AYER — There is plenty of familiarity whenever the Ayer and Shirley Middle School boys basketball teams meet, and while Ayer posted a 37-32 win, it was anything but an easy victory for the Panthers.

First, Ayer suffered a key loss when talented Scott Newman was injured in the first half after having scored six points, grabbed four rebounds and made three steals.

Second, Shirley never went away and fought to the final whistle. There were several points in the game when it appeared Ayer might be primed to land a knockout punch, but the Hawks showed a strong chin and hung tough.

Shirley jumped on top 9-5 after four minutes, keyed by strong play from Kenneth Gilman, who scored four points, and Andrew Stiling, who added three. Both offenses came out playing confidently and moved the ball well, getting quality shots.

Ayer caught fire and put together a pretty 12-0 run, complementing accurate outside shooting with tough defense. Carlton Ford fueled the spurt with a 15-footer and a turnaround jumper to tie the game at 9-9. After Newman buried a three-pointer, and James Comerford hit a free throw, Sean Jones and Dashawn capped the flurry with perimeter jumpers to put the Panthers in charge at 17-9. Dashawn Taylor was the Panthers’ defensive catalyst during the spurt, using his quick hands and feet to advantage.

Shirley regrouped and climbed back into the game with six consecutive points as Gilman scored on a drive, hard-working Cedric Gray hit a 10-footer, and David Campbell drained a 15-footer. Gray was a one-man wrecking crew off the boards for the Hawks in the game, hauling down 20 rebounds to go with six points to key Shirley’s 32-26 rebounding edge in the game.

Ayer took a 21-17 lead to halftime, and the teams traded baskets over the first five minutes of the second half with the Panthers still holding their four-point lead at 27-23. Stiling played very well early in the second half for Shirley scoring four points and handling the ball well.

Shirley drew even on a 15-footer by Stiling, followed by a tough drive by Sammy Holmes and the game was 27-27 with six minutes left.

Scott Monge, who was a big factor for Ayer down the stretch with his athleticism, put Ayer on top for good by connecting on a mid-range jumper. Ford tacked on a pair of free throws, before baskets by Jones and Monge gave Ayer a 35-27 lead with just over two minutes left. The Panthers did an outstanding job of intensifying their defense during the critical stretch and forcing turnovers.

Ford paced the Panthers with eight points and five rebounds. Monge and Taylor (seven steals) each added six points, while Jones chipped in with four points. Sylvester Marshall turned in a strong all-around effort with two points, eight rebounds and two steals.

Stiling led Shirley with nine points while Gilman added six points and two steals. Holmes added four points and two steals, Andrew Campbell three points, and Jonathan Brownell two points and six rebounds.