True: ‘We fought to the finish’

By Wayne E. Rivet

Staff Writer

TIGHT SPACE — Lake Region guard Sydney Hancock tries to split Presque Isle defenders Meredith Stewart (5’11’’ on left) and Hannah Graham (5’10’’) during last Friday night’s Class B State Championship game at the Bangor Auditorium. (Photo by Greg Van Vliet/www.lakeregionphotography.com)

BANGOR — They had their shot.

With the final seconds ticking off the clock Friday night, a feisty Lake Region girls’ basketball team saw a chance to win a Gold Ball rattle off the rim at the Bangor Auditorium.

Presque Isle dodged a bullet and captured the Class B title with a thrilling 49-47 victory.

“At the end of the day, we had a chance to win it,” Lake Region Coach Paul True said. “I’ll take that every time.”

The Lakers seemed to catch a break in the waning moments as Presque Isle’s Chandler Guerrette, who made one free throw with 29.3 seconds left to give the Wildcats a two-point lead, missed the front end of a 1-and-1 with 9.7 seconds.

LR center Tiana-Jo Carter secured the rebound, and the Lakers made the quick push up the floor. Senior Allison Clark had a wide-open look from the left wing, but her 3-point try dinged the backside of the rim. Carter pulled down the offensive rebound (her 17th on the night), but before she could try a game-tying shot, the ball was stripped out of her hands by PI’s Kayla Richards and time ran out as the Wildcats claimed their second Class B crown and completed an unbeaten season.

“That is exactly what we set up to run. Seven seconds left to go, their girl is on the line for a 1-and-1, we put Sarah and Syd on the third and four spots on the lane, and whatever side the ball came off, that’s where we wanted the outlet, and we wanted to dribble, drive and penetrate. We had Allison on one side and Abby on the other. If they took away penetration, then we wanted to kick it out and win the game. I’ll take that and Allison shooting the ball night in and night out,” Coach True said. “One play doesn’t determine if you win or lose the game. So, I couldn’t be more proud of Allison for being in there at the end of the game and having the guts to take that shot. She’s worked hard for us.”

For the fourth time since 2006, the Lakers (19-3) came up empty in the state finals. Yet, Coach True reminded his players of the tremendous achievements they accomplished this season.

“You can’t always focus on the destination or the prize. You have to take some time to reflect and enjoy the journey. I couldn’t be more proud of the kids about the way they fought here tonight,” he said. “This one game is not going to define me. I am so proud of what we’ve accomplished with our program. At the end of the day, we had chances to win. I’ll take that at every state championship game I’m in. To some degree — we’ve been in the State Finals four of our eight years here — I am not sure that all our kids realize that we’re very fortunate to be here. We’ve enjoyed this experience. Our community and fans have been unbelievable. I am just a proud coach tonight.”

STRONG DRIVE TO THE HOOP — Lake Region center Tiana-Jo Carter scores over Presque Isle’s Meredith Stewart (left) and Kayla Richards. (Photo by Greg Van Vliet/www.lakeregionphotography.com)

As they did all season, the Lakers battled from start to finish. Players admitted nerves and an overwhelming atmosphere inside the Mecca resulted in an up and down first 8 minutes.

“In the beginning, nerves were getting the best of us. We were excited, but we were nervous as well. After running around a little bit, I thought we calmed down and felt we could win this game,” said Carter who scored 17 points to go along with 17 rebounds and 5 blocked shots. “The crowd noise was crazy. I thought it was pretty cool. Every time a shot was made, you’d hear this loud crowd noise. It was a great experience.”

Senior Abby Craffey, who saw three outside 3-point tries fall short in the opening quarter, also felt caught up in the moment, at first.

“It was so exciting. This atmosphere was unlike anything I have ever played in. The nerves started in the second you came out onto the floor. After the first couple of minutes, we were able to get our focus on the game,” she said. “I rushed a few shots early because they came right out on me. After I took a couple of shots, I seemed to get into a groove.”

Like her games in Portland, Craffey hit several big 3-pointers to score 13 points and rally the Lakers.

The Lakers coolly handled the Wildcats’ pressure on their first two trips down the floor as Carter scored with two shots off the glass for a 4-0 lead. Carter was sharp, accounting for the Lakers’ first seven points. The Cats rallied as Guerrette connected on a 3-pointer to spark a 7-2 PI run to end the quarter.

Turnovers plagued the Lakers in the second quarter. Several times, players were open down the court against the Wildcats’ press, but long passes sailed too far and out of bounds.

“They didn’t do anything that we weren’t prepared for. I think the first and second quarter was more about the atmosphere. We settled down, and did a better job,” junior guard Sydney Hancock said. “It was insane (out there). They had an incredible fan base, and we’ve been really blessed to have the number of fans that come out and support us. It was crazy, a real memorable experience.”

Presque Isle (22-0) converted off the miscues as Karlee Bernier drilled a 3-pointer off a quick push up the floor and Guerrette knocked down a trey to put the Cats up eight points with 3:17 left in the half.

Craffey kept the Lakers close by burying a pair of 3-pointers. LR went to the lockerroom staring at a 26-19 deficit.

If there was one major difference between this Laker squad and last year’s team, there was no panic amongst this feisty group.

“Coach True told us to believe in ourselves. I am proud of every one of my teammates for how hard they worked throughout the game,” Craffey said.

Hancock added, “We know that’s what happens in basketball. One team gets a lead and the other comes back. We knew we could get back into this game, and we did.”

Some adjustments were made, but the main point of emphasis was simply to execute better.

“Early on, we didn’t execute, in particular our press breaker which we had been working on for the last week. I think there was a little lack of focus, getting caught up in the atmosphere. They just kept fighting,” Coach True said. “One turnover didn’t lead to two or three. I thought when we did turn the ball over, a lot of times we defended and the next time we went back at them. We had some breakdowns knowing their personnel — who is left-handed and who is right- handed — we struggled with that a lot, but at the end of the day, they have some very good players and our kids fought right to the end.”

Presque Isle kept the pressure on the Lakers throughout the third quarter. Carter scored the Lakers’ first six points inside the paint. Midway through the third, Carter picked up her third foul. Coach True kept his center in the game, and she responded with three rebounds and a blocked shot.

LR freshman guard Sarah Hancock shook off an unsettled first quarter by dishing the ball to Craffey for a lay-up to pull her club to within 30-27. She then scored on a bank shot and later added two foul shots as the Lakers trailed 34-31.

Because the Wildcats were involved in many blowouts during the regular season, rookie players like freshman Krystal Kingsbury enjoyed major varsity minutes off the bench. That play time paid dividends for PI as Kingsbury scored and added two foul shots to keep the Cats ahead. A Guerrette foul line jumper at the buzzer gave the Wildcats a 38-32 lead headed into the final eight minutes.

The fourth quarter had the Mecca rocking.

LR closed to within two points as Carter converted an offensive rebound, Sarah Hancock scored off her own miss, and Sydney Hancock stole the ball and scored with 6:20 left.

Coach True faced a major decision at the 6:16 mark as Carter was whistled for her fourth foul trying to bring down an offensive rebound. Keep her in or take her out? Coach True rolled the dice.

“We made a decision in the third quarter when she picked up her third foul to take her out for a short time. We went from down one to down five. In the fourth, I called timeout and told her we were playing for a state championship and we were going to play it out with Tiana on the floor,” Coach True said.

Carter responded with a tremendous blocked shot.

“I just decided that this was our last game, and I didn’t want it to end with me sitting on the bench. I tried to stay active without fouling,” she said.

Laker Nation erupted when Craffey swished a straight-away 3-pointer with 5:35 left to put LR up, 41-40.

Richards knocked down a jumpshot to give PI a 42-41 lead, but Sarah Hancock found enough open space inside the lane for a quick shot to put LR back in the lead, 43-42.

Following a Chelsea Nickerson score, the Lakers tied the game at 44-44 as Sydney Hancock made one of two foul shots. LR regained the lead as Hancock sank another free throw with 2:07 left.

Richards’ quick first step enabled the PI senior guard to beat her defender for a short shot inside for a 46-45 Cat lead with 1:53 remaining.

The Lakers took their final lead with 1:12 left as Sarah Hancock fed Sydney Hancock for a score to go up 47-46.

PI center Meredith Stewart connected on a clutch shot just inside the foul line with 58.4 seconds to go as the Cats went up 48-47.

Lake Region tried to answer with a lob pass to Carter close to the basket, but the ball was tipped away. Forced to foul, the Lakers sent Guerrette to the line. She made one of two foul shots with 29.3 ticks left.

LR had a chance to tie, but Sydney Hancock was called for a travel as she tried to sidestep two defenders in the lane with 11.4 seconds left.

Guerrette could have iced the victory by making two foul shots with 9.7 seconds to go, but missed the front end of the 1-and-1 to give the Lakers one final shot.

When Clark, who made several key 3-point shots during the regular season and playoffs, pulled the trigger, PI Coach Jeff Hudson thought the shot was going to drop through the twines.

It didn’t.

“I haven’t been in a situation like that in all of the four years I’ve been here. I thought it was my fault that we lost, but there are a lot of plays that add up to how a game finishes. I felt awful,” Clark said.

Trying to support her dejected teammate, Carter quickly put an arm around Clark as they headed to the bench after the final buzzer sounded.

“I told her it wasn’t her fault, and that we lost as a team,” Carter said.

Carter was proud of how her team battled all game and made a statement to Presque Isle, whose fans thought the Wildcats would easily roll to a state title.

“We were talked down about how we weren’t going to win against Leavitt and then Presque Isle, and that they were going to blow us out of the water. We came here to prove them wrong. We didn’t come out with the win, but we showed them that we are a good team,” Carter said. “We had a great season. We didn’t come out with a win this time, but we’re going to work harder and come back out next season in hopes of coming home with a Gold Ball.”

In the crowded lobby outside the gym, one fan added, “We don’t need a Gold Ball to prove who we are.”

Disappointed and with tears in her eyes, Craffey said she was “proud to be a Laker” and reaching the State Finals was a “huge accomplishment.”

“I am so proud to have been a part of this huge journey and play in a state championship game in my senior year. I couldn’t be more proud and in awe. It was an amazing experience,” she said.

Sydney Hancock was proud of how the Lakers responded down the stretch. “I am really proud of how our team kept their heads in the game. It was a battle to the finish. They hit a shot. We hit a shot. In the end, it could have gone our way, but didn’t. I am proud of the whole team because we fought until the end,” she said.

Although there was no Gold Ball to hoist and take home, Hancock will forever remember this season.

“Our motto has been to enjoy the journey — to take in every bit of the whole season. I don’t think we could have asked for a better season or a better group of girls. I don’t think we’d trade it for anything. No regrets,” she said. “We had a point to prove. We saw a lot of talk, and wanted to show everyone the kind of team we have. A 2-point game at the buzzer, we have nothing to be ashamed of or be down about.”

Certainly, there is a whole lot more than what happens on the court.

“I made so many friendships. I hadn’t been that close with many of the players. The last few weeks, we’ve become like a close family,” senior Allison Clark said. “I had problems with my knee, which caused problems with my hip, which caused problems with my back. I was just so happy that I could play and be part of this.”

Coach True felt his team certainly can keep their heads held high.

“We heard similar things before we played Leavitt, and we knew they (Presque Isle) were not going to put up 70 (points) against us. It was two very good basketball teams slugging it out, and they came out on top tonight,” he said.

As for his seniors, Coach True said each left their mark on this year’s club.

“Four great kids. Great teammates. Great leaders. Rachel battled pneumonia over the last three weeks, but gave it her all. Allison had problems with her knee and hip, but she came back and really helped us. Abby had phenomenal playoff games. Shannon, you couldn’t ask for a better teammate. She works her tail off and gives you whatever is needed for the team,” he said. “That’s the way those four kids are. I am very, very proud of them. I’m proud of all these kids. They’re unbelievable.”

Please follow and like us: