GARDINER — The trend was a maddening one for Gardiner girls basketball coach Mike Gray. Flirting with their first loss of the season, the Tigers would make a push to trim the gap to five. Or four. Or three.

And each time, whether with a steal, 3-pointer or layup and foul, the visitors from Brewer had an answer.

“Every time we cut it to two or three, they’d make a play,” Gray said. “There’d be a little swing one way or the other, and we couldn’t quite get over the hump.”

That played out on the scoreboard as Gardiner suffered its first loss of the season, 54-46 to Brewer on its home Bragoli Gym floor.

Senior forward Mary Toman tried to carry the Tigers (3-1) to the finish, ending up with 26 points. But weighed down by a 2-for-17 shooting effort in the first quarter and a scoreless outing from high-scoring but hobbled guard Lauren Chadwick, it was too much to overcome.

“They made enough things happen, and we didn’t,” Gray said.

The victory bumped Brewer’s record to 2-2, and gave the Witches the kind of confidence-inspiring win against a Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference favorite that coach Chris Horr said the team needed after a bumpy start to the season.

“We started out great in the season, we beat Cony, then we had two tough games back-to-back,” he said. “I’m sure there’s some doubt creeping up into that group, but we keep talking about (how) we’re an experienced team. We gained a lot of experience last year. I believe that we can play with anyone.”

Brewer never trailed after taking a 15-14 lead on a Julie Bulliard layup in the second quarter, but the Tigers made them work to keep the lead. After Brewer took a 25-20 lead in the third quarter, Gardiner got the lead to one possession four times — always to end up seeing the Witches stand firm with a response.

With 1:24 to go in the third quarter, Mikayla Bourassa fed Toman for a layup in transition to put the Tigers on a 6-2 run and cut the gap to 33-30, but Brewer stole the ball on Gardiner’s next possession and Mandy Cuskelly buried a deep jumper on the ensuing trip down the floor. With 5:17 left in the game, Leah Weymouth hit a 3-pointer to make the score 41-39, but Ellie Horr made a basket while picking up a foul to nudge the lead back up to four. And with 2:45 to go, Toman scored in transition again, but Bulliard cut through the lane for two points and Cassidy Smith followed with a three for the dagger with 2:08 to play.

“Every time Gardiner punched us in the face, we made a big stand or we made a great shot,” said Coach Horr, whose team was led by 14 points from Courtney Pearson and 12 from Bulliard. “It kept us going, and I think our kids really started to believe after tonight that we can be a very good team in this league.”

For the Tigers, who went 15-5 last season, seeing the rallies fall short was an unusual experience.

“Last year, we had a lot of close games like this one. The difference was the shots fell our way,” Toman said. “Tonight, they weren’t falling. It’s a bummer, but we’ve just got to come out to our next game stronger and get the win.”

It was a case of too little, too late for Gardiner, which found its shooting touch and two-way intensity in the second half after a slow start.

“I thought they outworked us in the first half. I feel like that almost never happens to our team,” Gray said. “I think one of the things they do well is they work hard.”

The Tigers were handicapped without the scoring ability of Chadwick, who was a game-time decision with a foot injury and who never looked comfortable from the field.

“That never happens,” Gray said of his standout’s struggles.

In Chadwick’s place, Toman thrived. She scored 17 points in the second half, going 7-of-9 from the free-throw line.

“We weren’t hitting shots, Lauren’s been injured the past couple of days. … We knew we were going to have to compensate for it,” Toman said. “I felt part of it was my responsibility as a captain and a senior to take charge on the court.”

Weymouth (six points) was the next highest scorer for the Tigers, who don’t get a chance to ponder the loss with a matchup with Skowhegan on Thursday up next.

“I think getting a loss early in the season makes us realize how much we don’t like the feeling of it,” Toman said. “It gets us hungrier for the next game.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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