ELLSWORTH — Free-throw shooting decided Wednesday night’s boys’ basketball game between Ellsworth and Mount Desert Island.
In a close matchup where every point counted, the Trojans scored 23 of theirs from the foul line en route to their 54-49 win.
MDI improved to 6-2 while Ellsworth dropped to 6-3.
“Free throws are one of those things we work on a lot in practice,” MDI coach Justin Norwood said. “A lot of games come down to those one or two points.”
The Ellsworth Eagles started strong, scoring 12 unanswered points for a 17-5 lead just minutes into the first quarter.
“We came out of the gate fast and hit our shots,” Ellsworth coach Peter Austin said. “We had all kinds of energy in the first quarter.”
MDI temporarily appeared outmatched, but the longtime rivalry that packed Katsiaficas Gymnasium did not disappoint.
The Trojans chipped away at Ellsworth’s lead in the second period, where they sank eight-of-10 foul shots. The Eagles lost some ground, missing all four of their free throws, and entered halftime up just 25-20.
“It would have been easy for us to panic in that first quarter when we got down,” Norwood said. “We just trusted in what we were doing.”
Junior guard Bryce Harmon scored the first points of the half with a layup for Ellsworth. Senior forward Nick Bagley added a field goal and free throw on a three-point play to put the Eagles up 30-20.
Just as quickly, junior forward Russell Kropff hit two free throws, kicking off a seven-point MDI scoring run that cut its deficit from 10 to three.
With a minute left in the quarter, Kropff snatched away Ellsworth’s lead with a field goal, and MDI entered the final period up 38-37.
“I probably played some of my players too much, so they didn’t have fresh legs in the third and fourth quarters,” Austin said. “That probably had a lot to do with it.”
Kropff extended MDI’s lead to 40-37 with another two points from the foul line. Ellsworth fans began chanting, “This is our house,” when junior forward Riley Swanson hit a 3-pointer for MDI that silenced the blocks of maroon in the stands.
MDI built a 46-38 lead when Ellsworth senior guard Alex Braley and Bagley each drained two of two foul shots. Bagley followed his with a steal on the following MDI possession, which he drove in for another two points for Ellsworth.
“Our free-throw shooting wasn’t up to par, but we won the turnover battle,” Austin said. “We could have folded there, but we showed a lot of heart.”
With a minute and a half left, a Bruce St. Peter basket and a Braley free throw brought Ellsworth within a point of tying the score — the closest the Eagles would get. But again, Kropff hit two foul shots to put MDI up 50-47.
In the final minute, MDI junior forward Graham Good hit four of four free throws to put the game away.
“It was a nip-and-tuck game all the way,” Austin said. “We need to learn to finish games.”
Kropff led MDI with 14 points, and Swanson and Good each contributed 11. The Trojans were 23-for-29 from the free throw line, while the Eagles went 10-for-19.
Bagley totaled a game-high 16 points for Ellsworth. Harmon and St. Peter added 11 and nine points.
Ellsworth and MDI will meet again in the final game of the season on Feb. 4 at MDI.