ELLSWORTH — The George Stevens Academy boys’ basketball team has finished atop the final regular-season standings each of the past two years. The Eagles’ quest to do so a third straight time this year has been anything but easy.
Between an unexpected loss in its opening game, an injury to leading rebounder Max Mattson, multiple illnesses and two wins that required late comebacks, GSA’s path to the top this season has had plenty of ups and downs. Yet with the regular season winding down and the team back at full health, the Eagles have made their status as the team to beat in the state tournament loud and clear.
GSA stretched its winning streak to 15 games Friday night with a 70-54 victory over a surging Ellsworth team. The win spoiled the home team’s Senior Night celebrations and shot head coach Dwayne Carter’s squad past Fort Fairfield into first place in Class C North.
“We’re peaking at the right time, and that’s what our goal was,” Carter said. “We’ve had some emotional games with Max out and a lot of sicknesses, but we’ve gotten past it and are stronger because of it.”
GSA entered the game having scored 70-plus points in seven straight contests, but an Ellsworth team on a six-game winning streak made it difficult for the visitors early in the game. Even with 12 points from Taylor Schildroth, GSA led by a single point late in the first quarter until Mattson scored on a tip-in to make the score 15-12 right before the buzzer sounded.
The next eight minutes, though, were a different story. Ellsworth was able to hold GSA below its usual scoring pace, but Carter’s team earned and-one opportunities on three baskets in a span of four minutes toward the end of the half. Ellsworth scored just five points in the quarter.
Ellsworth chipped away at the lead a bit early in the second half, but GSA kept its advantage at double digits for the first six minutes. With 1 minute, 27 seconds left in the third quarter, Ellsworth got a much-needed boost when Mattson was called for a technical foul. That led to six straight points for the home, which whittled GSA’s lead down to 45-39.
“[The referees] let the game get pretty physical, but we kind of expected that and knew we had to stay mentally tough,” Schildroth said. “It’s two rivals playing in front of a big crowd, and things are going to get intense sometimes. We just had to get it together and not let it affect us.”
After a Stefan Simmons layup as time expired in the quarter brought GSA’s lead to eight points, Schildroth began the fourth with a steal, layup and foul shot that gave his team the momentum once again. From there, the senior led a run that gave his team a 60-45 lead with 3:44 to go and put the game out of reach.
“Taylor has more confidence than anybody I’ve ever coached,” Carter said. “Whether it’s making those wild shots around the basket or making 3s, he’s just got a real nose for scoring and finding ways to make plays.”
Schildroth led all scorers with 29 points, and Mattson finished with 12 points and a game-high 18 rebounds. Senior Dylan Taplin led Ellsworth (10-6) with 12 points in the loss.
Mattson also added six blocks for GSA in the win, which was the team’s closest since he returned Jan. 9 against Mattanawcook Academy. The Eagles had wins of 49, 34, 52, 65, 42 and 36 points between that game and their win Friday.
“It’s been a while since we’ve all been back together in midseason and postseason condition, but now that we’re here, we’re starting to get going again,” Mattson said. “Ellsworth is a tough place to play because it’s loud and noisy and has a lot of people in the gym, but we like it because it’s good preparation for the tournament.”
Ellsworth will return to the court at 7 p.m. Monday, Feb. 5, when they face Foxcroft (7-9) on the road. The Eagles will conclude their regular season on the road against Mount Desert Island (13-3) at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8.
GSA is scheduled to play a rematch against Mattanawcook (11-5) at home at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 6. Wins in that game and in the regular-season finale against Narraguagus (1-15) at 7 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 8, would give the team the No. 1 seed in Class C North for the third year in a row.
“We’ve showed a lot in these past few weeks, and it’s safe to say everyone’s very confident right now,” Carter said. “It’s never easy in the tournament, but we’re right where we want to be.”