READFIELD — Cash McClure knows what the people outside Readfield are saying. His teammates on the Maranacook boys basketball team know it, too.

“Everyone’s coming at us,” McClure said. “We’re probably one of the most — I wouldn’t say disliked teams, but one of the teams that other teams want to beat really bad. And it showed tonight.”

Indeed, No. 9 Gardiner came at top-seeded Maranacook in the quarterfinals of the A/B bracket in the central Maine basketball tournament, bringing a torrent of energy and enthusiasm into the Black Bears’ home gym. It lasted for a half, but Maranacook proved once again to be too strong and have too much, coming away with an 82-55 victory.

McClure had 24 points and 12 rebounds to lead the Black Bears, who improved to 13-0, while Joey Dupont had 17 and Casey Cormier scored 16 with three steals. The score indicated a runaway, even though Maranacook led only 20-15 after the first quarter and 58-45 after three.

“Really, credit to (Gardiner). That’s great coaching and great heart,” said Maranacook coach Travis Magnusson, whose team won the first matchup between the teams 89-36. “This time, it was two different teams. They had great energy, they made great adjustments, and I thought they played us as tough as anybody for three quarters.”

Ryan Moore (nine rebounds) and Kalvin Catchings scored 15 apiece to lead the Tigers, who finished at 4-10.

Maranacook’s Cash McClure shoots a three-pointer in front of cardboard cutouts during a central Maine basketball tournament game Friday in Readfield. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“Definitely within the last one to two weeks, I’ve seen this team come together,” Gardiner coach Aaron Toman said. “I’m bummed the season’s ending now, because we’re really starting to jell and have fun playing the game of basketball.”

His team wasn’t nervous, even with the elimination atmosphere this tournament has provided. With the Black Bears sporting their unblemished record and ledger of blowouts, which has had basketball followers across the state shaking their heads — and perhaps even their fists — the Tigers knew the pressure was on the other sideline.

“The thinking was ‘We have nothing to lose,'” Toman said. “‘We’re going up here against one of the best, if not the best team in the state, so let’s make it interesting.'”

And early on, they did. Gardiner jumped ahead 15-12 in the first, its bench roaring after each basket and rebound, and the lead may have been bigger if not for McClure, who was named a Mr. Maine Basketball finalist that afternoon, and who scored 12 of the team’s first 17 points while waiting for his teammates to match the Tigers’ intensity.

“If we’re slow from the start, I know it’s kind of my job to pick it up,” McClure said. “Whether that’s on defense, or getting to the hoop and scoring or making foul shots.”

This is all part of what happens when you’re 13-0, the defending B South champions and a team that everyone knew was loaded for another run before the season even began. Teams give you everything they have from the opening tip.

“They brought more energy from the start than we did,” Dupont said. “Usually, we win in that. That was kind of a rude awakening at the beginning of the game.”

The Black Bears found that extra gear in the second, with Cormier, Dupont and McClure hitting consecutive 3-pointers to make it 35-20 with around five minutes left. Gardiner kept working, whittling the deficit to 11 on a Wyatt Chadwick basket, but a Tim Worster four-point play helped spur Maranacook to a 45-31 halftime lead.

Maranacook started strong again in the third, as baskets by Cormier, McClure, Dupont and Eljas Bergdahl (nine points) pushed the lead to 54-35. Again, Gardiner rallied, getting two baskets from Moore sandwiched around a Hunter Burgess three to close the quarter on a 7-0 run, but a 9-0 run to start the fourth iced the victory for the Black Bears.

So now it’s on to the semifinals of this tournament and a matchup with No. 4 Messalonskee for the team that said from the first day of practice that it was hoping to prove itself to be the top team in the state. There’s a weight that comes with those expectations, both external and internal, but Magnusson said the team isn’t burdened by it.

“I don’t think we feel that pressure,” he said. “We just want to win. That’s that pressure. We just badly, badly want to win.”

Even if the Black Bears feel it, they turn it into a positive.

“There’s definitely a lot of pressure,” Dupont said. “There’s definitely a target on our back. We feed off of that a lot, it definitely gets us going. Tonight really showed the target’s getting bigger, and throughout the playoffs it’s going to keep getting bigger and bigger if we keep winning.”

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