When Matt Fleming entered Bangor High School in the fall of 2017 after he and his family moved to the area from western Maine, he viewed his future with the boys basketball team as a two-year championship journey.
Now the 6-foot-6 senior forward — who on Tuesday was named a finalist for the Mr. Maine Basketball award — and his teammates are one win away from fulfilling that goal. The Rams (19-2) face Bonny Eagle of Standish in the Class AA state final at 9:05 p.m. Saturday at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland.
“It’s been great,” Fleming said after he scored 27 points and grabbed 11 rebounds last Friday when the top-seeded Rams defeated No. 2 seed and defending state champion Edward Little of Auburn 56-52 in the Class AA North championship game.
“I was nervous with the transition, but all the guys [at Bangor] are like my brothers,” he said of the move from Oxford Hills High School in South Paris. “And with all the support from the community it’s been pretty easy and now with this group it’s been kind of like a two-year process.”
With all 11 players back from the 2017-2018 team and four newcomers, including Brewer transfer Isaac Cummings, the Rams were poised to contend for the regional title under first-year head coach Brad Libby. That was true even with Fleming and standout guard Damien Vance both recovering from offseason injuries.
Fleming, a 1,000-point scorer as a junior who earned first-team Bangor Daily News All-Maine honors after averaging 25.3 points and 13.2 rebounds per game last winter, dislocated his right elbow last April at an AAU tournament in Gorham.
But both recovered on or ahead of schedule and were ready for Bangor’s season opener in early December.
Bangor has played true to its expectations. Its lone regular-season blemishes were road losses at No. 3 Oxford Hills and Edward Little.
Convincing wins in Bangor’s Class AA North quarterfinal against Lewiston and semifinal against Portland led to yet another meeting with Edward Little. The teams split two regular-season clashes before Bangor won in overtime in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference championship game.
In the regional title game, Bangor led 34-19 early in the second half, but Mr. Maine Basketball finalist Wol Maiwen spurred a comeback that drew the Red Eddies within 44-42 with five minutes left in the game.
When Vance then fouled out eight seconds later, it was time for Fleming to lead.
“You could look in Matt’s eyes and see his demeanor, he wasn’t going to let us lose this game,” Libby said. “He’s been a great leader for us all year long and they guys really follow him. He stepped up all game long and kept them together, especially to persevere through that run that Edward Little made.”
The Rams got the ball to Fleming on their next possession, and he drove aggressively to the basket. He was fouled from both sides as his short floater went through the net, then added the free throw to restore Bangor to a five-point lead.
“We had gone away from our game plan a little bit, which was to get me the ball and let me attack Wol and try to get him in foul trouble,” Fleming said.
Bangor preserved its lead by shutting down EL in the late going and making 10 of 13 free throws. Cummings, Fleming and senior forwards Noah Missbrenner and Jason Smith all contributed from the line when the game was literally on the line.
“We couldn’t get the baskets we needed at times, and they kept making plays,” said Edward Little coach Mike Adams. “They’re a great shooting team and they’re really physical and strong defensively.”
The Rams’ final stop on the two-year tour comes against a Bonny Eagle team that is playing in its first state title game since falling to Bangor 52-41 in the 1995 Class A championship.
The 18-3 Scots upended No. 1 Thornton Academy of Saco 48-44 in the Class AA South finale.
“Last year it wasn’t like we thought we didn’t have the tools, they were just young tools,” said Fleming, who will continue his basketball career at Army West Point beginning next fall. “This year everyone’s grown up and now we’re just putting it together.
“This is a two-year journey we’re about to finish.”