AUGUSTA — It’s been a season few could have expected. And on Saturday, the Nokomis boys basketball team almost found a way to keep it going.

Playing in the Class A North quarterfinals after missing the tournament entirely a year ago, the Warriors started hot, led late and, though Oceanside reclaimed the advantage, had the ball in the hands of their best players with a chance to even up the game in its final minute.

“That’s all you can ask for,” coach Ryan Martin said. “A chance to win at the end of the game.”

The defense of the Mariners — conquerers of this regional tournament a year ago — was ready for the moment, however, denying Josh Smestad’s and Zach Hartsgrove’s attempts to preserve No. 3 Oceanside’s 53-49 victory over the sixth-seeded Warriors at the Augusta Civic Center.

“The adage is somebody always has to lose a game like that. Unfortunately, it was us,” Martin said. “I’m just really proud of the way the kids fought.”

The Warriors (11-8) took command early, racing out to an 18-8 first-quarter advantage, but led by a scoring surge from Michael Norton (game-high 27 points), the Mariners fought back. Oceanside (16-3) was up 24-22 at halftime, and then 40-35 after a fast-paced third quarter. Nokomis wasn’t deterred, fighting back to take a 44-42 lead on a layup in traffic from Smestad (22 points) with 3:45 to play.

“I love it,” Smestad said of playing in the clutch. “That’s kind of been my role. … They have a lot of confidence in me and that really brings (out) the confidence in me. I know they trust me, and I can finish and I can do what I need to do.”

Oceanside answered, as a Norton basket put the Mariners up 46-44, and though Norton fouled out two series later, Oceanside worked its way to a 51-49 lead with 22 seconds left. Smestad drove into the paint but had to settle for a floater that was off the mark, leading to an Oceanside rebound and trip to the free throw line.

Oceanside’s Trevor Reed missed both tries, however, giving Nokomis another chance with 13 seconds left. Hartsgrove (17 points) tried a jumper from the wing that the Mariners contested, and it grazed off the front rim for a game-deciding Oceanside rebound.

“They missed a couple of free throws, and you’re thinking ‘Here’s some tournament magic,’ ” Martin said. ” ‘Here’s the first buzzer-beater of the tournament.’ “

Nokomis answered the challenge presented by the defending regional champions and higher seeds, taking the 10-point first-quarter lead thanks to 11 points from Smestad.

“We wanted to really pound it to them,” Hartsgrove said. “Really control the whole game. But the second quarter really hurt us.”

That’s when the Mariners answered, getting six points apiece from Norton and Jack Lombardo and going 6-for-8 from the field to take the lead by halftime.

“We didn’t do all that we had talked about,” coach Matt Breen said. “We had some people switching, some people not switching, and they were just getting some easy buckets. … They really started to pick up the defense playing as a unit.”

The third quarter was a duel between Norton and Hartsgrove, with Norton scoring his team’s first 11 points of the frame while Hartsgrove, with seven points, made sure the Warriors kept up.

“They complement each other very nicely, because their games are really different,” said Martin, whose team also got five points and four rebounds from Brad Allen. “Josh is more of the slasher, and he’s going to get into the paint more and get around the rim, and (Zach’s) mid-range game and that pull-up jumper is really nice and really sweet to watch.”

It almost added up to a trip to the semifinals. But with six players, including Hartsgrove and Smestad, coming back, Nokomis will have a crack at it again.

“I think they were just hungry. This program has struggled for a few years,” Martin said. “I think it was important for them to come out here and leave everybody with something, to make Nokomis Warrior boys basketball something known.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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