It is no secret the key to the Medomak Valley boys basketball team’s success this season has been their interior game.

Led by 6-foot-8-inch center John Murray and 6-5 forward Ryan Ripley, the top-seeded Panthers understood they would have their hands full against No. 13 Foxcroft Academy of Dover-Foxcroft, this season’s postseason Cinderella story, on Wednesday night, Feb. 20 with a berth in the regional championship on the line.

In a methodically-played, lower-scoring affair, the Panthers and Ponies played close through the first three quarters, but Medomak Valley outscored Foxcroft Academy 19-4 in the final stanza to surge to a 53-30 Eastern Class B semifinal playoff victory at the Bangor Auditorium.

Click for photos from this game.

With Wednesday's victory, Medomak Valley advances to the regional finals against No. 3 Mount Desert Island (17-3, after a 51-40 semifinal win over No. 2 Presque Isle, which finished 16-4) on Saturday, Feb. 23 at 4 p.m. at the Bangor Auditorium.

It is Medomak Valley’s first regional championship berth since 1995, when the team toiled in Eastern Class A.

Medomak Valley does not play Foxcroft Academy, Presque Isle or MDI during the season.

The Panthers defeated No. 8 Camden Hills 52-47 in the quarterfinals, while the Ponies had two postseason wins to their credit, beating No. 4 Oceanside of Rockland/Thomaston 55-45 in a prelim game and No. 5 Caribou 41-32 in the quarterfinals.

Entering Wednesday's semifinal game, the Panthers and Ponies stood on opposite ends of the postseason spectrum. The Ponies were the final team to qualify for this year's tournament, while the Panthers were the top-ranked squad.

On Wednesday, Ripley and Murray combined to score 34 points for Medomak Valley, as the two Panthers outscored the entire Foxcroft Academy squad by four points. Ripley tallied 10 points in the final stanza to help Medomak Valley pull away.

“It’s a great feeling,” said Ripley. "We’ve been working all year for this. A lot of people didn’t expect us to get here, but we just kept fighting through and it felt good.”

For the Panthers, Ripley led the way with 21 points, while Murray added 13; Jonathan Hendrickson-Belloguet, five; Brandon Soper, Micah Williamson and Nicholas DePatsy, all three; Colton Spear and Zach Starr, both two; and Vincent Vannah, one.

For Foxcroft Academy (10-11), Ryan Rebar netted 15 points, while Kaleb Smith added five; Hunter Smith, four; Hunter Law and Kolby Kendall, both two; and Caleb Richard and Volodymyr Pyzhov, both one.

Foxcroft Academy played its best at the end of the regular season and during the playoffs, but the Ponies' magical run ended against Medomak Valley.

Wednesday's slower pace was to the Ponies' liking for most of the night, but the Panthers ultimately had too much size and talent.

Medomak Valley netted four 3-pointers and 9-of-16 free throws (56 percent), while Foxcroft Academy connected on three treys, two from Rebar, and 5-of-12 foul shots (42 percent).

The game was tied 10-10 after one quarter before the Panthers slowly pulled away, leading 19-16 at halftime and 34-26 after three quarters.

Panther coach Nick DePatsy said he was concerned about how his team would attack the Ponies 2-3 quarter-court defensive zone, a defense not many Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference Class B teams run as exclusively as Foxcroft Academy does.

But the Panthers proved to be up to the task as the higher seed trailed only twice in the game — 3-2 early in the first quarter and 14-12 midway through the second stanza.

“It’s been a long time,” said DePatsy, who coached in three regional finals (Western Class C) in the 1990s with Georges Valley. “I’m very pleased with what I saw on both ends of the floor, especially in the second half. We executed our offense a lot better, we got the ball in the high post, got behind their zone and Ripley and Murray exploited that and played very well together. They pass very well.”

Midway through the third quarter, Ripley and Murray really began to exploit the Foxcroft Academy zone in the paint, with either player setting up near the foul line and finding the other cutting under the basket for quick, easy hoops.

“We’d been working on that 2-3 zone for two days straight,” said Ripley. “And in the second half we just broke it open. John and I work really great together, we’ve got great chemistry and we just find each other.”

Ripley said the Ponies play their 2-3 zone a little higher past the foul line and once they did that the Panthers began to exploit it and get in the spaces and underneath in the zone. “We had it all night," he said.

Coach DePatsy also credited the four 3-pointers hit in the game by Hendrickson-Belloguet, Williamson, Soper and Nicholas DePatsy, the coach’s son, which helped open up the Foxcroft Academy zone and get Ripley and Murray going inside.

“I told Ryan that if we get the high-low going and he times his cuts and really posts up, he’s going to have a monster game,” said DePatsy. “He had a lot of layups.”

The Panthers quickly put the game out of reach in the fourth quarter when Murray had an offensive putback off a Ripley miss to give Medomak Valley its first double-digit lead at 36-26 10 seconds into the stanza.

The hoop by Murray sparked an 8-0 Panther run as Ripley converted three straight field goals to put the Panthers ahead 42-26 before Rebar cut the Pony deficit to 14-points on a fastbreak layup.

Murray then netted a pair of free throws between two more Ripley field goals to put Medomak Valley ahead 48-28 with 2:30 remaining, which prompted both DePatsy and Foxcroft Academy coach Dave Carey to empty their respective benches to get reserve players time on the auditorium floor.

Coach DePatsy said he also was pleased with the Panthers' defensive effort in the second half, a performance that held the Ponies to only four field goals — one in the fourth quarter.

Now the Panthers have two days of practice to prepare for the Trojans, who fell to Gardiner in last year’s regional championship game. MDI averages 57.5 points per game to 60.7 for the Panthers.

“They’re big,” said DePatsy of the tall Trojans. “There’s no question there. They present us with a challenge there. The [Ben] Walls' kid ,I think, is their head of the snake. He’s tough. He’s not their one or two, but he makes them go when they are on the floor. Their guards are tough [and] they play good man-to-man defense.”

DePatsy said in a lot of ways, the Panthers and Trojans are mirror images of one another.

“They might be a little bit bigger than us, but we might be a little more athletic,” he said. “They’ve got kids that can shoot, we’ve got kids that can shoot. It’s going to be a tough game. We’ve got to come ready to play.”

This season, Medomak Valley lost to Oceanside 71-65 in overtime and Winslow 73-61, while MDI lost to Washington Academy of East Machias 66-61, Presque Isle 57-51 and Caribou 49-46. Of note, the Trojans also beat Foxcroft Academy twice during the season — 56-53 and 68-63.

Earlier in the playoffs, MDI defeted No. 6 Winslow 48-42 in the quarterfinals.

Courier Publications sports staff can be reached at 207-594-4401 or by email at