The Southern Aroostook Warriors displayed their form as one of the favorites in the Class D North boys basketball tournament Monday morning.
Suffocating defense, rebounding prowess, offensive balance and shooting accuracy from both the field and free-throw line all were in evidence for the second-ranked team from Dyer Brook during its 81-39 quarterfinal victory over No. 7 Katahdin of Stacyville at Bangor’s Cross Insurance Center.
The win was the 15th straight for coach Brett Russell’s club since its lone defeat, a 67-64 loss at Class C North top seed Fort Kent on Dec. 18 — a loss it avenged with a 57-49 victory at Dyer Brook on Jan. 22.
Southern Aroostook (17-1) advances to play No. 6 Schenck of East Millinocket in Thursday’s 7 p.m. semifinal. Schenck (10-10) edged No. 3 Van Buren 42-41 in Monday’s first quarterfinal.
“I couldn’t be happier,” said Russell, whose team lost in the quarterfinals to eventual regional champion Machias the last time the tournament was held in 2020.
“Every team’s got to get their first win in the big spotlight. We’ve got that first win, and now we can come back down and it’s basketball again. We can go out [Thursday] and hopefully build on what took place today.”
Sophomore forward Dylan Burpee paced Southern Aroostook to its quarterfinal win with 21 points, nine rebounds, four blocked shots and several other altered shots as part of a rangy defense that contested virtually every Katahdin possession, particularly during a first half that concluded with the Warriors holding a 43-9 lead.
Hunter Burpee, Southern Aroostook’s newest 1,000-point scorer and one of just two seniors on the roster, added 18 points and 10 rebounds while junior forward Graham Siltz scored 13 points with seven boards. Junior guard Camden Porter chipped in 11 points while classmate Drake Weston scored nine points on three of the Warriors’ nine 3-pointers in the contest.
Junior guard Grady Ritchie paced Katahdin (10-10) with 12 points while senior forward Justin Hurlbert scored nine.
Katahdin, which lost to Southern Aroostook by an average of 41 points in their two regular-season meetings this winter, took a 2-0 lead early in their tournament encounter on a low-post basket by Kyle McNally 38 seconds into the contest.
Southern Aroostook then scored 24 unanswered points over the next 10 minutes and 5 seconds of playing time.
Key to that blitz was a trapping halfcourt defense that forced nine Katahdin turnovers in the first quarter alone and 16 in the opening two periods, with many of those turnovers converted into immediate fast-break opportunities for the Warriors.
“Once we came out of the man-to-man and went into that trapping defense, everything seemed to flow after that,” said Russell, who played on Southern Aroostook’s last state championship team in 1991.
A steal by Porter that led to two free throws tied the game at 2-2, and Southern Aroostook went ahead for good when Siltz made a three-point play after grabbing an offensive rebound.
The Warriors added four 3-pointers — two by Hunter Burpee and one each by Dylan Burpee and Porter — during the scoring run as the lead grew to 18-2 at the end of the first quarter and then 24-2 before Katahdin finally scored again on a follow-up shot by Connor Edwards with 5:17 left until halftime.
“We sped them up, and offensively the ball movement was pretty good. That ball movement and the defensive intensity changed the pace of the game and that always favors us,” Russell said.
Southern Aroostook also capitalized on its defensive intensity by making shots. In the first half alone, the Warriors made 9 of 10 free throws and 8 of 14 3-point attempts, including three by Dylan Burpee and two each from Weston and Hunter Burpee.
“In our offense if we get that ball reversal and our feet are set we’ve got a really good group of guys that can shoot,” Russell said, and underneath it’s self-explanatory.
“If we get it into the big guys we usually have good results.”