LEE, Maine — The Penquis Valley boys basketball team has been known for a man-to-man defense founded on both physical and mental toughness during Tony Hamlin’s 17-year reign as head coach.

But when faced with depleted resources due to illness and an opponent that played into the tactic Saturday afternoon, the Patriots showed themselves just as effective when employing a zone defense.

Penquis limited Lee Academy to 10 second-half points — just two in the fourth quarter — and made 13 of 14 fourth-quarter free throws to pull away to a 57-35 victory over the Pandas in a matchup of two of the final four unbeaten teams in Eastern Maine Class C at Mallett Gymnasium.

“We don’t have a ton of (Heal) points to get on our schedule, so when we play Lee these are really big games for us, especially here,” said Penquis junior guard Trevor Lyford. “Those guys are a good team and well-coached, so we knew we had to come over here, out-tough them and keep them off the glass.”

Lyford and junior forward Isaiah Bess combined for 43 points for the Patriots, with Bess amassing 29 points on 6 of 10 shooting from beyond the 3-point arc, a 9 of 12 effort from the free-throw line and just one 2-point basket.

Lyford finished with 16 points, nine during the second half when Penquis outscored Lee 27-10 thanks to its active 2-3 zone defense that relegated the taller Pandas to the perimeter.

The Pandas shot just 3 for 21 overall after intermission, including 2 of 11 from beyond the 3-point arc.

“That’s been our M.O. all year long,” said Lee coach Randy Harris. “We’ve been an outstanding defensive team but we have just been a bad, bad offensive team and against a team that plays defense like they do, you’re going to struggle to score points.”

This rematch of last year’s double-overtime Eastern C semifinal won by Lee en route to its second straight regional title figured to be a low-scoring affair. Penquis was yielding just 31.5 points per game and Lee was allowing only 37.7 points per game in their respective 4-0 starts this season.

And not until Lyford convert a three-point play off a baseline drive with 4:31 left in the opening quarter did anyone score.

Senior point guard Julian Diggs hit a 35-foot 3-pointer to give Lee an 11-10 lead at the end of the first quarter, but when he left the game after drawing his third foul midway through the second period Penquis took the lead for good.

That lead came at 22-20 on a pull-up 3-pointer by Bess with 3:52 left in the half, his third basket from long range during a 1 minute, 55-second span.

A three-point play by Tyler Pelletier off a give-and-go with Bess moments later gave the Patriots their largest lead of the half at 27-21, and with Bess scoring 11 points in the period Penquis maintained a 30-25 advantage at the break.

Lyford scored the first six points of the second half to give the Patriots their first double-digit lead at 36-25, but Diggs answered with a 3-pointer and a follow-up basket to help keep Lee within 39-33 at the end of the third quarter.

Lee was still within 41-35 with 4:54 left in the game after Steven Ma converted a layup off a feed from Diggs — but those were the Pandas’ only points of the final quarter.

Bess immediately answered with a 3-pointer from the right wing off a skip pass from Derrick Johnson, and Penquis concluded the game by forcing Lee to foul and extending its lead at the free-throw line.

“We were pretty effective in the zone,” said Hamlin. “A good team will go into that situation plus-seven, do a good job defensively, be patient offensively and then you can get to plus-17 without scoring a field goal. That’s what I like to see.”

The Patriots also held their own on the backboards against the taller Lee lineup. Lee finished with 29-23 overall rebounding edge, but it was virtually a stalemate after the Pandas grabbed six early boards while the teams were going scoreless.

“They’re pretty long and lengthy, so because we’re a little smaller team it made it tough to make some passes and get the rebounds,” said Bess, who also contributed six rebounds and four steals. “So we slowed it down a little offensively to limit their possessions and went 2-3 zone on defense because they didn’t have great shooters. Then we just had to make sure to box out so they didn’t get second shots.”

Diggs led Lee with 11 points, while Ma and Cherif Fall added seven points each.

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Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...