WINTHROP — They meet, at last. And with Maine’s most prestigious basketball prize on the line.

After regular seasons spent as the biggest fish in their regional ponds, the Winthrop and George Stevens boys basketball teams face their toughest tests — each other — in the Class C championship game at Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center, with tip-off slated for 8:45 p.m. Saturday.

It’s the matchup fans have been able to look forward to since the Ramblers and Eagles first started roughing up opponents during undefeated regular and postseasons. And as can be expected when two 21-0 teams meet, neither coach expects the team that earns victory No. 22 — and the Gold Ball that comes with it — to do so easily.

“Winthrop’s a good team, really well-balanced, very well-coached. I think we match up with them pretty well,” George Stevens coach Dwayne Carter said. “They do a lot of things similar to what we do, so I’m looking forward to it. It should be a really good game.”

It’s the first time this season Winthrop can play the underdog card. Eighteen regular season wins and three playoff victories by an average of 23.7 points is hard to beat, but considering the championship they’re defending and 26-game winning streak of their own, the Eagles can do it.

“If they’re not the same team, they’re a better team,” Ramblers coach Todd MacArthur said of Stevens, which returns four of the five starters from last year’s championship team. “You’ve got a highly athletic team, a highly explosive team, a team that is dangerous from 84 feet. … They’re probably the team to beat. We understand what they’re able to do, and we have much respect for them. But it doesn’t mean we’re not going to show up.”

The similarities between the Ramblers and the Eagles start with leading scorers Jacob Hickey and Taylor Schildroth. Both players, Hickey for Winthrop and Schildroth for Stevens, are sweet shooters and confident ball-handlers, just as confident taking deep 3-pointers as they are attacking the basket and either finishing or kicking out to shooters freed up by a collapsing defense.

“One of their best strengths, and this is a lot similar to ours, is they have a player who can just plain old make shots,” MacArthur said.

Schildroth had one of the season’s top individual highlights, scoring 61 points in a win over Lee Academy.

“He’s going to get his points,” MacArthur said. “But we’ve got to make sure he earns everything. We’ve got to contest his shots, make his shots difficult.”

Both teams have a strong inside presence as well, with Winthrop led by 6-foot-8 Cam Wood and Stevens anchored by 6-6 Max Mattson.

“They might have a little more depth in size,” Carter said. “The Wood kid rebounds well, he’s a smart player. In the open court, I think Max maybe can run the court a little bit better. … But they do match up well. They both rebound well.”

The difference comes in the teams’ philosophies, particularly on defense. Winthrop plays an aggressive, unyielding defense, rotating well and looking to force, and then capitalize on, opponent mistakes.

“We believe in our defense,” MacArthur said. “We bring pressure, and we’re going to bring pressure for 94 feet for 32 minutes. We have depth to do that, and the grind of our defense is going to wear teams.”

Stevens plays more conservatively. The Eagles back off from full-court defense, preferring more to ensure their half-court defense is sound.

“They give up some easy baskets sometimes because of their pressure,” Carter said. “I feel that we are more solid and we don’t give up easy baskets. I feel that that’s an advantage for us.”

Both coaches also made sure to respect the other team’s supporting players, a list that includes Garrett Tsouprake and Nate LeBlanc for Winthrop and Jarrod Chase and Stefan Simmons for Stevens. The teams are familiar with each other, having both participated in the Maine Gold Rush preseason basketball camps.

“We kind of know each other a little bit,” Carter said. “We have a lot of respect for each other.”

The feeling’s mutual, but MacArthur hopes his team is the one with the storybook finish to what’s been a dream season.

“We’ll show up, we respect them, but we don’t fear anybody,” he said. “We believe in what we do, we believe in each other, and we know we can compete with anybody in the state. We know that regardless of class.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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