Ellsworth's Chance Mercier goes around an Orono defender at Ellsworth High School on Thursday, Dec. 29. Credit: Adam Robinson / BDN

ELLSWORTH, Maine — The Ellsworth boys basketball team jumped out to a huge lead on Thursday night against Orono at home in a rematch of the 2022 Class B North final.

The Eagles would need the early lead, as the Red Riots were able to chip away at the lead. Still, Chance Mercier and Ellsworth were able to hold off the late comeback attempt and earn a 60-49 victory in the battle of the unbeatens.

Ellsworth built a 27-14 lead after the first quarter with the help of sharp shooting and stellar all-around basketball from Mercier, who scored 11 points in the frame. The Eagles went on a 15-0 run to take a 21-6 lead with about three minutes remaining in the quarter and the Ellsworth gym was getting loud.

Orono coach Ed Kohtala had to make some defensive choices early on.

“They were tremendous in the first quarter,” Kohtala said of Ellsworth. “Against a good team you have to make choices about where you’re going to apply the most defensive pressure and Mercier is statistically the guy. When you do that you open other opportunities and to their credit they hit shots.”

Prior to the game, the 2022 Class B baseball state champion Eagles received championship rings, so the crowd was large and loud.

“The atmosphere was fun and I wish every game could be like this,” Ellsworth coach Peter Austin said. “We came out on the bang in the first half and we just kind of survived the second half.”

Orono’s Pierce Walston scored nine points in the first quarter to keep Orono afloat and added six more in the second quarter. Ellsworth outscored Orono 15-14 in the second quarter but the Red Riots were within striking distance, trailing 42-28 at the half.

Mercier and Miles Palmer of Ellsworth both scored early 3-pointers to start the second half but the Eagles as a whole cooled off drastically from the field. On the other end, Orono’s Will Francis, its super-athletic sophomore, started to heat up.

Francis scored nine points in the third quarter as part of his 13-point game and also grabbed a few big rebounds and made a steal. With 5:33 to play, Walston and Francis got out on the fast break and Walston found his teammate in the air for an alley-oop that cut Orono’s deficit to 45-35.

Orono only trailed 52-43, cutting the lead to just single digits for the fourth quarter.

With 5:15 left, Francis scored a layup off an offensive rebound, followed by a shot by Ellis Spaulding, cutting the deficit to 53-47 with 4:50 to play, Orono’s smallest deficit since early in the first quarter.

With two minutes to play, Ellsworth tried to pass the ball around the top of the key to kill precious seconds off the clock. After the Eagles called a timeout with 1:44 left in the game, Peter Keblinsky sank a layup to put Ellsworth ahead 55-47 with 1:12 to play.

Walston was fouled on the ensuing possession and made both free throws, but on the inbounds pass Keblinsky threw the ball full court to a streaking Ellsworth player who scored a quick bucket at the hoop that gave the Eagles a 57-49 edge with one minute left.

“In the second half we didn’t hit them and Orono battled back,” Austin said. “They’re a good team and I don’t know who we will meet in the playoffs but we might meet again. It was a great win for us.”

The game got chippy at the end with Francis fouling Mercier in the final minute. Mercier scored both free throws as part of his 25-point performance and Ellsworth escaped its home gym with a victory to move to 6-0. Orono’s record falls to 5-1.

“I felt like we were getting good shots but they just went in and out early,” Kohtala said. “Usually with two talented teams, the score is going to tighten up at the end and credit to our guys for making that effort in the end.”

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Adam Robinson

Adam Robinson is a native of Auburn, Maine, and graduate of Husson University and Edward Little High School. He enjoys sports, going on runs and video games.