AUGUSTA – Two teams, two contrasting styles, two chess-master coaches, and two clutch free throws to decide it all.

Wednesday night’s Eastern Class A semifinal followed the script right down to the final buzzer.

Alex Gallant swished two free throws with 13.8 seconds to go to give second-seeded Bangor the lead for good in a thrilling 57-55 victory over No. 3 Mt. Blue. Bangor will meet No. 5 Messalonskee in the regional final Friday night.

“All day at practice, all I did was shoot foul shots, literally,” said Gallant, who, like most of the Rams, struggled from the line (10-for-19) for the majority of the game, “I was a little ticked I wasn’t making them in the first, but I’m glad I made those last ones.”

Mt. Blue (16-4), which handed Bangor its only loss on Jan. 22 and led by as much as 11 in the third quarter, had two chances to respond. The Cougars called time after Gallant’s free throws to set up a play, but point guard Art Trask got trapped among Bangor’s trees in the lane in front of the basket and had his shot blocked by 6-foot-5 center Ryan Weston.

“I was fortunate enough to get a hand on it. I saw him going up with it and I was like ‘I can hit that without fouling him,” Weston said. “So I was fortunate enough to get a piece of it.”

“We were looking over the top for Isaiah (Brathwaite),” said Mt. Blue coach Jim Bessey. “If we didn’t get that, then Artie was supposed to do exactly what he did – try to get a split and just make a play.”

Weston was fouled almost immediately after the block and converted the second of two free throws to make it a two-point game with 2.8 seconds left. Trask (11 points) got the ball over halfcourt, but his pass attempt to Jamie Sawyer was deflected as time ran out.

Gallant, who carried Bangor (19-1) through a rough first half, finished with 23 points and eight rebounds. But the key for the Rams was settling down against Mt. Blue’s full-court pressure in the second half and pounding the ball inside to Weston, who scored 14 of his 16 points after intermission.

“Obviously, we had to stop turning the ball over. We had 12 turnovers at halftime. And I felt we had to do a lot better job of making some stops in the second half,” Bangor coach Roger Reed said. “We got the ball to (Weston), and he just started to play. That made a big difference.”

“I thought we played them about as well as you could expect, but they do have a physical presence out there, no question about that,” Bessey said. “I think we got a little hurried, a little rushed and maybe lost a little bit of our poise. We didn’t get shots at the basket, and we had some critical, critical turnovers down the stretch.”

It seemed like Mt. Blue was forcing all of the turnovers in the first half. The full-court pressure and trapping offset some dead-eye shooting by the Rams (5-for-7 in the first quarter, 60 percent for the half) when they did hold on to the ball. Ben Russell hit a 3 at the end of the first quarter to put the Cougars in front.

No one but Gallant could get anything going offensively for the Rams in the second quarter when he scored all nine of their points in the frame. Mt. Blue more than kept pace with a couple of hoops each from Adam Gilbert and Noah Paytas and a 3 from Brathwaite (23 points) to take a 29-20 lead into halftime.

Bangor immediately went to Weston to start the second half and continued to look for him on the block. Mt. Blue continued to press, yet slowly but surely, the pace of the game began to slow down in the Rams’ favor.

“We figured they were (going to go inside) because we got into foul trouble, and we figured they’d take advantage of that,” Brathwaite said. “We tried to keep the tempo, but it was tough.”

The only concern for Bangor was Mt. Blue wasn’t missing (4-for-4 from behind the arc, 12-for-13 from the free throw line) through the first three quarters. Gallant and Weston combined to score the final six points of the third quarter to whittle an 11-point deficit down to five heading into the final quarter. More importantly, perhaps, the Rams turned the ball over just four times in the second half.

“They’re very quick. They pressure very well,” Weston said. “We didn’t handle it very well, but once we calmed down, I thought our guards did a very, very good job of handling that pressure, especially in the second half.”

One of those guards, Lee Suvlu, knocked down three big shots in the fourth quarter, the last of which, a putback, made it 53-51 Cougars with 1:45 to go. After Paytas (10 points) fouled out and Gallant added a free throw to make it a one-point game, Russell, a sophomore who was the hero of the Cougars’ win over the Rams when he made 12 of 12 free throws in the second half, missed the front end of a one-and-one.

That allowed Bangor to take its first lead since the first quarter on a Weston lay-up with 44 seconds to go. Mt. Blue seized the lead one last time with less than half a minute left when, on an out-of-bounds play, Sawyer spotted Trask on a backdoor cut along the baseline for a lay-up that made it 55-54.


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