PORTLAND — “What-ifs” and “woulda-coulda-shouldas” abound at tournament time, but none was greater Saturday than this:
What if Falmouth’s Jack Cooleen didn’t have a career day in his team’s first playoff test after an undefeated season?
The answer likely would have been a Poland Knights victory.
But Cooleen, the team’s senior leader and only member with any playoff experience, wasn’t going to let the regular season be all for naught. He led the Yachtsmen with 26 points and added 14 rebounds to lead top-seeded Falmouth to a nail-biting 55-47 win over No. 9 Poland at the Portland Expo.
“Last year we lost a lot of close games,” Cooleen said. “We had pretty much the same talent, but were losing these close ones. I think the close ones we had last year, we learned how to play in those situations, and we came out on top this year.”
Logan Nichols countered with 20 points for the Knights, including 14 in the second half.
The game began as a laugher.
The Knights drew the ninth seed in part due to serious midseason injury problems that halted an early run of success.
Now at full strength, Poland figured to keep the game close from the beginning. Instead, the Yachtsmen bolted out to a 16-0 advantage in the first quarter.
“It was a quick lead right off the top, it was nice,” Cooleen said. “It happened the first time we played against them, too. We got out to a big lead and it ended up being a close game.”
The same happened Saturday. The Knights chipped away, slowly but surely. By halftime, the Yachtsmen’s lead was only five, at 28-23.
“This team is tough; it’s a special team,” Poland coach Tyler Tracy said. “That’s kind of our season. We keep getting checked and knocked down, but we keep standing back up. I’m really proud of them. Not many teams have been down 16-0 and scratched away and come back.”
Cooleen was a big reason for Falmouth’s early success. He scored 10 in the first, and another eight in the second.
“We had to make several different adjustments,” Tracy said. “Cooleen, he’s a senior, he’s a leader and he’s going to step up in these games. We just had to work down on him. It worked for a little bit, but their perimeter players are too good to be able to do that for too long before they start to get going.”
In the second half, Poland kept the game within reach. In the fourth, the Knights completed the comeback, sending their large section of fans into a frenzy.
But two chances to take a lead after Falmouth turnovers came and went without points.
“That would have been huge,” Tracy said. “We had two possessions where we had great looks to take the lead. That layup, and an open shot at the end. We had a great crowd today, and I think if we’d put that one in over the edge, we could have caught a second wind.”
Nichols led the fourth-quarter charge, answering each Cooleen strike with one of his own.
“It was, at one point, just get the ball to Logan,” Tracy said.
A contested layup for Poland went out of bounds, Falmouth recovered to score the next seven points, and then the Yachtsmen kept the game at arm’s length from there to earn a berth in the Western B semifinal.
“It was just a big momentum shift in our direction at that point,” Cooleen said.
“We came out very strong, I don’t know if everyone was expecting that, but I know we were,” Cooleen added. “It’s been happening all year that we’ll get a 12- or 14-point-lead, then we end up losing it. We start playing for ourselves instead of the team. It happened again in this game. But once we started playing for the team again in the fourth quarter, we started to break away again.”
Falmouth will face No. 4 York in the semifinal round next week after the Wildcats took out Leavitt on Saturday.