AUGUSTA — Overtimes have not been kind to Mt. Blue in the 2011-12 school year. But the Cougars would have given anything for four more minutes on Friday night.
It wasn’t to be, though. Matt Palmer found Brian Fickett on a schoolyard out of bounds play with 3.4 seconds left and Fickett cooly laid it in to send Hampden Academy back to the Class A state championship game for the first time since 2006.
It wasn’t for lack of resiliency or aggressiveness or opportunism on Mt. Blue’s behalf. It found itself locked in a 10-round clench with Hampden, and when the ref finally broke the fighters up, the Cougars were able to get the flurry they’d been waiting for all night.
Unfortunately for them, Hampden had fought its fight for the first 10 rounds and it wasn’t about to throw in the towel.
The Broncos controlled the tempo and the boards in the first half. Christian McCue didn’t get his first basket until late in the half, but he consistently knifed through the Cougar defense, enough to get to the free-throw line eight times. It was the kind of savvy play that made him Cam Sennick’s co-KVAC Player of the Year.
Mt. Blue quickened the pace for one brief stretch, when Sennick picked Fred Knight’s pocket near midcourt and scored on a layup, then when Steven Yardley found Sennick in transition to pull the Cougars within five at 17-12.
But much like Edward Little did in Wednesday’s scintillating semifinal, Hampden bodied Sennick in the post. In this case, it was the biggest body in Eastern A, the 6-foot-6, 200-something-something-pound Knight.
“We didn’t execute very well. I think we felt a little bit of the pressure,” Mt. Blue coach Jim Bessey said. “They helped down on Cam alot. They ran at him. We had some luck against Edward Little hitting some jump shots, but we had no jump shots early.”
Luckily for the Cougars, Eric Berry attacked the basket and Sennick persevered, and his five points in the third quarter, matched by Berry’s five points, were critical to keep the Cougars in the game while they were searching for something, anything, to change the momentum.
Hampden’s poise in the half-court offense kept the Cougars from making anything close to a run in the third quarter. The Cougars’ dogged effort on defense, going to a 1-3-1 defense and sending their guards on reconnaissance missions anytime the ball moved on the perimeter, finally started to pay off in the fourth quarter. They started generating turnovers and rushed shots, and started to chip away at what was a 10-point deficit entering the final quarter.
“We should have looked to attack a little more on their 1-3-1,” McCue said. “We played not to lose instead of not playing to win. They really got the best of us in the second half, but it’s basketball. Crazy things happen.”
Crazy things like McCue fouling out, which hadn’t happened in his entire varsity career. His fifth foul came with a little under three minutes left, and Hampden lost its poise without its leader, especially when the Broncos’ next best ball-handler, Cam Scott, quickly followed McCue to the bench with his fifth foul.
“When (McCue) fouled out, I think everyone thought we had a shot,” Bessey said. “We picked the tempo up.”
“Without (McCue) on the floor, we’re obviously different,” Hampden coach Russ Bartlett said. “Then having Cam foul out was huge because he’s our next guy to ball-handle. So winning in regulation was key for us. Getting into overtime was going to be difficult.”
A large number of the Cougars who saw the floor Friday — Sennick, Berry, Nick Hilton, Chris Malone, Chad Luker — still have wounds lingering from their last overtime in an Eastern Maine final. It was the Eastern B football final, when they went to double-overtime with Leavitt and lost on a two-point conversion.
But overtime would have played right into their hands this time. No McCue or Scott meant the Broncos would have Palmer, a forward, running the show. All of the pressure would have been on the Broncos without their rudder.
When Blake Hart’s foul-line jumper pulled the Cougars within two with 1:03 left, it seemed the Broncos might crumble. Sennick sank a pair of free throws to tie it, but the Broncos had the ball at the end.
“It’s a chess game with Jim and I,” Bartlett said. “I call a play, he comes out to see the formation and he calls timeout.”
Leavitt did something similar to end Mt. Blue’s football season four months ago, initially sending its kicker out to attempt a game-tying extra point. But Leavitt called a timeout and set up a championship-winning two-point conversion instead.
Bartlett was not bluffing this time.
“We stay in the formation and stay with the play,” he said.
Hampden went for the win, sending Fickett on a back-door cut directly in front of Palmer, who was inbounding on the baseline. Instead of the rushed perimeter shot most teams get in such situations, the Broncos got the best case scenario. Only one man stood between the 6-foot-5 forward and the basket and Fickett didn’t miss.
One desperate halfcourt heave later and the Cougars were left to wonder again what could have been.
“We got to the mountain top. We just couldn’t get over the hump,” Bessey said.
As Mt. Blue knows too well, it is a long fall down from the mountain top.