ELLSWORTH — Looking to correct course with the playoffs looming, Justin Norwood turned to the words of a coaching legend.
Norwood’s MDI boys’ basketball team entered its final stretch of the season having lost three of five games, an unusual feeling for a team that’s been among Class B’s best the past few seasons. In a speech to his team after the most recent of those losses, he referenced Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski’s metaphor of each player representing a finger on a balled-up fist.
“When you have five players on the floor come together and play for each other, you make a fist, and a fist is a lot more powerful than a hand,” the MDI head coach said. “We needed something to get back to jelling as best as we could as a team, and I just felt it was the right message. It was what they needed to hear.”
Hear it MDI did, and the Trojans haven’t come close to losing in the week since. With the state tournament on the horizon, the Trojans are playing their best basketball at the right time as they search for more success at the Cross Insurance Center.
MDI once again took control early against Ellsworth and never let go Thursday in the team’s latest win over the Eagles at Ellsworth High School. The Trojans’ 49-37 win sealed the No. 3 seed in the upcoming Class B North playoffs, where Norwood’s team will look to make it back to the regional championship game for the third consecutive year.
“We’ve had some ups and downs this year, but through all of that, we’ve been a pretty good basketball team,” senior Derek Collin said. “Playing like this is what we’ve wanted to get to all year long, and I feel like we’re finally at that level now.”
MDI (13-5) took a 5-4 lead over Ellsworth early with the help of a 3-pointer and layup from Drew Shea. Fellow senior Brett Duley then made a 3-pointer and close-range jump shot to give the Trojans a 10-7 advantage through the first quarter of play.
In the second quarter, Duley and Shea put forth strong performances again as MDI opened up a double-digit lead over Ellsworth (12-6). Holding Ellsworth to seven points for the second of three consecutive quarters, the Trojans took a 27-14 lead into the locker room.
“The biggest thing we had going for us was our defense,” Norwood said. “Ellsworth has some really good players who can score with ease, and it’s all about how you guard them and take away what they do well. I thought our kids executed really well in terms of that, and it was kind of all downhill from there when we started to flow offensively in that second quarter.”
Shea continued his strong play out of the gate to start the second half when he drained a 3-pointer over Ellsworth’s Hunter Curtis to give MDI a 16-point lead. The Trojans would extend that lead to as many as 24 points in the fourth quarter before the Eagles mounted a comeback that was too little, too late.
Shea led all scorers with 14 points for MDI, and Duley added 13. MDI’s other scorers were Kyle Nicholson with eight points, Derek Collin with five, Porter Isaacs with four, Erik Merchant and Eli Parady with two each and Steven Pierce with one.
MDI’s large lead for much of the game developed despite the fact that Collin, the team’s leading scorer, was held without a point until the final minute of the third quarter. Yet with Ellsworth double- and triple-teaming Collin, the floor opened up for some of the Trojans’ other players to find offensive rhythms.
“If you told me we would have won the way we did with [Derek] going almost three quarters without scoring, I wouldn’t have believed you,” Parady said. “We just had that great ball movement going, and we were able to combine our adjustments in those second and third quarters with some good defense.”
For Ellsworth, Jackson Curtis and Devin Grindle scored eight points apiece. Brett Bragdon (five points), Darby Barry and Connor Crawford (three points apiece) and Hunter Curtis, Austin Harris, Norman Jodrey, Noah Neleski and Malcolm Svec (two apiece) provided the remaining points for the Eagles.
After dropping out of the top five with the loss, Ellsworth will have to play in the preliminary round next week. The sixth-ranked Eagles will take on Winslow (8-10) for a spot in the Class B North quarterfinals at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 13.
The winner of that game will take on No. 3 MDI at 5 p.m. next Friday, Feb. 15, at the Cross Insurance Center. That game will be the first played at the Cross Center this year, and whether the Trojans battle Winslow or get a rivalry showdown with Ellsworth on the big stage, tournament time never seems to get old for their head coach.
“I’m getting goose bumps right now thinking about it,” Norwood said. “To think that we’re going to be the first team playing, our band is going to be the first one there and all of that, it’s what you look forward to and dream about. … It’s all about us playing as that fist of five, and I’m confident in our ability to do that.”