By Eric Carson
The defending Class A state champion Deering girls’ basketball team used a pair of first quarter outbursts to take big early leads and roll over South Portland and Cheverus in a pair of weekend road games to improve to 7-0 overall in Southern Maine Activities Association play.
The familiar theme of the weekend was the Rams’ stifling defensive pressure. Senior guards Diana Manduca and Jess Ruhlin, joined with sophomore Britni Mickulanecz, combined to make life miserable for opposing guards trying to advance the ball to halfcourt. The Rams’ pressure forced turnover after turnover and disrupted the opponents’ ability to get settled on the offensive end. It also forced low-percentage shots that often fueled the Rams fast-breaking brand of basketball.
Deering, returning four starters from last year’s championship team, jumped out to a 14-2 first quarter lead at South Portland (3-3) Friday night and went on to win 41-26. The Rams’ defense was able to limit South Portland star Brianna Hawkins to just four points on the night. Hawkins, a senior, scored her first field goal just inside the start of the fourth quarter.
“Defense has been the mantra for this team for the last four or five years,” said first-year Deering coach Mike Murphy. “Our defense is stifling. It takes teams out of what they what want to do on offense. And a lot of times our defense creates our offense.”
Manduca was the catalyst in both pivotal first quarter runs, scoring seven points in each rally to set the tone for the Rams.
At Beal Gymnasium, Kayla Burchill continued to pose major challenges for opposing defenses. The 6-foot sophomore has one of the more complete games in the league. She’s tall enough to be a major factor on the boards inside, yet possesses a lethal 3-point shot to go with a soft touch from mid-range. Burchill led all scorers with 16 points, including a pair of back-to-back 3-pointers in her eight-point third quarter that dissolved any South Portland hopes of climbing back in to the contest.
“Last year this was a key game for us because (South Portland) was one of the best teams in the league,” said Burchill. “We wanted to come out and show them how tough of a team we are. We like to trap the ball whenever we can on defense and it helped us get out to a big lead (Friday) night.”
Manduca led the outburst against South Portland by forcing several turnovers and either scoring herself or setting up a teammate for an easy two.
Deering never trailed in the game and led 14-0 with 3:18 left in the first after South Portland coach Mike Giordano burned his second timeout in an attempt to stop the Rams’ from running too far away.
Manduca started the game with a layup off a turnover, then fed junior Claire Ramonas on a sweet give-and-go play after another turnover. Ramonas passed to Manduca and Manduca zipped it right back to Ramonas for an easy lay-in after South Portland’s lone defender had committed.
Manduca added a jumper from the corner and a three-pointer on consecutive possessions, and Mickulanecz hit a 3 to stretch the lead to 12-0. By the time Burchill got in the act, pulling down a pair of rebounds before she converted her first basket of the night in the lane, the Rams were leading 14-0 and it looked like it was going to be a long night for the Red Riots.
In the second quarter, the Red Riots scored their first basket from the floor with 6:50 left on the clock when senior captain Kelsi Conley nailed a jumper from the wing. South Portland sophomore Abby Hasson scored on a transition break for two of her team-high eight points on the night to make it 14-6 midway through the second.
But Hasson’s hoop woke up Burchill, who sandwiched a bucket and a long 3-pointer around a Mickulanecz free throw, stretching the Deering lead back to a comfortable 14-points at 20-6
Conley answered with a 3 for South Portland, but Burchill delivered the knockout blow when she returned the favor on Deering’s next possession to make it 23-8.
Burchill outscored the Red Riots 8-7 in the second quarter, scoring eight of her team’s nine points in the frame, as the Rams built a 23-9 halftime advantage.
Deering officially ran away with it by outscoring the Red Riots 9-2 in the third quarter on the strength of reserve senior guard Maria Apon’s five straight points. Apon tossed in a wild underhanded layup trying to avoid Hawkins and drilled a 3 from the corner to help Deering take a 32-11 lead after three quarters.
Both teams emptied their benches a few minutes into the fourth quarter Deering won 14-13 to remain undefeated with a 46-24 win.
The Rams went right back to work on Saturday night and quickly built a 15-0 lead against the Stags (5-2) on their way to a 50-25 victory. Manduca led all scorers with 15 points. Burchill added 10.
Deering hosted Thornton Academy Tuesday (too late for this edition), then travels to face a tough Noble team Friday night in a rematch of last year’s regional final.