Cony senior forward Indiya Clarke, left, and Gardiner junior center Lizzy Gruber prepare for the season-opening tipoff Friday night at Cony High School. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

AUGUSTA — The season couldn’t have gotten off to a better start for the Gardiner girls basketball team, in large part because the opener couldn’t have, either.

Spurred by a red-hot first quarter and then buoyed late by a second-half surge, the Tigers kicked off their winter by defeating Cony 53-40 in a Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class A game Friday.

Lizzy Gruber had 16 points and 19 rebounds for Gardiner, while Megan Gallagher added 11 points and McKenna Johnson had nine.

“Coming into this game, we knew it was going to be a tough matchup,” Gruber said. “Coming in and playing your rival right off the bat is always going to be tricky. But we really stuck with it and we kept working hard. To be able to take out your No. 1 rival on the very first night just feels (great).”

Cony, which got as close as seven points in the second half, was led by 18 points and nine rebounds from senior Indiya Clarke, a transfer from Alaska, and seven points from Sage Fortin, a transfer from Winthrop.

Cony senior Indiya Clarke dribbles during a basketball game against Gardiner on Friday in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“One of our captains, Raegan Bechard, made a good point. She said ‘The entire time, it did not feel like we were down 20,’ ” Clarke said. “Our energy was great, it was just, shots weren’t falling.”

The well was especially dry in the first quarter as Cony didn’t get on the board for the first three-and-a-half minutes, while the Tigers started strong. Gardiner leapt out to a 10-0 lead, and got 3-pointers from Gallagher and Emily Grady en route to taking a 17-6 lead into the second quarter.

“I thought we played a pretty flawless first quarter,” Gardiner coach Mike Gray said. “That first quarter is about as good as I could ask us to play. We talked over and over again, really all week in practice and between quarters (Friday), ‘This is a good team and they’re going to make shots and they’re going to make a run. We just can’t be complacent.’ ”

Cony freshman guard Abby Morrill brings the ball up the court during a basketball game against Gardiner on Friday in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Gardiner kept it up in the second quarter, taking a 30-15 lead into halftime. A major part of the Tigers’ success was the play of Gruber; renowned for her scoring and rebounding ability, the Tigers’ star junior showed her on-ball defensive skills, going 1-on-1 with Clarke and working to prevent the Wofford University commit from having easy access to the basket.

“We both worked really hard. We both knew what our goal was in this game,” Gruber said. “We both know our roles, and we just fought against each other, which was awesome.”

“She did a really good job staying in front of Indiya, making her earn every single thing,” Gray said. “It’s not just the scoring. It’s the defense, it’s the other things that she brings to the table.”

Cony senior forward/guard Alyssa Redman, left, shoots as Gardiner junior center Lizzy Gruber defends during a basketball game Friday in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

Still, Cony made the run Gray was warning his team about. A Clarke three-point play early in the third cut the lead to nine at 32-23, and the Rams pulled within seven at 33-26 when Clarke hit a three and 38-31 when freshman Abby Morrill drained another with just over a minute to go in the third.

Gardiner didn’t blink. A Taylor Takatsu jumper and Piper LaVoie floater were the last baskets of the third, pushing the lead back to double digits, and Gruber had the first two baskets of the fourth to put Gardiner comfortably in front again by 15 points.

“I liked that we just relaxed and we kept playing,” Gray said. “That’s not just one kid or two kids, that’s the whole team, collectively. They’ve been through it, they know what to do. It’s a veteran team at this point.”

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