GARDINER — The players on the Gardiner girls basketball team’s bench erupted in cheers and raced onto the court to meet their teammates. Coach Mike Gray stood a few feet away, clapping, with a smile as much from relief as from joy.

It wasn’t a championship, or even a playoff game. Gardiner’s 52-49 victory over Lawrence just felt like one.

“That’s the kind of extra effort we needed,” Gray said. “We had a tough loss to Hampden, we had a tough loss to Messalonskee. We were due to get one of these that went our way like this, and that’s a huge win for these girls. For our confidence, that’s a big win.”

Gardiner (11-5), which entered the night seeded fourth in Class A North behind Lawrence (11-5), got that big win by prevailing down the stretch in a game that felt dead-even until the final buzzer. Jaycie Stevens led the Tigers with 17 points, while Aimee Adams had 11 and Bailey Poore added nine.

“We really needed this win,” Stevens said. “I thought that everyone worked well together, we played well, we played hard. … We played really hard defense, too. Defense was really key for us.”

Lawrence rode a superb effort on the glass from Sarah Poli (13 points, 18 rebounds) and Keagan Alley scored 17, but the Bulldogs fell short despite having the ball in a one-possession game four times in the last 30 seconds.

“I was proud of the way the girls battled. We had our chances in the end,” said coach Greg Chesley, whose team lost starting guard Brooklynn Lambert in the opening minutes of the game. “We’ve got to take care of it a little better at the end of the game, but we still had our chances. Give Gardiner credit, those girls battled the whole game.”

Gardiner never trailed in the second half, but had to sweat it out in a fourth quarter in which the lead never surpassed six points. Lawrence moved to within a point at 50-49 on a Victoria Dunphy jumper with 24.3 seconds left, but Stevens hit a free throw to make it 51-49 with 19.4 seconds to go.

The Bulldogs had a golden opportunity but threw the inbounds pass away, giving Gardiner the ball right back. Maggie Bell hit one of her two free throws to make it 52-49, and Poore gathered the rebound of a miss with 9.8 seconds to go.

The Bulldogs still had a chance when Poore missed both free throws and Poli gathered the rebound, but a turnover with 3.5 seconds to go iced the result.

“We’ll get over it. I think they’re pretty beat up right now,” Chesley said. “But we’ll get through that. We stressed in there that, two weeks from today, we’ll be in the Augusta Civic Center playing our tournament game.”

Lawrence scored seven of the first nine points of the game, but Gardiner fought back to take a 27-21 lead at halftime on the strength of 12 points from Stevens.

“My teammates did a really good job of trying to find me, and we just did a good job of moving the ball,” Stevens said. “Whoever was open, we wanted them to shoot.”

“She’s just in charge out there. She’s the point guard in every sense,” Gray said. “She just is filling her role exactly right. … When she plays well, the kids feed off of that.”

Lawrence, however, didn’t let the Tigers pull away, cutting the gap to four at 37-33 going into the fourth quarter, then moving to within a point the first time at 44-43 when Alley splashed a three with 3:14 to go.

Gardiner’s answer came from a pair of seniors, as Adams drove to the basket for a tough layup with 2:56 left, and Anna Toman did the same on the next possession to bump the lead to 48-43. The Tigers missed a chance to bury the Bulldogs late by only going 4-of-10 from the free throw line, however, and baskets by Miranda Lambert, Alley and finally Dunphy kept Lawrence’s hopes alive.

Gray acknowledged the missed chances at the line, but said the team’s poise was a bigger takeaway.

“We did everything we could to put ourselves in position to win. I couldn’t be happier with the effort.”

Chesley praised the play of Poli, a sophomore, who consistently brought the Bulldogs second-chance points that set up the rally.

“As a sophomore, it’s incredible,” he said. “If you look at her, she’s an undersized post player, and young. But when that ball goes up, she thinks she’s got as good a chance as anybody to get it.”

Drew Bonifant — 621-5638

[email protected]

Twitter: @dbonifantMTM

Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.