PORTLAND — Edward Little girls’ basketball was part of something special this winter.

Yes, that is almost impossible for the Red Eddies to comprehend right now. It’s difficult to digest for a school where the newest hardwood state championship trophy belongs to the boys and is older than almost every player’s grandparents.

When the current players achieve that level of, ahem, experience, they will have the opportunity to recall the excitement of playing in Maine’s first Class AA final to anybody who will listen.

Embellishments will be limited by the bottom line of harsh reality. Gorham, undefeated and likely the better team if you extrapolated this one Saturday night showdown into a best-of-seven, won with a late flourish, 46-36, at Cross Insurance Arena.

Not before the Red Eddies riddled the Rams with something that was far from the norm in their push for perfection: A first-class scare.

Down and presumably out after Gorham stretched its lead to a dozen with 1:45 to go in the third quarter, EL erupted for 11 unanswered points. It had everyone on the Spring Street side of the arena daydreaming about how it would feel to party like it’s 1946.

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“We upped it a little bit on the press,” EL coach Craig Jipson said. “I thought during that run we finally rebounded well. Not limiting them to one shot really hurt us. They’re just too good for that.”

Alas, if you’re an Auburnite, Gorham knocked out the next 10 points. The first two, a step-back, fade-away, 18-footer from Emily Esposito that a WNBA star might miss two-out-of-three.

Sometimes you just tip your cap and acknowledge excellence. In Esposito’s case, you’d be saluting 22 points from a 5-foot-10 guard who clutched her bruised ribs frequently and noticeably throughout the game.

“She needs a little bit of time off,” Gorham coach Laughn Berthiaume said. “It wasn’t just the scoring. (It was) the defending, the rebounding, the ball-handling. There’s really no aspect of her game that’s not valuable for us.”

Remarkable that EL kept the junior Division I prospect, and a big, strong, athletic Gorham team, scoreless for four minutes to restore the drama.

And scoring, a mighty struggle since early in the second quarter, came naturally to the Eddies again. Piper Norcross nailed a 3-pointer. Emily Jacques fought her way to the free-throw line for two. Jordyn Reynolds beat the buzzer with a second-chance bucket.

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Surprised? Only if you haven’t paid attention to this group, its guts and its history.

“They’re winners,” Jipson said. “They’ve been to the states in soccer. They’ve been to two regionals in basketball now. They win. They know how to win, and I’m really proud of them. They didn’t quit.”

That tenacity under the offensive boards paid more dividends in the fourth quarter. Norcross notched two via the glass. Reynolds latched onto another carom and rifled the ball to Karli Stubbs for a foul-line jumper.

One-point game, five minutes to play.

Don’t underestimate Gorham’s ability to stifle its stress response, despite that goose egg in the loss column. The Rams survived dogfights with Catherine McAuley and South Portland during the season, rallying from a double-digit deficit to defeat the Red Riots.

“Yeah, I was pretty concerned,” Gorham junior Kristen Curley said. “We were picking each other up, and we knew we could get out of it, but it definitely was a little nervous.”

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By the time EL scored again, a Jacques basket that Gorham essentially conceded in the final minute, the comeback for the ages and the dream of a lifetime had evaporated.

“They hit some backbreaking shots,” Jipson said. “The biggest disappointment was how many second and third shots, because when a team shoots that well, when they miss, you can’t give them another opportunity.”

Another opportunity, another title run, appears inevitable for Gorham. Perhaps more.

Non-starters Molly Merrifield and Emily Bragg are the Rams’ only seniors. Mackenzie Holmes, a 6-foot-2 center with remarkably soft hands and a devastating first step in the paint, is merely a freshman.

Esposito will have one more chance to crush rivals’ championship fantasies before taking her pick of Division I suitors.

“We’ve been in a handful of tight ones, and we practice those situations. We have some pretty competitive practices. There’s nothing like a game situation, but we do prepare for those,” Berthiaume said. “They’ve all got that will to make sure we’re not going to lose. Especially that starting five. They really stuck together.”

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The same can be said for EL. The Red Eddies finally made it to states in their program’s seventh crack at a regional final.

Losses to Lawrence, Oxford Hills, Deering and Bangor galvanized them and molded them into champions.

It was a heck of a run, punctuated by a heck of a run.

“First time down here,” Jipson said, “and the journey with these girls was unbelievable.”

Kalle Oakes is a staff writer. His email is [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @oaksie72 and like his Facebook page at www.facebook.com/kalleoakes.sj.

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