BANGOR, Maine — Adversity can strike at any time over the course of a championship battle. It’s how a team handles those challenges that shows the true mettle of a champion.
The Easton boys basketball team got a few tastes of those challenges on Saturday morning, but the Bears relied on their faith in each other and other powers in search of their first regional championship in 36 years.
Coach Manny Martinez’s club withstood every punch Southern Aroostook threw, and scored the first eight points of overtime en route to a thrilling 57-52 Class D North regional championship victory over the gritty Warriors from Dyer Brook at the Cross Insurance Center.
Martinez, whose top-ranked Bears improved to 19-2 and will play in next Saturday’s state championship against South champ Valley of Bingham at the Augusta Civic Center, is no stranger to this moment, having been on a few state championship-winning teams as a player at nearby Central Aroostook.
“I think I enjoy watching the kids enjoy it [more],” Martinez said. “I’m so proud of how far they’ve come. It’s a constant reminder if you work hard you’ll be successful.”
Southern Aroostook, seeking its first trip to a state championship game since 1991, finishes the season 16-5.
Easton appeared to have control early in the fourth quarter after starting the period on a 9-2 run, but Southern Aroostook sharpshooter Jackson Mathers came to life after being held without a field goal in the first half.
Mathers’ deep 3-pointer helped spear an 11-2 Southern Aroostook surge to close regulation, a run that Martinez was fearing.
“He almost [took it away from us],” Martinez said of Mathers. “Southern Aroostook is a quality opponent.”
A pair of free throws by the Warriors’ Tyler Batchelder with 8.7 seconds left tied it at 48, and a player-control foul on Easton’s Jacob Flewelling sealed the tie and sent the game into overtime.
But the Bears were in a similar situation in a semifinal win over Washburn on Thursday, and Martinez took advantage of the situation to settle his team back down.
“I told the kids, ‘hey guys, in life, anything that you want any success it comes with hard work,’” Martinez said. “They really took that to heart and went out and got it done.”
Boy, did they ever. Logan Halvorson started overtime with a one-handed shot that bounced around the rim and in, giving the Bears the lead for good and giving Martinez a flashback to his dramatic one-handed floater in the 2008 state championship game.
“I just thought it was open, so I shot it and it bounced in,” Halvorson said.
The Bears would never relinquish the lead in overtime, holding the Warriors to one field goal and hitting seven of nine free throws in the extra session.
“We knew it was going to be a tough game because they’ve got real talented players,” Halvorson said.
The Bears relied on a balanced offensive attack, with Jordan Doody leading the way with 20 points, while Flewelling had 12, Drew Sotomayor 10 and Halvorson 10.
Doody also had nine rebounds and Flewelling eight boards.
“We’ve been working so hard this season. Everybody has,” Halvorson said.
Another thing Martinez and his players have relied on all season was their faith in a higher power, and it has led them to the promised land.
“I just want to give credit to God, and the kids give credit to God all day. I’m so proud of that,” Martinez said.
Mathers finished with 17 points, including 15 in the second half, to pace Southern Aroostook, Tyler Batchelder added 13.