AUGUSTA — An early 11-point deficit, and two points from your leading scorer in the entrie first half. That’s not the formula for success Messalonskee High School boys basketball coach Peter McLaughlin expected to use in the Class A North tournament.

Yet that’s what happened. Down early to No. 4 Gardiner, No. 5 Messalonskee rallied in the second quarter to take the lead despite the lack of scoring from senior guardd Nate Violette. The Eagles took the lead for good late in the first half, and held on for a 53-46 win over the Tigers at the Augusta Civic Center.

“We’re overall a young team when you look at varsity playing time-wise. This was a new experience for a lot of guys. We kind of came out a little slow,” Violette said.

Messalonskee, now 14-5, will play in the semifinals Wednesday night against No. 8 Skowhegan. Gardiner ends the season at 10-9.

“Whenever you come into tournament time, I think high school kids are high school kids. As great a week as we had at practice, as much as we talked about things, emotions got the best of us a little bit,” McLaughlin said. “We talked about, guys, they’re going to go on a run. I didn’t expect it to be in the first three or four minutes of the game.”

An Isaiah Magee 3-pointer gave Gardiner a 15-4 lead with 1:47 left in the first quarter before the Eagles found offenisve rhythm. Some of that coincided with foul trouble for Gardiner’s Connor McGuire. Some of it was other Eages stepping up as Gardiner played a box and one zone to limit Violette’s scoring chances. The defense worked, in that Violette didn’t score in the second quarter, but Chase Warren contributed nine points and James Kouletsis seven as the Eagles went on a 21-9 run to take a 27-24 halftime lead.

McLaughlin said he expected the Tigers to focus on Violette, and he told the senior guard this would likely be a game in which he didn’t score his usual 20 points.

“He looked at me, ‘Well Coach, what can I do more?’ Nate, you’re doing everything you can possibly imagine by forcing them into that,” McLaughlin said.

Added Violette, who scored 11 points in the second half to finish with 13: “It’s a great feeling knowing if they want to look at me, I have my teammates that are going to score all those points, and Chase Warren stepped up big time with all kinds of backdoor cuts.”

The Eagles scored the first seven points of the third quarter to push their lead to 34-24.

“Connor got into foul trouble, and when you take him out, it really changes our offense. It seemed like they had a really good game plan for (Cole) Heaberlin tonight. They weren’t getting (Hunter) Chasse any open looks. We had some unforced turnovers. We didn’t move the ball and find some seams,” Gardiner coach Jason Cassidy said.

Messalonskee suffered a blow when Kouletsis, the team’s heartbeat, according to McLaughlin, suffered a severe cut above his left eye with 5:37 to play in the third quarter. Kouletsis went to the locker room with trainers, and returned to the game wearing a new jersey and a bandage with 33 seconds left in the quarter.

“James is a big upbeat guy. He’s a hustler. Seeing him go out, we got together and said, hey he’s going to come right back. He’s a fighter. So when he comes back we’re going to be 10 times the ball team,” Violette said.

Messalonskee took its biggest lead, 49-35, on a Cole Wood layup with 3:22 to play. Gardiner mounted a rally, cutting the Eagles lead to six, but free throws by Kouletsis and Griffin Tuttle in the closing seconds iced the win. McLaughlin said he was never too concerned as Gardiner closed the gap.

“We thought they’d be fouling a little quicker, so our seniors were holding on, saying I want to be the guy who hits these foul shots to close it out. Before long, we had three guys trapping us in the corner and there’s nowhere to go,” McLaughlin said.

Magee led Gardiner with a game-high 21 points, while McGuire added 11. Violette and Warren each scored 13 points for Messalonskee, while Kouletsis added nine points with nine boards.

“I thought our defensive intensity, from about the five-minute mark of the first quarter, basically for the rest of that game, was as good as it’s been all year,” McLaughlin said. “Magee had a lot more points than I wanted, but I thought he hit a lot of contested shots. That’s a very talented team over there. There’s a lot of guys you have to worry about.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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