After starting the season 7-2, the Rockland boys basketball team looked to be one of the favorites to return to the Eastern Class B championship game for the second straight season. But the Tigers, of late, had been reeling.

They lost seven of their last eight games, with the lone victory coming over Belfast, who has just one win to its credit all season. The Tigers failed to defeat point-worthy Lincoln Academy of Newcastle Tuesday at Rockland, which meant the Tigers would be on the outside of the Eastern Class B playoffs looking in if they failed to win their final game of the regular season Thursday night.

Standing in their way? The defending state Class B champions from just down the road — Camden Hills Regional High School.

In front of a packed house in Rockport, the Tigers and Windjammers battled for a solid 32 minutes, with neither team allowing the other to lead by more than eight points for the entire game.

And with their backs against the wall, and a chance to return to the playoffs on the line, the Tigers delivered to earn a postseason spot.

Junior Luke Morrill, who missed 11 games this season due to a high ankle sprain, knocked down the game-winning hoop with 3.5 seconds left as the Tigers (9-9) pulled off a monumental upset that saved their season with a thrilling 67-66 victory.

Rockland started the season 7-2, and despite the fact that the Tigers ended the last nine games of the season with a 2-7 record, is returning to the postseason.Camden Hills finished 16-2 and probably again will fill the No. 1 spot in Eastern Class B.

“I’m incredibly proud of the kids,” said veteran Rockland coach Matt Breen. “These kids have been tough and resilient all year. We’ve battled a lot of adversity. We’ve had issues on and off the court and for them to put everything behind them tonight and come together as a team and play that hard, in a tough to play like this, I couldn’t be prouder of them.”

“This was our only ticket to Bangor,” said Rockland senior guard Chris Nolan. “This was my last year and I want to return so we can go for that [state Class B] championship again.”

The stunning victory will push Rockland into the regional playoffs, perhaps in the ninth or 10th spot and a prelim matchup at either Caribou, Winslow or Mount Desert Island. The final Maine Principals’ Association Heal Point Standings for Eastern Class B will be determined with final regular-season games Friday, Feb. 5.

It was the first win by the Tigers on the Windjammers’ floor since the 1995-96 season — at the old Camden-Rockport High School —  when current Rockland coach Matt Breen was a junior and led that RDHS team to a 70-53 victory on that day and a 17-1 regular-season mark.

Rockland has rarely beaten Camden Hills during the past 10 years or so, but did so most most recently about four years ago in Rockland.

“It’s real exciting,” Nolan said of Thursday’s win. “We haven’t won here in over 10 years and to finally win here when we needed it the most, and it was [almost] the last game of my high school career, it was big.”

“I thought Rockland really played inspired, and they played well,” said Camden Hills coach Jeff Hart. “I know it’s been a tough month down there for Coach Breen, and I’m happy for him and his team. As far as we’re concerned, we just have to keep trying to get better. The players have to play better, and I have to coach better. That’s what we intend to do.”

The Windjammers will play in the Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B championship game on Saturday, Feb. 6 at 7 p.m. at Cony High School. Camden Hills will face Mount View of Thorndike, an opponent it split two games with this season.

It was the first win by the Tigers on the road against the Windjammers since the 1995-96 season and the first time Rockland has ever won at the new Camden Hills Regional High School, which opened a decade ago.  Breen, who was a 1,000-point scorer for the Tigers, was a junior on that team which defeated the Windjammers 70-53 on Feb 8, 1996. Rockland finished 17-1 that season.

Rockland is currently 10th in Eastern Class B, with the top 10 teams in the 19-team region qualifying for postseason play. The Tigers can now breathe a sigh of relief, with no teams behind them in the standings having point-worthy games enough to surpass them in the standings.

Camden Hills, which defeated Rockland 64-43 Dec. 18 at Rockland, is the top seed in the region.

The Tigers will likely face Winslow, who is currently seeded seventh, in the preliminary round of the Eastern Class B playoffs next week. The only two teams left in the playoff race left to play are Ellsworth (currently seeded fourth) and Mount Desert Island (currently seeded ninth), who will face off Friday night at Bar Harbor. Should the Trojans win, they could move up, which would shake up the preliminary round of the playoffs.

MDI upset Ellsworth earlier in the season 60-57 at Ellsworth in their only prior meeting.

Thursday’s game between the Tigers and Windjammers was a back-and-forth battle, with Camden Hills leading 15-14 after the first quarter. Rockland then took a 31-28 lead into the locker room at halftime, and the game was knotted at 46-46 after three quarters.

Nolan dropped in 25 points to lead the Tigers, including an impressive 13-of-15 from the free-throw line. Nolan was 7-of-9 from the charity stripe in the final eight minutes.

“He’s been a leader for us and he’s meant so much to this program,” said Breen of Nolan. “For him to be able to play like that with a chance for us to go back to Bangor is huge for us. Dylan [Meklin] has been right there with him for three years and he was huge.”

Morrill also scored 19 points for Rockland, while Aidan Hadley added 16 and Meklin seven.

Tyler McFarland tossed in a game-high 27 points to lead Camden Hills, while Keegan Pieri added 14; Will Vlautin and Jimmy Weferlin, each seven; Joel Gabriele, six; Cam Gartley, three; and Zack Wincklhofer, two.

Rockland netted 23-of-31 (74 percent) free throws, while Camden Hills countered with 11-of-17 (65 percent).

After Pieri knocked down two free throws to cut Camden Hills’ deficit to 64-60, McFarland scored on a power layup to cut the deficit to two with 1:16 remaining. Nolan then knocked down 1-of-2 at the line, followed by Pieri netting two more points to cut the Camden Hills deficit to 65-64.

Nolan was then called for a player-control foul, giving Camden Hills the ball back with 33 seconds remaining. The Windjammers then cleared out for McFarland, who canned a jumper over the outreached hands of Hadley with 22.7 seconds remaining to give the ‘Jammers back the lead at 66-65.

That set up Morrill’s heroics.

Under heavy pressure, the Tigers worked the ball down the floor and got the ball into the hands of Morrill. The 6-foot-4-inch guard slashed into the paint and put up a runner in the lane that dropped through the cylinder with 3.5 seconds remaining.

With no timeouts remaining, Gartley threw the ball the length of the floor in an attempt to make a winning 3-pointer, but came up empty.

“We were looking for a little more of an open shot than that,” said Morrill of his game-winnng score. “We were hoping to maybe get one down low, but I saw time winding down and I figured I’d try to make a run for it. I was a little nervous, Keegan [Pieri] is a pretty good defender. I’d been going right most of the game so I tried to take him left and I threw up a shot, and luckily it went in.”

“I was supposed to go off a screen off Luke and go to the rack and get a layup or get a dish to Aidan,” said Nolan. “They had all that covered pretty well so I just gave it to Luke and he likes to work it off the dribble and he showed everyone what he can do.”

“Getting Lukie back on the court has been great,” said Breen. “He’s got the athletic ability to make plays and he made a huge one for us tonight.”

As for what the Tigers are looking forward to next?

“Practice,” said Morrill.

“Practice,” echoed Nolan. “We’ve got to keep working. We got one big win, but that can’t satisfy us. We’ve got to go for more.”

Gartley scored the first hoop of the game for the Windjammers before Rockland went on a 11-0 run on a pair of 3-point plays from Meklin and Hadley, a pair of free throws from Nolan and a 3-pointer from Morrill in transition. Camden Hills battled back and went on a 13-2 run to end the quarter, spearheaded by a 3-pointer at the buzzer from Pieri to give the ‘Jammers the lead 15-14.

Midway through the third quarter, after Vlautin banked in a field goal from close range and Gabriele knocked down a 3-pointer to put Camden Hills ahead 44-38, Rockland went on an 8-2 run on two Nolan free throws, a layup from both Morrill and Nolan and a Hadley field goal on a pretty pass from Nolan with nine seconds left in the stanza.

Nolan knocked down the second of his two fourth-quarter 3-pointers midway through the pivotal fourth quarter to put the Tigers ahead 59-55, but Gabriele responded with a trey of his own on the other end to bring Camden Hills within 59-58 with 3:27 left.

Morrill came back and knocked down another 3-pointer for Rockland, and quickly regained possession when Pieri stepped on the endline when inbounding the ball, resulting in a Windjammer turnover. Nolan added a pair of free throws, increasing the visitor’s lead to six points.

Click for more photos from the Rockland at Camden Hills game.

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