Skowhegan’s Payson Washburn and Brewer’s Colby Smith go after a loose ball during their season opener game Friday night at Brewer High School. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Basketball as fans have enjoyed it for generations returned to Brewer High School on Friday night.

Masks were still apparent, but the 600 people allowed in the gymnasium —  led by the Brewer band and student section — lent a relative return sense of normalcy to the proceedings compared to last winter’s games that were contested  in empty gyms due to COVID-19.

Skowhegan coach Tom Nadeau on the sideline of Friday night’s game against Brewer at Brewer High School. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Also back was the tenacity of recent Brewer teams, as the veteran Witches rallied in the fourth quarter for a 55-49 victory over Skowhegan in a season-opening battle of teams expected to contend for the Class A North championship.

“We have one last season, so we want to give it our all,” said Brewer guard Colby Smith, one of two senior starters for coach Ben Goodwin’s club. “Obviously making it far the last two seasons  [a Class A North semifinalist in 2020 and regional pod champion last winter], but not being able to capitalize with a state championship brings motivation and energy to our fire.”

Brewer’s Brady Saunders passes to a teammate over Skowhegan’s Quintcey McCray during their season opener Friday night at Brewer High School. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Smith paced Brewer with 16 points, 11 during the middle periods when Brewer was struggling to  generate offense from other sources. He also contributed three assists, the final one to junior forward Brady Saunders for a 3-pointer from the right wing to give the Witches a 47-45 lead with 2 1/2 minutes left in the game.

It was Brewer’s final field goal, but the Witches made 8-of-10 late free throws and never trailed again.

“We’re experienced and prepared for end-of-game situations like that,” said Smith, whose team trailed by as many as seven points late in the first half. “We’re able to easily calm down our team, get our shots and make our foul shots.”

Saunders made three 3-pointers and scored 13 points overall, while 5-foot-8 senior guard Aaron Newcomb scored 11 points – including 6-of-8 from the line – and also helped the Witches contain 6-6 Skowhegan junior Adam Savage.

The River Hawks’ big man finished with 11 points and a game-high 15 rebounds but managed just two field goals after Skowhegan had grabbed a 30-24 halftime lead.

“It’s just a mentality on defense, you’ve just got to get after it,” Newcomb said. “Obviously, I’m very undersized in that matchup, but you’ve just got to be a dog and go after it.”

Brewer’s Brock Flagg is fouled by Skowhegan’s Adam Savage during their season opener Friday night at Brewer High School. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Brewer also got key contributions off the bench from juniors Evan Nadeau and Cameron Hughes, both playing nearly the entire fourth quarter after starters Brock Flagg and Ryder Goodwin fouled out.

“It speaks volumes about our team and our depth that when one guy goes out with foul trouble we’ve got another guy stepping up, bringing the energy, getting the steals like [Evan] Nadeau did at the end and Cam getting the boards and making layups,” Newcomb said.

Senior guard Levi Obert scored a game-high 17 points for Skowhegan, 13 in the first half as Brewer’s defense worked to contain the River Hawks’ frontcourt of Savage and 6-5 junior twins Kyle and Collin LePage.

Skowhegan limited Brewer to one shot on most of its first-half possessions and outrebounded the Witches 16-8 over the first two periods but was unable to generate a lead larger than 29-22 on a 3-pointer by Obert with 1:30 left before intermission.

Smith kept Brewer within striking distance, his work during the middle periods capped off by a pull-up 3-pointer from the right wing as the third-quarter buzzer sounded to draw the Witches within 37-35.

Brewer head coach Ben Goodwin on the sideline during the season opener against Skowhegan Friday night at Brewer High School. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Brewer took its first lead since the first quarter at 38-37 on a runner by Smith with 6:35 left in the game, and after Skowhegan built its lead back to as much as 44-38 on a fast-break layup by Quintcey McCray the Witches mounted a decisive 11-1 run that concluded when Hughes followed Saunders’ go-ahead 3-pointer with two free throws to give his team a four-point cushion with 2:22 to play.

Ernie Clark

Ernie Clark is a veteran sportswriter who has worked with the Bangor Daily News for more than a decade. A four-time Maine Sportswriter of the Year as selected by the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters...