In the preseason coach’s poll, Skowhegan boys basketball was picked to finish first in Class A North with seven first-place votes. Brewer, who was the A North runner-up a year ago, was picked to finish second to the Riverhawks.
Flash-forward to Friday night and the Witches brought an undefeated record to their home gym as they hosted an up-and-down Skowhegan team.
The Riverhawks amassed an early lead and held onto it for the entirety of the second half. In the final seconds, Brady Saunders went to the line for Brewer trailing 49-46 to shoot three free throws. The star senior made the first two shots but missed the third and Skowhegan escaped Brewer with a 49-48 victory.
“Every win is a big win,” Skowhegan coach Tom Nadeau said. “To come out and compete with the best team in the league, it was important. We wanted to establish ourselves and let them know that we haven’t gone anywhere.”
As Brewer trailed 39-31 heading into the fourth quarter, Ryan Donogue of Skowhegan and Brewer’s Ryder Goodwin traded baskets to open what would turn out be a slugfest of a final quarter between two of the top teams in A North.
With 2:38 to play, Brewer point guard Evan Nadeau hit two free throws. On Skowhegan’s ensuing possession, Goodwin stole the ball at midcourt and, while falling to the ground, found a streaking Saunders who scored at the hoop to make it 45-41. A fist pump and yell of excitement from Saunders was drowned out by the overwhelming Brewer fans who were willing their team to the finish line.
On Brewer’s next possession, Saunders sank a three from the top of the arc to make it a one-point game with two minutes to play.
Skowhegan’s Patrick McKenney and Collin LePage combined for three free throws with 42.9 seconds remaining, giving the Riverhawks a bit of breathing room at 49-44.
Saunders got fouled with 21 seconds and made both free throws, followed by a foul on Savage who missed both of his. Brewer (16-1) sprinted the ball up the court and called a timeout with 5.9 seconds to play.
Saunders got a 3-point look in the left corner and missed but he was fouled and went to the line with a chance to tie the game at 49 a piece.
Saunders missed the final free throw and while there was contact on the rebound attempt, there was no foul call and Skowhegan was able to hand the Witches their first loss of the season.
“I would have bet my house that Saunders was going to make all three foul shots,” Nadeau said. “He’s one of the best free throw shooters I’ve seen and so to miss one, I was shocked. I kept telling the boys to just hold on and do little things and focus.”
Saunders finished the game with 19 points.
“I think it’s good for us to understand that we can get beat,” Brewer coach Ben Goodwin said. “I think it’s good for us and now we have to play our roles, play as a team and the tournament is one-and-done so we have to prepare for that.”
Skowhegan (10-6) took a 28-17 lead into halftime on the back of Adam Fitzgerald who nailed four 3-pointers for the Riverhawks over the first two quarters.
“I think they did a good job and made some shots,” Goodwin said. “They had that young man [Fitzgerald] come off the bench and make some shots and we just didn’t get our offense flowing. Not until the second half and then we had to try to come back.”
Brewer fell behind 8-6 midway through the first quarter and never took back the lead.
Brock Flagg shot 5-of-6 from the free throw line in the second quarter to keep the Witches in the game, but Skowhegan was able to slow Flagg and Saunders early on to the tune of nine combined points.
In the third, Skowhegan’s Quintcey McCray drilled a triple to get the second half started and give the Riverhawks a 31-17 lead.
Saunders later hit back-to-back 3 pointers, one from the top of the key and one from the right wing, that pulled the Witches within 33-25 right before Flagg stole the ball from Skowhegan and was fouled.
Flagg hit both free throws, he shot a perfect 4-for-4 in the third, and Brewer got within 33-27 with 2:25 left in the third.
Adam Savage was a problem for the Witches on the glass on Friday night, grabbing four of his 12 rebounds in the third and punctuating the quarter with a fadeaway mid-range jumper. Brewer trailed 39-31 heading into the fourth.
Savage finished with 10 points.
“We haven’t utilized our size enough this year,” Nadeau said. “There have been games where we were outrebounded by teams that are smaller than us so that’s something that we’ve had to emphasize the last two weeks. We need to be able to get boards with the bigs we have.”
Brewer will travel to Bangor on Thursday to finish the regular season.
“The way they battled in the second half I will take that all night long,” Goodwin said of Brewer. “They gave us a chance to win the game and it just didn’t work out tonight. A lot of props to Skowhegan, they came ready to play and hopefully we get a chance to see them again.”