BANGOR, Maine — It has often been said that beating a team three times in a season is one of the most difficult feats in sports.

Just ask Houlton girls basketball coach Shawn Graham, whose undefeated Shires were nearly bounced from the Class C semifinals by a determined Central squad.

No. 1 Houlton (20-0) outlasted No. 5 Central of Corinth 41-38 Friday evening in a Class C North semifinal at the Cross Insurance Center and returns to the regional championship game for the fourth straight year.

“It’s not only hard to beat a team three times, it’s even harder to beat a very good team three times,” Houlton coach Shawn Graham said. “Central is an excellent team. They gave it a valiant effort, but our girls persevered when the chips were down.”

The Shires face No. 2 Dexter (17-3) Saturday at 7:05 p.m. for the regional championship. Dexter advanced with a 36-15 victory over No. 11 Calais earlier Friday.

Kolleen Bouchard led all players with 21 points, while Abbie Worthley added eight for the Shires. Sydney Allen paced Central (18-3) with 17 points. All three of Central’s losses on the year were to Houlton.

The Red Devils gave Houlton everything it could handle. The fourth quarter alone featured six lead changes as Central and Houlton went toe-to-toe through the final eight minutes of action.

“Today was an upset in the making for sure,” Graham said. “They really sagging hard on Kolleen, double- and triple- teaming her. So I just told her to trust her teammates.”

That trust came in the form of sophomore Abbie Worthley, who gave the Shires a 38-37 lead with a conventional three-point play with 16 seconds to go. She penetrated to the hoop, made a short-range jumper and was fouled. She then calmly sank her free throw to give Houlton the lead.

“When the shot went up, I was just waiting for it to go in,” Worthley said. When it did, I was like ‘woo-hoo!’ I had missed two free throws earlier in the game, but I knew I had to make this one.”

Hitting big baskets in the semifinals is nothing new to Worthley as she also came off the bench to hit a pair of 3-pointers in last year’s semifinal to give the Shires a 37-33 win over Hermon in overtime.

On the ensuing possession, Bouchard stole a Central pass at midcourt with 8.7 second to play and was immediately fouled to stop the clock. She sank both free throws to give Houlton a 41-37 lead.

Central’s Emily Smith was fouled with 2.1 seconds to go and, after making the first free throw, she intentionally missed the second. Central recovered the ball, but a 3-point attempt at the buzzer was off the mark.

Central coach Jamie Russell said the Red Devils executed their game plan almost to perfection, as they slowed down the pace and kept the game low-scoring.

“I am very proud of our kids,” Russell said. “I feel that (Houlton) is the best team in the state, regardless of class. They are a well-balanced team and they certainly showed it at the end.”

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