GARDINER — It was a game that shimmered on the schedule, a matchup of two of the best young players in Class A girls basketball.Lizzy Gruber made sure her team got the upper hand.

Gruber scored 21 points and grabbed 22 rebounds, and the freshman center led Gardiner past Skowhegan and sophomore forward Jaycie Christopher 54-40.

Christopher scored 20 points and grabbed 13 rebounds for Skowhegan, which fell to 3-4. Gardiner, which improved to 7-1, bounced right back from its first loss of the season to Messalonskee on Monday.

“That’s a good team win. That’s a good team,” Tigers coach Mike Gray said. “I liked the energy when they came in today, and I just felt like they were ready to bounce back.”

It was a team effort. Three Tigers scored in double figures, with Bailey Poore scoring 14 points and Jaycie Stevens adding 10. Maggie Bell and Maddie Farnham led a man-to-man defensive effort that contained Christopher, perhaps Class A North’s most dangerous scorer. Kassidy Collins bailed Gardiner out of foul trouble late with a clutch fourth-quarter performance.

But when she was on the court, Gruber controlled the game. The 6-foot-3 standout soaked up rebounds, racked up points under the basket and was hindered only by foul trouble. Her totals, which included three blocks, came despite her missing 6:38 of action in the third and fourth quarters.

“Even if she’s not scoring … the entire defense is keying on her and she’s going to find other people. On the defensive end, even if she’s not blocking that shot, teams are going to hesitate to attack,” Gray said. “I don’t think there’s another player in our league who does that. There are other kids with size, but they’re not really pure post players like she is.”

She was front in center for the game’s defining run, however. Skowhegan worked its way back from a 15-5 first-quarter deficit to get within one before a Stevens buzzer-beating three made it 20-16 Gardiner at the break.

With the game up for grabs at the start of the second half, Gruber went off. She had a layup, a hook shot, a short jumper and a putback, scoring Gardiner’s first six points and eight of its first 13 as the Tigers went in front 33-16. She also had six rebounds before taking a seat with 4:38 left after picking up her fourth foul.

“Definitely, we realized that in the first half it was really close, and we just wanted to pull ahead,” Gruber said. “(Christopher’s) a really good player. Playing against people like that really motivates me to work harder.”
Skowhegan coach Mike LeBlanc was disappointed with how his team took to the second half.

“(It was) effort and a lack of focus coming out,” he said. “We were close at times, played hard at times, other times I thought we mailed it in and were selfish basketball players. We got outworked. They’re a better team than we are right now.”

Skowhegan found life with Gruber on the bench, however, cutting the gap to six points at 38-32 on a 3-pointer by Emma Duffy (nine points) with 6:18 left. But the visitors weren’t able to get closer, thanks largely to efforts from the Tigers’ supporting cast. Collins had eight rebounds (all in the second half) and seven points (all in the fourth quarter), Poore scored eight in the fourth, and Stevens turned in nine rebounds.

“Kassidy made a few shots, Bailey made a couple of shots, Jaycie made some free throws,” Gray said. “Everybody else stepped up down the stretch.”

The Tigers delivered on the other end as well. Bell and Farnham got the unenviable task of limiting Christopher, and while the sophomore got her points, Gray had nothing but praise for his high-intensity perimeter defenders.

“That’s what their job is, and they buy into it,” Gray said. “Maggie did such a good job of making her earn every single thing that she got.

“We had said, don’t think about ‘Oh, she’s got 20,’ because she’s been putting up 40 and 35 on teams. … I just thought it was a great defensive effort.”

Bell, who had four steals, said she knew it was going to be a difficult assignment.

“She’s really good, she scores her points, she’s athletic. She’s one of the best players in the league,” she said. “To guard her was really nervous for me, but I feel like, together as a team, we all just came out and shut her down too.”

Callaway Lepage added seven points and 10 rebounds for Skowhegan, while Sierra Carey had nine boards.

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