Erskine defenders can’t stop Waterville’s Kali Thompson during a central Maine tournament game last week in South China. Andy Molloy/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

The Waterville girls basketball team went into the fourth quarter of its central Maine tournament semifinal with Erskine down six points. The Purple Panthers came out of it winning by five, having not allowed a point in the period.

Waterville made it to the past two Class B North finals, and with a good amount of players still on the team from those runs, another close finish in an elimination game was nothing new.

“Never,” said Waterville coach Rob Rodrigue, when asked if he worries about his team handling tight moments. “We’ve been down 8-0 in both (tournament) games, and I’ve seen teams in the past get down by eight and it’s 20 before you know it, and the game’s over.

“They’ve been there so many times. They know what it’s like to be the underdog, they know what it’s like to be in that favorite role. They know what it’s like to be down 15. They’ve been in almost every scenario you can think of.”

Experience, veteran poise, leadership or whatever you want to call it is something of a common thread for many of the teams still playing in the central Maine tournament. Many of the 16 teams alive in the A/B and C/D brackets are ones that either have upperclassmen playing key roles, or are programs accustomed to deep playoff runs, or have some other source for that mental toughness that pays off in these games.

“When it’s win or go home … I want to see how some kids respond,” said Rodrigue, whose team relies in the clutch on seniors Kali Thompson, Lindsay Given, Paige St. Pierre and Abby Saucier. “I think that correlation of seniors and tournament-tested teams moving on, I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think there’s some merit to that.”

These games are different than the ones played in front of loud crowds in Augusta, Bangor and Portland. But even in mostly empty gyms, there’s still tension and pressure when the clock is winding down and a game is on the line.

Winthrop’s Logan Baird passes the ball to a teammate against Carrabec in Winthrop. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal Buy this Photo

“This is exactly what I expected,” Winthrop coach Todd MacArthur said. “You have players that want to win, coaches who have the same trait. This is exactly what I expected, that teams are going to go out there and play hard. … Teams are competing and battling.”

Maranacook boys coach Travis Magnusson has as strong a foundation of senior experience to rely on as anyone. In seniors Cash McClure, Casey Cormier, Tim Worster, Joey Dupont, Eljas Bergdahl and Joe Albert, he knows he has a group that has played well in big games.

“For the most part, the bigger the game, the better they’re going to play,” said Magnusson, whose team beat Gardiner 82-55 in the A/B quarters. “The teams that have more seniors are probably looking at this season differently than some of the teams that maybe are younger. Maybe some of the younger teams went into it (wanting) to win their game, but maybe they’re thinking about next year too. When you have a bunch of seniors, you’re not thinking about next year at all. … This is it.”

The team Maranacook will be playing in the semifinals, Messalonskee, is in a similar position. With three seniors, including Mr. Maine Basketball semifinalist Matt Parent, in the lineup and two more serving as the first two players off the bench, coach Jay Dangler knows the ball is in trusted hands when the Eagles face crunch time.

Erskine’s Nate Collins, left, gets his shot blocked by Messalonskee’s James Smith during a game Friday in South China. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“I’m a big believer in senior leadership, especially at the guard position, when you get to the tournament,” Dangler said. “With your seniors, they’ve been there, done that. They’ve seen it, especially a guy like Matt Parent, who’s been a four-year starter. He’s led us every step of the way, and he knows exactly what we need to do in order to win basketball games.”

That showed in a 66-55 victory over Cony in the quarterfinals.

“The intensity is absolutely there,” Dangler said. “You can tell every possession matters, and big shots, rebounds, things like that.”

Sometimes, the culture is as important as the players. Winthrop lost key players from the 2019 Class C championship team, then lost more after winning a second straight title last year, but the Ramblers are rolling again after beating Carrabec 62-52 in the C/D quarters.

“I think culture is an important element in terms of chemistry, focus and knowing how to go about your everyday job,” MacArthur said. “The experience factor is something that sometimes coaches overlook. But to be able to execute with four minutes to go in the game, knowing that you have to do things right, it’s a much easier task if you have been there before than if you’ve never done it.”

The Maranacook girls are led by seniors Gabby Green, Anna Drillen, Kate Mohlar, Natalie Whitten, Paige Trask and Maddy Ballard, but while Karen Magnusson knows the benefits that come with that veteran presence, she said the team’s mentality and approach to the regular season — treating it as competitively as a normal year, even without the guarantee of a postseason tournament — have lifted the team the most.

“Our players and our program wanted everything. They wanted to go and treat it just like any other year, and they didn’t want it to be just ‘Let’s show up and have fun,'” she said. “We wanted to have that energy from Day 1. … I do think that that helped us, and it helped us to get through the tough parts of this season.”

When the time for urgency came, the Black Bears were prepared, coming away with a 51-45 victory over Skowhegan in the A/B quarters.

“That win was the best win we’ve felt, including any games playoff-wise,” Magnusson said. “They got to win last year at the Expo, and every one of them felt like this game felt even better than that.”

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