Ever wake up in the morning with the realization: wait a minute I’m getting old? Milestones have a way of conjuring up those feelings. Whether it be a birthday or today with the start of a new year. We start to age ourselves as we relive history like it was yesterday. We may not remember, or maybe we do, every vivid detail but we feel the same emotions, see the same images, and hear the same sounds all over again.
I remember when I first started attending tournament games as an eighth grader in 1986. Current University of Maine football play-by-play announcer Rich Kimball, who hosts the afternoon radio program Downtown with Rich Kimball, and is a Brewer educator, would announce moments in tournament history. There would be standout moments from five, ten, twenty, even fifty years ago. To a youngster just beginning to attend games at the Auditorium, it gave me an appreciation in how this whole tournament tradition connected to the past. I remember thinking how long ago those days must have been. Heck, when you’re fourteen five years seems like a long time. Of course, I wasn’t even alive to see most of it.
Thirty-one years later, great moments in tournament history marks the years for me like few other events. On this New Year’s Day 2017, it donned on me this year is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the greatest high school basketball game ever played in Maine. To me there is no argument to this. It is also the twentieth anniversary of one of the most bizarre final two minutes I’ve ever witnessed at the Bangor Auditorium. Unlike when I heard Rich’s stories from 1986, I was there for these two historic games.
Twenty-five years ago Bangor and South Portland played for the 1992 Class A State Championship at Portland’s Cumberland County Civic Center (now the Cross Insurance Arena). It was the first time I had ever set foot in the venue. In the contest prior, the Lawrence girls rolled past Portland behind a dominant performance by none other than Cindy Blodgett. To this day, Blodgett remains the greatest female basketball player I’ve ever seen in Maine’s high school ranks.
I remember very little of the first 29:30 of the boys contest other than Bangor held a thirteen point lead with 2:30 to go in the fourth quarter. For you younger readers it may come as a shock but Bangor was not the powerhouse program that it eventually became under coach Roger Reed. To modern day fans it would seem almost unfathomable this would be the Rams first appearance in a state title game in thirty years. Bangor hadn’t won a basketball state title since 1959. While a strong program, the Rams over this thirty year period had suffered many close, excruciating losses in tournament play.
It’s sometimes strange how a seemingly inconsequential event can completely turn the tide in a basketball game. So it was with 2:30 to go in regulation. A South Portland player fouled out. Into the ballgame came sharp shooting guard Bert Rich. Up thirteen, Bangor went to the foul line where they had been successful all season. Keep in mind: there was no such thing as the double bonus back then. All common fouls beginning with the seventh in each half was one and one.
I remember the throng of Bangor supporters climbing over the hockey boards as the game was nearing its seeming conclusion. Outside the perimeter of the court was a sea of people standing, waiting to rush the floor in anticipation of a Bangor victory. With each Bangor miss from the line, South Portland would knock down a three pointer, eventually sending the game into overtime. It would be the first of five overtimes with South Portland eventually coming out on top with the gold ball. John Wassenbergh led the Red Riots with 43 points, a class A state title record up to that point.
Mark Reed, who is currently the head boys basketball coach at Hermon High School, had a standout game for the Rams. Among many memories from that night was looking out on the court after the game and seeing how physically and emotionally spent all of the participants were.
Bangor would exact a mode over revenge a year later against a different looking South Portland team by rolling to a 25 point victory. Ironically, 1993 was also the first year the double bonus rule went into effect once teams reached nine fouls in a half. Who knows what the outcome of the ’92 game might have been had that rule been in place a year earlier.
The 1997 Eastern Maine class B boys quarterfinals featured one of the most improbable finishes in tourney history. The John Bapst boys entered tourney play as the top seed at 17-1. Orono, the ninth seed, needed a prelim win at Stearns to make it to Bangor. John Bapst was coached by Bob Cimbollek, well known for getting his teams to play disciplined, methodical basketball. His teams rarely if ever beat themselves. I’m not they did on this night either.
Orono was certainly not your typical number nine seed. They were the defending Eastern Maine champions, who returned some pieces off that squad, notably sharp shooting guards Robey Rhodes and Scott Cunningham. Orono actually controlled the first half and led 25-20 at the break.
The Crusaders dominated inside in the second half while limiting the Red Riots to one shot. Over the first fourteen plus minutes of the half Bapst had outscored Orono 25-10 to take a seemingly commanding ten point lead with 1:43 showing on the Auditorium scoreboard. Fans were exiting the building. There was nothing to indicate a comeback was in the cards. Coach Cimbollek’s teams did not lose games when they were up ten inside of two minutes. Period. Game over. On to the Semis. You get the point.
As a young assistant coach sitting next to Coach Cimbollek, to this day I still am amazed at how the game was both won by Orono and lost by John Bapst. People who didn’t witness the contest might wonder “How does a team blow a ten point lead with less than two minutes to go?” To this day I still believe it was much more about what Orono did than what John Bapst didn’t do. Oh, and a few odd things happened along the comeback trail too.
In the final minute forty three John Bapst DID NOT turn the ball over. Not once. The barrage started innocently enough when Robey Rhodes hit a three with a defender in his face. Seven point game. John Bapst missed a one and one. The Crusaders then committed a foul. Orono goes to the foul line. The shooter misses the free throw. A John Bapst player muffs the rebound and loses the ball out of bounds. Orono executed an out of bounds play for Scott Cunningham, who knocked down a wide open three from the corner.
At this point, the old barn is starting to get loud with the few people remaining. Orono fouls again, causing the player to foul out. The Crusaders missed the free throw. This is when things really start to get weird. The Orono player who subbed in for the disqualified player grabbed the rebound, shot an uncontested layup at John Bapst’s basket and missed. He then snagged his own rebound and started to go up for a second shot, only to be mugged by one of his teammates. Rhodes, came down and nailed a contested three from about 22 feet, closing the gap to one.
John Bapst went to the line and made one of two, putting the Crusaders back up by two. Orono didn’t hesitate on their possession. Rhodes brought the ball up and with about twenty five seconds left fired another contested three, this one from about twenty-five feet. Nothing but net. Orono had a one point lead. Bapst missed a fifteen footer from the left wing in the game’s final seconds sending the entire Bangor Auditorium in shock.
Orono coach Dave Paul, who is now an assistant coach with the John Bapst girls, and I still talk about that game years later. I still play the what if game. What if the Orono player made the free throw instead of missing? What if the Orono player makes the layup at our basket? I know what: we win.
What I really marvel at is that it’s been twenty-five and twenty years since these memorable games took place. When I look back they seem not all that long ago.