In the absence of his team’s fouled-out point guard, Hampden’s Matt Palmer found an unguarded Brian Fickett for a layup with 3.4 seconds remaining in regulation Friday night, boosting the Broncos to a 46-44 victory in the sensational Eastern Class A final everyone expected at Augusta Civic Center.
Mt. Blue’s valiant comeback from a 12-point deficit in the final 5:30 of regulation had the same ultimately bitter end as the Eastern B football final at Leavitt back in November, when a two-point conversion pass in overtime ended the season.
That one was well orchestrated. This time?
“Not the play we called at all,” said Fickett, a 6-foot-5 junior. “I just ran over because I saw we weren’t running the play right.”
With senior point guard Christian McCue relegated to the bench after fouling out for the first time in his career, nearly every element of Hampden’s finishing kick was discombobulated. But nobody in purple-and-white will complain about the result.
Cam Sennick made the second of two free throws to tie the game with 30 seconds remaining. It was the first time Hampden (20-1) hadn’t led since it was 0-0.
Hampden called timeout to set up the potential game-winner, which initially saw sophomore Zach Gilpin driving the left baseline for a left-handed leaner. Nick Hilton swatted it out of bounds.
The team exchanged timeouts after that stoppage, Mt. Blue calling the latter to make its defensive adjustment.
It didn’t stop Fickett from cutting in front of Palmer, grabbing a near-handoff and dropping it off the window.
“They did what we didn’t want them to do, which was get the ball inside,” Mt. Blue coach Jim Bessey said. “We wanted to force them out to the perimeter. We thought it would go through 23 (Gilpin).”
That was the plan. When it didn’t develop and Fickett alertly squirmed his way toward the baseline, Hampden successfully set a screen.
“I gave Brian a hard time the other night for missing a couple of layups,” Hampden coach Russ Bartlett said. “He made a couple of big ones tonight. One very big one.”
McCue scored a team-high 14 points for Hampden before fouling out on a player control call with 2:48 remaining in regulation.
Hampden led by six at the time and didn’t score again until Fickett’s heroics.
“It was two of the worst minutes of my life, followed by two of the best minutes,” McCue said.
Gilpin added 12 points and Fickett scored six of his eight in the fourth quarter for Hampden, which won its third Eastern title in eight years and will travel to Cuimberland County Civic Center in Portland for the state game Saturday, March 3.
Sennick and Eric Berry each scored 14 in their final game for Mt. Blue (16-5), which lost to Hampden three times by a total of 13 points.
The Cougars were denied their first regional crown since 1997.
Until McCue’s departure, Hampden controlled the pace with McCue and dominated the glass with 6-foot-7, 275-pound Fred Knight, 6-6 Logan Poirier and the 6-5 Gilpin and Fickett.
Knight received the Al Halliday Award as the tournament’s most valuable player and sportsman. Mt. Blue held him to four points, but his contributions to the defense of Sennick were enormous.
“We ran an extra guy at Cam all night and basically didn’t guard (Steven) Yardley,” Bartlett said of Hampden’s strategy. “If he hit maybe four consecutive shots, we would have made an adjustment, but he only hit two early and they weren’t consecutive.”
Hampden’s dictation of the tempo gained fuel from Mt. Blue’s cold shooting. The Cougars missed their first seven shots and went 2-for-15 from the floor in the first quarter.
The Broncos bolted to an 8-0 lead on baskets by Knight and Poirier down low and four McCue free throws.
Berry broke the ice with a free throw at the 4:34 mark and added a 3-point play to cut the lead in half. But the Broncos’ dominion in the paint continued with an offensive carom and short jumper by Gilpin.
McCue’s lob pass to a backdoor-cutting Gilpin beat the first quarter horn to make it 15-6. Palmer connected on Hampden’s opening second-quarter possession to make it a double-digit lead.
“Against Edward Little (in a 52-49 semifinal win) we were able at least to hit few jump shots,” Bessey said. “Tonight we weren’t making any. We didn’t do a very good job offensively for much of the game. I think we felt a lot of the pressure. Obviously it’s a very tough loss.”
Despite six second-quarter points from Sennick, Mt. Blue trailed 25-16 at the break.
Hampden nursed the lead and bled the clock throughout the third quarter and most of the fourth, never allowing Mt. Blue into its preferred pickpocket-and-run rhythm.
“We were trapping and they were basically playing ping-pong with us, not really playing but trying to run us into the ground,” Bessey said. “When we got McCue out of there, we gave ourselves a chance.”
Fickett scored on a long pass from McCue with 4:17 left to make it 44-36. Sennick answered with a deuce before the fateful call on McCue.
“It was a tournament call,” McCue said. “They called it on me earlier. I should have been more careful. At first it didn’t dawn on me that it was my fifth.”
Hilton and Hart scored to get the Cougars within two. Berry’s steal led to one free throw with 45 seconds left. Hampden then missed the front end of 1-and-1, furnishing Sennick’s opportunity at the line.
After Fickett’s go-ahead hoop, Mt. Blue’s attempt to pass the length of the court sailed over everyone. Fickett then missed a free throw and Mt. Blue collected the rebound, but Hilton’s 60-footer rattled high off the backboard.