AUGUSTA — With Searsport making a fourth-quarter run, Rangeley watched its top scorer Taylor Esty tumble with an apparent knee injury.
It was one of those moments that displays what a team is made of, and in an instant, the Western D semifinal was going to be determined by how the Lakers would respond.
“We know everybody on our team is a leader,” senior guard Tori Letarte said. “We know that when somebody goes down, we all have to step it up whether you’re coming from the bench or still on the court. We just have to stay positive the whole time.”
The Lakers didn’t flinch.
Instead, they reasserted themselves and finished off a 59-54 win Thursday morning at the Augusta Civic Center. And as if reaching the regional final once again wasn’t good enough news, Esty returned late in the game. She was sore, but she was okay.
“I didn’t have that panic feeling at all,” Rangeley coach Heidi Deery said. “I felt like she was scared and fearing the worst because we’ve had four years of ACL injuries. It’s not that. She definitely had a little patella situation. I certainly didn’t think she’d be back out on the floor, but I felt we had the people on the floor that could maintain and weather the storm.”
Rangeley advances to Saturday’s Western D final at the Augusta Civic Center. The Lakers will play top-seeded and unbeaten Forest Hills, which defeated Pine Tree earlier Thursday.
Esty finished with 18 to lead the Lakers while Letarte had 14. Blayke Morin added 11, and the Lakers also got nine from Maddison Egan and seven from Seve Deery-Deraps.
Searsport got 19 from Briana Grant. Melinda Ogden finished with nine, all in the second half.
Esty went down early in the fourth, just after she put the Lakers up 41-35, while chasing after a loose ball. She immediately grabbed her knee. After a few moments, she was helped up and aided off the court, not putting any weight on her leg.
“We were both going up the court,” said Esty, who is likely to play Saturday, barring any setbacks with the knee. “I was sprinting after it and I stepped right on the ball and it folded my knee. I didn’t feel a pop or anything like that. So I didn’t think it was an ACL or anything like that. When he was looking at me, I wanted to come back out and play. I was determined to come back out and play.”
Deery didn’t call timeout after the injury. The Lakers rergrouped and got back to work.
“I turned to my assistants and said, ‘Do we need a timeout?” Deery said. “Thanks to them, they said ‘No.’ They said that we’d made the defensive switches. They knew what we had to do. I said, ‘Okay’. I have a great coaching staff. I think a lot of things fell into place.”
Searsport got a basket by Brittany Ward to make it 41-37 with 7:10 remaining, but the Vikings couldn’t capitalize on the situation. Rangeley got a drive from Letarte and then a free throw and press breaker basket by Deery-Deraps and the Lakers were up 46-37 with 5:16 left.
The Lakers show some signs of emotion after Esty’s injury but Rangeley also displayed some toughness.
“Throughout the year, we’ve had the saying DIT, it stands for determination, intensity and trust,” Letarte said. “That’s what we focused on the whole year whether we are in school or on the court. That’s what got us here and that’s what got us the win.”
Searsport got within three points four times down the stretch but couldn’t get any closer. The Lakers never wavered. Letarte had six in the fourth while Morin added a pair of baskets. Egan sank two free throws and even Esty came back to hit two free throws. She was sore and struggled to run but she was glad to be back on the court.
“I couldn’t hear anything back there,”Esty said. “I was so focused. I just wanted to get back out and play. I knew they could do it. I believe in my team. We all trust each other.”
Searsport hit a trio of 3’s in the fourth but also shot just 7-for-23 with a number of rushed shots. Rangeley couldn’t be rattled down the stretch as the Lakers finished off the win as Letarte scored all five of her team’s points in the final minute.
“Maintaining our composure is definitely a key factor in a big basketball game like this,” said Letarte. “We wanted to go to the Western Maine’s and that’s what we had to do.”
Rangeley doubled Searport’s rebounding output and forced most of the Vikings offense to come the outside. Searsport struggled as a result, shooting 12-for-38 in the second half. Deery said with two 6-footers in Morin and Esty, rebound should be a strength but it can be easy to get complacent as well.
“The last few weeks we’ve been focusing on rebounding,” Deery said. “We do a rebound drill every single day in practice when we talk abut how our season will be determined on rebounding.”
Searsport led after the first 13-12, thanks to a 7-2 run to finish the quarter. It stayed close in the second. The Lakers had the 24-21 lead after a late Esty 3.
Rangeley opened the third with 10 straight points. Esty had seven during that run and the lead was up to 34-21. The Vikings finished the quarter with a 10-2 surge. Grant had six during that stretch that got Searsport within 39-35 after three.
“I felt like they kept their composure,” said Deery. “That was critical to our success, and I’m really proud of them. We’ve worked really hard and faced a lot of adversity over the years. I’d like to think the maturity we showed today has been something that’s come over the last several years.”