It was a comeback that had to be seen to be believed, except that the Dexter boys basketball team’s rally from a 13-point deficit with five minutes remaining to stun George Stevens Academy of Blue Hill 42-40 and win its second straight Class C North boys basketball title at the Cross Insurance Center on Monday night was really nothing new.
Take two years ago when coach Peter Murray’s club captured the regional title on a buzzer-beating 3-pointer by Parker Ponte, or last fall when Bryce Connor passed to Avery Gagnon for the winning touchdown as time expired to lift the Tigers to an eight-man football state championship.
How to explain it?
“I don’t know,” said Tigers’ junior forward Will Kusnierz, who scored eight of his team-high 14 points during the fourth quarter. “We keep putting ourselves in these situations and we keep finding our way out of them. I don’t know how we do it.
Second-seeded GSA rendered fourth-ranked Dexter’s offense silent through the game’s first three quarters, initially building a 23-2 lead with a blend of size, shooting accuracy and its own defensive might led by Dexter Brown’s work against Kusnierz that left the Tigers to miss their first 17 field-goal tries until junior forward Kayden Kimball scored with 2:32 left before intermission.
“They had us in a really bad spot early on and we just couldn’t find a way to score a point,” Murray said. “We struggled and struggled, but the idea is just to stick with it, it’s a 32-minute game and you’re not going to win it in the first quarter.”
While Dexter eventually managed to develop a modicum of offensive consistency, George Stevens still maintained control of the game, leading 25-10 at halftime and 32-18 through three quarters.
Well-known for its stout man-to-man defense, Dexter finally turned to fullcourt pressure, and perhaps buoyed by those previous athletic comebacks the Tigers turned the game around.
“I told them at halftime that the bottom line is they’re bigger across the board than we are and you’ve got to make up the difference in your heart,” Murray said. “That’s where it’s going to come from, from selling out all over the court, trying to create some havoc and getting some chances to score.
“And the kids hit some big shots down the stretch, you’ve got to give all the credit to them.”
GSA still led 38-25 after a baseline jumper by senior guard David Gadsby with 5:05 left in the contest, but for the next two minutes the Eagles rarely advanced the ball into their frontcourt.
Dexter forced a succession of turnovers, often stealing the ball almost immediately after George Stevens had grabbed a defensive rebound.
A 3-pointer by senior guard Seth Robbins, a steal and layup by Connor and a follow-up shot by Kusnierz marked the bulk of an 8-0 run that rallied Dexter within 38-33 and prompted a GSA timeout with 3:18 remaining.
Back-to-back 3-pointers by Kusnierz and Robbins finally gave Dexter its first lead, 39-38, with 1:35 to go.
“The momentum was building and I have a lot of confidence in my shot,” Robbins said. “I knew it was going in as soon as it left my hand.”
George Stevens finally ended a 4-minute, 4-second scoring drought when Teague Smallidge hit a 15-foot jumper to give the Eagles a 40-39 edge with 1:01 remaining, but Dexter countered with a baseline move by Gagnon — his only field goal of the game — to give the Tigers the lead for good at 41-40 with 38 seconds left.
GSA came up empty at the other end, and Connor made 1 of 2 from the free-throw line with two seconds left to make it a two-point game.
Robbins and Kimball complemented Kusnierz’s offense with eight points apiece for 16-5 Dexter, which will face South champion Dirigo of Dixfield for the state title at 8:45 p.m. Saturday at the Augusta Civic Center.
Smallidge scored 11 points for 17-3 George Stevens while frontcourt mates Bryce Schneider and Azaiah Nanson added 10 points each.
“Despite the fact that at various times tonight we were not playing very well as individuals and as a team, we never came apart,” Murray said. “The idea is that as the going gets tough you’ve got to come closer together, circle the wagons and keep battling.
“That’s just how these kids are. They know what can happen at the end of the game — obviously they’ve lived it. You’ve just got to give yourself a chance.”