Orono coach Ed Kohtala remembers “the longest game” he’s been a part of, Orono’s 62-33 loss to Ellsworth in last year’s Class B North final. As the Red Riots loaded into the bus en route for the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor, Kohtala could tell this time around the result would be different.
Pierce Walston jump-started Orono and the Red Riots rode the momentum for 32 minutes and conquered the Eagles in a 64-56 victory that advanced them to the Class B title game.
No. 3 Orono (18-3) will face B South champion Oceanside (20-1) on Saturday in the Class B state final at 3:45 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland.
“I’m so happy for our guys,” Orono head coach Ed Kohtala said. “Talk about the two sides of a coin, last year we were in this same situation. We came in and I thought we were ready to play well and we played one of our worst games when Ellsworth played one of their best. It was one of the longest games we’d ever experienced. To their credit they all went back to work, we had a great summer and they’ve been a tight and close team.”
Pierce Walston got things started for the Red Riots in the first quarter. Walston scored eight points to help Orono to an 18-6 lead.
Ellsworth’s Chance Mercier struggled from the field in the first half, scoring 11 points but shooting 5-for-14.
Walston’s hot start created problems for the Eagles. Orono hit its first three shots and continued to press, amassing an 18-3 lead with two minutes left in the first.
“Not in the same way, but Pierce causes matchup problems for teams a little bit like Chance does,” Kohtala said. “He gets matchups where he can overpower and I thought he made really good decisions early. He trusted his pull up game and he made some key passes. He did a great job for us.”
Mercier scored eight points in the second quarter, going back-and-forth with Walston and Orono at the end of the period. Still, Orono held a 32-16 lead at halftime.
“We didn’t work the ball offensively and on defense we were chasing,” Ellsworth coach Peter Austin said. “We dug ourselves a hole down 15. We got back to three but credit to Orono, they executed well.”
Ben Francis found his brother, Will, for an alley-oop layup off a sharp cut down the right side to jump-start the third quarter, attempting to set the tone in the second half. The basket was important because the Red Riots collectively knew Ellsworth would come out swinging in the third.
“Chance is such a good player, he came out hot and hit a lot of shots in a row,” Ben Francis said. “He put them back in the game. We came down, made some shots, made some stops and did what we needed to do.”
Mercier got his shot to work in the third quarter, scoring 11 points in the frame and helping the Eagles (20-1) back into the ballgame. The star junior even helped the Eagles back within nine points with three minutes left, but Walston and Will Francis both scored four points to hold off Ellsworth.
At the end of the third, Orono got the ball with 1:14 left on the clock. The Red Riots passed the ball around until Mason Kenney scored a layup with 22 seconds left to put Orono ahead 47-38.
“They made the push, we talked about it at halftime and it wasn’t surprising that a team like that makes a push, it was a matter of will we make plays,” Kohtala said. “Two to three times against their pressure we got a tough rebound, pushed it and got some easy buckets.”
In the fourth quarter, Mercier scored five quick points at the start to make it a 49-43 game two minutes in. Walston answered with a layup and two free throws before Josiah James-Chin sank a 3-pointer off an offensive rebound from Peter Keblinsky to cut the deficit to four points.
In the final couple minutes, Orono began to make a lot of free throws. The Red Riots shot 9-of-12 from 3:32 to the 45-second mark from the free throw line to secure the victory.
“I know they had belief today and I know that’s the most important thing,” Kohtala said. “I was told once that, ‘Coaches, it’s not our job to win the game, it’s our job to make sure the kids believe they can win the game.’ I felt really good getting into the bus and the locker room, they had a wonderful mindset.”
Walston finished with 21 to lead Orono, while Mercier finished with 27. Mercier shot 10-for-25 on the night.
“It feels amazing,” Walston said. “We had our shots falling but on defense, we had to buckle down on the defensive end and if we didn’t, we wouldn’t have had the same game.”
Avenging last year’s regional final loss was on the minds of Orono players and coaches.
“It feels so good. We finally got them,” Ben Francis said. “They’ve been a pain in our side ever since I’ve been in high school. They beat us in the final every time so it felt good to come out and play to our potential, hit shots, play defense. Will did a tremendous job on Chance tonight and it was amazing. I couldn’t believe how well it went.”