The Maranacook boys basketball team celebrates its victory over Wells in the Class B South final Friday afternoon at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland. Portland Press Herald photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

READFIELD — The players on the Maranacook boys basketball team shuffled back to their bench while the Cony players behind them celebrated and the fans around them went wild. Moments later, the Black Bears walked back around the court, through the doors and out into the parking lot.

They had just blown one of their most-hyped regular season games in recent memory. And they had already moved on from it.

As soon as I shook hands, it was out of my mind,” junior guard Casey Cormier said. “And I was like ‘We’ve got to go to work.’ “

That was back on December 27, when the Black Bears melted down late in a 92-89 loss to Cony in front of a frenzied Augusta Civic Center crowd. Now, exactly two months later, the Black Bears (19-2) are still playing, and on the verge of a Class B championship with a showdown with Caribou (20-1) slated for Friday night.

Caleb Corey of Wells, left, battles for a rebound with Maranacook’s Cash McClure during the Class B South final Friday afternoon at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland. Portland Press Herald photo by Shawn Patrick Ouellette

Maranacook hasn’t lost since that game. The Black Bears say it’s not a coincidence.

That’s the game our season changed entirely,” Cormier said. “Before that, (at) our practices, there was energy but it wasn’t as hard. Right after that, we came in the next morning and we worked as hard as we ever have. It’s been like that since.”

Since then, the Black Bears have become a formidable crunch-time team. They’ve won 15 straight games. They’ve been locked in against good teams and bad teams alike, and have been able to raise their game in tight moments. They knocked off Freeport in a thriller and ousted a poised, experienced and battle-tested Wells team.

“We’ve definitely been a clutch team,” junior guard Tim Worster said. “We’ve stepped up on defense in tight situations, and offensively I think we’ve jumped to the next level.”

They weren’t that kind of team in December, when they met Cony in a showdown of two of the state’s highest-scoring teams. Worster (26 points), Cash McClure (24) and Cormier (18) all caught fire from the field from the beginning, and Maranacook built its lead to 81-70 on a Cormier 3-pointer with 5:08 to go.

And then the wheels fell off. The Black Bears had no answers on defense for Simon McCormick, who scored 19 points in the fourth quarter. They turned the ball over five times in the last five minutes. They missed two free throws in the last two minutes. Cormier got called for a technical foul. The poise that was there in the first three quarters was suddenly gone.

Later, so was the victory.

We were up most of that game, and in the end, we weren’t clutch,” said Worster, a junior guard. “We didn’t play very good defense in the end. We were still hitting shots, but we just didn’t play good defense.”

We had that game in the bag pretty much,” McClure, another junior guard, said. “Just a few minutes left, (and we made) a few mistakes and a few turnovers we made that cost us that game.”

It hurt in the moment. But it didn’t take long for the Black Bears to realize the good that had come from it.

“We said we thought Cony was one of the best teams in the state, and we played really well,” Maranacook coach Travis Magnusson said. “It stunk we lost, it stunk we blew it at the end, because we were up a lot of the game. But we still came away thinking ‘Boy, we have a lot of potential. We could be a really good team.’ So I think if anything, it gave us confidence.”

The game provided the Black Bears with a crash course on where they needed to improve. One area was defense. They knew they could score with anyone, but found out they could only go so far if they couldn’t stop them, too.

It was definitely a learning experience,” Worster said, “learning that we need to play harder defense in the end. … We scored 89 points on a Class A team. We were fine. We’ve just got to play better defense, and we’ll be fine.”

The other area was mental toughness under pressure. Magnusson could handle that. The first-year coach makes it a point with his practices to challenge his players, and make it so the tension-packed moments will feel routine.

He calls us the most clutch team he’s ever coached. I think the mental toughness comes mostly from him,” McClure said. “He doesn’t let soft stuff get away, he makes sure he’s always hard on us and makes sure we stay focused and stay tough.”

It’s worked. Maranacook was fully prepared for the challenge of a difficult Freeport team, rallying from a 12-point deficit and making the plays they needed to make in the final moments of a dramatic 59-57 victory. Against Wells, which was making its fourth straight regional final appearance, the Black Bears saw a 13-point lead trimmed to six in the final minute of the third quarter, but answered that rally with the next eight points to put the game out of reach in what became a 60-48 final.

It’s a far cry from December 27. The team has seen to it.

“We knew after that game that we could have won it,” McClure said. “So that just gave us more things to practice and focus on during the season that we had to get better at so we don’t make those mistakes during the playoffs. I don’t think we have yet.”

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