When Zach Hartsgrove and Josh Smestad were asked Saturday if they knew they had just helped send the Nokomis Regional High School boys basketball team to the regional semifinals for the first time in 15 years, the senior captains didn’t hesitate to answer. They spoke almost in unison. It’s rare for a one-word reply to contain so much joy and relief.

Yes.

“That’s always motivated us. We’re looked at as that school that never competes. That’s always been that chip on our shoulder,” Smestad said minutes after Saturday afternoon’s win over Erskine Academy in the Class A North playoffs.

This is why we love the tournament. For these moments. For teams snapping long runs of almosts, like Nokomis. And teams using every second of a 32-minute game to secure a victory, like the Winslow and Biddeford boys.

This is what makes basketball fans across the state get in their car and drive — for some more than 100 miles — to Bangor, Augusta or Portland. They go to cheer for their team, but there’s the chance to see one of those special moments, too. There’s the chance to feel sudden euphoria, like Winslow and Biddeford, or to have your heart ripped out without a warning, like fans of Oceanside and Brunswick.

A few hours and 130 miles separated the Winslow and Biddeford buzzer-beaters. At the Cross Center in Bangor on Saturday afternoon, Jake Lapierre put back a miss to give the Black Raiders a 39-38 win over Oceanside. The red lights of the backboard went off to signify game’s end as Lapierre’s shot went through the net. It may have still been lit when Winslow’s celebration started.

“The rebound came down, and it was the final chance to do anything,” Lapierre said moments after he moved the Black Raiders into the semifinals and moved himself into Maine high school basketball history.

On Saturday night at the Portland Expo, Biddeford’s Zach Reali scored his only field goal of the game as time expired to give the Tigers a 50-48 win over Brunswick. Reali’s shot didn’t stave off elimination, just overtime, but that makes it no less thrilling. It helped send the Tigers on to the semifinals for the first time since 2004, and for just the third time in three decades. So Biddeford fans got to enjoy two stages of basketball bliss.

This is why the teams come to the tournament. So they can come back.

That’s been Nokomis’ goal since the current Warriors were toddlers. Nokomis last reached the regional semifinals in 2003. The Warriors lost a close game to Bangor, 54-50, and hadn’t got out of the quarterfinals since. Not that they had a lot of opportunities, just three, but each time was a close-but-not-quite opportunity. There was a 76-73 overtime loss to Ellsworth in 2011. The next year, Nokomis lost an overtime game to Gardiner, 56-47. Last season, the Warriors fell to Oceanside in the quarters, 53-46.

While his players knew how long it had been since a Nokomis quarterfinal win, head coach Ryan Martin did not. He was a high school student at Dexter in 2003.

“Was that against Bangor? I remember watching that game, actually,” Martin said. “They’ve been putting in the work every year. They’ve totally bought into that, into changing the culture, and this is the payoff, right? They get to come down here and experience something special, something fun, and I’m just really glad to be a part of that.”

When they were freshmen starters, Smestad and Hartsgrove won four games. As sophomores, they won six. Last season, Nokomis improved to 11 wins. They’ve seen the gradual improvement needed to get to this point. Saturday’s win over Erskine was Nokomis’ 13th of the season.

“It’s a great feeling. I want to continue the season. I love the guys. I love coach (Ryan) Martin and coach (Simon) Elias. It’s just a great group of guys to be around. I don’t want to stop playing. I know they don’t want to stop playing either,” Hartsgrove said.

This is why we go to the tournament. Because we might see something that simply makes us say “wow.”

Travis Lazarczyk — 861-9242

[email protected]

Twitter: @TLazrczykMTM

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