AUGUSTA – The Messalonskee girls basketball team hasn’t been tested often this season. That changed Friday night.

Gardiner, an eighth seed in the Class A North girls basketball tournament, took the Augusta Civic Center floor and stared down the undefeated and top-seeded Eagles. The Tigers matched them rebound for rebound, steal for steal and shot for shot. They felt they could win – knew they could win – and flirted with an upset few could have seen coming.

For three quarters, at least. Sophie Holmes took it from there.

Holmes scored 11 of her game-high 33 points in the fourth quarter, opening up what was a one-score game after three quarters and lifting Messalonskee to a 67-56 win in the Class A quarters.

“We all have our roles on the team. Our team’s good at ball movement, and that opens up the floor for myself, Gabrielle, all our scorers,” said Holmes, who scored the team’s first 10 points of the fourth to turn a 50-47 lead into a 60-49 advantage. “I don’t think I took it upon myself. If the shot’s there, I’ll take it.”

Nothing about the win was easy, which coach Keith Derosby said can pay off in later rounds.

“Being able to persevere when times get a little stressful, it shows your character. It shows your makeup,” he said. “Just seeing the emotion from some of the kids coming off the floor at the end of the game … (and) knowing they were challenged, we’ve got a practice tomorrow. For them that means everything.”

The Tigers (12-8) had every intention of cancelling that practice, as well as the ones after it. Gardiner refused to play the submissive foil Friday night, battling to a 28-24 halftime deficit and then, after Messalonskee (19-0) appeared poised to break away when a Holmes layup made it 43-33, rallying back in time for the fourth.

“I didn’t even really think we played that well in the first half, but we played hard,” Gardiner coach Mike Gray said, emphasizing the last word. “That’s what we wanted. We talked about before the game, we wanted to get to a point where we would give ourselves a chance in the fourth quarter.”

It was new ground, but the Eagles weren’t fazed. If anything, they were ready for this.

“They’re seeded low, but they’ve always been a challenge,” said forward McKenna Brodeur, who scored 17 points and led the team with 11 rebounds. “We knew coming in that it was going to be down to the wire, and they like to come back. We just had to keep going.”

With the season on the brink, Holmes took over. She floated in a shot despite a foul, converted the three-point play and then, after Gardiner answered, scored the next seven points. She went up and under for a layup, drove in for a layup and then pulled up for a 3-pointer, burying the shot for her final field goal with 3:52 to play.

The shots came at the biggest moment of the game, but Holmes said she and her teammates never let the stage get to them.

“We lose the logistics of it and we have fun,” she said. “Playing at the Civic Center, we’re lucky to be here. It’s so fun to play here.”

Derosby said he wasn’t surprised to see his star guard respond to the challenge.

“She’s such a verbal processor. She’s walking herself through it, she’s telling herself what she needs to do,” Derosby added. “When the ball’s in her hands, she’s calm. When the ball’s not in her hands, she’s watching, she’s trying to figure out where she can go, how she can get open. … And she knows, when it comes down to it, they’ll find her.”

Holmes was just as good in the first three quarters, but Gardiner, led by a standout scorer of its own in senior guard Lauren Chadwick, kept pace.

The two staged a scoring duel that peaked in the third quarter, when Holmes had 12 of her 33 points and Chadwick had six of her 17.

“I thought the game was played really well. We played really tough,” Chadwick said. “Our team didn’t give up, and I think that’s one of the good things about us.”

“Through three quarters, it was kind of the two of them going back-and-forth,” Gray said. “That’s what Lauren has done for us over the past four years. … Since day one of her freshman year, we put her in charge right from the beginning, and that’s what she’s had to do.”

The teams combined for 45 points and five 3-pointers in a breathtaking third quarter, one that drew louder and louder reactions from Messalonskee fans seeing their team threatened and Gardiner fans smelling upset.

“We got there, and down the stretch, they showed why they’re undefeated,” said Gray, whose team also got 10 points from Mary Toman and eight from Leslie Stevens. “I love how hard the girls fought. I thought we challenged them more than they’ve been challenged during the season. But Messalonskee made things happen down the stretch.”

And in doing so, the Eagles showed the strength that has conquered each of their 19 opponents. Messalonskee has a lineup and bench filled with players who can do anything a team needs. They can score, rebound, press, steal or post up. Anything that results in a win.

“On any given night, you can face-guard Ally (Turner), you can face-guard Gabrielle (Wener). But then we still have McKenna, great inside. Alyssa Genness, you never know, she’s good for 10 (points) sometimes,” Holmes said. “Makayla Wilson is good for 10 sometimes. You never know. We’re lucky to have such a full team this year.”

They didn’t need to do much scoring Friday night. Not in the fourth, at least. Holmes had it covered.

“She definitely keeps us in the game,” Brodeur said, laughing. “She comes up hot when we need her.”

Drew Bonifant – 621-5638
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Twitter: @dbonifantMTM