AUGUSTA — Throughout tournament week, Messalonskee High School boys basketball coach Peter McLaughlin repeated the same thing to his team. The gym, he would say, needs redecorating.

“Coach would stop us after practice or after our games and say ‘Hey, you know what I hate about this place? There’s no banner on the wall’ That kind of fueled us,” Messalonskee senior guard Nate Violette said.

After Friday afternoon’s dominant effort over defending champion Oceanside in the Class A North regional final, the Messalonskee boys basketball program is getting a banner on the wall. At the Augusta Civic Center, the Eagles never trailed, were only tied for 53 seconds, and cruised to a 61-40 win.

“These guys were babies when I took over this program. They grew up wanting this,” said McLaughlin, now in his seventh season as the Eagles coach. “I challenged them, and I hold them to huge expectations. The role models they are to the younger kids, we have a number of young men running around saying ‘I want to be like Nate Violette. I want to be like James Kouletsis.’ I can’t thank them enough. I hugged each of them about 12 times after the game. I plan on hugging them again.”

Messalonskee, now 16-5, entered the tournament as the No. 5 seed and will face the winner either Greely or Falmouth in the Class A state championship game March 4 at the Augusta Civic Center.

Falmouth and Greely play Saturday for the Class A South title.

No. 3 Oceanside finished 17-4.

Throughout the regular season, the Mariners had one of the most potent offenses in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference. Oceanside averaged just under 62 points per game in the regular season, second only to Cony in the league. On Friday, against Messalonskee’s tight man-to-man defense, offense was a 32-minute chore for the Mariners. Oceanside went the entire first quarter without a field goal, and finally broke that streak with a Cooper Wirkala layup with 4:33 left in the first half.

“We talked about it all week, going into tournament time, that we need to play our brand of basketball, and that starts on the defensive end,” McLaughlin said.

Oceanside’s offense is similar in style to Messalonskee’s, Violette said, particularly in reliance on dribble-drive penetration.

“They have a lot of the same principles. So when you’re going against the same thing in practice every day, we’re ready for them,” said Violette, who was presented the Al Halliday Award as the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player. “That’s what carried us. That’s what we’ve been doing all year, and nothing’s changing.”

While Messalonskee’s defensive effort was a team effort, the work of big men Griffin Tuttle, Cole Wood and Trevor McCray was outstanding. With two of those three in the game at all times for the Eagles, Oceanside found no easy path to the rim. Every shot was contested. In the regular season, Oceanside’s top three scorers — Mike Norton, Nate Raye and Sam Atwood — combined to average 39 points per game. In Wednesday’s semifinal win over Cony, that trio combined for 45. On Friday afternoon, the Eagles made the Mariners’ top three scorers vanish, holding them to eight points, with no field goals. What little damage Raye, Atwood and Norton did came at the line.

“Wow, that’s how you win championships, right there,” said Tuttle, when told how ineffective the Eagles had rendered Oceanside’s top scoring threats. “It’s really just about communication and intensity. When you work hard and communciate, that’s all defense comes down to, really.”

On Jan. 6, Messalonskee held a 13-point lead at the half at Oceanside but lost the game, 54-52. On Friday, Messalonskee led 24-14 at halftime and knew it couldn’t let up and risk another Mariner comeback.

“We knew when we were up by that much before, they came back. So we had to do something differently,” Violette said. “We didn’t get too cocky. We stayed true to what we were doing in the first half and played our good defensive principles.”

Violette wacthed most of the first half — including the entire second quarter — from the bench after picking up his second foul with 2:41 to play in the first. Violette pestered McLaughlin a few times during the second quarter to go back in, but the experienced coach never wavered or felt the need to risk his best player picking up a third foul before the half. A 14-0 run in the first quarter staked the Eagles to a double-digit lead, and even with Violette on the bench, the lead never dipped below 10.

“I think he grabbed my leg about three times and said ‘Coach, I’m ready.’ With the lead like that, there’s no reason to put us in that situation,” McLaughlin said.

Violette rewarded his team with a huge third quarter, scoring 14 of his game-high 21 points. Violette hit three 3-pointers in the third, including one while fouled to set up a rare four-point play to give Messalonskee a 42-23 lead. Violette’s three with five seconds left in the quarter pushed Messalonskee’s lead to 46-26 entering the fourth.

That’s when Violette started to relax.

“At the end of the third quarter, how much were we up by? I can’t remember. Twenty? You know, we’re going to win this. There was no doubt in my mind,” Violette said.

James Kouletsis added 13 points and 11 rebounds for Messalonskee, and Tuttle added 10 points and six points. Wirkala led Oceanside with 16 points.

As the Messalonskee boys prepped for the game in their locker room, the Messalonskee girls were winning the regional title on the Augusta Civic Center court. After challenging his team all season, McLaughlin had one more challenge for the Eagles.

“The girls, we watched them win. Do you want to be in the parade with them, or do you want to watch?” McLaughlin said. “The guys’ looks on their faces when the game started, I knew what I was going to get, and I could not be more proud of them.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazarczykMTM

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