WINTHROP — For the first 28 minutes, it couldn’t have been closer. For the last four, it was a blowout.

For the Gardiner Area High School boys basketball team, the difference was simple. The Tigers found the big guys.

Ben Shaw scored 19 points, including 15 in the fourth quarter, and fellow post player Connor McGuire scored a game-high 23 to lift the Tigers to a 61-49 victory over Messalonskee on Thursday at Winthrop High School.

They needed every point. From the start of the second half until 2:56 remained in the game, the lead for either team never eclipsed three points. There were 14 lead changes. But behind Shaw and McGuire, who scored all but one of Gardiner’s 24 points in the fourth, the Tigers were the ones eventually pulling away.

“(Messalonskee) came here to shut down one big, they did a nice job at times, but our guards stepped up and found the other big. The two bigs worked together,” Gardiner coach Jason Cassidy said. “We were the recipient of Ben’s hard work, and he was the recipient of, hey, we finally realized we’d better get it to that side of the court to him.”

While the 6-foot-4 McGuire (12 rebounds) delivered his damage throughout the contest, the 6-3 Shaw saved his best for the game’s tightest moments. Messalonskee (4-5) had taken a 47-45 lead on a Parker Cole 3-pointer with 5:02 to play, but Gardiner (6-3) pulled even on a short Shaw shot, then jumped ahead 49-47 when he finished a basket in transition with 4:23 to play.

Messalonskee pulled even on a Dawson Charles drive, but Gardiner kept sending it in to the paint to take the lead for good. McGuire went down low for a basket, and Shaw bulled in for a basket with 2:56 to go to stretch the lead to two-possession territory at 53-49.

“Coach always says to just play our role. It was my time to step up and help the team,” Shaw said. “Basically, the adrenaline takes over, you go out and play and you don’t worry about whether you’re tired or not.”

There was no stopping the bleeding from there. While Messalonskee settled for outside shots and what coach Pete McLaughlin called “empty possessions,” the Tigers hammered away for what was ultimately a 12-0 run. McGuire scored on a putback, then scored in transition to put the game further out of reach at 57-49 with 1:07 to play.

“I think it just came down to execution,” McLaughlin said. “They found a niche in iso and Shaw out on the block, and he used his body really well to create separation and make some big baskets.”

Shaw said his team kept its composure late, even as the pressure rose.

“We knew what we had to do, and we ended up doing it,” Shaw said. “We just needed to win this. Coach said ‘Do you guys want to go to the tournament?’ at halftime, and that gave us a spark.”

Gardiner went 10-of-14 from the field in the fourth quarter, a product of the focus on funneling the ball in to the post. Meanwhile, Messalonskee, which saw its shot selection grow more desperate while battling the scoreboard and the clock, missed all eight shots from the field after Charles tied the game at 49.

“If you have empty possessions in under three minutes and it’s the final quarter, you know those kinds of things can’t happen,” McLaughlin said. “That’s the decision between the game and winning and losing. I think we’re young, I think we’re learning while we’re out there and I think our guys gave everything they simply had. It just wasn’t enough.”

Cole Lawrence and Kyle Johnson (eight rebounds) scored six points each for the Tigers.

“They’re really learning to work together,” Cassidy said. “These kids are just working. We’ve had a lot of roster moves and sickness and grade things and all these things. … They really show us some nice flashes like they did in the second half.”

Cole Wood and Chase Warren led the Eagles with 13 points and five rebounds apiece. Cole added 11 and Tucker Charles and Dawson Charles had six apiece.

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

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