BANGOR — It’s over.
After three straight Gold Ball wins and countless nights of dominating opponents on the Cross Insurance Center floor, the George Stevens Academy boys’ basketball team’s run of mid-February dominance has come to an end. GSA’s latest opponent, the Houlton Shiretowners, proved worthy of dethroning the back-to-back-to-back regional and state champions with an impressive performance from start to finish.
Houlton defeated GSA 54-34 in the Northern Maine championship game Saturday to draw the Eagles’ reign as the unquestioned kings of Class C North boys’ basketball to a close. The Shiretowners overcame a sluggish start to the game with an efficient shooting performance and relentless defense to gain separation from GSA, which will end the season without a state title for the first time in four years.
“It just wasn’t our night,” GSA head coach Dwayne Carter said. “I’m a little disappointed we didn’t play our best game tonight, but that happens.”
Isaac Wardwell gave GSA a two-possession lead to start to the game with a pair of baskets in the first three and a half minutes, during which the Eagles kept No. 4 Houlton (18-4) scoreless. Yet things changed quickly past the halfway mark in the first quarter when Nolan Porter hit back-to-back 3-pointers for the Shiretowners to spark an 11-0 Houlton run.
Houlton then followed a Tanner Ashley 3-pointer with a score of its own to end the first quarter, and the Shiretowners continued their momentum into the second with four of the period’s first five baskets. Third-ranked GSA (18-4) kept Houlton in check offensively for the rest of the half, but the Eagles themselves mustered just five points during that span and trailed 25-15 at the break.
“They put a lot of ball pressure on, and they made every pass tough,” Carter said of Houlton’s suffocating defense. “We tried a bunch of different sets to try and get going, but we just could never get into a flow.”
After GSA scored the first basket of the second half, senior Reece Dannenberg responded to four Houlton points with a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 29-20. Yet the Shiretowners scored the next nine points and took a 40-24 lead into the fourth quarter when Caleb Solomon made a layup at the buzzer.
GSA cut the deficit to 46-33 after Houlton stretched its lead to 20 points early in the fourth quarter, but that was as close as it would get. The Eagles’ only points the rest of the way came on a Percy Zentz free throw as the Shiretowners walked off the floor with a Class C North title.
Wardwell led GSA with 14 points. Dannenberg (five points), Michael Moon (four points), Tanner Ashley (three), Zentz (three), Caden Mattson (two), Andrew Szwez (two) and Eric Mote (one) also scored for the Eagles.
Carter said Houlton’s string of 11 straight points made a comeback difficult for GSA early in the game. Although there were still more than three quarters to play at that point, Houlton’s shot-making and tough defense made it hard for the Eagles to keep pace with the Shiretowners.
“We got off to a good start, but then we missed our assignments and let Porter get open twice,” Carter said. “Once they got rolling, that was it.”
Both Carter and Houlton head coach Tim Brewer felt confident about how their teams matched up against one another entering the contest. Yet the Shiretowners, who got 18 points from Keegan Gentle and 14 from Porter, got the better of GSA in the matchup battle as they were too much on offense and limited the reigning champs’ scoring output to roughly half their season average on defense.
“Coming into the game, I actually thought we matched up well with them on the defensive end,” Brewer said. “I didn’t think they matched up with us on the offensive end as far as their defense; I didn’t think they had anyone who could guard Keegan.”
Houlton will return to the Cross Center to face Class C South champion and No. 1 seed Winthrop (20-1) for the state title at 8:50 p.m. Saturday, March 2. The Shiretowners will be seeking their third state title after winning Gold Balls in 2004 and 2014.
Although GSA’s string of regional and state titles is no more, the Eagles still proved they could compete with the best in returning to another Northern Maine championship game. With Szwez, Mattson and Moon back next year, Carter’s team will have title ambitions once again.
“People didn’t expect us to get this far, but I knew we could,” Carter said. “It didn’t end the way we wanted it to, but it is what is.”