PORTLAND — York coach Rick Clark called on one of the best players he’s ever coached in his 34 seasons to help the Wildcats try to neutralize the reigning best player in the state — Lawrence senior Nia Irving — in Saturday’s Class A girls basketball state championship.

Whether the move made the difference in the Wildcats’ 58-57 win over the defending state champions might be debated in York and Fairfield for some time. But it’s indisputable that Shannon Todd’s layup with 18 seconds ultimately provided the winning margin.

Lawrence (21-1) tried to tie it as Camryn Caldwell attempted a 3-pointer from the left wing. Irving rebounded her miss, missed the putback and put her second shot in with about one second left — not enough time to stop the clock and prevent, or at least delay, the first Class A championship for York (22-0), which moved up from Class B this year.

Chloe Smedley led the Wildcats with 23 points, five rebounds and four assists. Todd, a Miss Maine Basketball finalist along with Irving, finished with six points, five rebounds and five assists. Domi Lewis led the Bulldogs with 19 points. Irving, who like Todd had her playing time curtailed in the second half by foul trouble, added 14 points, 11 rebounds and four assists.

“It was a great basketball game,” Lawrence coach John Donato said. “I just wish we had a little bit more time.”

Clark, who told his players before the season that this would be his last, invited former two-time Maine Gatorade Player of the Year Niki Taylor to practice with the Wildcats and play the role of the 6-foot-1 Irving. Taylor, a 6-footer who helped York win a Class B title in 2010 and went on to play at Vermont, tried to simulate Irving’s style and post play.

“She did just exactly what Nia does, and it really helped us out a lot,” Todd said. “She helped us with her physicality and definitely with her moves.”

The Wildcats were able to bother Irving in the post, disrupt some of the flow of Lawrence’s offense and even draw some key offensive fouls on Irving.

“I think what we did was we made some mistakes feeding the post,” said Donato, whose Bulldogs committed 17 turnovers to York’s eight. “We threw the ball away feeding the post. I think that’s because the stage is a little big and we’re just not used to it. They’re young kids, and some of these kids think ‘Well, I missed a shot.’ Hey, it didn’t come down to one missed shot. It came down to they hit shots that we didn’t think they were going to hit.”

“(Taylor) gave us some good pointers, and the kids got a good feel for that,” Clark added. “We went with a zone and knew exactly what we wanted to do with it.”

York never deviated from that zone, despite some clutch 3-point shooting by Lewis (4-for-7). Caldwell and Hunter Mercier also hit big third-quarter 3s, but it was the senior guard who led the Bulldogs from a five-point deficit when Irving picked up her fourth foul early in the third quarter to a four-point lead heading into the fourth quarter.

“When Nia went out with four fouls, my kids stepped up, and we stayed right with them. In fact, we went ahead,” Donato said. “They did everything they could to stay in the game. But we weren’t going very far without Nia on the floor.”

Irving returned to the floor with 6:51 remaining in the game and scored 38 seconds later to give Lawrence a 50-48 lead. Lewis later extended it to a 53-49 lead with a 3-pointer.

York rebounded to take the lead on a Maddigan Cogger 3 and a Morgan Chapman layup midway through the fourth. Despite Todd drawing her fourth foul, the Wildcats maintained the lead until Lewis found Molly Folsom behind the defense on a fastbreak to make it 55-54 Bulldogs with 1:31 to go.

That would be Lawrence’s last lead. Smedley hit a jumper from the left elbow with 1:02 to go to put the Wildcats on top. Lawrence then turned the ball back over to York, which, after calling a timeout, burned 45 seconds off the clock before Lily Posternak found a wide-open Todd for a layup that made it 58-55 with 18 seconds remaining.

“We knew they were going to foul or try to get the ball, so I just knew they were going to leave someone open,” Todd said. “I just drifted to the block and I was wide open. I took my time and made the shot.”

Todd and Smedley were both victimized by foul trouble in the first half, drawing three apiece.

“Having Irving get in foul trouble certainly helped. But we lost Todd. We lost (Smedley),” Clark said.

“We just had to start playing with our hands off and… play smart and get the mental game in check,” Todd said.

Both teams shot the ball extremely well in the first half (61 percent for Lawrence, 56 percent for York) as the lead changed hands nine times. Lawrence led 17-12 at the end of the first quarter and by as much as eight early in the second quarter. But Smedley rallied the Wildcats with 7 of 10 shooting from the field and 16 points as they claimed a 32-30 lead at halftime.

“You can’t ask for a better high school game than this, either way,” said Clark, who is a member of the 500-win club, along with Donato. “I was proud of the girls from start to finish. That’s the way they played all year. They don’t give up. It doesn’t faze them to be down by seven points. They just go right back at it.”

“It’s just like Lawrence playing without Irving. They came right back,” he added. “If it’s a team, it’s a team.”

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

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