Hampden’s Alydia Brillant, takes the ball to the basket against Gardiner’s Maggie Bell, right, and Bailey Poore in a Class A North game Monday in Hampden. Morning Sentinel photo by Rich Abrahamson Buy this Photo

The Gardiner Tigers make no bones about the fact that they’re salivating over the idea of another crack at Hampden Academy. And if the seeds hold over the next eight days at the Augusta Civic Center, that’s exactly what the Tigers will get.

Hampden and Gardiner enter the Class A North girls basketball tournament as the top two seeds in an eight-team field loaded with experience at the top of the bracket.

“Everybody has to come and play. I know that’s a cliche, but it’s true,” said Nick Winchester, head coach of the No. 1 seed and defending regional champion Broncos. “I think the top four teams have the depth in talent that’s enough to sustain one player having a bad night.”

Behind Hampden and Gardiner are No. 3 Messalonskee and No. 4 Lawrence. Erskine Academy, Skowhegan, Medomak Valley and Nokomis round out the tournament field.

Hampden (17-1) did not lose this season in Class A competition, having the only blemish on the record come courtesy of local rival and Class AA entrant Bangor. No. 2 Gardiner (15-3) lost two of its final three games of the regular season, including the only meeting of the season with the Broncos on Feb. 3.

The Tigers haven’t forgotten that seven-point loss on the road.

“One of the things I really liked after that game was on the bus ride home, the girls were sick, frustrated and tired — but they weren’t scared,” Gardiner coach Mike Gray said. “They were thinking, ‘We know we could beat this team in a game the next time we play them.’ I really liked that response.”

In a unique twist, the Tigers’ path to the Class A North championship could conceivably go through the three teams that handed them their only losses of the season. Gardiner opens with No. 7 Medomak in the quarterfinals (a 53-51 Panther win at home) and then would see — assuming the seeds hold true — Messalonskee (a 61-47 winner in December) in the semifinals and Hampden in the regional final.

The Broncos and Tigers have more than just recent history, too. Two years ago, Hamdpen was the No. 1 seed and barely survived an upstart performance from No. 8 Gardiner en route to the regional championship.

“It lines up for us,” Gray said. “The only teams that have beaten us are going to be right in our way to do what we want to do.”

The Tigers played three road games in a three-day span to conclude their regular season, with the losses to Hampden and Medomak followed by a narrow win at Lawrence. Gray was not making excuses, but illness ran rampant through the team that week. Six-foot-3 freshman standout Lizzy Gruber did not play in the Medomak game.

Refreshed following a nine-day layoff to begin the tournament, Gray has plenty of ammunition with which to focus his team.

“We were certainly set up for disaster the way the whole week went, but what we said to the girls was that we put ourselves in a good enough position throughout the season to be able to survive that,” Gray said. “Look, I’m glad it was last week and not this week. As a coach, I kind of like having that to pull from (for motivation).”

Neither Gardiner nor Hampden is taking the approach that a meeting in the final is guaranteed.

Messalonskee has 1,000-point scorer Gabrielle Wener, a player who can play anywhere on the floor on a squad that’s no stranger to deep postseason runs. Erskine beat Lawrence as part of a six-game winning streak to close out the regular season and earn the No. 5 seed. No. 6 Skowhegan boasts perhaps the region’s best individual talent in sophomore Jaycie Christopher. Medomak proved its mettle in beating Gardiner — shorthanded or not — and No.8 Nokomis has wins over Lawrence, Skowhegan and Medomak this season.

“I think any of these (eight) teams could pull off a win on any given night, but I also think it’s going to be really tough for someone outside that top four to win the whole thing,” Gray said. “Any of the teams in the top four are susceptible to getting beat on the wrong night, but all four are also capable of winning three games in a row to win the whole thing.”

At least on paper, the road still goes through Hampden.

The Broncos have won the last two Class A North championships, entering this year’s tournament for the third straight season as either a No. 1 or No. 2 seed. The emergence of seniors Alydia Brillant and Amelia McLaughlin, as well as junior center Megan Deans, after years of playing in the shadow of 6-foot-3 Bailey Donovan has turned Hampden into a multi-dimensional team at both ends of the floor.

The record bears it out.

“We’re flying a little bit under the radar given our record and our potential, which is fine by me,” Winchester said. “I’d rather be in that spot instead of everybody gunning for you. From a coaching standpoint, I sort of like being under the radar a little.

“I think every night we play, we seem to get everybody’s best games. Whether it’s based on our success the last two years or our ranking this year, when we walk into a gym, we get everybody’s best battle.”


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