DIXFIELD — Robbie Babb and Hunter Ross weren’t mere spectators in Dirigo’s run to a Class C boys’ basketball championship a year ago. Ross was a defensive pest. Babb piled up points off the bench.
Making the pivotal plays in the fourth quarter of a big game? Well, that’s an entirely different challenge. If you’ve been paying attention to the goings-on in this town for the past half-dozen years or so, though, you knew it was nothing the two couldn’t handle.
Babb erupted for 14 of his 16 points in the second half, mostly on the receiving end from Ross, and Dirigo rallied to stay unbeaten with a 44-38 victory at raucous, packed-out Defoe Gym.
“This is huge, considering it’s a rivalry game,” said Babb, a senior replacing Mountain Valley Conference player of the year Cody St. Germain at center. “It’s something we needed to come out and do. They have 10 seniors. We have … a lot less.”
His three baskets fueled an 8-0 run over the final 2:41 of the third quarter, transforming a 27-22 deficit into a 30-27 lead.
Babb knocked down three more inside buckets early in the fourth, each one after Mountain Valley closed to within a point.
“We knew we had to get him some more touches,” Dirigo coach Travis Magnusson said. “He attacked the basket more.”
Freshman Riley Robinson added 11 points for Dirigo (9-0).
Ross ruled the tempo of the game, finishing with eight assists and three steals.
“I get more minutes. I’ve got a different role on the team this year,” Ross said, “It’s a different sort of feeling, but it’s getting better.”
Jacob Theriault led Mountain Valley (6-2) with 16 points, including a 3-pointer at the first-half horn to give the Falcons a 19-18 lead.
The Cougars contained Theriault to three points after intermission, however, using an aggressive, face guarding approach and a steady rotation of Tyler Frost, Kaine Hutchins and Dylan Kidder to keep fresh defensive bodies in the game.
Theriault scored 34 points Saturday in a win over Spruce Mountain.
“Coach Magnusson’s kids play great defense all the way around, one through five. They make you start your offense from above the 3-point line,” Mountain Valley coach Tom Danylik said. “They’re long. They’re athletic. They’re kind of like we are. We knew it was going to be a defensive battle like that. We couldn’t execute down the stretch. We turned the ball over way too much in the third and fourth quarter. That’s something we’re trying to get better at.”
After shooting a spotty 7-for-28 (25 percent) in the first half, Dirigo warmed to 11-for-19 (58 percent) in the third and fourth periods, a product of creating more looks for Babb in the block and along the baseline.
Travis Frost bookended the productive third period with hard-nosed drives to the basket for two.
“Tonight was really a grind-it-out battle, and we played great defense,” Magnusson said. “We showed a lot of guts tonight. You have to give Mountain Valley credit. They’re a really tough basketball team, and they have a lot of seniors. They did a good job slowing us down. We didn’t run as much as we’d like.”
Mountain Valley cut Dirigo’s lead to 37-36 on a Dominic Haines drive with 6:12 left. It was the Falcons’ final field goal.
Babb answered with a short jumper from the right baseline. After both teams missed a pair of free throws, Kidder collected two off a bounce pass from Ross to give the Cougars some breathing room.
“They do a great job setting screens and using screens,” Danylik said. “There were a few times in that second half where we lost some guys in transition. Easy buckets are not what you want to give up in the fourth quarter.”
Robinson sank three of four from the line down the stretch.
Dirigo’s six-point edge at the finish was the largest lead by either team. Haines’ 3-pointer gave Mountain Valley its biggest edge at 27-22 midway through the third.
There were four ties in a tense first half.
“This is going to help us come tourney time,” Ross said. “We know the atmosphere from here with the loud crowd.”