Russell, Cougars upend Rams

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FARMINGTON – Mt. Blue High School honored boys’ basketball coach Jim Bessey before Saturday’s game with Bangor for picking up his 400th win earlier in the season. Then the Cougars and Bessey celebrated by picking up one of their biggest regular-season victories in a while.

“To be perfectly honest, I was more nervous about (the pregame ceremony) than I was about the game,” Bessey said. “As soon as that was over, I felt better already.”

Ben Russell helped Bessey relax, coming off the bench to score a team-high 18 points, including 12 of 12 free throws in the second half, as Mt. Blue knocked off previously unbeaten Bangor, 54-46 in a match-up of the two top teams in the KVAC North.

“Ben Russell has been playing very, very well in practice, and he played very well up there,” Bessey said. “He was tremendous in the clutch, made his foul shots.”

The Cougars (9-3) avenged a 61-57 overtime loss to Bangor earlier in the season by being the aggressor at both ends and taking control in the second quarter.

“We learned in the first game that we definitely needed to push the ball more when we had the opportunity,” Russell said.

The game started out as a defensive standoff, tied at seven at the end of one. Mt. Blue took the lead for good on Noah Paytas’ baseline jumper with 5:18 left in the second quarter. The Cougars then started to get the fast pace they wanted by forcing turnovers with their full-court press. Russell drilled back-to-back 3-pointers, the second coming off his own steal, and put Mt. Blue up 20-12 with 2:53 to go in the half.

“We knew he was a shooter (and) we knew that (Isaiah) Brathwaite was a shooter,” Bangor coach Roger Reed said. “We never got out on him, didn’t contest a shot, and he hit two big 3s, and we decided to leave our zone at that point.

Reed called a time out to switch his defense to man-to-man, but it did little good. Brathwaite (12 points, five rebounds) worked a nice backdoor play with Art Trask (seven points) and added a 3-pointer and a free throw to get the lead into double digits. The Cougars then put an exclamation point on the period.

With time running out, Adam Gilbert dove for a loose ball at Bangor’s end, got it to Trask at halfcourt, who then passed ahead to Russell under Mt. Blue’s hoop, who found a streaking Joe Gilbert down the middle of the lane for a lay-up just before the buzzer that made it 28-17 at halftime.

“Joe made a great play,” Russell said. “I saw him behind me, so I jumped up in the air and caught it and passed him the ball.”

“As soon as we got ahead, the tempo picked up, and our quickness, I think, bothered them some,” Bessey said. “Their size, of course, bothered us a great deal, too.”

The third quarter looked a lot like the first. Both teams combined to shoot 3-for-20 from the field and scored just seven points each in the period as several players started to get into foul trouble. The Rams weren’t able to get any closer than seven points for much of the final period, until Gallant (25 points, nine rebounds) scored five straight points to make it 49-44 with under a minute left. But Jamie Sawyer (seven points), scored and Trask and Russell combined to make three of four free throws to put the game away.

Led by sophomores Russell and Sawyer, Mt. Blue’s bench outscored Bangor’s, 27-2.

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