WALES — Messalonskee junior Hannah Pinney sensed that the stakes of unified basketball’s postseason struck her teammates when their bus pulled into the Oak Hill High School parking lot.

“I think that they realized as soon as we got here that we were done if we lost,” she said.

And that was the only thing that could make the start of the unified basketball tournament less than perfect for Messalonskee and Oak Hill on Tuesday. For one of the teams, it would mark the end of their season.

It was Oak Hill that extended its season with a 44-41 win over Messalonskee. Sam Guilford scored eight of his game-high 16 points in the fourth quarter to lead the fourth-seeded Raiders (8-1) to the semifinals. They will face defending state champion Hampden Academy in Hampden at 4:30 p.m. on Thursday.

“Everyone was a little nervous today. But everyone had a good time today and that’s what’s important,” Oak Hill team helper Adam Mooney said. “They all knew we had to win and they all came out ready. They’re all smiles after the game.”

R.J. Preo had 13 points to lead the fifth-seeded Eagles, who finished 7-2. Dylan French scored 10 points and Tyler Elkins nine points for the Eagles. Devon Fournier added 10 points for the Raiders.

The contest was as close as one might expect in any tournament game pitting fourth and fifth seeds against each other. It also had the hustle, intensity and competitiveness typical of a tournament game. At one point, Oak Hill’s Lee Mower dove head-long for a ball that was going out of bounds like the state championship depended on it.

“You can see the intensity start to pick up in the kids (at tournament time). They’re competitive,” Messalonskee coach Tommy Hill said. “You can say what you want, that everybody’s doing it for fun. But they’re high school kids that understand it and they get competitive out there. They want to win just like everybody does.”

Messalonskee led early and seemed poised to pull away in the second quarter before Oak Hill rallied to pull within two, 20-18, at halftime.

It was nip-and-tuck from there, with several ties and lead changes before Oak Hill went in front to stay early in the fourth quarter with a steal and layup by Josh Leavitt, who had 12 points. Guilford scored six straight points late in the fourth quarter to help put the Raiders up by as many as six points and keep the Eagles at bay.

“It’s been a nerve-wracking day for everybody, especially me,” said a smiling Oak Hill coach Pete Dennis. “Hats off to Messalonskee. That’s one of the best teams I’ve seen this year. Tommy does a real good job with them.”

Dennis’ Raiders are among the most improved teams in what is unified’s second season in Maine. The Raiders won one game last year, but interest increased, and they now have 13 players and a lot of depth.

“We’re coming along,” Dennis said. “Our numbers are way up compared to last year. We didn’t have a whole lot of success last year, but this year has turned it around for us.”

“Everyone tries their hardest,” Mooney said. “Everyone has a good time. And we end up winning sometimes, and it’s good.”

Unified basketball is a winner with Maine schools. Thirty-two teams participated in the co-ed sport this season, nearly double the 17 that took part in its inaugural campaign last year.

Unified basketball teams consist of students with developmental disabilities and those who do not have developmental disabilities, known as team partners or helpers. Each team can have a maximum of two partners on the court at any time. Partners are allowed to score no more than 25 percent of their team’s points.

Dennis said his team partners — Mooney, Steven Gilbert, Morgan Boilard, Tim Riendeau and Kaleb Morissette — didn’t take a shot this season and have been critical in helping their teammates get the most out of playing basketball.

“It’s just amazing to watch the kids take care of one another out there,” Dennis said. “I haven’t had to do a whole lot of coaching. I try to tell them the little things — stay between your man and the basket, hands straight up, simple things — and I let my partners take care of the rest. And they do a real fine job. They haven’t missed a practice in two years.”

Messalonskee also made great strides in its second season, and Hill has noticed a change in many of his athletes over that time thanks to the sport.

“We’ve got a lot of kids that played last year and my helpers are all back from last year,” said Hill, who is also Messalonskee’s athletic director. “It’s been two years now and we can really see the improvement over that short period of time. It’s nice to see the success they’ve had. The kids that had kind of been in a shell the first year have come out of it and kids that really didn’t want to be on the floor very much now want to go out there.”

“The kids have improved so much, just understanding the game more and their shot has improved so much from last year to now,” said Pinney, who is in her second year as a team partner.

“It’s so much fun. I love playing with these kids,” she added. “Like, when I see these kids in the hallway, it’s just… There are friendships that I never would have made without this team.”

Randy Whitehouse — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @RAWmaterial33

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