AUGUSTA — As the final horn of her high school career blared, Emily Esposito stood near center court at the Augusta Civic Center and slammed the basketball as hard as she could into the floor.

It was a statement, an emphatic one, that she wanted everyone to see and hear.

“Even though we were down, it’s Gorham basketball,” said Esposito, of her statement. “We were going to work our tails off and come back to prove we were the better team.”

And that’s exactly what Gorham did. The Rams completed their second consecutive undefeated season Saturday night, using a strong defensive effort to pull away from Oxford Hills 45-31 in the Class AA championship game. In winning its 42nd consecutive game and second consecutive state championship, Gorham held the Vikings to just nine points over the final 16 minutes.

“It’s pretty special,” said Gorham Coach Laughn Bertiaume. “We’ve never really looked ahead too far, but this is going to be fun to look back on.”

Esposito scored 20 points and had six steals to lead the Rams while junior forward Michelle Rowe had 11 points and seven rebounds and sophomore center Mackenzie Holmes eight points, 13 rebounds and three blocks.

Oxford Hills, which finished 19-2, challenged the Rams like few teams had this year, opening a nine-point lead in the second quarter fueled by hot shooting – the Vikings shot 47 percent in the first half – and Gorham’s offensive difficulties.

But after Maighread Laliberte gave Oxford Hills a 16-7 lead on a 3-pointer from the right corner with 6:47 left in the second quarter, Gorham’s defense clamped down. The Rams finished the first half on a 17-6 run, tying the game on a 3-pointer by Courtney Brent with 1:44 left in the second quarter and going ahead on an inside move by the 6-foot-2 Holmes – who faced a triple-team every time she got the ball down low – with 1:00 remaining.

Gorham would never trail again.

While Oxford Hills tied the game at 24 on a spinning layup by Julia Colby with 5:38 left in the third quarter, Gorham regained its focus. Rowe hit two foul shots with 3:11 left to make it 26-24, then Esposito – who will next play at Villanova University – scored the final seven points of the third quarter to give Gorham a 33-24 lead into the fourth.

First was a foul-line jumper in which she showed the defender the ball then spun away. Then a 12-foot pull-up jumper and finally a 3-pointer from the left of the key.

“She really wasn’t going to be denied,” said Berthiaume. “She’s been the best player and she acted like it today.”

Oxford Hills wouldn’t go away, three times pulling within seven points in the fourth quarter. The final time was at 37-30 with 2:50 left on two foul shots by Erin Morton. But the Rams converted 6 of 8 foul shots down the stretch – three each by Esposito and Rowe – to pull away.

There’s no question that Gorham’s defense keyed this championship. After Oxford Hills came out hot, the Vikings struggled to get into any offensive rhythm. They scored just two points in the third quarter and endured a scoreless drought of 8:48 between the third and fourth quarters.

“All in all, we wanted to give ourselves a chance to win,” said Oxford Hills Coach Nate Pelletier. “We just could not put the ball in the basket. The goal was to keep them under 50 and if we kept them under 50 we’d have a chance to win.

“And we were able to do that. Defensively our girls gave everything they got. But they played good defense too. They weren’t allowing our kids to be comfortable anywhere they were.”

Esposito said the Rams were not going to be denied.

“I know I’m going on to play college basketball,” said Esposito. “But it’s not going to be the same. When you do it with your friends, people you grew up with, it’s different. You enjoy it more.”

Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or:

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Twitter: MikeLowePPH