Lawrence coach Mike McGee hopes to be on the sidelines for a few more games as the Eastern Maine Class A basketball tournament opens today at the Augusta Civic Center.

McGee has already announced his retirement, ending a 31-year stint on the sidelines for the Bulldogs that has included 29 tournament appearances and two state championships. Third-seeded Lawrence is among the contenders for the regional title, but not the favorite. That distinction belongs to unbeaten and top-seeded Hampden Academy.

“They’ve beaten everybody,” said McGee, whose team lost twice to the Broncos this season. “This year, they’re more athletic, they all handle and they all shoot it.”

Hampden won the regional title last season, too, before losing to Western Maine champion Deering in the state championship game. They graduated their two big men along with Mr. Maine Basketball winner Christian McCue. This year, they may be even better, though.

“We have much better foot speed this year than we had last year,” Hampden coach Russ Bartlett said. “I’m not sure how good we are yet. I would say our half-court defense is the best defensive group I’ve coached up to this point.”

In the opening round, the Broncos face No. 8 Mt. Ararat, a team they beat 59-37 in the regular season. In other quarterfinal matchups, No. 2 Edward Little meets No. 7 Messalonskee, Lawrence plays No. 6 Brunswick and No. 4 Bangor squares off against No. 5 Lewiston.

Lawrence will get an added boost this week with the return of guard Xavier Lewis, who missed the final three weeks of the regular season with mononucleosis. Lewis is a valuable scorer but also a key defender for the Bulldogs.

“He and (Matt) Saunders may be the best pair of defensive guards I’ve coached,” McGee said.
The Bulldogs defeated the Dragons twice during the regular season although McGee calls his team’s 55-28 win in Fairfield a fluke.

“We’ve got to get to their shooters and handle their various zones,” he said.

Messalonskee is making its first tournament appearance under third-year coach Pete McLaughlin, who was named co-coach of the year, along with Bangor’s Ed Kohtala, in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference’s Class A North Division. The Eagles played Edward Little once during the regular season, losing 55-53 in Auburn.

“It was a battle,” McLaughlin said. “We missed a last-second shot.”

The Red Eddies have been a perennial contender for the title under coach Mike Adams and won regional championships in 2009 and 2010.

“With them it all starts with Quin Leary,” McLaughlin said. “He’s one of the best players in the league. He has the ability to take over a game.”

Leary was named KVAC A South Player of the Year and was joined on the all-KVAC team by teammate Sean Ford. Messalonskee point guard Jordon Holmes was a first-team selection while 6-foot-5 sophomore Nick Mayo came on the strong in the second half of the year and was named to the second team.

“He’s definitely not playing like a sophomore,” McLaughlin said. “He puts up points and he’s probably one of the best rebounders in the league.”

Gary Hawkins — 621-5638
ghawkins@centralmaine.com