PITTSFIELD, Maine — Mitchell Hallee had two athletic ambitions as he began his senior year at Maine Central Institute last fall.
The first was to help the Huskies’ football team win the LTC title for the first time in 14 years and secure a berth in the Class D state final. The second was to aid in qualifying MCI for the Eastern Maine Class B boys basketball tournament quarterfinals in Bangor.
With MCI’s 43-28 victory over Hermon in Wednesday night’s Eastern B prelim before a packed house at Wright Gymnasium, Hallee and the Huskies have now achieved both.
“Coming into the year one of my goals was to make it to the state championship game in football at Fitzpatrick [Stadium] and we did that, and my second goal was to get to the Cross Center and it’s coming true,” said Hallee, whose eighth-ranked Huskies (13-6) will play No. 1 Medomak Valley of Waldoboro in the regional quarterfinals at 4:35 p.m. Saturday.
And the common denominator between the two efforts? Defense.
MCI’s man-to-man set suffocated ninth-ranked Hermon, allowing virtually no uncontested looks at the basket and limiting the Hawks to a 21 percent (8-of-39) shooting night from the field.
“All five of us were in the right position,” said Hallee. “We were moving as a team like on a string like we were supposed to all day long. We went straight-up man, we were just going to go hard to the basketball like in the old days, straight up, no zone, just make them shoot the ball with no switches and fight through the screens.”
And while offense didn’t come easily for either team, MCI had Todor Imsir, the senior guard from Serbia who scored a game-high 24 points on 9 of 16 shooting overall, 4 of 6 from beyond the 3-point arc.
“We knew we were going to be up against a team that was going to defend us,” said MCI coach Josh Tardy, “and we knew we were going up against great coaches and a class act, so it was about whether we could hit some shots.
“We’ve had good minutes lately from Todd, he’s a great player. He’s a great fit. He’s a great student and he’s a great fit for this team.”
Imsir scored 16 points during the opening two quarters to complement a fierce defensive effort that yielded just three field goals as MCI built a 22-8 halftime lead.
The Hawks, who finish 12-7 after dropping their final four games, led 4-2 midway through the opening period.
But MCI scored the final 12 points of the period — seven by Imsir — for a 14-4 lead, and that margin grew to 14 points by intermission as Hermon endured separate scoreless droughts of 5 minutes, 46 seconds between the first and second periods and then the final 4:59 minutes of the half.
“We’re a team that’s trying to brand ourselves as a defensive team,” said Tardy. “I think we’ve been hit or miss on nights if you look at our scores offensively, but we made enough shots tonight.”
Hermon got as close as 35-28 with 1:38 left after a three-point play from Joe Plummer and an inside basket by Mark Anthony, but two free throws by Hallee and a third from Imsir pushed the lead back to double digits and ensured the Huskies the ninth victory in their last 10 games and the program’s first postseason win since its last winning season in 2007.
“This is a big moment,” said Tardy. “This was a big game, you could see the crowd here tonight. It’s great for the community.”
It was a moment that seemed unlikely at the start of the season, given that MCI had gone a combined 31-95 over the seven years since its Eastern B quarterfinal upset of top-ranked Maranacook of Readfield.
But a come-from-behind 47-44 win over Maranacook on Jan. 16 provided the Huskies a dose of confidence that was enhanced by late-season upsets of Spruce Mountain of Jay — fifth ranked in Western B — and Eastern B second seed Winslow.
“It’s just staying with the approach,” said Tardy. “Our motto is ‘next play.’ The most important practice is our next practice and the most important game is our next game.”
Now that next, most important game is at the Cross Center, just as Mitchell Hallee hoped all along.