After last year’s thrilling finish to the Athletics For Christian Education League (ACEL) basketball championship last season between South Liberty and South Hope, no one was surprised to see the Pioneers and Royals once again facing off this season for the prestigious state crown Saturday at Lisbon Falls Baptist Church.

The game was competitive from the start, with both teams taking leads throughout the first half and the game still very much in doubt heading into the final 16 minutes of play.

However, one should never underestimate the heart of a champion. And in the third quarter, the defending state champs pulled away and not only clinched their second straight undefeated season, but their third straight state championship as the Pioneers bested the Royals 70-57.

“They played pretty good [today],” said 10th-year South Liberty coach Jay Pelton of his club. “[South] Hope [also] played really, really good defense and did a good job. We beat them earlier in the year 102-67 I think, so they came to play and they did a really good job.”

Pelton went on to say he felt the Royals rebounded better and did not let them cut to the basket with the freedom they had in the meeting between the two teams during the regular season. He added this was the closest game they had been in all season, beating opponents by an average of 25 points per game heading into Saturday’s contest.

“They made us earn our points,” he said.

South Hope coach Clint Martz felt his team played very well, but failed to capitalize on many missed layups, which may have changed the complexion of the game for his club. He added that Pease, the team’s top offensive threat, was under the weather Saturday, despite leading the team with 18 points.

The Royals also changed up their game plan against the Pioneers Saturday, and that certainly translated onto the court.

“We worked on some different things,” said Martz. “We worked on working the ball around and getting through screens and picks and kicking it out for guys to either drive to the basket or take three-point shots. I think that really worked well. We didn’t turn the ball over very much and in the first half, and we kept them off the boards a lot.”

Despite that, the Pioneers, particularly the tandem of Denman and Ludwig, proved too much for the Royals to overcome.

The Royals (11-4) led 18-14 after the first quarter of play, while the Pioneers (15-0) pulled ahead at halftime to take a slim 34-33 edge. South Liberty essentially put the game out of reach in the third quarter, outscoring South Hope 19-5 to take a 53-38 lead after three quarters.

Billy Ray Denman poured in 28 points to lead the league champs, as he netted 13 field goals and dominated in the post for the Pioneers. Burt Ludwig, the team’s supreme sharpshooter, added 24 points, while Alex Giguere chipped in with 10; Nathan Garnett, four; and Malcolm Wadsworth and Ben Daggett, both two.

For the Royals, Sam Pease led the way with 18 points, but fouled out midway through the fourth quarter. Also contributing offensively for South Hope were Caleb Pease with 11 points; Scott Marshall and Nathan Young, both nine; Mike Kee, six; and Sam Wadsworth, five.

South Hope netted 12-of-16 (75 percent) from the free throw line, while South Liberty converted 5-of-18 (28 percent).

Last year the Pioneers and Royals also met in the state championship game, with South Liberty pulling out a 67-64 win. The Pioneers were also undefeated last season.

The first half of Saturday’s game was a back-and-forth battle featuring a handful of lead changes and was highlighted by an exciting finish to the game’s first 16 minutes. After a few steals back and forth for both teams near the center court area, South Hope’s Young finally came up with the ball and started a 2-on-1 fast break with Pease. Young took it himself and was just a bit hard off the glass, but Pease collapsed hard on the other side and converted on the follow with four seconds remaining, trimming the Pioneer lead to 34-33.

However, South Liberty came out of the locker room with a vengeance, and quickly put the game out of reach.

Ludwig scored the first six points of the quarter for the Pioneers and after a Marshall basket, the defending champs held a 40-35 edge with only two minutes gone by in the second half. Denman then converted on an offensive rebound, but Kee came back and converted a trey for the Royals, cutting their deficit to 42-38.

The Pioneers then took control of the game, rattling of 11 straight points to end the third quarter. Ludwig sliced to the basket and scored off the window with a great scoop move, followed by hoop from Giguere, who was the benefactor of a terrific fast break in transition. Denman then scored the final seven points of the quarter including an offensive putback, and again on a fast break where he trailed the play, where Giguere found him for a short-range jumper.

Denman then converted on an alley-oop layup from a teammate and later converted a free throw, accounting for the third-quarter score.

Pease scored the first points of the fourth quarter on a runner for South Hope and the Royals outscored the Pioneers 19-17 over the final eight minutes, but the third-quarter hole they dug themselves proved too much to overcome.

“I’m very proud,” said Pelton. “They’re a very smart group of kids. They’ll come to you at the end of the season and ask ‘What can I do to get better?’ so every year they just keep getting better and better. They’re very intelligent. I can tell them what to do and most of the time they’ll implement that right out onto the floor. They’re a very smart group of basketball players.”

Despite the loss, Martz was pleased with his players and the fact they battled adversity to get back to the state title game for the second straight year.

“I’m really happy with the guys,” said Martz. “They listen, they practice hard and showed that they could come from losing to this same team by 40 points late in the season to coming into the championship and making it a good game.”

Team members for state champion South Liberty include Giguere, Garnett, Denman, Wadsworth, Jamie Pelton, Ludwig, Daggett, Ryan Turffs, Will Daggett and Tyler Turffs.

Team members for South Hope include Sam Pease, Scott Parshall, Caleb Pease, Young, David Mank, Wadsworth, Kee, Eli Chadwick and Tristan Gagne.

Click for more photos from the ACEL state basketball championship.

Village NetMedia Associate Sports Director Mark Haskell can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by e-mail at mhaskell@villagesoup.com.