AUGUSTA — Call it poise, experience, senior moxie, anything you’d like. Whatever it is, the Winthrop boys basketball team needed a lot of it.

The Ramblers were ahead, up by seven points, but staggering. Madison had scored 10 of the last 12 points. Senior guard Jacob Hickey, in the midst of another gem to add to his postseason mantle, was at the four-foul limit. The Bulldogs’ fans, subdued for most of the game, were rocking the Augusta Civic Center, sensing that their team was only a few plays from taking control of the C South championship game.

It was a new feeling. The Ramblers, undefeated through 20 games entering Saturday night, were in trouble.

“I thought of that, too,” coach Todd MacArthur admitted.

But MacArthur also knew he had a team of veterans. One that had had its heart broken in this game a year ago, and that was playing this season as a crusade to make up for that defeat. And one that, with that chance at hand, wasn’t going to let it get away.

“We weren’t going to lose that game,” MacArthur said. “I did have maybe a few gray hairs pop up. But they’re going to find a way.”

They did again Saturday. Top-seed Winthrop scored 10 of the last 11 points of the game, playing smart and collected down the stretch and acing the clutch moments to seal a 58-42 victory over third seed and Mountain Valley Conference rival Madison. It completed the season-long quest to make up for last year’s 43-41 C Final loss to Waynflete, a defeat that stung bad enough to linger into this season and make this winter about playing — and winning — one game.

“Last year left a sour taste in our mouths, and we wanted to get back here,” senior forward Garrett Tsouprake said.

“Definitely, that was our big goal this year, getting to the state championship,” Hickey said. “Anything else would have been kind of a lost season, in our opinion.”

But last year’s loss wasn’t a nightmare that the Ramblers (21-0) tried to wipe clean from their minds. Winthrop lost to Waynflete in overtime, but only after charging back from an eight-point deficit in the fourth quarter to force the extra period. That sort of rally leaves lasting lessons, ones that can be called upon when another adverse situation comes along.

“You take points from that same game last year in the Southern Maine finals, and execute and know how to do them differently,” Hickey said.

Those lessons came in handy Saturday, even if it looked early like the Ramblers were going to cruise to the final without needing them. Winthrop led 31-16 at halftime and 46-29 after three, and looked poised to roll by a Bulldogs team it had already beaten twice this season.

MacArthur knew otherwise.

“You’re not expecting Madison to roll over,” he said. “They have some great players on their team, and you knew they were going to give you one last shot.”

He was right. Evan Bess and Nick Morales sandwiched baskets around a Spencer Steele drive, and Bess and Morales then converted a pair of free throws each to trim the gap to 48-37. A few series later, a Mitch Jarvais rebound turned into a Bess layup. MacArthur called a timeout, but the bleeding continued when Hickey was called for a charge, his fourth foul, and Sean Whalen hit two free throws to make it 48-41 with 4:05 to play. By now the Bulldogs were pressing the length of the court, and when Winthrop couldn’t find an open player for the inbounds pass, MacArthur had to call a timeout again.

Madison fans were roaring. The Ramblers came back out, with Hickey taking the floor as well.

“I gave him a look, and I gave him one of these,” MacArthur said, waving four fingers. “And when Jake doesn’t want to hear me or he hears me, he gives me one of these, ‘I’ve got it.’ “

MacArthur switched to a swatting away motion for Hickey’s response.

“It’s called trust, and I’m sorry, any coach is going to trust Jake Hickey. I trust him, and we needed him,” MacArthur said. “I’m sorry, I’m not pulling him off the floor. If we’re going to lose, we’re going to lose with Jake Hickey fouling out and (him) on the floor, rather than him sitting right there.”

Hickey played the rest of the game foul-free, and that honed poise began to prevail. Winthrop found ways to beat the Madison press, attack on offense and get to the line, making 10 of 12 shots while Madison ran into foul trouble of its own.

“We just had to stay calm, control the run, and make sure we didn’t let it get the best of us,” senior point guard Bennett Brooks said. “Last year we made the three games into the tournament. It gives us a lot of experience, (helps to) keep staying calm under pressure, and we were able to stay cool and collected for those last three, four minutes.”

On the defensive side, Tsouprake limited second chances for the Bulldogs by grabbing four fourth-quarter rebounds.

“That was a run that got us on our heels a little bit,” said the senior, who scored 19 points, “but we kept our composure.”

“As a senior-laden team, we’ve been through it,” said Hickey, who scored 26. “Last year we played Waynflete in overtime in this same game and we lost, so we knew what we needed to do in order to execute and get the game to where we could be in position to win.”

Moments later, the Ramblers were cutting down nets and celebrating the victory they couldn’t get last year — though falling short may have been just what Winthrop needed to make it the extra step this time.

“These seniors are battle-tested,” said MacArthur, who called this Ramblers squad the best team he’s coached. “They have some scars, like last year, some wounds that hurt. And they persevered. To come out on top, boy, does it feel good for them.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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