AUGUSTA — It was the sort of game that the Cony girls basketball team might have found a way to lose in previous years. Its preliminary-round matchup in the central Maine basketball tournament with Maine Central Institute had gone from runaway to nail-biter, and the Rams needed a response.

Cony got it, and also got something of a landmark victory for a program looking to work its way back after a few lean years. The seventh-seeded Rams held off No. 10 MCI 59-49, and earned a matchup with No. 2 Lawrence in the quarterfinals of the Class A/B tournament.

“It felt really good,” senior forward Kiara Henry said. “We have been working really hard for a while to finally get what we want. To pull it through is a good feeling.”

Henry had 20 points and 15 rebounds for Cony (7-6), while fellow senior Julia Reny had 17 points and four steals. Natalie Sites led MCI (1-12) with 20 points and 13 rebounds, while Hannah Robinson scored 11 and Danielle Dow had nine.

The game was another test passed for Cony, which was playing a postseason game for the first time since the 2014 Class A state tournament, and which spent all season proving the progress it has made in becoming a competitive team on a nightly basis.

“It’s a great feeling. It’s really exciting to finally have the work pay off,” Reny said. “We went 6-6, and the total points that we lost by was eight. To come out here and win and go to the next round against Lawrence is really exciting.”

That return to tournament play, different as this is from the normal postseason, was going smoothly at the start, with Cony taking a 30-17 lead into halftime. But MCI’s record belied its resilience, and the Huskies surged to start the third and eventually cut the gap to three on a Robinson basket that made the score 31-28 and prompted a timeout from Cony coach Adam Rich with 5:11 to go in the quarter.

Henry said she could sense some doubt seeping in.

“Yeah, kind of,” she said. “We just needed to slow down, and then we finally recollected ourselves.”

The Maine Central Institute and Cony basketball teams played in a preliminary-round game in the A/B girls division of the Central Maine Basketball Tournament on Tuesday in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

Cony wasn’t going to let this close game slip away. Sierra Prebit knocked down a 3-pointer on the next possession, and the Rams kept the Huskies at arm’s length while taking a 45-39 lead into the fourth quarter.

Prebit finished with seven points for the game, none bigger than those three, and she and Reny led an aggressive Cony defense that hassled MCI ball handlers all night.

“It’s just an adrenaline rush,” Henry said of Prebit’s shot. “She’s always there. … She’s so sneaky.”

Reny scored on a fastbreak and then hit a free throw to start the fourth and put the Rams up 48-39. MCI kept battling, working the deficit down to six again at 50-44 on a Dow free throw with 3:37 left that followed a Robinson layup, but baskets by Henry and Alyssa Redman (nine points) iced the victory for Cony.

“We’ve been a young team for a long time,” Reny said, “and I think we’ve all finally grown up a little bit and learned how to calm down and be collective in situations and games like this.”

That growth took a while, but the Rams are enjoying the opportunity to play big games at the end of the season.

“I think we’re all very grateful to be here,” Reny said. “Even though it’s not the Civic Center, it’s still a great environment. We have all earned it.”

Cony’s Sierra Prebit, right, gets doubleteamed by MCI’s Hannah Robinson, left, and Danielle Dow during a preliminary-round game of the Central Maine Basketball Tournament on Tuesday in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“It’s amazing, to see how much progress they’ve made since these kids were freshmen, and then to have the two seniors out here leading the way is really nice to see,” Rich said. “Just the energy that they come with day-in and day-out since this all started, even with it being COVID, is fantastic. I’m glad we’re in this position.”

This time, the younger team on the floor was MCI, which struggled this season but has only one senior on the roster. The players responsible for 47 of the 49 points Tuesday are back next year, including Sites, who first-year coach Levi Ladd called “an absolute animal.”

“Turnovers, I think, were really the big difference,” he said. “We’ve got a lot of youth on the team, which is both a blessing and a curse at times. … I’m really proud of these girls. They’ve battled hard all year and continued to get better. This was probably their best game of the season so far.”

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