Thornton Academy guard Jack Pyzynski missed significant time last winter after breaking his shooting hand just before the season opener. Last Saturday, he scored 18 points as the Trojans defeated South Portland in overtime in the Class AA South championship game. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer Buy this Photo

SACO — The Thornton Academy boys’ basketball team knew it had the goods to advance a step farther this winter.

After losing as the top seed in the Class AA South final to Bonny Eagle in 2019, the Golden Trojans cleared the regional hurdle last weekend and will play in their first state championship game in 11 years. Thornton takes on Edward Little at 9:05 p.m. Saturday at Cross Insurance Arena.

“We had this date set out from the beginning of the season,” said senior guard Kobe Gaudette. “This was our goal. So we practiced different this year and it was on our minds the whole way.”

Thornton (18-3) advanced to the state championship game with a 61-55 overtime win against nemesis and top-seeded South Portland in the South final. The previously undefeated Red Riots had beaten Thornton twice in the regular season and eliminated the Trojans from the playoffs three straight years from 2016-18.

Thornton has benefited from having a healthy Jack Pyzynski all season. A guard, Pyzynski established himself as a top 3-point shooter two years ago as a sophomore. Primed for a breakout season last winter, he broke his right (shooting) hand in a scrimmage just before the season opener. He was available for last season’s playoff run, but “as much as my mindset was ready to be back, I just wasn’t in as good a shape and my hand was still recovering.”

This season, Pyzynski has been a crucial component for an offense that features the explosive, slashing drives of leading scorer Payton Jones (16.3 points per game) and the power post game of Dylan Griffin (13.7 points, 10.3 rebounds). Pyzynski led the team with 40 3-pointers during the regular season, forcing defenses to extend. That opens up gaps for the Trojans to drive to the hoop. Pyzynski averages 13.4 points, 2.2 steals and 2.7 assists.

“He’s put in a lot of work in the offseason,” Gaudette said. “I know he was really bummed when he broke his hand. He would have had big things happening last year, too, but this offseason he put in an insane amount of work.”

Pyzynski came up big in the regional final.

He hit consecutive 3-pointers at the end of the third quarter to give Thornton its first lead. Then Pyzynski’s aggressive drive early in the fourth quarter halted a 6-0 run by South Portland. In overtime, he made consecutive steals to help break the game open, then sank four free throws to cap an 18-point effort.

“He’s always been a really good basketball player and there’s nobody with a better work ethic,” said Thornton Coach Bob Davies. “How he’s evolved as a basketball player is really a testament to how hard he’s worked and the effort he’s put in.”

In Saturday’s championship game, Edward Little (19-2) will focus on slowing Jones and limiting Griffin’s touches near the basket.

“You’ve got to stop Jones in transition. He’s incredible,” said Red Eddies Coach Mike Adams. “We have to slow him down and not let him get going and keep Griffin out of the paint the best we can.”

Which makes it sound like Thornton could need another strong game from Pyzynski, as well as from fellow starters Gaudette and Colby Lands. Getting 14 points off the bench like the Trojans did in the regional final (Will Mitchell with nine, Costa Gikas with five) would also help.

“The reason why both EL and us are there, and why South Portland and Deering played in the (regional finals), is because those teams, yeah, they’ve got their stars, but they have kids that are really competitive athletes and they make the shots when they take the shots,” Davies said.

Pyzynski believes Thornton is prepared to make those shots and win its first state title since beating Edward Little in the 2009 Class A championship game, 54-52.

“Last year, us losing in that (regional final), it just made us all much more hungry,” Pyzynski said. “And we’ve been working super hard at practice and we’re just ready for those big moments.”

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