Wells holds on to end Freeport's memorable season

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Freeport sophomore Gabe Wagner goes up for a shot during Saturday’s Class B South quarterfinal against Wells. Wagner tied for top scoring honors with 16 points, but the eighth-ranked Falcons weren’t able to upset the No. 1 Warriors, falling, 52-45, in their first quarterfinal appearance in a decade.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

Wells 52 Freeport 45

F- 9 7 12 17- 45
W- 9 11 14 18- 52

F- G. Wagner 6-1-16, Holt 5-1-11, Shea 4-0-9, Thomas 1-2-4, C. Wagner 1-0-3, Barrett 1-0-2

W- Bridge 6-4-16, Cousins 5-4-14, Sherburne 3-8-14, Saulnier 1-0-3, Tufts 0-3-3, Whitney 1-0-2

3-pointers:
F (5) G. Wagner 3, Shea, C. Wagner 1
W (1) Saulnier 1

Turnovers:
F-  18
W- 13

Free throws
F: 4-7
W: 19-36

PORTLAND—A season that was a decade in the making, a season of growth and resurgence and a season that won’t be forgotten for a long, long time came oh so close to continuing Saturday afternoon, but ultimately, the Freeport boys’ basketball team wasn’t able to produce a victory that could have catapulted it into legend.

The eighth-ranked Falcons gave top-seeded Wells everything it could handle and more in a Class B South quarterfinal battle at the Portland Exposition Building and for a few waning and delicious moments, even held a fourth quarter lead before running out of gas and having no answer for the Warriors’ size when it mattered most.

Freeport, which handed host Wells a 15-point defeat just a week-and-a-half ago, couldn’t duplicate that magic this time around, as turnovers, difficulty putting the ball in the basket and a flurry of first half fouls kept it from getting in a rhythm.

The game was deadlocked, 9-9, after the first quarter, but the Warriors went on an 8-0 run in the second period and took a 20-16 lead to halftime. Wells took 18 foul shots to just three for the Falcons, but the Warriors missed 11 of them, keeping Freeport within hailing distance.

When Wells junior Tyler Bridge scored eight straight points to start the second half, Wells went up by as many as a dozen, but Freeport sophomore Gabe Wagner heated up and pulled his team within four before a late basket from senior Cam Cousins gave the Warriors a 34-28 advantage heading for the fourth quarter.

There, the Falcons surged and when junior Eriksen Shea set up classmate Toby Holt for a layup, Freeport had a 38-36 advantage with 5:18 to play.

Wells retook the lead after a three-point play from Cousins, but with 3:56 on the clock, Wagner drove for a layup and the Falcons had a 40-39 advantage.

For all of 23 seconds.

With 3:33 left, Cousins made a layup and then Warriors junior Matt Sherburne took over, hitting two foul shots and converting a three-point play to give Wells some breathing room.

Freeport couldn’t rally again and the Warriors were able to close it out, 52-45, to avoid becoming the first top seed to lose to a number eight team in the quarterfinals in 14 years.

Wells got 16 points from Bridge and 14 apiece from Cousins and Sherburne as it improved to 13-6, advanced to face No. 5 Gray-New Gloucester (12-7) in the semifinals Thursday at 7:30 p.m., at the Cross insurance Arena across town and in the process, ended the Falcons’ memorable campaign at 11-9.

“It’s been a unique ride for us,” said Freeport coach Bill Ridge. “The community stepped up. They were awesome. When we took the lead when Toby hit that basket, I’d say that was been the loudest moment of the tournament.” 

First time, long time

Freeport got to the Western B Final in 2008, but then suffered through nearly a decade in the wilderness.

Seniors Caleb Salter, Nate Thomas, Colby Wagner and four-year starter Ethan Sclar took their share of lumps, but after a 5-13 campaign in 2016-17, the Falcons knew they were on the brink of something special coming into this winter.

“I couldn’t have envisioned (making the playoffs) after freshman year, but seeing how we worked this summer, definitely,” said Sclar.

“These four seniors are the pulse of this team,” said Ridge. “They brought the program from not winning any games as freshmen to this. They got to play in this atmosphere at the Expo. Ethan is a four-year starter, who took lumps for two years. He had a tough freshman year, he started to come into his own as a sophomore. He had a strong junior year and this year, he’s our rock.” 

The Falcons weren’t only resurgent, they’ve been a lot of fun to watch and they produced a buzz that the program figures to continue for many years.

Freeport started the 2017-18 season 7-3, suffered four straight losses, then won three of its final four games to wind up 10-8, good for the No. 8 seed in Class B South (see sidebar, below, for links to previous game stories). Tuesday, the Falcons downed No. 9 Lisbon, 66-44, in the preliminary round to punch their ticket to the quarterfinals at the Expo.

Wells, which won a regional title in inspirational fashion a year ago, played in a lot of tight games this winter, but won 12 of them to eke out the top seed in a balanced region.

On Feb. 6, Freeport went to Wells and won, 52-37, behind Holt’s 29 points.

The teams met just once before in the playoffs, way back in the 1976 Western C quarterfinals (an 83-73 Wells victory).

Saturday, the Warriors led most of the way and ultimately advanced, but it sure wasn’t easy.

There was no separation in the first period.

After the Warriors broke the ice with a free throw from Bridge, the Falcons’ first points came on a 3 from Shea.

Bridge set up Cousins for a layup to tie it, but after Bridge was called for his second foul, Wagner hit a jumper and Shea hit a baseline jumper for a 7-3 Freeport lead.

The fouls then started adding up on the Falcons and Wells came back.

After junior Dylan Whitney drained a jumper, senior Christian Saulnier’s 3 gave the Warriors an 8-7 lead.

A reverse layup from junior Kaleb Barrett put Freeport back on top, but a free throw from Sherburne forged a 9-9 tie after eight minutes.

Wells started the second period in the bonus and it wasn’t long before the Falcons were frustrated both with fouls and turnovers as the Warriors opened up a slim lead.

After a Sherburne free throw started the new quarter, senior Colby Wagner drained a 3 to give Freeport its final lead of the first half, 12-10.

The next eight points went to the Warriors, as Sherburne made a layup after a steal, Cousins made a layup, Bridge made a layup, was fouled and added the free throw for the old-fashioned three-point play and with 3:52 remaining in the half, Sherburne hit a free throw for an 18-12 lead.

With 1:32 left before halftime, two foul shots from Thomas ended a 4 minute, 49 second drought, but sophomore Matt Tufts made a free throw for Wells.

A jumper from Shea with 1:09 left was answered by another Sherburne free throw with 10.8 seconds to go and the Warriors took a 20-16 lead to halftime.

Wells got six points from Sherburne, but missed an opportunity to open up a big lead as it only made 7 of 18 foul shots.

“We couldn’t really get it going,” Sclar said. “Some of that was nerves.”

“What we wanted to do defensively, we were able to come out and do, but what we didn’t do a good job of in the first half was executing offensively,” Ridge said. “We took quick shots and couldn’t get in a good rhythm.” 

Freeport was paced by Shea’s seven points.

In the third quarter, The Warriors came out sizzling and appeared to break it open before Gabe Wagner brought Freeport back.

After an offensive foul on the Falcons at the start, Bridge scored eight straight points.

The first two came on a putback and after hitting a short jumper, Bridge scored on successive putbacks to make it 28-16, forcing Ridge to call timeout.

The Falcons responded with a 3 from Gabe Wagner, but Sherburne made a layup after a steal.

Holt hit a jumper with 4:28 on the clock, his first points of the game, but Bridge made a free throw for a 31-21 lead.

After a free throw from Gabe Wagner, Wagner cut the deficit to six with a 3.

Bridge countered with a free throw, but another Wagner 3 with 47 seconds on the clock cut Freeport’s deficit to 32-28.

“We pushed the ball and got our transition going a little bit,” said Sclar.

“As long as we can use our speed with some sort of control, we can be successful,” Ridge said.

A leaner from Cousins then put the Warriors up by six heading for the fourth quarter.

Where the Falcons completed their comeback, but they ultimately couldn’t spring the upset.

Holt started the final stanza with a layup after a steal, but Cousins set up Bridge for a layup.

Holt then finished a feed from Gabe Wagner with a layup and with 6:34 to go, a leaner from Shea pulled the Falcons within two, 36-34, forcing Wells coach Troy Brown to call timeout.

It didn’t help, as Holt set up Thomas for a leaner to tie it and with 5:18 on the clock, Holt took a pass from Shea and made a layup for a 38-36 Freeport lead, forcing Brown to call timeout again.

This time, the Warriors responded, as with 4:21 to go, Cousins hit a short leaner while being fouled and added the free throw for the three-point play and the lead.

Back came the Falcons, as Gabe Wagner drove for a layup with 3:56 remaining, but 23 seconds later, Cousins made a layup to put Wells ahead to stay.

“The big thing for us was coming out and getting two straight possessions to Cam for point blank layups,” Brown said. “He’s our go-to guy when things get rough.”

With 3:06 on the clock, Sherburne hit two foul shots for a 43-40 lead.

After Shea missed a 3 to tie it, the Warriors milked time off the clock before Sherburne drove for a layup while being fouled by Shea, who fouled out. Sherburne completed the three-point play and capped the 7-0 run.

After Wagner missed a 3, he got the loose ball and made a layup with 1:45 left to cut the deficit to four, but 41 seconds later, Cousins sank both ends of a one-and-one for a 48-42 advantage.

Holt got a point back at the line, but first Sherburne, then Cousins added single free throws and a pair of foul shots from Cousins with 19.3 seconds to go ended all doubt before a putback from Holt accounted for the 52-45 final score.

“It’s been an awesome experience to see our evolution,” Sclar said. “A lot to be proud of. It’s emotional to lose, but we went on a great run. It’s now a totally different program.” 

Beat goes on

Wells was led by 16 points (and six rebounds) from Bridge and 14 points apiece from Cousins (eight boards) and Sherburne (three steals).

“Cousins and Bridge work really well together, setting screens and getting easy buckets,” Ridge said.

“Matt doesn’t come out,” Brown said. “He’s an iron man. His ball handling and mental toughness is second to none. He’s one of the toughest guys I’ve ever coached.”

Saulnier and Tufts both added three points and Whitney finished with two.

The Warriors made 19 of 36 free throws and turned the ball over 13 times.

“My stomach churned all week,” Brown said. “It’s not like we rolled them by 40 during the season. They’re well-coached, disciplined and very good. I’ve never seen kids get after it like they do every single possession. They’re deeper than we are. Bill did a nice job. My hat’s off to him. They’ve come ten-fold from earlier in the year. Thank God we played them at home and they whipped our butts. We knew what we were up against. We knew this was going to be a war.”

Wells will again have its hands full with a lower seed when it battles Gray-New Gloucester in the semifinals. The Patriots led No. 4 Spruce Mountain from start to finish in a 57-34 victory in their quarterfinal Saturday.

Gray-New Gloucester took the regular season meeting, 55-53, Jan. 19 in Wells.

“The final four teams speak for themselves, all Western Maine Conference teams (Cape Elizabeth and Yarmouth meet Thursday in the other semifinal),” said Brown. “(Gray-New Gloucester) beat us in the regular season and they’ll press us.”

Reflection and expectation

Gabe Wagner paced Freeport with 16 points, 14 coming in the second half. He also grabbed six rebounds.

“Gabe played a great game,” said Sclar. “An awesome performance.”

“We (coaches) had a feeling Gabe (would have a big game),” Ridge said. “It wasn’t a surprise he led the charge. There’s not a stage he’s afraid of. He’s a confident player who can make things happen. He doesn’t need a whole lot of help. He can create his own shot.” 

Holt added 11 points (all coming in the second half), Shea had nine, Thomas four, Colby Wagner three and Barrett two.

The Falcons committed 18 turnovers and made 4 of their 7 free throws (which was 29 fewer attempts than Wells managed).

Each team had 23 rebounds.

Freeport will be in an unaccustomed position next winter, when it will be viewed as a contender for the first time in a long time. With Barrett, Holt, Shea, Gabe Wagner and junior Shea Wagner leading the list of returners, the Falcons will be poised to continue the program’s upward progression.

“Our underclassmen should have a great run next year,” said Sclar. “They have the ability to do a lot.”

“The seniors did a great job bringing the program to this point and now they’re handing it over to underclassmen who are capable,” Ridge said. “Next year, we won’t surprise anyone.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

Wells senior Cam Cousins protects a loose ball from Freeport junior Toby Holt.

Freeport senior Caleb Salter looks to drive as Wells senior Cam Cousins (32) and junior Tyler Bridge defend.

Freeport junior Eriksen Shea shoots over Wells junior Dylan Whitney.

Freeport junior Toby Holt makes a layup as Wells senior Cam Cousins defends.

Freeport senior Ethan Sclar is defended by Wells junior Dylan Whitney.

Previous Freeport stories

Season Preview

Freeport 72 Morse 65

Yarmouth 43 Freeport 36

Previous Freeport-Wells playoff result

1976 Western C quarterfinals
Wells 83 Wells 73

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Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.