OAKLAND — Nate Violette has been waiting since he was a small boy playing rec league games Saturday mornings for nights like this.

Violette helped key a 16-3 run to close out the fourth quarter Thursday night, leading Messalonskee to a 67-54 win over Gardiner in a Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A boys basketball game between two playoff contenders. Violette, the Eagles’ leading scorer, made a layup with under four minutes to go to give Messalonskee (11-4) the lead for good. He finished with a game-high 24 points and nine rebounds.

“He’s probably been waiting his whole life for this,” Messalonskee coach Peter McLaughlin said. “Since he was a little kid, he’s been a guy who was dreaming about being ‘The Man’ and leading this program into uncharted territory. … This year, being his senior year, I think in those moments he wants to put the team on his back and make the big play.”

“This is a big one for us,” Violette added. “Knowing that they’ve been on a big roll and knowing that we need to win out to get the seed we want in the tournament, this was just a big morale-booster for us.”

Messalonskee senior James Kouletsis chipped in with 13 points, eight assists and six rebounds. Gardiner (9-7) had three players finish in double figures, including Cole Heaberlin with a team-high 16 points. Isaiah Magee added 15, while Connor McGuire had 13.

But for both teams throughout the night, it was about the points they didn’t get — not the ones they did.

The Eagles opened the game with a 15-2 run in the first 4:16 of the contest, shooting an incredible 6-of-7 from the field over that torrid stretch. But when Gardiner started to heat up, Messalonskee went cold from the floor and the teams battled to a 31-28 halftime score in favor of the Tigers.

Violette scored 10 of his 24 in the first half.

The third quarter was more of a slugfest, mirroring the second, with Gardiner imposing its halfcourt offense to slow the transition-insistent Messalonskee offense. It worked, too, until the Eagles found their legs in the final period.

A McGuire free throw handed the Tigers their final lead of the night, 52-51, with 4:37 remaining. What had been a punch-counterpunch type of game since the midpoint of the opening quarter turned quickly into a Messalonskee track meet.

Violette’s layup off a Gardiner turnover with 3:53 left made it 53-52. Kouletsis found Chase Warren (eight points) cutting backdoor just 20 second later, and after a Tiger timeout, Kouletsis found Warren again on a similar play.

“It just came down to staying composed,” Violette said of responding. “It’s knowing that when we play our game, we’re the better team. It’s believing that no one is better than us when we do play basketball the way we know how to play.”

The only Gardiner field goal over the final 5:40 came when Tiger coach Jason Cassidy emptied his bench and Luke Stevens hit a jump shot with under 30 seconds until the final buzzer.

It was not the return to the bench that Cassidy, whose team upset Hampden Academy on Tuesday while he was serving a two-game suspension, envisioned.

“It was an emotional week for us,” Cassidy said. “I was proud of the kids and embarrassed of myself, but the kids are here to fight. After the game, the kids in the locker room were saying, ‘Let’s play long enough to see that team again.'”

Both teams talked about execution as the key to the final score, both Messalonskee’s ability to execute what it wanted to do in the fourth quarter and Gardiner’s inability to make the shots it had been making early on.

“I think we shot 27 percent in the second half,” Cassidy said. “Guys saw some big gaps and forced some shots that probably usually go down for us. Once we got down by three, we played like we got down by 10 points… It just snowballed from there.”

“We just talked about getting back to the fundamentals. I don’t think that what we were doing was wrong, we just weren’t executing to our potential,” McLaughlin said of Gardiner’s sprint back into the game late in the first half. “I think (in the fourth quarter) it just came down to defensive stops and valuing possessions. That 16-3 run at the end of the game just came down to execution.”

In the midst of the hot and cold stretches, the frustration and fireworks from both teams, the stage to Violette. But he didn’t want the credit.

“It’s a team effort,” Violette said. “That’s what we did tonight.”

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

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Twitter: @TBarrettGWC