Waynflete's quest for gold denied in OT heartbreaker
You can't inch any closer to tasting a championship without winning it than the Waynflete boys' basketball team did Saturday evening.
And as a result, you can't feel any worse about falling short than the Flyers did after losing an overtime heartbreaker to Houlton in the Class C state final at the Augusta Civic Center.
Waynflete was on the brink of the program's first title, but instead was left to lament what-if.
The Flyers didn't show a hint of nervousness to start, racing to a 7-0 lead, but the Shiretowners, behind their junior standout Kyle Bouchard, rallied to pull even. Waynflete went up, 12-9, late in the first quarter, then went cold and Houlton went on a 15-0 run to grab a 24-12 advantage.
The Flyers still trailed by nine, 31-22, at halftime, but as they did to start the game, they came to life in the third period and took a 37-36 lead on a pair of free throws from junior point guard extraordinaire Harry Baker-Connick.
The game was tied, 39-39, to start the fourth quarter and neither team would lead by more than four points the rest of the way.
Trailing, 44-43, a clutch 3-pointer from sophomore Milo Belleau gave Waynflete the lead with 4:30 to play and a driving layup from senior standout Serge Nyirikamba made it 48-44 Flyers with 3:56 remaining.
The Shiretowners rallied to tie it at 48-48 and after Waynflete sophomore Abel Alemayo drove for a go-ahead layup, Houlton tied it again, 50-50. The Flyers had a chance to win in regulation, but Nyirikamba's last-second, desperation 3-point was short and it was on to overtime.
There, Waynflete fell behind, 54-50 and 56-52, but again rose off the deck, tying the game on a layup from Baker-Connick and a baseline leaner from Belleau.
The game came down to a final possession and not surprisingly, Houlton put the ball in Bouchard's hands.
With 1.3 seconds remaining in OT, Bouchard went up for a 3 and was fouled. He hit the first two free throws and missed the third, but after Nyirikamba got the rebound and called timeout, the officials let the clock run out and the Flyers fell just short, 58-56.
Despite 24 points and 22 rebounds from Nyirikamba, Waynflete's season ended at 18-3 as Houlton, paced by 28 points from Bouchard, went 22-0 and won its second Class C title.
"I'm really proud of the way the kids handled the challenges that came up over the course of the season and especially on the largest stage of basketball in the state," said Flyers coach Rich Henry. "I didn't see all the other games, but my sense is that this was one of the most exciting championships and probably not just within the context of this year."
While Saturday being Waynflete's first appearance in a state final was well chronicled, Houlton hasn't been in many over the years either.
The Shiretowners beat Jay in the 2004 Western C Final, 64-49 and that was their first state game appearance in 74 seasons (Houlton lost the 1930 Class A Final, 21-12, to Cheverus).
The Flyers were ready to take the last step after reaching the regional final last winter for the first time three decades (losing to Boothbay).
Waynflete opened with an emphatic 92-35 home win over Greater Portland Christian School and never looked back, following that victory up with a 77-23 home romp over Sacopee Valley, a 66-42 triumph at North Yarmouth Academy, a hard-fought 67-51 home win over Old Orchard Beach and a 52-38 victory at Traip.
The Flyers opened 2014 with a decisive 64-36 home victory over Western B contender Wells, then finally stumbled at Western B power Yarmouth, 86-64, before returning to form with an 83-22 win at A.R. Gould and a 75-25 home romp over NYA,
Waynflete lost at home to Western B contender Lake Region, 67-51, but didn't stumble again, closing the regular season by defeating host Poland, the eventual Western B champion (63-57), visiting Buckfield (89-24) and Traip (69-48), host Old Orchard Beach (72-43) and Sacopee Valley (68-23), visiting GPCS (91-16) and finally visiting Hyde, an eventual Western D finalist (70-47).
The 15-2 Flyers earned the No. 3 seed for the Western C tournament and after ousting No. 6 Monmouth (66-51) in the quarterfinals, got some good fortune as instead of having to face the second-ranked Seahawks in a rematch of last year's regional final (largely because Boothbay suspended several players on the eve of the tournament for violating school code), they got No. 10 Hall-Dale instead and rolled in the semifinals, 55-35. Then, instead of facing top-ranked Dirigo and its dazzling tournament pedigree in the regional final, it got Maranacook instead and made history with a 62-38 triumph.
While Waynflete stumbled twice this winter, Houlton didn't lose a single outing, downing all 18 foes by an average of 23 points. There were some close calls, however, including a an eight-point victory at Calais in the opener, two-point win at Caribou Jan. 2, a three-point triumph at Presque Isle Jan. 29 and a a three-point home win over Caribou in the penultimate game of the regular season, Feb. 4.
The Shiretowners earned the top seed for the Eastern C tournament and eliminated No. 9 Bucksport (51-35), No. 5 Penquis Valley, the defending state champion (60-44), and finally No. 3 Lee Academy (49-31).
The schools had no history before producing an instant classic which included nine lead changes and seven ties.
Any concern that Waynflete might be nervous on the big stage was dashed just 14 seconds in when Nyirikamba put on an individual show by spinning for a layup to break the ice.
With 6:08 to go in the first period, the Flyers got even better news when Alemayo hinted at a big night to come by knocking down a 3-pointer.
Fourteen seconds later, after a steal from Baker-Connick, Nyirikamba scored a fastbreak layup and it was 7-0, forcing Houlton coach Robert Moran to call timeout.
It worked like a charm.
Bouchard helped turn the tide with two free throws. Senior Isaac Cone buried a 3 and Bouchard then banked home a shot to tie the game, 7-7.
A leaner from Nyirikamba put Waynflete back on top, but a jumper from Shiretowners junior Jacob Drew re-tied the contest, 9-9.
Again, the Flyers retook the lead on a driving layup from Baker-Connick and a Nyirikamba foul shot with 2:27 remaining in the first quarter, but Waynflete wouldn't score again for quite awhile.
After Bouchard scored on a leaner, a 3 from senior Nick Gioud gave Houlton its first lead. Another 3, this one from Bouchard, put the Shiretowners up, 17-12, after one period.
Houlton closed the first quarter on an 8-0 run, as Bouchard had nine points in the frame, helping his team overcome five turnovers as well as seven points from Nyirikamba.
The Shiretowners kept rolling early in the second quarter, as Bouchard made a foul shot, Bouchard scored on a bank shot and Bouchard hit a baseline jumper.
When junior reserve Christian Crane took a pass from Bouchard and made a layup with 6:02 to go in the half, Houlton had doubled up the Flyers, 24-12.
"We were able to get off to a good start, but everyone knew Houlton was going to a make a run or a series of runs," said Henry.
Waynflete collected itself, however, and with 5:10 to go before halftime, Belleau scored on a runner to end the Shiretowners' 15-0 run and a 5 minute, 17 second drought.
Baker-Connick added a layup after a steal, but Drew countered with a layup after a steal to make it 26-16.
Baker-Connick scored on a putback, but Bouchard hit a baseline jumper.
After Alemayo made a free throw, Bouchard made a layup and the lead was up to 11, 30-19.
An Alemayo 3 looked like it would give the Flyers momentum going into the half, but after being fouled on an offensive rebound, Crane sank a free throw to give Houlton a 31-22 advantage at the break.
In the first half, Bouchard was the difference, scoring 18 points, while adding four rebounds and two assists.
Nyirikamba (despite being held scoreless in the second quarter) and Alemayo both had seven points for Waynflete, while Baker-Connick added six.
The Flyers rediscovered their magic in the third period.
Just eight seconds in, Belleau set up Baker-Connick for a 3.
After Crane made a layup for the Shiretowners, Nyirikamba ended a personal 11:14 drought with a putback and Alemayo made yet another 3 to cut the deficit to just three, 33-30.
Bouchard countered with a foul shot, but Nyirikamba's putback made it a 34-32 game.
After Crane made a layup, Nyirikamba scored on a putback while being fouled and added the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play.
Then, with 1:16 to go in the quarter, Baker-Connick was fouled on a drive and made both free throws to give Waynflete a 37-36 lead, its first since 12-11.
"The sense we had of the first half was that (Houlton) made some adjustments and started to exploit the baseline of our zone and that we were playing a little high," Henry said. "That's what we talked about at halftime and as has been the case all season, the guys did a good job of executing the game plan. We did a couple things on offense that enabled us to get back into the game and after that it was a case of two good teams battling it out."
Bouchard tied the game with a free throw, but Nyirikamba put the Flyers back on top on a putback before Bouchard fed Crane for a layup to make it anybody's game, 39-39, with eight minutes to go.
Or so everyone thought.
Sixty-two seconds into the fourth period, Gioud made a free throw to put Houlton ahead, but Nyirikamba countered with a putback and a 41-40 lead.
Seconds later, Nyirikamba was whistled for his fourth foul. He never received a fifth, but he had to be tentative on defense and the Shiretowners took advantage.
With 5:59 remaining, Bouchard set up Crane for a layup.
After Waynflete retook the lead on a Nyirikamba putback, Bouchard set up Crane for another layup and a 44-43 lead with 5:19 to play.
Then, it was the Flyers turn to counterpunch.
First, with 4:30 showing, Alemayo fed Belleau and the sophomore buried a clutch 3.
Nyirikamba then put on another athletic display, driving for a layup and a 48-44 advantage with 3:56 to go.
Houlton refused to fold, however, as Bouchard somehow used his left hand to flick the ball into the basket and with 3:05 remaining, Cone made a layup to re-tie the contest, 48-48.
Alemayo had one last offensive highlight in his holster, scoring on a driving layup while being fouled and even though he missed the and-one, Waynflete was up, 50-48, with 2:39 to play.
The Shiretowners bounced right back and made it 50-50 when Bouchard set up Crane for a layup with 2:13 left.
After Baker-Connick missed a shot and Houlton got the rebound, Nyirikamba stole the ball back, but Alemayo couldn't hit a shot and Drew rebounded for the Shiretowners.
With 32.8 seconds left in regulation, Drew was fouled, but he missed the front end of a one-and-one and after Nyirikamba rebounded, the Flyers had a chance to hold for the winning shot.
That's exactly what Waynflete elected to do and as time wound down, Nyirikamba tried to drive, was stymied, then threw up a 3-point bid under pressure and it fell short. Baker-Connick tried a circus follow-up shot, but it too was off the mark and the championship would need four extra minutes to be decided.
Early in the extra session, Bouchard was fouled after an offensive rebound and he sank both free throws to make it 52-50 Houlton.
After Baker-Connick missed a 3, Bouchard rebounded and was fouled. He missed the front end of a one-and-one, but Cone snuck in for the rebound and put home the miss to make it 54-50 with exactly 3 minutes to go.
A leaner from Nyirikamba drew the Flyers back within two points (and proved to be the final points of his stellar high school career), but Bouchard's putback made it 56-52 Shiretowners with 2:22 left in OT.
Waynflete kept fighting, however, and pulled within two when senior captain Henry Cleaves fed Baker-Connick for a give-and-go layup with 2:08 showing.
After Crane missed two foul shots, Belleau got the ball on the right baseline and calmly sank a jumper to tie the game again, 56-56.
Baker-Connick then stole the ball, giving the Flyers a chance to take the lead, but Belleau missed a baseline shot and Crane got the rebound with just under a minute remaining.
Houlton would hold for the last shot and to the surprise of absolutely no one, coming out of a timeout, Bouchard had the ball in his hands.
“We were going to put him on the high post and try to get a touch, but then as we were going out of the huddle, he said something about a ball screen and I said, 'Yeah, let’s try that,'” Moran said.
As the clock wound down, Bouchard dribbled into the frontcourt and cut to the right. His 3-point attempt was contested by both Nyirikamba and Cleaves and was off the mark, but with the clock showing 1.3 seconds, the whistle blew and Cleaves picked up his fifth foul, sending Bouchard to the line for a chance to put the Shiretowners ahead.
"I thought the foul was the correct call," Henry said. "Referees have to protect the shooter and to be honest, I started looking at the trajectory of the shot. The whistle blew and I saw the players on the floor and from that point, it was just a matter of the free throws."
As Waynflete looked on in disbelief, Bouchard calmly made the first of three free throws, then added the second.
“At this point in my life, those are the moments I live for and I’m happy I took advantage of it and we’re state champs,” Bouchard said.
“It’s a tough foul and we were lucky enough that they did foul and [Bouchard] went to the line and drilled a couple foul shots,” Moran said.
Had Bouchard sank the third attempt, the Flyers would have had an opportunity to inbound and heave the ball down the floor, ostensibly having a chance to tie the game with a miracle shot, but the third free throw was off target and Nyirikamba grabbed the rebound as the clock went under a second.
Nyirikamba called timeout with time clearly left on the clock, but the officials let it expire and just like that, the game was over.
Houlton 58 Waynflete 56.
"In terms of the timeout and the decision not to put any time back on the clock, I really don't know what to say," Henry said. "The officials made the call and exited pretty quickly and at that point, it's moot. I've never seen an official reverse a call because of anything a coach said."
Saturday's game gave people in the southern part of a state an opportunity to familiarize themselves with Bouchard, who might just be a Mr. Maine Basketball finalist next year.
Bouchard had 28 points, 11 rebounds and just as impressively, six assists.
“It’s a dream come true,” Bouchard said.
Crane added 15 points, eight boards, five blocked shots and a steal off the bench.
Cone finished with seven points, while Drew and Gioud (five assists) both had four.
Houlton made just 11 of 22 free throws and overcame 14 turnovers.
What shouldn't be lost in the aftermath of the heartache of the defeat was the tremendous effort put forth by Waynflete.
The Flyers were champions in every sense of the word.
Nyirikamba bowed out with 24 points, 22 rebounds, two blocks and a steal.
Arguably the finest player in program history, he'll be missed.
"What people may not appreciate about Serge, you'd have to be in practice every day with him to see it, is the way he conducts himself," Henry said. "He gives maximum effort. I've never once seen him lose his composure or say anything to an opposing player or an official. He's the quietest, most unassuming kid, yet there's an inherent gracefulness to him. He's remarkable in that regard. He's also the first player I've had who is receiving real interest to play in college. Some school is going to get a gem in that kid, let me tell you, so that aspect puts him in rare company in my mind."
Baker-Connick capped his tremendous season with 13 points, five rebounds, a game-high four steals and three assists.
Alemayo dazzled with 12 points and Belleau added seven.
Waynflete finished with a 31-27 rebounding advantage, hit 5 of 8 foul shots and only turned the ball over nine times, but still fell short.
"The tough part about a game like that is the amount of mental replaying that goes on in players' and coaches' heads," Henry said. "In a blowout, you can attribute things to running into a hot team, one way or the other, just not having the best performance on a given night. In this game, both teams competed at a high level and there were plays on both sides that each team would probably be kicking themselves about, if the outcome were different. It’s one of the beautiful yet haunting things about athletics. At the end, one team is going to wind up with more points than the other, but it certainly doesn’t take away from the championship caliber of both teams. I’m honored to have been a part of it.
"The other thing I should mention is the tremendous amount of support the school and the Waynflete community provided to the team. Other schools may be used to this sort of a frenzy at tournament time, but for us, it was a first and it was great to have the degree of vocal support in the regional and state finals."
Try, try again
Waynflete loses just four seniors, but the departure of Cleaves (three rebounds, two assists and a block in the state game), Joey Schnier (two steals), Ryan Perry and of course, Nyirikamba, will loom large.
"I've been fortunate with the senior leadereship I've had and I can say that no group of seniors has done more in terms of providing guidance and examples of the sort of commitment it takes to be successful than this group," Henry said.
"Ryan was our team manager last year, but wanted to participate as a player this year. He played in about half the games and always worked hard in practice. He was mentally engaged in everything we did. In short, he was the sort of player every coach hopes to have on their squad.
"Joe had to battle through injuries from soccer season, then had his wisdom teeth out and at point, he had the flu with a 103-plus-degree fever. In spite of all of that, he battled back and provided a huge spark off the bench for us. When he was able to fully participate after the holidays, I felt like we had all our pieces in place. He hit some huge shots in the regional tournament in our last few regular season games. He was a leader and role model and his 'best' sport is baseball.
"Henry was the emotional heart and soul of our team. He's the ultimate glue guy who holds the team together and took as much pride in barking instructions and communication to his team on defense as he did scoring or passing out of the high post. He's just a terrific leader, as evidenced by his being a captain on all three teams he plays on, soccer, basketball and lacrosse.
"That brings me to Serge. I've had some very, very talented players at Waynflete. Players who have contributed in every facet of the game, but I have to say that he stands at the top of the list when you consider the sustained excellence of his play, from his sophomore year to senior year. He received the highest vote total of all the players in our conference in All-Conference selections three years running, his scoring and rebounding averages haven't only increased every year, they've increased in the tournament as well. He faces teams who specifically plan for him, yet he still dominates on both ends of the floor."
Even though graduation will hurt, the outlook for the 2014-15 Flyers is promising.
Baker-Connick, who was second in the Western Maine Conference this winter in steals and third in assists, will be back to run to offense. Alemayo and Belleau (who was 10th in the WMC in made 3-pointers with 17) have shown they can shoot the ball. Junior Pace Hutchinson has size and sophomore Will Nelligan has seen key minutes. Mix in junior-to-be Willy Burdick and next year's sophomores Yai Deng, Charlie Lyall, Jake Meahl and Abdullahi Mohamed, and the immediate future is very bright.
"The mantle has been passed to the returning players," Henry said. "We have a great group of juniors in Harry and Pace, a really strong group of sophomores in Milo, Will, Willy and Abel and the freshmen, Abdul, Charlie, Jack and Yai, have been soaking in all the experiences of the tournament. We've got a great deal of leadership roles to fill, to say nothing of the points, rebounds and blocks to replace, but I get excited just thinking about it."
Bangor Daily News staff writer Pete Warner contributed to this story.