The MBR boys AAU basketball team had a knack for getting under its opponents’ skin at the recent Junior boys/17u AAU National Championship held at Disney’s Wide World of Sports in Orlando, Fla.

“It was our defense,” Winthrop guard Sam Leclerc said. “We got into the other team’s heads most of the time and they’d just get frustrated and try to go one-on-one. That was to our advantage.”

The Maine contingent rode its defense, versatility and team chemistry to the sweet 16 bracket of the tournament and finished 11th out of 153 AAU teams across the country. It was the best finish ever for a Maine AAU team.

Locals Kyle Philbrook, Ben Hartnett and Eric Prue of Edward Little, Tom Knight of Dirigo, Billy Colasante of St. Dom’s and Evan Kenney of Gray-New Gloucester played for a squad that went 7-2 against some of the top high school-level talent in the country.

Led by coach Carl Parker of Bangor and Lee Academy Prep and sponsored by the Maine Basketball Report, the squad came together shortly after the conclusion of the 2006-07 high school season and meshed quickly.

“We were very fortunate that we had kids that came from very solid programs with excellent coaches,” Parker said. “Gavin Kane from Dirigo, Mike Adams from Edward Little, Dennis Dacus from Winthrop, Roger Reed from Bangor… those guys are all great coaches and their kids expect to win.”

The Mainers won their first five games of the tournament, knocking off teams from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Georgia, New York and Mississippi by an average of nearly nine points per game to get into the medal round. The team from Virginia ended their hopes of a national title with a 55-44 decision, but MBR bounced back with a thrilling 58-57 win over Cincinnati in overtime and an 82-72 decision over Baltimore. Only some cold shooting in the fourth quarter of a 55-51 loss to Georgia separated them from a possible sixth-place finish.

“We had so many different guys stepping up and hitting big shots. If one thing wasn’t going right, we’d go to another,” Leclerc said. “Kris Noonan (from Boothbay) stepped up a lot. Kyle Philbrook stepped up a lot, and so did (Bangor’s) Lee Suvlu and Brandon Tomah (of Calais).”

Parker cited a couple of examples of his team’s relentless play at the defensive end as the key to its success. In one game, Philbrook drew offensive fouls on two consecutive possessions and probably should have had one whistled on the third. And in the loss to Baltimore, the 6-foot-7 Knight blocked three straight shot attempts during one key possession.

“I think that exemplifies how the kids competed,” Parker said. “We had big men that were physically strong enough to compete with the big men on the other teams.”

“Tom Knight is very gifted, and I don’t know that everybody gets a chance to appreciate it (against Maine high school competition),” he added. “In AAU, the games are a little more physical. He’s playing more guys his size, and he was immense in the middle.”

Knight and Noonan provided plenty of toughness in the middle, while the versatility of perimeter players such as Leclerc, Philbrook, Tomah and Mattanawcook’s Derek Libbey, the team’s leading scorer, allowed Parker to put different combinations on the floor to suit the situation.

Knight averaged 8.7 points per game, scoring a personal high of 17 in the first game. Philbrook chipped in with four points per game. Leclerc was the second-leading scorer, averaging 14.9 ppg, but more importantly, provided leadership on the floor.

“Sam Leclerc has a lot of experience,” Parker said. “He was like another coach on the floor because he knew what I expected, and it all came together when he was in there.”

While the roster was stocked with players who were the top scorers for their respective school teams, Parker said each subjugated his own game and did what they had to to help the team win. Leclerc agreed, noting that keeping the egos in check was easy because the players hit it off so well.

“It was an incredible experience,” he said. “One of the reasons we played so well is because we were so close off the floor. That’s one of the reasons that all of us are going to remember this for the rest of our lives.”

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