One thing Dexter girls basketball coach Jody Grant has prided himself on during his long tenure with the Tigers is tenacious player-to-player defense.
That turned out to be the championship-winning formula for Dexter yet again Saturday night.
The top-ranked Tigers bolted out to a 17-3 first-half lead and withstood a furious charge from second-ranked Penobscot Valley to post a 33-27 Class C North regional championship victory at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor.
“We spend an awful lot of time on defense and know that on nights where our offense is struggling, we can always lean on playing good defense,” said Grant, whose 20-1 Tigers will return to the Cross Insurance Center to face Old Orchard Beach for the state championship next Saturday.
The Howlers finish the season 19-2, with both losses coming at the hands of Dexter.
Penobscot Valley fought valiantly in spite of playing without senior guard and leading scorer Kaya Loring, who suffered an upper-body injury in Friday’s semifinal win over Hodgdon.
The Howlers did a solid job defensively on 6-foot-2 Tigers’ forward Mazie Peach throughout the game, but other Tigers, in particular Abilene Corson (11 points, 3-for-3 from 3-point range), stepped up and hit shots.
Dexter asserted its disciplined half-court offense and tenacious player-to-player defense right out of the gate, jumping out to a 14-3 first-quarter lead and holding the Howlers without a field goal over the first 9 and a half minutes.
Even though Penobscot Valley did a solid job of neutralizing 6-foot-2 Tigers forward Mazie Peach inside, Dexter was able to hit some outside shots thanks to its patience, hitting all three of its 3-pointers in the first half.
“That’s the best thing is that we all have a different role,” Corson said. “If someone’s getting hammered down in the post we have different players that are going to be able to shoot.”
On this night, that turned out to be Corson, Jozlynn Page and Hannah Dean, who combined for 11 of Dexter’s 14 first-quarter points as it held PVHS without a field goal until Rylee Moulton’s layup early in the second quarter.
The Tigers’ offensive patience early was able to exploit PVHS’ 1-3-1 matchup zone, forcing Howlers coach Nate Case to switch to a player-to-player.
“We capitalized on that and made some quick baskets,” Corson said.
The Howlers slowly started to chip away late in the second quarter, closing to within 20-10 at halftime and 26-18 by the end of the third quarter and turning up their own defensive intensity.
PVHS held Dexter to four second-half field goals.
“We worked really hard to dig out of that big hole early,” said Case. “The girls really dug in and said, OK, we can do this.”
A layup from Ellie Austin and two free throws from Holly Loring just past the midway point of the fourth quarter got the Howlers within five, but that’s as close as they would get.
Corson hit a layup with just under two minutes to go and Cally Gudroe came up with a steal on PVHS’ next possession to end the Howlers’ hopes. In spite of being held in check offensively, Peach came away with 15 rebounds.
“If we’re struggling offensively, we know we need to work on defense,” said Corson.
“They made a couple runs but we made some key baskets, got to the foul line a couple times,” Grant said. “Coach Case does a fantastic job, his kids are always prepared.”
Loring’s 15 points led all scorers for PVHS.