Lawrence, led by Hope Bouchard, in its third battle with Gardiner this year finally slayed the dragon and won the Class A North girls title, 61-54.
The No. 2 Bulldogs (18-3) will play in the Class A title game on Friday, March 3, at 6 p.m.
Bouchard said she didn’t notice during the game, but the crowd at the Augusta Civic Center was definitely cheering the Bulldogs along.
“It felt amazing and it shows how much the community supports us,” Bouchard said.
Bouchard started the game on fire with 12 first-quarter points to help the Bulldogs to a 19-12 lead after eight minutes.
Bouchard finished with 26 points, eight rebounds and five assists.
“Coach knew we weren’t done and he knew we could definitely come see them again,” Bouchard said. “We did come out to a very quick start so we needed to keep up our lead and not get flustered. We needed to stay calm so we could keep going.”
Lawrence had the momentum for much of the first half, with Bouchard ending the first two frames with 17 points and Brianna Poulin pouring in 10 points.
“When Hope comes out and is playing that well, it’s tough,” Gardiner coach Mike Gray said. “When she’s making shots and making things happen, we’ve known all along that she’s a really great player and she makes the team around her better. When Bri Poulin is making shots they’re really hard to beat. I love that my girls battled back and fought but Lawrence played a flawless first half and it was a little too much to dig ourselves out of.”
Lizzy Gruber, the star forward for the Tigers, scored eight points in the first half, grabbed nine boards and blocked two shots as Gardiner entered the half down 33-20.
In the two regular season meetings, Gardiner won by a combined 13 points.
“I think we did an OK job in the first two games slowing [Gruber] down, we just didn’t focus on us enough,” Lawrence coach Greg Chesley said of the previous matchups with Gardiner in the regular season. “Yesterday in practice and this morning, that was the focus. Stay true to our game, stay at a fast pace and wear them down.”
Gruber ended the game with 26 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks.
Gruber began the third quarter with a tough layup inside to cut it to 33-22, but was held scoreless until another layup with 1:42 left in the third that made it 42-31.
Savannah Brown started the fourth off with an old-fashioned three-point play and then, with 4:22 left in the game, sank a 3-pointer from the left corner as the Gardiner fan section erupted in cheers. The Tigers trailed 50-42 but had some life.
With 2:30 left, Mckenna Johnson hit two free throws for Gardiner to pull within six, but on the next possession Bouchard answered with two more of her own.
Gruber answered with two minutes left with a layup, followed by one free throw from Bouchard with 1:55 left that gave the Bulldogs a 55-48 advantage.
Bouchard shot 9-of-10 from the free throw line in the fourth quarter, with her final two giving Lawrence a 57-49 lead with 1:38 to play.
“Hope is a spectacular player, Miss Maine Basketball semifinalist, I think this performance shows she should be in the running,” Chesley said. “She wasn’t hitting everything but she has such a soft touch and is such a special player that she was able to put them in.”
Gardiner’s Megan Gallager drilled two free throws with 44 seconds left to make it a six-point game again.
Poulin made a breakaway layup with 20 seconds left, followed by a Gruber 3-pointer from the corner but with only 10 seconds left, the six-point margin was too much to overcome.
Poulin finished with 15 points in the win.
“The key to the victory was pace, pace of the game,” Chesley added. “We wanted to play an up-tempo game and wear them out and we did that. Hope was probably pretty tired, 32 minutes, but the key to the game was pace.”
For Gardiner, the loss ends a previously undefeated season. Gray knew that the game would be close.
“They just made more shots this time,” Gray said. “We were both running the same stuff but they made shots. I always look back and say, ‘Oh, we could’ve done this,’ but we lost to a team that is just as good as us and they beat us tonight. I am so proud of these girls and how much they’ve done. I can’t say enough about them, they mean so much to me.”