Nokomis freshman Cooper Flagg drives the ball down court past Hampden Academy’s Nick Johnston during a preseason game on December 2. At far left is Ace Flagg. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Cooper Flagg is experiencing the best of both of his basketball worlds these days.

The 6-foot-7-inch freshman phenom from Nokomis Regional High School in Newport has been reaping the benefits of his travel basketball career for a few years now, being ranked among the top players nationally in the Class of 2025 and more recently receiving his first college scholarship offers from Bryant, Albany and the University of Maine beginning at age 14.

But this winter, and particularly during the past two weeks, he and twin brother Ace — also offered a scholarship by UMaine — have been displaying all the basketball talents they are known for throughout New England and around the country on Maine’s biggest stage before an audience that includes their schoolmates and community.

It’s an adoring fan base, as evidenced by the gathering of young and old in their Nokomis burgundy and white T-shirts that lingered at the sold-out Augusta Civic Center with the Flaggs and their teammates — including older brother Hunter — long after the Warriors captured the first regional championship in program history with a 68-58 victory over Brewer in Saturday night’s Class A North final.

“The energy in here was crazy,” said Cooper Flagg, who contributed 27 points, 11 rebounds, five steals, five assists and three blocked shots to the title-game victory along with numerous autographs to the basketball shoes of younger fans throughout the tourney.

Nokomis freshman Cooper Flagg goes up for a shot over Hampden Academy’s Landon Gabric during a preseason game on December 2. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Travel basketball games often are played before modest gatherings in humble settings. But the competition at showcases and the attention it gets from those who follow the AAU basketball scene can provide a different sort of pressure than the high school tournament in Maine that remains a popular rite of winter even as it returns from a year’s hiatus due to COVID-19.

That likely worked to the Flagg twins’ advantage as they debuted on the high school tournament scene this February, according to their mother.

“What’s different is that because of social media it’s given an avenue, especially for Cooper, to be in the national spotlight,” said Kelly (Bowman) Flagg, a former Nokomis basketball standout who later played at the University of Maine. “He was in the national spotlight before he was in the local spotlight.”

There’s also pressure that stems from within.

“Our Maine United [travel] team plays basically all over the country and I think that carries a lot of weight and pressure on them knowing how much money and time we invest in doing that for them and getting them to those places,” Kelly Flagg said.

“And the people that are sponsoring our team and helping us out, they don’t want to let them down. You also want to prove yourself in front of potential college coaches that may be there scouting, so they definitely have had their fair share of that kind of stuff that has well prepared them for this moment.”

The Flagg brothers have been busy fans when they haven’t been playing during the high school tournament, having been spotted frequently at the recent B, C and D North games in Bangor.

But while the fans were excited in Bangor, they couldn’t match the steadily larger crowds drawn to watch Cooper Flagg and the Warriors in Augusta.

“You couldn’t hear anyone, but I was trying to yell to my teammates and let people around me know what was going on,” he said after the Class A North championship game. “We were out there screaming our lungs out so my voice is definitely going to be sore.”

The Flagg twins started attending games at Nokomis — where their dad Ralph was a 6-foot-5 center for the Warriors during his playing days — not long after they started going to school, with Cooper Flagg beginning his travel basketball career in the second grade with Ace following suit a year later.

The brothers soon became teammates and their combination of skills and advanced height for their ages eventually led to their travel team competition expanding well beyond the state’s borders, particularly during their middle-school years.

Last spring the Flaggs and current Nokomis classmate Dawson Townsend played on a Maine United travel squad coached by former University of Maine standout Andy Bedard that won a Zero Gravity National Finals eighth-grade championship, and Cooper Flagg’s name soon became a familiar sight on national Top 50 age-group rankings.

Nokomis Cooper Flagg shoots from outside Credit: Josh O'Donnell / BDN

The arrival of the Flagg twins as freshmen at Nokomis led to the Warriors being anointed in some in-state basketball circles as a champion-in-waiting even before the team under veteran coach Earl Anderson played its first game.

Nokomis adopted the motto “Block out the noise” in an effort to ignore the volume of those outside expectations, even though Cooper Flagg and his teammates shared the same goal.

“It’s something I’ve had to balance my whole life with people talking about me,” said Flagg, who turned 15 in December. “I’ve been able to cope with that and letting people talk to me and pretty much blocking it out while letting it in at the same time. It’s just a big balance that you have to find and once you find it you can really optimize how you’re practicing and how you’re playing.”

Such interest from Maine’s basketball community and among more casual sports fans has increased steadily with their arrival on the high school scene, particularly as the 20-1 Warriors have extended what is now a 19-game, 2 ½-month winning streak heading into Saturday’s 3 p.m. state championship game against Falmouth at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland.

“I absolutely think that Ace and Cooper and Dawson were well prepared for this season,” Kelly Flagg said. “I think people thought, ‘Oh, let’s see how these freshmen do on this big stage this year,’ but they’re really pretty unfazed.”

Not only has Nokomis been winning, but Cooper and Ace Flagg and junior forward Madden White have made the slam dunk — long a rarity in Maine high school basketball — seem suddenly routine, at least in Newport and opponents’ gymnasiums around central Maine.

“It brings a lot of energy when you get up and dunk one,” said Cooper Flagg, who had eight slam dunks in three A North tournament games.

And while Nokomis endured moments of offensive struggles during early postseason victories over No. 9 Messalonskee of Oakland (57-29) and No. 4 Cony of Augusta (51-35), a defense that allowed barely 40 points per game during the regular season remained stout.

“I think every game in the tournament has the same amount of pressure, but honestly at the start we had more pressure because we were getting projected to go all the way to the state championship,” Flagg said. “Just getting those first couple of games out of the way was huge.”

Saturday’s regional final came after a split of two regular-season games with Brewer, and the outcome was sparked by what has almost become the norm for the team, strong second-half play.

Nokomis Cooper Flagg dunks the ball on a fast break Credit: Josh O'Donnell / BDN

This time it was a 21-4 third-quarter run aided by three unsung heroes, as Townsend and sophomore guards Alex Grant and Connor Sides each buried a 3-pointer to help Nokomis turn a narrow 23-21 edge into a 44-25 comfort zone in a matter of moments.

“After they started hitting some shots [Brewer] knew they weren’t going to be able to focus on one person,” said Cooper Flagg, who scored 19 second-half points. “We really got cooking as a team in general, and from there it really opened up things for me. When shots are falling everyone feels good and it brings the defensive intensity up. It’s honestly just a big uplift.”

Cooper Flagg was the easy choice as winner of the Al Halliday Award symbolic of the Class A North tournament’s outstanding player-sportsman. He had a triple-double in the quarterfinals and finished the three-game regional with averages of 20.7 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocks per game.

“He’s a great scorer but he’s a better passer,” Anderson said. “He’s a great player but he’s a better teammate.”

One more opponent stands between Nokomis and a historic first state championship in boys basketball.

Falmouth (19-2) boasts a storied legacy under longtime coach David Halligan, including the 2016 Class A state championship, Class B crowns in 2010 and 2013 and consecutive Class C gold balls in 1997, 1998 and 1999.

“It’s very exciting, definitely a big step forward right there,” said Cooper Flagg after leading Nokomis to its first regional title. “Hopefully we can just get it done and complete the mission.”

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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...