MADISON — His name on the gymnasium to stay, Al Veneziano is still searching for his first win in the room bearing his name.

Honored in a pre-game dedication to name the Madison Area Memorial High School gym “Veneziano’s Gym,” the 31-year coach of the Bulldogs’ girls basketball team dropped a 44-40 decision to visiting Dirigo in a Mountain Valley Conference game Monday night. Senior center Alexa Varnum scored a game-high 15 points and grabbed six rebounds to lead the Cougars (4-10) in their quest to grab the final Class C South playoff spot.

Junior Lauria LeBlanc scored 13 points to pace Madison (5-10), which whittled away at a 10-point deficit through three quarters to pull as close as 40-38 with 4:13 remaining. The Bulldogs didn’t connect on a field goal the rest of the way, however, and only made two free throws over the final half of the fourth quarter as Dirigo took care of business at the other end of the floor.

The Cougars went 4 of 7 at the charity stripe over the final 1:21 to seal the victory out of their half-court slowdown set.

“We had composure. We worked together,” said Varnum, whose Cougars snapped a four-game losing streak. “It was just awesome.”

The night, though, belonged to the veteran Madison coach.

Veneziano, 59, owns 375 career wins on the Madison sidelines and has coached the Bulldogs to four regional championships — most recently in 2012 — since taking over the girls basketball post when the school opened in 1987.

“It’s very humbling,” said Veneziano, who did not know until the presentation that such an honor was being planned. “To see players come back, people I’ve coached with here tonight, it’s very humbling. Unexpected.”

The 15-minute warmup period was halted with five minutes remaining for the gym’s dedication. More than a dozen members of Veneziano’s family were present, as were current and former coaching adversaries and former Madison players.

Veneziano has coached four 1,000-point scorers during his tenure. He’s been named the region’s National Federation of High School Sports’ coach of the year once, and in 2014 he was elected into the Thomas College athletic department’s Hall of Fame.

Veneziano began his coaching career as a student assistant under longtime Thomas coach Dick Meader.

“The years kept going by and we kept enjoying what we were doing and working hard at it,” said Veneziano, who in 2008 battled cancer. “The kids were working hard. It’s been a lot of fun.”

Veneziano has been involved in more than just basketball in Madison.

He is in his 15th year as a member of the town’s board of selectmen, the last seven spent as the selectboard’s chair. He coached the Madison softball team to three state championships in the 1990s and also served previously as the director of Madison’s recreation department.

Madison would have liked to have won the inaugural contest in Veneziano’s Gym, but a six-point third-quarter hindered those hopes. Dirigo compacted its defense to deny the Bulldogs dribble-drives for easy baskets, and Madison couldn’t find its range with the outside shot.

“I thought their defense was much more aggressive in the third quarter,” Veneziano said. “We had some mistakes that cost us the ball, and you can’t do that. They took advantage of that.”

Dirigo built a 26-22 halftime lead into a 38-28 advantage through 24 minutes thanks to shooting 6 of 8 (75.0 percent) from the floor in the third period.

“This is the first game where we’ve been in the situation where we have the ball and the lead at the same time,” said Dirigo coach Rebecca Fletcher, who was a player on Cougar teams that Veneziano coached against. “We’re battling for that last spot (in the tournament), and we’ve had so many close ones where we haven’t been able to get over the hump. Hopefully, this one gives us some confidence that we can do it.”

Sophia Jacques added 11 points for Dirigo, and Alyssa McTyre chipped in with eight.

For Madison, Emily Edgerly scored 12 points, and Abi Spaulding finished with seven.

Travis Barrett — 621-5621

[email protected]

Twitter: @TBarrettGWC

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