JAY — No undefeated teams. Two potential regional and state champions.
Spruce Mountain spoiled Dirigo’s undefeated Mountain Valley Conference regular season Wednesday night with a 46-41 boys’ basketball triumph.
The largest crowd to watch a game at the Phoenix Dome in almost 30 years watched a defensive clinic between two teams with legitimately higher aspirations.
“It’s a confidence builder,” Spruce Mountain senior point guard Jake Bessey said. “They’re a great team. They could beat a lot of Class B teams, and this gives us the confidence we could beat at least some of those teams.”
Class B Spruce Mountain and Class C Dirigo both are 17-1. The Phoenix will enter the Western Class B tournament in Portland as the likely No. 2 seed. The Cougars clinched top billing for the Western Class C playoff in Augusta more than two weeks ago.
They’ll meet again for one final tune-up in the MVC championship, to be played at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Augusta Civic Center.
“Dirigo gets a lot of the press in the MVC, and with good reason,” Spruce Mountain coach Chris Bessey said. “Our kids felt like we could compete with them.”
Spruce Mountain outplayed Dirigo for long stretches, particularly on the defensive end.
The Phoenix frustrated the Cougars into a season-high 28 turnovers and limited them to eight offensive rebounds.
“We have some weaknesses that they were able to exploit, and those are things we need to work on if we want to be successful in the tournament,” Dirigo coach Travis Magnusson said.
Jake Bessey led all scorers with 16 points, including 10 in a first half when the Phoenix offense was nearly non-existent.
Zach Bonnevie scored seven of his 11 in the fourth quarter. He broke the last two ties of the game, first with a 3-pointer at the 4:22 mark and again on a backdoor cut with 3:30 to play.
And James Barker was a hero from baseline to baseline. Six of his 10 points came in the fourth quarter, and his tireless defense made Dirigo star Cody St. Germain labor feverishly for his team-leading 15 points.
“I just tried to front him, and Nate (Shink) did a nice job on the help side,” Barker said. “Our main goal was keeping him off the boards.”
Spruce Mountain never trailed after Barker’s back-to-back buckets in a 33-second span made it 35-32 early in the fourth.
Two 3-pointers by Caleb Turner pulled the Cougars even on each occasion, but Dirigo didn’t hit another field goal until the final five seconds.
The Cougars also missed three of four from the foul line down the stretch.
From the doldrums of a woeful 9-for-42 shooting start, Spruce hit five of its first six shots to open the fourth.
“We were a little crazy in the first half,” Barker said. “Coach calmed us down at halftime. He told us to keep playing defense and work on our shot selection.”
“Everyone was rushing,” Jake Bessey said. “I was rushing a lot of things. We were too excited.”
Dirigo won the first meeting by three points in Dixfield on Jan. 3, before a sold-out crowd of 400 in cozy DeFoe Gymnasium.
The dome held perhaps triple that total, with three sections of bleachers jammed to capacity and at least 100 spectators standing at both ends of the cavernous auditorium.
Spruce Mountain fans staged a color-coded “white out” for Senior Night. Dirigo partisans were just as uniformly decked out in royal blue.
“This is the first time I’ve seen a crowd like this since I was in eighth grade (1984) for a Jay-Winthrop game,” the elder Bessey said.
Dirigo fed off the excitement early, jumping out to an 11-4 lead on the strength of two St. Germain baskets and a Josh Turbide 3-pointer.
Shink’s putback in the final minute got Spruce’s offense on track. The Phoenix fought back to tie it three times in the second period.
Bessey’s two free throws sent the teams into the locker rooms knotted at 19.
“People will say we didn’t play well, but we played OK, and they made us play that way,” Magnusson said. “I’ve said all along I think we’re both top-10 teams in the state. We’re going to see bigger games than this if we want to advance through the tournament, and we have to respond better.”
Dirigo closed the third quarter with an 11-3 run to grab a 32-28 edge before Spruce rattled off seven straight points.
Other than St. Germain and Turner (10 points), no Dirigo player scored more than four.
The Cougars were vying for the first undefeated regular season in school history. They have captured three straight Western Class C championships, winning many times at the expense of the former Livermore Falls and Jay high schools along the way.
“They’re good. They’re very good,” Jake Bessey said. “We knew it was going to be tough, but we felt that if we played well we could beat them.”