AUGUSTA — Edward Little put all its tournament chips on shutting down Mt. Blue senior center Cam Sennick Tuesday night, and it nearly hit the jackpot.
The seventh-seeded Red Eddies locked the third-seeded Cougars in a physical, pulse-pounding four quarters in the Eastern Class A semifinals, refusing to go away even when the Cougars decided to call their grit and raise them enviable offensive balance.
Mt. Blue held on for a 52-49 victory at the Augusta Civic Center, but it wasn’t even that easy. The Cougars will face top-seeded Hampden Academy in the regional final at 8:45 p.m. Friday night.
“It feels great,” senior guard Steven Yardley said. “It’s definitely going to be a test.”
Blake Hart paced Mt. Blue’s balanced offense with 12 points, 10 in the second half. Sennick, dogged all night by Sean Ford and Quin Leary in EL’s shape-shifting defense, finished with 11 points. Eric Berry and Steven Yardley helped pick up the slack with 10 apiece.
“That was amazing. Those guys played the best game I’ve seen them play in a really long time,” Sennick said. “We’re all playing so well together, and if we can keep that going, it’s going to be hard for anyone to stop us.”
Omar Haji-Hersi finished with a game-high 23 points and eight rebounds for the Eddies (12-8). Leary, who got as much as he gave on the defensive end from Sennick, finished with 14 points and seven rebounds.
EL used various defenses, including a diamond-and-one zone, to frustrate Sennick, a 6-foot-6 Mr. Basketball semifinalist. It produced more than the desired results. Sennick had just two field goals.
“We tried to switch-up as much as we could,” EL coach Mike Adams said. “If you give (Mt. Blue) coach (Jim) Bessey any amount of time to adjust to what you’re doing, he’s going to get you. So we went to different zone looks, we went man. We pulled out all the bag of tricks defensively.”
It probably wasn’t coincidence, then, that Mt. Blue (16-4) took its largest lead of the night with 4:42 left when Sennick scored his first basket since midway through the first quarter to make it 43-36. The Cougars maintained that margin for nearly three minutes before Haji-Hersi drilled a 3-pointer to cut it to four. The senior forward hit another trey to make it 47-46 with 1:13 remaining.
Berry responded with his only points of the second half, going into a stall and lulling the Eddies before slicing through the lane for a layup that made it 49-46 with 47 seconds to go.
“That was his decision, not mine,” Mt. Blue coach Jim Bessey said. “I would have pulled the ball back out, but when they make them, then obviously, it’s a whole lot better.”
Things started to look even better for the Cougars when Haji-Hersi missed a 3-pointer, Sennick sank a pair of free throws and Yardley made one of two to make it a six-point spread with less than 20 seconds left.
The Cougars left an opening for the Eddies by fouling Ian Therriault with 9.2 seconds left. Therriault made the first free throw, then intentionally missed the second, which Ford eventually put back to make it 52-49 with 5.5 seconds remaining.
EL needed a miracle and seemed to get it when Hart’s subsequent inbounds pass went off Yardley’s leg in front of the Eddies’ bench with 4.8 left. Leary front rimmed the 3 to tie it and Mt. Blue’s Nick Hilton rebounded, but he lost his balance and was whistled for traveling, giving the Eddies one last desperate attempt with 0.3 of a second still on the clock.
Leary, standing 23 feet from the hoop, only had time to essentially deflect the inbounds pass toward the hoop. It sailed high off the backboard and Mt. Blue had its first regional final berth since 1997.
“We got a couple shots that we wanted (at the end),” Adams said. “The kids did everything that we asked them to do.”
Haji-Hersi’s eight first quarter points got the Eddies off to a 16-10 lead. The second quarter was marked by runs by both teams. Mt. Blue’s guards led an 8-0 excursion marked by a Yardley trey and and back-to-back Berry buckets, including a three-point play that gave them the lead.
“We just had to swing the ball around and be patient with it until we could go inside,” Yardley said. “We took some good threes and made some clutch plays.”
Another Yardley three made it 21-18 Cougars midway through the second, but their shooting fell off the rest of the half. EL went on an 8-0 run of its own, taking a 26-21 lead on Leary’s jumper from the top of the key.
The Cougars closed the gap to one with a Berry free throw and a Chris Malone 3-pointer from the right corner.
Mt. Blue turned up its defensive pressure in the second half with a half-court trap and took a 37-35 lead into the fourth quarter. A Yardley jumper and Hart steal and layup pushed it up to 41-36.
“We said in practice that the team that can execute well enough on the offensive end is probably going to win,” Bessey said. “In the end, we did just a little better job than they did. Not a whole lot better, obviously. But just good enough to win.”