TOPSHAM — The Gardiner girls basketball team had to dig deep all week. It only made sense the Tigers had to end it that way, too.

Gardiner climbed out of a deep hole Friday night, rallying from 13 points down in the second quarter to defeat Mt. Ararat 59-50.

McKenna Johnson had a career-high 20 points to lead Gardiner (6-1), while Lizzy Gruber added 14 points, 13 rebounds and five blocks. Elsa Daulerio had 13 points and 13 rebounds for the Eagles (7-3), while freshmen Cali Pomerleau and Kennedy Lampert scored 12 and 11, respectively.

“We talked about not panicking. We talked about, before the game, they’re good. That’s a good team,” Gardiner coach Mike Gray said. “We knew they were going to come out, but we also knew we could wear them down. If we picked up and pressed the entire time, we could wear them down.”

This one wasn’t easy, which made it a fitting cap to the week, as it was Gardiner’s first game at full strength since COVID cases on the team forced it to shut down for a week. The experience of being sent to the sidelines wasn’t a pleasant one for the Tigers, but Gray said he saw his team grow tighter in a difficult stretch.

“All of that has just made them stronger, made them tougher, and made them care about each other more,” he said. “It’s easy to be good teammates when everything’s going great. But when you get a little bit of adversity, it’s been great to see how these kids respond to that.”

The Tigers showed it Tuesday while playing Nokomis with many of their top players absent. Only two of Friday’s starters, Taylor Takatsu and Megan Gallagher, were in the lineup on Tuesday, and Gray called on a large number of JV players to play big minutes.

Gardiner kept rolling. The Tigers won 53-38, getting 15 points and 21 rebounds from Takatsu and 17 points from Gallagher.

Mt. Ararat’s Elsa Daulerio, left, tries to block a shot by Gardiner’s Lizzy Gruber during a girls basketball game Friday in Topsham. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal

“We have a very deep bench,” Gruber said. “We have someone on the bench who’s just as good who can come in (for a starter) and hit a few threes every once in a while.”

“I was really proud of the girls that night,” Gray said. “We brought five kids up from the JV team. … We had three kids start that night that hadn’t started before, and they stepped right in like it was nothing.”

On Friday, though, the Tigers were back — so to speak. The time off seemed to have an early effect as Gardiner fell behind 16-5 at the end of the first quarter, and was down 22-9 when the Eagles’ Brooklyne Choate hit a 3-pointer with about five minutes to go in the second quarter.

According to Johnson, rust was the culprit.

“Definitely. It was getting back in the swing of things,” she said. “We knew we couldn’t hang our heads. We just had to play our game.”

Gardiner, however, upped the defensive pressure and ended the quarter on a 16-6 run.

“The first quarter we didn’t make any shots, so we couldn’t really get up and pressure,” Gray said. “Once we started making a couple of shots, and even we cut it to seven or so, I think they all just relaxed and were like ‘OK, we’re fine, we can get ourselves back into this.'”

The surge continued in the third. Johnson scored nine of the team’s first 15 points of the second half, allowing Gardiner to go up 40-30. Gruber began to win her battle with the 6-3 Daulerio, and Savannah Brown (five steals) and Gallagher (three) led the Tigers’ pressure defense.

The Eagles tried to return the favor, cutting the gap to 53-48 on a Lampert basket with about a minute and a half to go, but a pair of clutch free throws from Gallagher and two steals from Brown iced the game and a victorious return to action for the Tigers’ full crew.

“It’s a really big win for us,” Johnson said. “We had four practices, and it’s just good to play a game. To come out with a win is even better.”

Tough as it was to see the game slip away, Mt. Ararat coach Julie Petrie, whose team was missing four players with COVID issues of its own, said she was happy with the effort from her group to take one of A North’s top teams down to the wire.

“I know we lost, but I told our kids tonight, being so low on personnel and having a lot of our young kids have to step up, I told them we want to leave the gym proud,” she said. “For us to be missing some of our key scorers and score 50, I was proud of them for that. But we got tired down the stretch.”

Related Headlines

Comments are not available on this story.