Dexter beat Penobscot Valley twice during the regular season, but even though the Tigers led by eight at halftime of Saturday night’s Class C North girls basketball championship game, the Howlers were confident that they could come out on top.
In the locker room, coach Nathaniel Case reminded his team that in the matchup played at Howland, his team had shown tremendous resilience.
“Our example was, we were down 14 and came back and had a two-point lead [in that game]. Why can’t we do it again?”
Fourth-seeded Penobscot Valley of Howland took it to heart, outscoring No. 2 Dexter 18-6 in the second half to eke out a 24-20 victory in the Class C North girls basketball championship game at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
“The girls have worked so hard proving everyone wrong all year,” said Case, whose team won the program’s first regional title since 1986, when it finished as the state runner-up.
PVHS (18-4) advances to play South winner Boothbay Region (21-0), a 49-31 winner over North Yarmouth Academy, in next Saturday’s 7:05 p.m. state title game in Bangor.
Dexter, making its third consecutive regional final appearance, finished at 17-4.
“I can’t wait to practice. We still get to practice,” Case said of the coming week. “I can’t wait to see Boothbay in Bangor knowing the fans are going to fill this gym from Howland.”
The catalyst for the Howlers was Lexi Ireland. The junior post player scored 11 of her game-high 15 points in the second half. That effort included a 5-for-7 effort from the foul line in the fourth quarter.
“We battled back,” Ireland said. “We had a good talk at halftime and we just knew we could do this.”
The Howlers successfully limited Dexter’s top two scoring threats, Peyton Grant and Avery Herrick. PVHS played a triangle-and-two alignment in the first half with senior Judy King guarding Grant and junior Leine McKechnie responsible for shadowing Herrick.
Grant found enough room to score eight points to help the defensive-minded Tigers build a 14-6 lead. Dexter’s player-to-player defense held PVHS to 2-for-11 shooting and forced some of the Howlers’ seven turnovers.
However, Dexter’s efforts were hampered by its inability to take care of the ball. The Tigers committed an uncharacteristic 20 turnovers overall, which proved their undoing.
“That killed us, it really did,” said Dexter coach Jody Grant.
“Your margin of error becomes very miniscule when you turn the ball over that many times.”
Dexter had difficulty finding any offensive continuity in the second half after PVHS switched into a 1-3-1 zone. The Howlers’ comfort level playing that defense came from using it against other teams with high-scoring guards.
The tactic helped turn the tables on the Tigers, who managed only 11 field-goal attempts in the second half and made just two.
“We just didn’t do a good job getting organized, getting the ball to the right places at the right times, having good habits,” Jody Grant said. “But some of that was our inability to pass and catch and do what you think would be simple things.”
Dexter made six turnovers in the third quarter as PVHS began to generate some momentum. Ireland sank two free throws, scored from underneath off a pass from Laney Harding, then scored from the lane with a left-handed shot that tied the game 16-all with 42 seconds left in the third quarter.
“We came out in our ‘green’ defense, our 1-3-1, and actually shut them down a little bit, so our defense kept us through this,” Ireland said.
Dexter regained the lead briefly with 6:09 to play on Herrick’s scoop shot, but two Ireland foul shots and Emily St. Cyr’s runner from the lane made it 20-18 Howlers.
The Tigers managed only two free throws the rest of the way, although they had a chance to equalize after Ireland sank two more from the line with 22.2 seconds left. However, Grant’s 3-point attempt from the left wing missed, St. Cyr rebounded and one more Ireland foul shot iced it.
“We weren’t supposed to be this good this year,” Case said, “so I’m just so proud that they bought in to all the expectations I had for them this year. I set a [high] bar and they exceeded it every single time.”