AUGUSTA — Jason Cassidy could finally put his mind at ease.

Nearly a week after its worst showing of the season in a loss to Skowhegan, the Gardiner Area High School boys basketball team passed a major challenge, rallying in the second half for a 60-54 victory over Brewer in the Capital City Hoop Classic at the Augusta Civic Center — and providing some relief for its coach in the process.

“Very proud of the effort tonight,” said Cassidy, who had four players score in double figures. “We didn’t think it was there the other night. It was back. We worked at it, they’re back.”

The Tigers needed all the effort they could muster. Brewer took a 28-25 lead at halftime, but Gardiner took the advantage back with a 10-4 run to start the third, then held on through a maze of late fouls, turnovers and momentum-switching baskets to earn a win that was hard-fought from start to finish.

“That’s one tough basketball team,” Cassidy said of the Witches. “That’s a pretty good defensive effort for us right there to keep them there.”

It was a considerable shift from last Thursday’s game against the Indians, during which the Tigers struggled on both ends of the floor and lost 58-46 in their first game after a thrilling 82-80 win over Cony.

“They caught us flat-footed,” he said. “It’s a grind every night in this league and the kids know that now.”

The Tigers got all the evidence they needed Wednesday, but found the resolve to rally back in the second half. With Connor McGuire (16 points, nine rebounds, five blocks) leading the way with seven points and providing a go-to presence in the paint, Gardiner shot 7-of-12 from the field to emerge from the third quarter with a 43-38 lead.

“I think it pulled us together,” McGuire said of the rally. “I thought I needed to get more rebounds and take it in the post more.”

The Tigers never allowed the Witches to close within a possession in the fourth quarter, getting contributions from throughout the roster to do so. McGuire and Kyle Johnson (team-high 17 points) scored five points apiece, with Johnson stirring the bench with a steal and dunk after Brewer trimmed the gap to 45-41 on a 3-pointer with 5:17 to play.

With Kobe Rogerson (16 points) providing a spark, Brewer hung close and shrank the deficit to four again at 54-50 on another 3-pointer with 1:05 to play. This time it was Isaiah Magee’s turn to play the closer, as the junior point guard converted a three-point play with 53.9 seconds left. The Witches were forced to foul, and the Tigers, who shot 11-for-16 from the free throw line in the quarter, were able to close the game out.

“Some kids just made sacrifices, and I think they finally believed in each other enough (to think) ‘Hey, we can finish this,’ ” said Cassidy, who praised Johnson’s defense in holding Brewer point guard Cam Wood (13 points) to no field goals in the second half. “For the most part, we kept our heads.”

Magee had 11 points for Gardiner while Cole Heaberlin scored 14, including 10 in the first half when he led the scoring charge.

“Kyle Johnson did great, Cole Heaberlin stepped up tonight and got some rebounds,” McGuire said. “I think we’ve started to come together more since the season’s progressed. We’ve been working harder in practices, trying to get everybody involved.”

According to Cassidy, that team mentality will be a key as the Tigers look to stay on the uptick the rest of the way.

“We want every kid taking the game shots that we create, not just forcing the offense,” he said. “Guys are understanding roles. I’ve always said that the players establish roles, not the coaches. I’ve tried to do that this year. They’re stepping up and understanding their roles a little better right now.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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