BANGOR — The George Stevens Academy boys’ basketball team was dealt a difficult hand Tuesday, but it couldn’t have played it better.
True, facing the ninth-ranked team in the Class C North quarterfinals might normally qualify as an easier game for the No. 1 seed, but GSA knew this time would be different. The opposing Houlton Shiretowners entered the game with a 15-4 record and the intangibles to make matters tough for the Eagles.
“They were maybe the hardest team out there in terms of matchups for us,” GSA head coach Dwayne Carter said. “We knew they had the size to match us and that they were going to give us a tough time on both ends of the floor. Their seed didn’t mean anything.”
Houlton certainly gave GSA some trouble, but this squad is a squad that knows how to handle challenges on the biggest stage. With experienced players who have overcome plenty of tournament obstacles the past three seasons, the Eagles came through once again when it mattered.
GSA used an offensive outburst in the first half and solid defense throughout the game to post a 55-43 win over Houlton on Tuesday at the Cross Insurance Center. The win pushed the Eagles’ winning streak to 18 games this season and marked their third straight semifinal berth.
“That was definitely one of the toughest quarterfinal games we’ve played,” Schildroth said. “We just have that experience in that we know what to do and how to get through everything when we get in those hard situations here.”
Schildroth opened the game with two deep 3-pointers on the first two possessions, and it wasn’t until Stefan Simmons hit a jumper to make it 8-0 for GSA that Houlton was able to respond with two quick baskets. After a floater from Caden Mattson and layup from Houlton’s Cam Cleary, GSA went up 13-6 on a 3 from Reece Dannenberg.
Houlton entered the second quarter trailing just 17-12 with the help of the 6-foot-8 Cleary and cut GSA’s lead to one point with two baskets in the first minute. Yet Schildroth rattled off two 3-pointers and made an easy layup off a steal to put the Eagles ahead 25-16, and GSA (18-1) ultimately went into the locker room with a 35-24 lead.
After Houlton (15-5) scored the first two baskets of the second half, Max Mattson got a putback off his own rebound to give GSA a 37-28 lead. Schildroth then hit another 3-pointer out of a timeout following a series of turnovers by both teams, and the Eagles went ahead 42-28 after Max Mattson slammed home a thunderous dunk to send the maroon half of the Cross Center to its feet.
Rather than letting GSA seize the momentum after the dunk, Houlton cut the lead to 10 with a pair of mid-range jumpers. Shortly after the Shiretowners were able to cut the lead to six points with 5:38 remaining, though, GSA found its groove in the paint and forced Cleary to foul out on its way to a 12-point victory.
Schildroth led GSA with 23 points, and Mattson had nine points, 17 rebounds and seven blocks. Those rebounds and blocks were indicative of the 6-foot-6 senior’s ability to keep Cleary and Houlton’s other forwards at bay.
“I’ve played against a lot big kids in my time, and I’ve always trained like I’m going to play someone bigger than me,” Mattson said. “It’s just a matter of coming ready to play and embracing the challenge, and that’s what I did.”
The Eagles never trailed in the game, but they also weren’t on the verge of turning the game into a blowout as they’ve done in past playoff appearances. Still, their head coach was comfortable with the game’s flow.
“I definitely felt we were in control,” Carter said. “We knew they were going to slow the game down and that their dribble penetration had the chance to make things hard on us, but we were able to set up the way we wanted on both ends of the floor and make the plays we needed to win the game.”
GSA’s next game will be against the No. 5 Fort Kent Warriors (16-4) at 8:35 p.m. Friday, Feb. 23. The Warriors defeated fourth-seeded Central Aroostook (14-6) 66-45 earlier Tuesday and have won 11 of their past 12 games.
With both the Eagles and Warriors having many of the same players they did when they met in the regional quarterfinals two seasons ago, the teams will be quite familiar with one another when they take to the Cross Center floor. A win would send GSA to the Class C North championship game at 8:35 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 24.
“We certainly remember playing them a few years ago because they had a lot of young players back then, and they’ve stuck with it ever since,” Schildroth said. “I’m sure they’ll be thinking about that, but for us, we just have to stay focused and treat it like business as usual.”