SOUTH CHINA — With 6-foot-3 freshman center Lizzy Gruber manning the low post for the Gardiner girls basketball team, flanked by forwards Kassidy Collins (5-9) and Bailey Poore (5-8), it’s easy to focus on all the length the Tigers feature every night.

But to only focus on the play of that trio, as well as all the gaudy offensive stats they post game in and game out, is to miss what really makes Gardiner go. Monday afternoon’s 45-29 Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference win at Erskine Academy was testament to that, with senior guards Jaycie Stevens and Maggie Bell providing the alarm clock for a late-arriving Gardiner squad that went the first 7:59 without a field goal and only mustered 13 first-half points.

Gardiner head coach Mike Gray says his guard tandem is severely overlooked.

Erskine senior captain Jordan Linscott, right, is pressured by Gardiner guard Maggie Bell during a Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A game Monday afternoon in South China. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson

“Everyone wants to talk about our size and what Bailey and Lizzy and Kassidy can do inside, but it’s the guards when we get going,” Gray said. “They give us good energy defensively and help our transition, and they take good care of the ball.”

For Stevens, she’s now a three-year starter after seeing the floor sparingly as a freshman. Her final stat line Monday included only three points — a 3-pointer from the top of the key in the first minute of the second half to give Gardiner the lead for good. It was surprising, to say the least; Stevens had been the Tigers’ most influential player at both ends of the floor.

Stevens also had seven rebounds, seven assists and five steals.

“I don’t even pay attention to (stats),” Stevens said. “I’m worried about ‘team’ and making sure my teammates are rising up and getting their points. I know mine will come. It won’t be every night, and that’s totally fine with me. I just want to make good decisions to help the team out, so turnovers are probably the biggest thing for me, trying to limit those. That’s kind of how I measure things for me.”

“She’s just steady. She’s just such a good leader,” Gray added. “I trust her, I trust her instincts. She’ll have nights when she’ll score a bunch of points, but she’ll also have nights where she just directs traffic. Her assist-to-turnover ratio, for a high school girl, is skewed way in the right direction.

“She’s definitely the one that keeps the whole ship on the court going.”

It’s a very 1980s-esque type of basketball the Tigers employ, something Gray admits with a chuckle.

There aren’t many teams in the league lining up anymore with three traditional bigs across the lane and two guard on the perimeter. But the inside-out game they utilize best is suited perfectly by just such a lineup, and it’s worked well enough that Gardiner has won 12 of its first 13 games.

Against Erskine, the second half began with three buckets from beyond the arc — one each from Stevens, Bell and Gruber — and it only served to stretch the Eagle defense and open up more room in the paint for Gruber (10 points) and Poore (game-high 21). Defensively, Bell and Stevens were disruptive and opportunistic, enough so that the Tigers could generate some easy transition layups without even ever getting set up to run their half-court set against an Erskine team that can rebound and defend nearly as well as any other team in Class A North.

“I think it’s good we have Jaycie,” Poore said. “She’s definitely a good ball-handler who can handle things under pressure.”

It’s up to Stevens, mostly, to make the Tiger engine churn.

“Maggie’s doing a really good job, too, and we’re both kind of directing traffic,” Stevens said. “That’s helping the girls down low. It’s a team thing that we all need to keep working on, and I think Maggie and I are doing a good job realizing our roles in that.”

Stevens said it began to click for her last season, and it’s her composure and ability to lead by example that sets a tone when things get a bit too chaotic for Gardiner’s liking.

“In the past, I think if she wasn’t scoring it was hard for her to impact the game,” Gray said. “I think last year she did a really good job with it. She knows we have other kids that can score, ‘I don’t have to score 12 points for us to win.’ She can do that because she’s selfless enough, and not every high school kid is that way. She just wants to win.

“It’s nice to have that out of your point guard.”

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