AUGUSTA — The Rams are your back-to-back State Champs.
North reps Oxford Hills plundered the basket early in Saturday evening’s AA Final, going up 16-7, but Gorham sharpened their hooves and their horns during a second-quarter timeout, charged back, and gored the Vikings to a messy, 45-31 death.
“They played some good D, early in the first quarter,” Gorham head coach Laughn Berthiaume said of the Vikings. “When Mackenzie (Holmes, sophomore) touched the basketball, they were swarming her. Not that that was a huge surprise, but we had to refocus and make sure we were playing a little inside-out.”
As might be expected, Emily Esposito – senior captain and the school’s all-time leading scorer – posted the evening’s top performance, hashing 20 points.
“That’s certainly not unusual for her,” Berthiaume said of Espo. “She’s been right around that mark for her career. If my math is correct, that puts her right around 1,446 for her career.”
Espo remarked on her girls’ falling behind – and their surging back: “I think we take our record for granted, and we don’t always have the toughest games in the regular season,” she said, “so to come into tournament time, and our practices have kind of been up-and-down, in terms of our focus.”
“I wasn’t nervous when we were down; that’s how it was with South Portland (in the Regional Final),” Espo said. “We’re competitors, to the point where we’re going to claw our way back.”
Climbing out of a hole to win a State title is a team effort, of course, and it’s no secret Gorham is much more than just Espo-and-some-other-girls. The Rams’ five regular starters are all smart, talented players, and their bench is deep.
“I think it was first-quarter nerves, got us,” said Kaylea Lundin, also a senior captain. “State Final, so we were a little nervous going into it. But once we settled down, played our game, took it possession-by-possession, it started to turn around and go the other way.”
“I’m thinking this during the game,” Espo said, “like, ‘I don’t even have to score; I can just sit in the corner, and they throw someone on me, which takes someone away from the defense. We just have that many different tools. Kristen (Curley) can hit the three when she wants to, Kaylea can drive it to the hoop, Mackenzie’s great inside.”
The Vikings hopped on top early with two by Jadah Adams and three more by Julia Colby. Holmes picked up the Rams’ first points after that, grabbing an Espo assist underneath and laying it in. The 6-foot-2 Holmes brutally stuffed a Viking on Oxford Hills’ next possession; Holmes came away with the ball and promptly dished to Espo, who knocked down a three, 5-5.
But then the Vikings tallied eight unanswered, assembling a streak that stretched into the second quarter on contributions by Adams, Hannah Kenney and others. Gorham junior Michelle Rowe eventually broke the run, hitting a two, but Maighread Laliberte answered with three more for Oxford Hills. Down 16-7, Berthiaume called timeout, using the opportunity to remind his girls of some fundamentals.
“They were hitting some really nice shots, and I don’t think we expected them to hit so many shots,” Rowe, a junior, said. “They just had us back on our heels, I guess, in the first quarter.”
“Obviously, that big of a deficit is not something we’re used to,” Holmes said. “But we knew we couldn’t just give up, so we kept chipping away and we finally regained the lead, which was huge for us – it showed we could fight through adversity.”
“It helps when you make a couple shots,” Berthiaume said. “So the idea is, when you get down, you’ve got to just chip away and go one possession at a time. It happened in our Regional Final (vs. South Portland); we haven’t been down much, but we talk about being able to move on from one play to the next, and I thought they did that.”
“It was just kind of the basic things,” Espo said of Berthiaume’s advice in those 30 seconds. “Execute what you’re told, swing the ball; we know their stuff, they know some of our stuff; it’s a matter of playing like we know how. We’ve had a few really good games this season; it’s trying to come out of the gate ready and prepared. We didn’t do that part, but we turned it up in the second half.”
The speech worked: The Rams returned to the court and – though it took them a few plays to really seize the momentum – began methodically, determinedly chipping away at their disadvantage. Rowe began it, adding two; Oxford Hills responded; Lundin sank a three. Then the Vikings turned the ball over, an imprudent gift to the Rams that culminated in Espo draining a jumper from the paint.
Moments later, Oxford Hills threw the ball away again, and again it circled back around to Espo, who promptly completed a three-point play. Suddenly, the Rams were very much in it, clear contenders, down a mere point at 20-19 – suddenly, they looked like team their fans all know them to be.
“Better spacing,” Berthiaume said, asked how his girls specifically adjusted following the timeout. “When Mackenzie caught the ball, we had to spot up, because we knew they were going to run three kids at her. And just moving the basketball a little bit more. When the ball stops on offense, it allows them to get in good help-side position; if we keep it moving, it makes that a little bit more difficult.”
Holmes elaborated a bit on what allowed the Rams to come back: “I think just stepping up intensity on defense,” she said, “and closing out our shooters, getting rebounds, finishing shots – the little things. Diving on the floor.”
Rowe echoed Holmes, noting that the Vikings’ output plummeted in the later going: “We stepped it up on defense,” Rowe said. “They only had, like, nine points in the second half. “When a team only scores nine points, it’s pretty easy for you on offense.”
A pair of frees pushed Oxford Hills out front by three again, but then Ram Courtney Brent drained a critical downtowner to tie things up at 22-22. Now Gorham was fully on fire and Oxford Hills deeply in trouble.
The half winding down, Laliberte missed her first shot on one-and-one from the line; the Rams came away with the rebound, leading to a Holmes two and Gorham’s first upper-hand of the night.
Lundin remarked on a critical aspect of the Rams’ game: their rebounding. “It was huge for us,” she said, “because [Oxford Hills are] three-point shooters. So anytime they shoot it, it’s going to go long. And if they get second-chance points, they’re going to start to hit their shots. We knew we had to box-out, and keep the bodies out of the paint and let Mackenzie clean up.”
The Rams never trailed again, though the Vikings would briefly even things up one last time. The opening minutes of the third crawled by. Both teams turned the ball over more than once; finally, Colby cut the tension with a two for 24-24. But Colby’s bucket would be Oxford Hills’ only strike in the third. Gorham closed the quarter on – well, it wasn’t so much a run as a stampede: Rowe tallied two from the line, then turned a steal; Espo converted on the takeaway, then sank a pretty fadeaway jumper, then beat the buzzer with a three.
Berthiaume nodded at Rowe’s work. “She’s the one kid who’s not a returning starter,” he said. “So, unfortunately for other teams, they’re looking at other kids, and she’s right there to do what she’s supposed to do. She offensive rebounds, she defends, she gets on loose balls that are on the floor, she knocks down free-throws. She’s been special for us.”
The battery of baskets put Gorham out front by a relative mile, 33-24, and the team only expanded on their lead in the fourth. Holmes, Espo and Rowe all contributed in the downhill minutes to cap the 45-31 result.
Espo described the head of steam she built up as the game progressed: “To come out, second half … People trash talk, or their fans are a little iffy and the refs are definitely not with you – that’s my favorite time to play. That’s like playing against my two older brothers in the driveway, when they’re shoving you. It makes me that much more fired up to be like, ‘OK, well, I’ll take a challenge.’”
Rowe remarked on the Rams’ synergy with one another. “We’ve done this two years in a row, now,” said Rowe, “and we just have so much chemistry, stemming from last year.”
Gorham completes another perfect season: The team has won 42 straight games now. Their toughest match-up in the regular season came against Greely. The Rams edged the Rangers 67-64 back on Dec. 20. Their only other single-digit victory was an eight-point W over Thornton Academy, 60-52 on Jan. 10.
The Rams sounded off on their feelings after the win: “It’s amazing,” Lundin said. “One year is special; two years in a row is even more special. It’s indescribable, and I did it with some of my best friends. That was the coolest part.”
“It’s unbelievable,” Espo said. “It’s sad, it’s exciting; I thought I’d be in tears right now, but it’s such a good moment. I know I’m going on to play college basketball, and that will be a good experience, but it’s not going to be the same as high school. You play with your best friends, who you’ve grown up with.”
Three seniors say goodbye to the program: Esposito, Lundin and Curley. No doubt they will be missed.
For more media, including video interviews with Espo, Holmes, Rowe and Lundin, visit www.keepmecurrent.com/category/sports.
Adam Birt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @CurrentSportsME
Mackenzie Holmes tries Gorham’s new gold ball on for size.
Emily Esposito led all scorers with 20 points in Gorham’s State Championship win over Oxford Hills on Saturday night.
Gorham Rams captains from left, Kaylea Lundin, Emily Esposito and Kristen Curley hoist the team’s new gold ball after claiming the team’s second state championship last weekend. Story and more photos, page 13.
Kristen Curley backs through the paint for Gorham vs. Oxford Hills. One of three Rams seniors, Curley is especially known for her three-point shooting.
Kaylea Lundin drives upward toward the net for the Rams in their State Championship win over Oxford Hills on Saturday night.
Emily Esposito charges ahead on the attack for Gorham.
Michelle Rowe has been among the Rams’ key contributors all season.
The Gorham Rams show off the latest addition to the school’s trophy case.