The flashy 18th birthday present for Ellsworth High School senior Hunter Curtis came during the final minute of the top-ranked Eagles’ Class B boys basketball showdown at No. 2 Foxcroft Academy of Dover-Foxcroft on Tuesday night.

That was a return pass from classmate Michael Palmer in transition that led Curtis to an emphatic two-handed slam dunk that capped off a hard-fought 49-37 victory for the undefeated Eagles.

The real birthday present for the fourth-year starter was the win itself as an Ellsworth team accustomed to comfortable dominance — its average victory margin during its first nine games was 28.5 points — overcame its toughest road test to date to improve its record to 10-0.

“They’re good,” Curtis said of a Foxcroft team that’s now 7-2 at the midpoint of its season, the best start for the Ponies since they reached the Eastern Maine Class B championship game in 2005.

“They probably played us better than anybody we’ve played. This place is crazy, and they played us well defensively and offensively. We had to work hard to win this one.”

Coach Peter Austin’s Ellsworth club, averaging 73 points per game entering its lone regular-season meeting with Foxcroft, led just 19-17 at intermission before finally gaining a modicum of control with seven unanswered points to open the second half.

Sophomore forward Chance Mercier opened the third quarter by scoring after grabbing an offensive rebound, then Curtis scored inside before Mercier fed junior forward Eamon MacDonald for a right-side 3-pointer to extend Ellsworth’s lead to 26-17 and force a Foxcroft timeout with 5:02 left in the period.

Junior forward Caden Crocker, who paced Foxcroft with 17 points, buried a 3-pointer coming out of the timeout and sophomore Jadon Richard made two free throws to pull the Ponies within 27-22.

But every time Foxcroft threatened — subsequent runs pulled coach Toby Nelson’s club within six at 38-32 on a drive by senior Filip Brkic with 5:19 left in the game and within seven at 41-34 on a Crocker drive with 2:40 left — Ellsworth had an answer, the final time another 7-0 run that featured four points by junior forward Gage Hardy and the dunk by Curtis.

“We took a lot of quick shots that we normally don’t take, the crowd got to us a little bit,” Mercier said. “In the third quarter we just started to settle down, passed the ball really well and made our open shots.”

Ellsworth also outrebounded Foxcroft 39-22, limiting the Ponies to one shot on most occasions while often generating extra attempts at the offensive end.

“It’s all about grit and effort, really,” Curtis said. “We know our roles on this team and we know we have to rebound in order for this team to win.”

Mercier grabbed a game-high 15 rebounds while Hardy added nine and Curtis gathered six boards for the Eagles.

“They were as athletic as I thought they would be, but I thought our kids defensively played phenomenal,” said Nelson, whose club blended its man-to-man defense with a 2-3 zone that had Ellsworth struggling with its passing around the perimeter.

“We gave up 49 points to the No. 1 team in Class B that had been averaging 73 a game, and I thought their 49 points came hard. They had to work for those points and that’s a credit to their kids because they worked tremendously hard, they sped us up at times when we wanted to slow it down, and we didn’t do a great job taking care of the ball in some situations.”

Curtis finished with 17 points for Ellsworth, 11 during the second half, while Mercier scored 12 points and Hardy had eight.

Brkic, who had averaged 20.1 points per game entering the contest, managed nine points and 11 rebounds before fouling out.

“Now we know that we can’t take any teams lightly at all,” Mercier said. “We just have to keep pushing the gas pedal.”

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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...