TURNER — Senior Night for the Leavitt boys’ basketball team decelerated from racing hearts to heartbreak in 5.5 seconds.
That’s the time it took Gardiner to push the ball from the baseline to about two steps past half court, where Jake Palmer faked left, dribbled right and uncorked an off-balance, 35-foot prayer.
A friendly rattle off the window and the telltale whoosh through the net coincided with the horn to provide the answer, a 54-51 win that propelled the Tigers into Saturday’s Class B KVAC championship game in Augusta.
“Our center, Aaron Toman, got the ball and started bringing it down, and I hollered for it,” Palmer said. “I wanted one last chance.”
The team with that final possession often wins in this sensational series.
A year ago, Gardiner (16-2) hit a free throw after a controversial foul at the overtime buzzer. In the previous 2010-11 meeting here in the Hornets’ nest, the Tigers had a potential game-winner rattle in-and-out in the closing seconds.
“Let’s just clean the house and play the state game right here and right now,” Gardiner coach Jason Cassidy suggested with a wide smile.
Wouldn’t be a bad idea. Palmer’s bomb broke the last of three ties in the fourth quarter. There were eight lead changes on the night.
Only moments earlier, Tim Dow drained a heavily contested 3-pointer from the left corner to pull Leavitt (14-4) even at 51.
“That went pretty much the way we drew it up,” Leavitt coach Mike Hathaway said. “He set a screen for Andrew Middleton and then got open and hit a huge shot. We felt like things might go our way at that point.”
But Gardiner, which cashed in its set plays after timeouts throughout the second half, called one last halt to diagram the game-winner.
Officials put eight-tenths of a second back onto the clock.
“We thought we had it defended it pretty well,” Hathaway said. “We defended the inbounds pass to Palmer and forced them to get it to Toman, which bought us a little extra time.”
Toman, who torched Leavitt for 16 of his game-high 20 points in the second half, heard the voice of the Tigers’ playmaker and made the fateful pivot.
“I’m a center,” Toman said. “I didn’t want to bring it up.”
Gardiner didn’t hit a 3-pointer all night prior to the game-winner. And if the odds already were against Palmer, they were further elevated by Leavitt senior Tyler Walton’s smothering defense on the play.
“They’re a great team,” Palmer said. “We respect them. They respect us.”
Toman added 16 rebounds and three blocked shots to his scoring total. Palmer put up 16 points and five assists for Gardiner, which will face Medomak Valley in the KVAC final. Matt Hall chipped in 10 points and 11 boards.
Jordan Hersom chalked up 16 points and 18 rebounds for Leavitt.
He joined an elite and possibly exclusive club in the history of Maine high school hoop, reeling in his 1,000th career rebound late in the first half.
Hersom previously scored his 1,000th point and won football’s player of the year award, the Fitzpatrick Trophy, in a January to remember.
Dow and Walton each scored 11 points. Nine of Walton’s came in the second half to go with three steals.
“Gardiner did a better job defensively in the second half against Hersom,” Hathaway said, “and Walton stepped up and was just amazing.”
Palmer scored the final seven points for the Tigers in the last 33 seconds of regulation.
He beat a defender off the dribble and drove the right baseline for a hoop that gave Gardiner a 49-48 lead.
Hersom was called for a double-dribble on Leavitt’s next possession. The Hornets immediately fouled Palmer on the inbounds pass, and he sank both halves of the double bonus.
Gardiner rallied from a 25-19 deficit early in the third quarter to lead 41-35 with eight minutes to play. Toman had 12 points in the quarter, many of those on spot-up jumpers just inside the foul line.
“I was open and I need to have the confidence to take that shot, because I don’t always,” he said.
Leavitt responded with the first seven points of the fourth on a steal and 3-point play by Walton, two Middleton free throws and a Levi Morin runner.
Prior to Palmer’s late free throws, Gardiner went 2-for-11 from the line in the fourth.
“We don’t quit,” Palmer said.
With the loss, Leavitt must wait for the results of Friday’s games to learn whether it will stay No. 4 in Western Class B and advance directly to the quarterfinals or drop to No. 5 and host a preliminary game.
The Hornets were bidding to break the one-year-old school record for most victories in a season.
“Any loss on Senior Night is rough, but a half-court shot is hard to take,” Hathaway said. “To their credit in the locker room, they already were talking about moving on. We have goals for the season that were loftier than winning this game.”