BANGOR — The Ellsworth boys’ basketball team has grown to persevere in games like this.
For 31 of 32 minutes Friday night, nothing Ellsworth did could seem to shake a pesky Winslow team hungry for a tournament upset. The Eagles made shots, played strong defense and forced turnovers, but every time they appeared on the verge of building a comfortable lead, the Black Raiders clawed their way back into the game.
“They really fought us,” Ellsworth’s Jackson Curtis said. “They really made us work for everything, and you have to give them credit because they’re a great team.”
Fortunately for the Eagles, so are they — and when push came to shove in this hard-fought tournament showdown, Ellsworth’s poise and leadership in the clutch made all the difference.
Ellsworth withstood a multitude of Winslow runs Friday to earn a 58-51 victory in the Class B North quarterfinals at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. The win saw the Eagles outscore the Black Raiders 16-6 down the stretch to earn their second straight trip to the regional semifinals.
“Over the past few years, especially with the turnaround last year, we’ve gotten some great experience that’s helped push us through to win these games,” senior Darby Barry said. “That experience really matters here, and tonight, it carried us to a big win.”
Although Curtis scored the game’s first five points to put the No. 2 Eagles (16-3) up 5-0, Winslow responded with a layup and triple of its own to tie the game. Curtis then added five more points to put Ellsworth up 12-7, but the Black Raiders scored the final basket of the first period and the first three of the second to take a three-point lead.
Yet Ellsworth regained the lead midway through the second quarter as Austin Harris sparked a 7-0 run to put the Eagles up two possessions. Seventh-ranked Winslow (12-8) scored the next four points to tie the game at 19, but Ellsworth answered with five of the next seven to take a three-point lead into the break.
After Winslow scored the opening basket of the second half, Barry drained two 3-pointers to key an 8-1 Ellsworth run that put the Eagles up 32-24. The Black Raiders responded once again, though, this time with a 21-10 spurt that put them ahead 45-42 early in the fourth quarter.
Ellsworth scored the next seven points to take a four-point lead before Winslow bookended a Hunter Curtis free throw with two quick baskets to pull back within one. Yet Jackson Curtis then converted a layup and went 5 of 6 from the free-throw line to ice the game and book the Eagles’ spot in the Class B North semifinals.
“One of the things you train for is to be able to come through for your team in those big moments down the stretch,” Curtis said. “You want to be that guy that has the confidence to take the shots, and I’ve been in that situation before and know what it’s like.”
Jackson Curtis had 26 points for Ellsworth, and Barry joined him in double figures with 12. The Eagles also got nine points from Hunter Curtis, seven from Harris and two apiece from Connor Crawford and Adam Inman. Colby Pomeroy had 17 points for Winslow.
Ellsworth faced a tough challenge in containing the 6-foot-4 Pomeroy, who finished two points shy of 1,000 for his career, as well as the 6-3 Jason Reynolds, a top rebounder. The Eagles didn’t completely neutralize Winslow’s potent bigs, but Peter Austin’s team did prevent them from combining for the type of effort they put forth three days earlier against Orono (36 combined points).
“We didn’t play quite as well as I would have liked on the offensive side, but defensive-wise, we did a good job of challenging their shots,” Austin said. “We knew that Pomeroy was a good player coming in, and we did what we could to stop him.”
Ellsworth will be back at the Cross Insurance Center on Wednesday, Feb. 19, when it takes on No. 3 Washington Academy (14-5) at 7 p.m. Washington Academy, which defeated sixth-ranked Maine Central Institute (13-7) 56-45 earlier Friday night, earned a 45-43 road win over the Eagles to open the season before Ellsworth got revenge Jan. 8 with a 62-42 victory in East Machias.
If Ellsworth can topple Washington Academy in the rubber match Wednesday, it would advance to the Northern Maine title game for the second time in the past five years. Doing so will require the Eagles to contain the Raiders’ 6-5 big man, Cecil Gray, and overcome possible double- and triple-teams against Jackson Curtis.
“If that’s what happens, our kids are going to have to hit shots for us to win,” Austin said. “That’s what it’s about this time of year, and I think we’ll be a little bit looser next time.”