GARDINER — McKenna Johnson made the plays to help put the Gardiner girls basketball team out in front. Then she made the ones at the end to ensure the Tigers stayed there.

Johnson, a sophomore, scored 15 points, Lizzy Gruber added 14 points and seven rebounds, and top seed Gardiner outlasted No. 5 Maranacook 58-49 in the semifinals of the central Maine basketball tournament.

Gardiner (12-2) will play No. 2 Lawrence in the A/B final Friday. Maranacook finishes at 10-4.

“It’s a big adrenaline rush,” Johnson said. “We knew it wasn’t going to be easy coming into this game. We knew they wanted to fire back at us, and we just had to come ready.”

Maranacook was led by 11 points from Gabby Green and nine apiece from Anna Drillen and Ella Schmidt. In the first game between the teams in February, Gardiner led 22-2 at the end of the first quarter. This time, the Black Bears were ready from the start, and were sitting within five points of the Tigers with two minutes to go.

“I’m extremely proud of what the girls did this year,” coach Karen Magnusson said. “Some people lost in the tournament, they walk off, they’re fine. My girls are crying, because that’s how much it meant to them. I’m proud that they invested as much as they did, knowing the chance of getting hurt.”

Gardiner took the lead for good early in the second quarter, but the Black Bears didn’t let the Tigers pull away. Instead, they had to close out the game in the final minutes, with Johnson going to the line for win-clinching free throws. She made both during a 1-and-1 with 35 seconds left that pushed the lead to 56-49, then made the first of another 1-and-1 with 15.5 left that wrapped up the victory.

The Gardiner girls basketball team celebrates after it beat Maranacook 58-49 in a Class A/B central Maine tournament semifinal game Wednesday night in Gardiner. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

“That was really nerve-wracking for me,” Johnson said. “I’ve never really been in that spot before, so it was all new.”

The Tigers trailed 11-10 after one, but went on a run that gave them the upper hand for good. A Piper LaVoie basket on the first possession of the quarter put Gardiner ahead, and after a Kassidy Collins free throw, Johnson had a layup, then hit a 3-pointer, and then had a steal and score to put the Tigers up 20-11.

The momentum continued to grow two possessions later, when Gruber knocked down a 3-pointer that prompted a Maranacook timeout with 23-11 with 4:38 to go in the quarter. The run eventually reached 18 straight points, as Megan Gallagher (11 points), yet another sophomore, hit a three and Gruber had another basket to put the Black Bears — for the moment — on their heels.

“It just kind of hyped us all up,” Johnson said. “We kept on going.”

So did Maranacook. Down 33-19 at halftime, the Black Bears scored 15 of the first 23 points of the third, with a Drillen jumper cutting the Gardiner lead to 41-34 with two minutes left and making it apparent that the Tigers weren’t going to be able to cruise.

“They easily could have given up coming into the second half, and they didn’t,” Magnusson said. “There wasn’t a time that I think we thought we didn’t have a chance to win that.”

Maranacook kept Gruber from being able to take over the game. Her points were hard-earned as she found pressure whenever she got the ball.

“They work really well together under the basket, getting two people across and just cluttering the middle,” she said. “They have multiple bigs. They have a deep bigs bench. … (It comes down to) working it when you can. When you can’t, make sure you have your teammates.”

Gruber and the Tigers did, with Gallagher hitting a three at the end of the third quarter and Kylee Nichols — another sophomore — putting in a layup that pushed the lead to 12 in the first minute of the fourth. Still, the Black Bears weren’t done, cutting the lead to five on three occasions — a Grace Dwyer 3-point play, a Drillen steal and score, and finally two free throws from Dwyer (eight points) with 2:04 to go.

“We kept having to tell ourselves ‘We’ve got this, we’ve got this,'” Green said. “Trying to cheer on others to take away from thinking about the score. I can’t stop thinking about Grace’s and-1. That really got us going.”

Gardiner never lost control, however. And as time dwindled down, all those sophomores made sure that didn’t change.

“(Maranacook is) so aggressive, and they play so hard and with so much emotion. We knew nothing about tonight was going to be easy,” said coach Mike Gray, who got 11 rebounds from Kassidy Collins. “Other than that one little run (in the second), it was a dead-even game the entire way. We talked about making sure that we take advantage when we get opportunities like that, and I thought we did.”

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