Basketball

The basketball world has been talking about Cooper Flagg for years. Maine now understands why.

The basketball world has been talking about Cooper Flagg for years.  Maine now understands why.

Cooper Flagg is living the best of both his basketball worlds these days.

The 6-foot-7 freshman phenom from Nokomis Regional High School in Newport is reaping the rewards of his travel basketball career for a few years now, being ranked among the top players nationally in the Class of 2025 and most recently receiving his first college scholarship offers from Bryant, Albany and the University of Maine from age 14.

But this winter, and especially in the past two weeks, he and his twin brother Ace – also offered a scholarship by UMaine – have shown all the basketball skills for which they are known throughout New England and in the whole country on Maine’s biggest stage in front of an audience. this includes their classmates and community.

It’s an adoring fanbase, as evidenced by the gathering of young and old in their burgundy and white Nokomis t-shirts who lingered at the sold-out Augusta Civic Center with the Flaggs and their teammates – including brother Elder Hunter – long after the Warriors captured the first regional championship in program history with a 68-58 win over Brewer in Saturday night’s Class A North final.

“The energy here was insane,” said Cooper Flagg, who contributed 27 points, 11 rebounds, five steals, five assists and three blocked shots to the title game victory as well as numerous basketball shoe autographs young fans throughout the tournament. .

Nokomis freshman Cooper Flagg attempts to take a shot at Hampden Academy’s Landon Gabric during a pre-season game on Dec. 2. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Travel basketball games are often played before modest gatherings in modest settings. But the competition at showcases and the attention it receives from those who follow the AAU basketball scene can provide a different kind of pressure than the high school tournament in Maine that remains a rite of popular winter even though returning from a year-long hiatus due to COVID -19.

That likely worked to the Flagg twins’ advantage when they debuted on the high school tournament scene in February, according to their mother.

“What’s different is that because of social media, Cooper has the opportunity, especially for Cooper, to be in the national spotlight,” said Kelly (Bowman) Flagg, a former basketball star. ball from Nokomis who later played at the University of Maine. “He was in the national spotlight before he was in the local spotlight.”

There is also the pressure that comes from within.

“Our Maine United [travel] The team basically plays all over the country and I think that puts a lot of weight and pressure on them, knowing how much money and time we invest in doing this for them and getting them to these places,” Kelly said. Flagg.

“And the people who sponsor our team and help us, they don’t want to let them down. You also want to prove yourself to potential college coaches who might be there to scout, so they’ve certainly had their fair share of that stuff that has prepared them well for this moment.

The Flagg brothers have been busy fans when not playing during the high school tournament, having been frequently spotted at recent B, C and D North games in Bangor.

But while fans were excited in Bangor, they couldn’t compete with the growing crowds drawn to watch Cooper Flagg and the Warriors in Augusta.

“You couldn’t hear anyone, but I was trying to yell at my teammates and let people around me know what was going on,” he said after the Class A North Championship game. “We were over there screaming at the top of our lungs, so my voice is definitely going to hurt.”

The Flagg twins began attending games at Nokomis – where their father Ralph was a 6ft 5in center for the Warriors during his playing days – shortly after starting school, with Cooper Flagg starting his sophomore travel basketball career with Ace following suit a year later.

The brothers quickly became teammates, and their combination of skill and advanced size for their age eventually led to their travel team competition spreading far beyond state lines, especially during their college years. .

Last spring, the Flaggs and current Nokomis schoolmate Dawson Townsend played on a Maine United travel team coached by former University of Maine star Andy Bedard, which won a championship eighth-grade National Zero Gravity Finals, and Cooper Flagg’s name quickly became a household name on the National Top. 50 classifications by age group.

Nokomis Cooper Flagg shoots from outside Credit: Josh O’Donnell / BDN

The arrival of the Flagg twins as a freshman at Nokomis led to the Warriors being anointed in some state basketball circles as champions-in-waiting even before veteran coach Earl Anderson’s team did. play their first game.

Nokomis adopted the motto “Block out the noise” in an effort to ignore the volume of those outside expectations, even though Cooper Flagg and his teammates shared the same goal.

“It’s something I’ve had to balance all my life with people talking about me,” said Flagg, who turned 15 in December. “I was able to deal with that and let people talk to me and pretty much block it out while letting it in at the same time. It’s just a big balance you have to find and once you find it you can really optimize the way you train and play.

Such interest from the Maine basketball community and more casual sports fans has steadily increased with their arrival on the high school scene, especially as the 20-1 Warriors extended which is now a winning streak of 19 games and 2½ months before Saturday. 3:00 p.m. State Championship game against Falmouth at Cross Insurance Arena in Portland.

“I absolutely think Ace, Cooper and Dawson were well prepared for this season,” Kelly Flagg said. “I think people thought, ‘Oh, let’s see how these freshmen are doing on this big stage this year,’ but they’re really, really unfazed.”

Not only did Nokomis win, but Cooper and Ace Flagg and junior forward Madden White made the slam dunk – long a rarity in Maine high school basketball – a sudden appearance of routine, at least in Newport and the opponents’ gyms around central Maine.

“It brings a lot of energy when you get up and dunk one,” said Cooper Flagg, who had eight slam dunks in three A North tournament games.

And while Nokomis endured moments of offensive struggles in early playoff wins over Oakland’s No. 9 Messalonskee (57-29) and Augusta’s No. 4 Cony (51-35), a defense that allowed just 40 points per game during the regular season. remained strong.

“I think every game in the tournament has the same pressure, but honestly at the beginning we had more pressure because we had to go all the way to the state championship,” Flagg said. “Just getting out those first two games was huge.”

Saturday’s regional final came after a two-game regular-season split with Brewer, and the result was sparked by what has almost become the norm for the team, solid second-half play.

Nokomis Cooper Flagg dives the ball on a fast break Credit: Josh O’Donnell / BDN

This time it was a 21-4 run in the third quarter helped by three unsung heroes, as Townsend and sophomore guards Alex Grant and Connor Sides each buried a 3-pointer to help Nokomis turn a narrow advantage from 23-21 in a comfort of 44-25. area in moments.

“After I started knocking a few punches [Brewer] knew they weren’t going to be able to focus on one person,” said Cooper Flagg, who scored 19 points in the second half. “We really cooked as a team in general, and from there it really opened things up for me. When the shots fall, everyone feels good and it increases defensive intensity. It’s honestly just a big improvement.

Cooper Flagg was the easy choice as the winner of the Al Halliday Award, symbol of the outstanding player-sportsman of the Class A North tournament. He had a triple-double in the quarterfinals and finished the three-game regional averaging 20.7 points, 12 rebounds and 4 blocks per game.

“He’s a great scorer, but he’s a better passer,” Anderson said. “He’s a great player but he’s a better teammate.”

Another opponent stands between Nokomis and a historic first state championship in men’s basketball.

Falmouth (19-2) has a storied legacy under longtime coach David Halligan, including the 2016 Class A state championship, Class B crowns in 2010 and 2013 and Golden Balls consecutive Class C matches in 1997, 1998 and 1999.

“It’s very exciting, definitely a big step forward,” Cooper Flagg said after leading Nokomis to their first regional title. “Hopefully we can just do it and complete the mission.”