AUGUSTA — It has always been a rivalry in name, and in spirit.

Now, Cony-Gardiner in girls basketball is starting to feel like one on the court as well.

The two teams went down to the wire Tuesday night, with Cony building a 10-point fourth-quarter lead, only for Gardiner to rally back, take the lead with 1:05 left on a Megan Gallagher 3-pointer, and then close out a 41-40 victory.

Lizzy Gruber led Gardiner (8-2) with 11 points, 17 rebounds and three blocks, while freshman Taylor Takatsu added 10 points. Alyssa Redman scored 15 points on five 3-pointers to lead Cony (4-6), while Julia Reny scored 13 and Kiara Henry had nine points, 10 rebounds and three steals.

“They just compete so hard,” Tigers coach Mike Gray said. “It’s great to have this rivalry with two teams that can just battle. Neither team backed down, both teams just fought through it. You want to win every game you’re in, but if you can win the Cony game, that always feels a little better.”

In the past, that didn’t equal a competitive series on the court. From 2015-17, four of the Tigers’ five wins were by 15 points or more, and Tuesday’s win bumped Gardiner to 12-0 over Cony since reclassification brought the Tigers to Class A in 2015-16.

Cony junior guard Kristen Kirk, left, brings the ball up court as Gardiner sophomore guard Megan Gallagher defends during a game Tuesday in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Lately, however, the gap between the teams has narrowed. Gardiner pulled away from a game Cony team 58-44 in Dec. 2019, but the real progress came this season, after Gardiner slipped past Cony 50-48 on Wednesday.

On Tuesday, the Rams proved it was no fluke.

“It felt like there might as well have been a full gym,” Gray said. “I think a couple of years ago, they were just so young. … They’ve got kids that were thrown into it young, and they’ve kept maturing. Between those seniors and their junior class, those are kids that have played a ton of minutes, and they just keep getting better and better. It’s not going to change any time soon. The way this kind of game is, this is going to stay the same way the next few years. It’s exciting.”

The narrative has gone just beyond Cony-Gardiner. The Rams are winning more than they were, and competing in every game.

“I think the girls, the last few years, we’ve gotten a lot better,” Rams coach Adam Rich said. “Defensively, that was always our key. We kind of struggled offensively, and teams would just outscore us. We’d hold them in the 40-point range, and we just couldn’t get that high. But now that we’re able to move the ball offensively a little bit better and score, games are a lot tighter. Between us and them, we match up pretty well.”

Cony senior guard Julia Reny, left, shoots as Gardiner senior forward Kassidy Collins defends during a game Tuesday in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Redman too said the game was encouraging, even if dropping such a hard-fought game was disappointing.

“We’ve come together a lot this year,” she said. “I’m so thankful for our seniors that have stepped up, especially Kiara Henry and Julia (Reny). … We’ve come a long way and played as a team.”

Cony was ready for the Tigers, getting three 3-pointers from Redman en route to a 15-11 lead after one. Gardiner worked back to a 21-21 tie by halftime, but Cony surged again in the second half to take a 33-28 lead into the fourth.

The lead stretched to 38-28 on a Henry layup with 6:33 left, but the Tigers showed the poise of an annual Class A contender. Gruber had two putbacks, and after Reny hit a pair of free throws, it was Takatsu’s turn for a pair of baskets to make it 40-36.

“I’ve always played Cony in middle school and stuff and I’ve lost to them a lot,” Takatsu said. “I just wanted it more this week.”

A Savannah Brown jumper cut the gap to two, and after a Kassidy Collins (six points, 11 rebounds) steal, the ball found Gallagher on the right wing, who knocked down the three for Gardiner’s only lead of the second half, and the only one it would need.

“When you go into a game you don’t always know much about the rivalry. These ones are always a lot more intense, because we know them,” Collins said. “I definitely think it’s gotten a lot more intense over the years. … It’s always a battle. We definitely have a lot of emotions coming into it. I think it’s just important to both of us, it’s a lot of pride to win one of these games.”

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