingsbury said. “I don’t know if we got through it as much as we survived it.”
A minute later, Fulton gave the Panthers some energy by making her fourth 3-pointer of the game. She had missed CA’s regional semifinal and championship games while battling the flu.
A foul shot by Haines and Fitzherbert’s basket from underneath off an inbounds pass from Garrison put CA ahead again.
“That was the best feeling ever, just getting our fire back and making shots again,” Fulton said. “It was hard, but we definitely stepped up when [Beals] couldn’t and we pulled through.”
With CA up by two to start the fourth quarter, Bradbury sandwiched a driving hoop and a foul shot around two Grass free throws to give the Panthers a 51-44 lead. Schmelzer answered with four straight points for Winthrop and a Souza 3-pointer on the heels of four consecutive CA turnovers tied it 51-all with 5:40 remaining.
Kingsbury finally reinserted Beals — after 7 1/2 minutes — between two Grass free throws at the 5:33 mark. CA quickly tallied two more Bradbury foul shots and Fitzherbert’s baseline layup off a pass from Beals to seize a 57-51 lead.
The Ramblers never got closer than two points after that and a 6-0 burst that featured two close-range baskets by Bradbury gave CA enough of a cushion to close it out.
“Everybody knows their roles on this team and they run them pretty well,” Beals said. “We’ve been together for a long time now.”
Beals scored 10 points in the second quarter to help CA build a 35-25 halftime advantage.
Winthrop hadn’t played in a state game since it topped Limestone in the 1990 final. The school dropped its varsity program five years ago in order to rebuild it.