GARDINER — It wasn’t a perfect offensive performance. And as the Gardiner girls basketball team has been proving, it doesn’t need to be.

The Tigers’ defense and size ruled the day again, as Lizzy Gruber gathered 13 rebounds and 10 blocks, Kassidy Collins and Bailey Poore added six rebounds apiece and Gardiner beat Erskine 47-39 in a Monday afternoon Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A matchup.

Gardiner improved to 6-0, all the while showing just what has allowed it to compile such a mark. The Tigers swatted shots, snatched up rebounds and made it all too difficult for the Eagles to string together a scoring run, even as the lead was within reach for most of the game.

“We challenged them to step up defensively,” said Gardiner coach Mike Gray, whose team got 16 points from Jaycie Stevens and nine from Poore. “Some nights our offense is going to win games for us, and tonight our defense won games for us. That’s a good team. They go 10 deep, and there’s not much difference between three and 10.”

Erskine fell to 3-2, but coach Bob Witts praised his team’s ability to hang close despite the clear disadvantage in size. One game after being overwhelmed by Jaycie Christopher and Skowhegan, Erskine hung tight and, with a few possessions going the other way, might have made it a different outcome.

“They played hard, I’ve got to give my kids credit,” he said. “(Gruber) was the difference in the game, she blocked a lot of our shots. But I was happy with the way they played. They executed what we wanted to do, and we’re just sort of figuring ourselves out as we go.”

Gardiner took command with a 10-2 run that turned a 24-24 tie into a 34-26 halftime lead, and the Tigers put the clamps on in the second half. Gardiner allowed only five second-half baskets and 13 second-half points — and only four in the fourth quarter, which saw the Eagles close within two scores at 43-37 on an Emily Clark drive with over five minutes to play, but never get closer.

“I liked that we had that intensity,” Gray said. “I thought we got good contributions off the bench early so we were a little bit more fresh late, and it’s a good win. It’s nice to be at this point and just have that one out of the way.”

The biggest factor in Gardiner’s defensive success was the 6-foot-3 Gruber, who continued her impressive freshman season by blocking five shots in the fourth quarter alone.

Gruber, however, mentioned the group effort guarding the basket. With Collins and Poore also underneath for most of the fourth quarter, paths to the basket for Erskine were essentially sealed off.

“We have to communicate really well, and I think we’ve gotten a lot better at working together,” said Gruber, who had eight points. “I’m a lot more comfortable now, because the girls have really done a good job of taking me in and making it a lot more comfortable, just helping me work through stuff.”

The Tigers’ offense wasn’t crisp either down the stretch — Gardiner scored only six points in the fourth — but it was enough.

“Lizzy and Bailey were both in single digits, and that’s the first time that’s happened to either of them all year,” Gray said. “It is that balance piece, where maybe it wasn’t always the case in years past. We’re not going to rely on one kid to score 18 points. If one kid only gets eight instead of 15, we’re still going to be OK because the other kids are going to step up.”

On Monday, that role went to Stevens, who hit two 3-pointers en route to 10 first-quarter points and had 12 of Gardiner’s first 16 points for the game.

“It came down to our defense a lot, and when we got open shots, we really made the right decision,” Stevens said. “We worked really well as a team together.”

Erskine got 10 points from Mackenzie Roderick and seven points from Alyssa Savage, while Roderick and Clark had seven rebounds apiece. It wasn’t enough for the victory, but Witts saw the positives in battling against what appears certain to be one of Class A North’s better teams this season.

“I just think their size wore us down a little bit,” he said. “I’m very proud of the way our kids played. This could have been a game where, (with) the environment, the big kid, our kids could have just quit. We wanted to attack her, and we did, she’s a better shot blocker than I thought she was. But they executed what I wanted to do today, just couldn’t make enough shots when we needed to.”

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