Champions, at last — Lakers break through, down MDI

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LEADING THE WAY — Laker senior center Tiana-Jo Carter scored a game-high 21 points to go along with 15 rebounds and six blocked shots in last Friday's state championship victory over Mount Desert Island. (Rivet Photo)
'Miss" Basketball finalist
Tiana-Jo Carter, a senior at Lake Region High School, is one of three finalists for the Miss Maine Basketball Award, as announced this week by the Maine Association of Basketball Coaches (MABC) and local Maine McDonald's owner/operators.
Carter, who led the Lakers to a Class B state title with a 21-point effort against Mt. Desert Island, joins Allie Clement of Catherine McAuley, which won the Class A title, and Parise Rossignol of Van Buren H.S.
The six finalists (three girls, three boys) will be honored at the Maine McDonald’s High School Senior All-Star Awards Banquet this Friday, March 7 at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. Mr. and Miss Maine Basketball will be announced as well. The award, the state's highest basketball honor, recognizes players’ performances on the court as well as their contributions to their team and basketball in the state of Maine.

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

BANGOR — As Sarah Hancock placed her hands on her knees and bent over slightly, tears started to fill her eyes.

With 17.9 seconds remaining on the game clock, the junior point guard could only stare straight ahead as two foul shots floated into the air.

Unlike a year ago or even two seasons ago, these tears were not the end result of another disappointing loss on high school basketball’s biggest stage.

Instead, the tears were of joy. The 0–6 curse had finally been broken. After watching their “Laker heroes,” as little kids, come up short, these Lady Lakers had finally captured the coveted Gold Ball — the school’s first girls’ state championship title since the Maine High School Invitational Tournament started in 1975.

Behind a dominant 21-point, 15-rebound and 6 blocked shot effort by senior center Tiana-Jo Carter, Lake Region completed a magical 21–1 season with a 56–47 victory over Mt. Desert Island Friday night at the new Cross Center in Bangor.

“During the tournament this year, I really didn’t feel like I had the best of games. Being my senior year and knowing I don’t get another shot at it, I really wanted to be sure that I gave my team everything that I had and help win the Gold Ball,” Carter said.

The Lakers trailed just three times early in the first quarter against the Trojans (19–3) and showed a steady will when MDI erased a 10-point deficit with a furious run just before halftime to trail by just a bucket, 23–21.

“I thought we played great from the opening tip. We did everything we wanted to do. We wanted to play fast, but at the same time, we didn’t want to force quick shots. Ball movement and the way we were attacking the zone was excellent. We were playing from the inside, out. Tiana was getting a lot of touches and making some great passes,” LR Coach Paul True said.

Over the first three minutes, the teams quickly got a feel for what each other hoped to accomplish.

The Lakers used a crisp, precise passing game to find holes in MDI’s zone defense. Patience, along with multiple touches by Carter, resulted in high percentage shots, as well as wide open looks as the Trojans tried to double up on Carter in the low post.

Even when the Trojans clogged the lane, Carter displayed nice shooting touch near the rim, either scoring on baby hook shots or driving to the rack.

The Lakers closed out the first frame with a 6–0 run as Jordan Turner converted a zip pass from Carter, Miranda Chadbourne scored off an offensive rebound, and Carter netted a hook shot for a 11–6 Laker lead.

“I knew we had to play our game — Laker basketball. We need to get the ball inside to Tiana, inside-out and not jacking threes off the first pass and play solid defense. Play the way we play, and nothing more,” Sarah Hancock said. “We take pride in our defense because it is one of the best things that we do. We lock down and take it personally when people try to score against us. We play as hard as we can for as long as the possession lasts. We never give up.”

After seeing two shots rejected in back-to-back possessions, MDI players settled on outside jumpers. Junior guard Sarah Phelps (11 points) had the hot hand early, connecting on a baseline drive and later on a 3-pointer. But, MDI also saw three perimeter jumpers fall short of the basket.

Many guards can attest that LR sophomore Sierra (CeCe) Hancock can be quite a pest on the defensive side. Add MDI players to the list. Hancock sparked a second quarter uprising with a steal and a 3-pointer as the Lakers seemed ready to blow open the game, building a 18–9 lead. MDI went nearly five minutes without scoring a point as Hannah Shaw picked up her third personal foul, trying to take away the baseline as Carter attempted to dribble away from the hoop after scooping up a defensive rebound with 5:13 left.

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DRIVING TO THE BASKET — Lake Region guard Sierra (CeCe) Hancock drives past MDI defenders during the Class B state championship game at the Cross Center in Bangor.
LAKERS (56)
Tiana-Jo Carter 9-3-21, Miranda Chadbourne 1-0-2, Lucy Fowler 0-0-0, Sarah Hancock 2-3-7, CeCe Hancock 3-5-13, Kristen Huntress 1-0-3, Spencer True 0-0-0, Jordan Turner 3-4-10, Meghan VanLoan 0-0-0.
3-Pointers: CeCe Hancock (2), Kristenn Huntress.
Turnovers: 6-5-4-4 — 19
Free Throws: 15-24 (63%); Turner 4-6, C. Hancock 5-7, Carter 3-5, Sa. Hancock 3-6
Rebounds (29): Carter 15, Turner 6, Fowler 1, Chadbourne 1, True 1, VanLoan 2, Huntress 1, Sa. Hancock 1
Blocked shots: Carter 6
MT. DESERT ISLAND (47)
Molly Carroll 0-0-0, Haley Littlefield 1-0-3, Keely McConomy 0-2-2, Sierra Myrick 2-0-6, Sara Norberg 0-0-0, Sarah Phelps 4-2-11, Hannah Shaw 4-5-13, Kelsey Shaw 2-0-4, Sierra Tapley 4-0-8.
3-Pointers: Haley Littlefield, Sierra Myrick (2), Sarah Phelps.
Turnovers: 4-4-2-4 — 14
Free Throws: 9-13 (69%); H. Shaw 5-9, Phelps 2-2, K. McConomy 2-2
Rebounds (22): K. Shaw 5, Phelps 5, Myrick 1, Tapley 3, McConomy 1, H. Shaw 7
Blocked shots: Myrick

Outside shooting specialist Sierra Myrick broke the run with a trey at 3:04, but Hancock answered with her own 3-pointer at 2:42.

With Shaw becoming a non-factor due to foul trouble, the Trojans received a huge lift from sophomore guard Sierra Tapley, who came off the bench to score six of the team’s last eight points before intermission to give MDI some hope.

“When we got into the locker room, we were a little stressed and flustered. I told them we were up two, we were fine. It’s our game to win. We deserve this. We’ve worked so hard and don’t let your emotions get in the way. We knew we wanted it more than they did,” Hancock said.

Coach True felt his team was still in a good place, despite the late MDI surge.

“Halftime was a moment of refocusing. All week long, we had talked about playing in the middle of the floor. They want to trap up and down the sideline. During that stretch, we put the ball where we knew it would be difficult to pass out of due to their length and athleticism,” Coach True said. “I think it was a matter of fatigue. They brought in some high energy (the Tapley girl really gave them a spark). The key was we never let them get over the top. We still had a lead. We needed to rest and refocus.”

Carter took control of the game in the third quarter by scoring six points, collecting eight rebounds and blocking two shots as the Lakers built a 37–29 lead.

“We really worked hard to keep our composure no matter what. We knew there would be times during a game that things weren’t going to go our way. We had to make sure we stayed positive and pick each other up when we were down. Halftime couldn’t have come at a better time. We were a little frustrated. Some people were mad. We knew yelling at each other wasn’t what was going to win this game. We needed to get back to what we did in the first quarter and stick to it,” Carter said. “We felt the third quarter was going to be big for us. We were going to get at it and lock it down. We were pumped. I’ve been dealing with trying to play in tight quarters all season — actually all four years. It’s difficult, at times. There is always a spot where there aren’t any people, so I have to be quick and react. You get to that spot, make a quick move and shoot.”

MDI managed to stay in striking range, but had their hopes dampened with 9.7 seconds left when Shaw (who had scored just two points) was whistled for her fourth foul attempting to come up with a steal against LR guards away from the basket. She would remain on the bench until 5:37 left in the game — at that point, the Lakers had pushed their lead to 43–33 as Carter scored four points and Turner (10 points) drained a baseline jumper despite a sore hand, which had five stitches as the result of her being in a car accident earlier in the week.

“Even when (Hannah) Shaw went out, I never sensed that our girls relaxed,” Coach True said.

With Sarah Hancock coolly and smoothly running the point and Carter dominating the backboards at both ends (five rebounds in a three-minute stretch), the Lakers opened up a 46–33 lead with 4:05 left.

MDI struggled on the offensive end as players pressed to make a play, resulting in three turnovers.

Shaw scored her first field goal of the game with 3:34 left, but the Trojans would be unable to make a serious comeback run as the Lakers went 8-of-13 from the foul line over the final four minutes.

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SPLITTING THE DEFENSE — Lake Region's Jordan Turner (left) and Sarah Hancock attempt to defend their basket from MDI's Hannah Shaw. (Rivet Photo)

“The experience from last year’s game where we had a lead in the fourth quarter and lost it really had an impact in this game. The kids did an unbelievable job of taking care of the basketball,” Coach True said. “We knew it wasn’t a MDI strength to come out of the zone and match up against us. If we could play with a lead in the fourth quarter, they would have to come out of the zone.”

Even though the Lakers appeared to have a comfortable cushion heading down the home stretch, worry cascaded over entire Laker Nation when Carter hit the deck with 2:49 left, suffering a severe ankle sprain. She appeared ready to bank home a wide open layup attempt off a pass from Turner, but had the shot blocked from behind by MDI sophomore forward Kelsey Shaw.

All eyes seemed focused on Carter along the sideline as she attempted to put pressure on the injured ankle with trainer Alex Gunnerson by her side.

“It was the most painful thing I’ve been through. I really thought I was done for the rest of the game. I was really upset, thinking I would not go back into the game — my last game ever here. My ankle hurt so bad. I decided I could worry about the pain later. I tied my shoe and told coach I could do this,” Carter said. “It was awesome to hear the crowd when I went back into the game. We have such a great community here, so supportive. And it’s not just Lake Region, it comes from all over. I am so thankful for the support we have. It’s amazing. They are a big part of what we’ve been able to accomplish.”

Coach True faced a dilemma about whether to bring back his star center.

“It was two-fold. I was sad and upset for Tiana personally because of how hard she has worked. I wanted her to be able to finish the game. In terms of the game itself, I felt great, either way. We had 2 minutes 50 seconds with an 8- to 10-point lead and guards who were doing a great job taking care of the ball. At the same time, your heart breaks for a moment that the thought of her not being able to return enters your mind,” he said. “She has earned that moment. Jordan with her hand has earned that opportunity, that moment. So, I felt that if Tiana felt she was ready to go and Alex (the trainer) felt we weren’t putting her at danger or risk putting her back onto the floor, she had earned that opportunity. What a great way to cap off a stellar career and display the courage she has.”

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TEARS OF JOY — Senior Jordan Turner sheds a few tears of joy after winning the Class B state championship. She receives congratulatory words from Laker Head Coach Paul True. (Rivet Photo)
LAKERS (21-1)
Regular season
Lakers 59, Fryeburg 29
Lakers 52, Cape Elizabeth 38
Lakers 57, York 27
Wells 44, Lakers 36
Lakers 56, Falmouth 45
Lakers 43, Gray-NG 36
Lakers 73, Poland 45
Lakers 54, Fryeburg 32
Lakers 60, Freeport 38
Lakers 59, Gray-NG 41
Lakers 62, Waynflete 37
Lakers 65, Falmouth 34
Lakers 73, Kennebunk 25
Lakers 52, Greely 34
Lakers 56, Freeport 38
Lakers 47, Yarmouth 29
Lakers 58, Poland 44
Lakers 64, York 50
Playoffs
Lakers 58, York 42
Lakers 43, Greely 32
Lakers 59, Wells 51
Lakers 56, Mt. Desert Island 47

Meanwhile, Sarah Hancock would not allow MDI to take advantage of Carter’s absence. Hancock’s good court vision spotted that the Trojans were slow to retreat into the defensive zone, so she made a beeline to the hoop and scored with 2:16 left. Hancock would later convert 3-of-6 foul shots.

“We knew we had to stay composed. We learned a lot from the Wells game that we had to protect the basketball and make our foul shots. I thought we did a good job staying strong with the basketball and keeping possessions. Everyone played a huge role in the fourth quarter,” Hancock said.

With two minutes left, Laker Nation erupted when Carter checked back into the game. Although gimpy and grimacing at times, Carter refused to end her high school career watching the final minutes on the bench.

“When I came out for the last time and looked up at the clock and saw there were only seconds left, I wondered for a minute if I was dreaming, whether this was really happening. We’ve worked so hard and were finally there. We just won a Gold Ball!” Carter said. “I am so proud of my team and coaches. It was everything I’ve dreamed about, minus the ankle pain. It was the greatest feeling in the world.”

Turner, who had watched the Lakers fall at the hands of Presque Isle last year as a spectator (having moved to Bangor and she attended John Bapst High School), closed out an incredible run with a pair of foul shots with 17.9 seconds left.

“It was really exciting shooting and making those free throws. It felt really good knowing by making those shots we were going to win,” Turner said. “It was unbelievable. It didn’t really register until we had the Gold Ball in our hands. Winning for Coach True really meant a lot to all of us. He works so hard. He’s such a great coach. We knew it meant a lot to him.”

Emotion poured out from players to coaches to Laker fans.

“I knew we had won and it was so overwhelming. Having lost two in a row, we know how brutal and depressing it is to come up short. As I watched Jordan sink those foul shots, I finally realized it, ‘We did it!’ I couldn’t control it, I just started crying,” Hancock said.

When the horn sounded and the Laker celebration began, Sarah Hancock looked out into the stands and pointed to her dad, Matt.

“My dad stood up and started fist bumping. It was just really exciting. We know how fortunate we are to be in this situation. Few teams make it to the playoffs, and we’ve been to three straight championships — that’s amazing,” Hancock said. “To be able to share that with my dad — he knows exactly how it feels, he’s given us advice and support — is special.”

Basketball has always been a special bond between father and daughters. Now, Sarah and her sister, CeCe, achieved something their dad accomplished back in 1985 — they each won Gold Balls.

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WE DID IT! — Senior Tiana-Jo Carter shares a hug with freshman Kristen Huntress after the Lakers claimed their first girls' state title since 1975. (Rivet Photo)

Coach True could finally breathe a sigh of relief.

“A number of thoughts went through my head in a short period of time. I heard Coach Webb behind me emotionally say, ‘We did it. We finally did it!’ I think of my dad and how proud and happy he would be. I think of my mom, who I couldn’t be more pleased that she was able to be at the game. And, my wife, who I knew would be an emotional basket case, who does so many things being the scene. Family, community and all the kids who have put on the uniform that didn’t get to celebrate that moment. I thought about all of those kids,” he said.

He would later receive congratulatory e-mails and Tweets. One came at 2:30 a.m. from former player Kate Callahan, who is in Colorado.

“I told her that this all started in 2005–2006, when all of you inspired the kids who have the uniform on today. That’s what special about the community. They start a legacy that other kids want to live up to,” Coach True said.

 

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