PORTLAND—Never before has winning ugly felt so good.
Cape Elizabeth’s girls’ basketball team, which had to go all the way to Fryeburg last week just to qualify for the Western Class B quarterfinals, had the unenviable task of meeting Spruce Mountain, the undefeated top seed Tuesday evening at the Portland Exposition Building, but the Capers were undaunted.
And as a result, they’ve made history and marched on.
Long-downtrodden Cape Elizabeth showed it belonged in the first period, which featured strong defense and balanced scoring and ended with an 8-7 lead. The Capers then had a chance to build a healthy advantage in the second quarter, but they missed countless easy baskets. Regardless, a 9-0 run spelled a 17-9 lead and Cape Elizabeth went to the break up four, 17-13.
When senior Ashley Tinsman hit a layup, the Capers were up five, 20-15, early in the third period, but the Phoenix would rally and behind consecutive 3-pointers from senior Amanda Castonguay, took a 23-22 advantage to the fourth quarter.
Spruce Mountain led on four different occasions in the final stanza, but couldn’t put the Capers away and that proved fatal when Cape Elizabeth senior Hannah Sawyer buried a 3 with 3:10 to go to put her team on top to stay.
The Phoenix got a point back at the line, but after Sawyer twice blocked potential go-ahead baskets, Capers junior Montana Braxton extended the lead with a foul shot.
Spruce Mountain would get one final chance to win it, but Braxton knocked away a pass as time expired and for the first time since 1996, Cape Elizabeth won a quarterfinal, 32-30.
Junior Maddie Bowe had nine points and Sawyer added seven as the Capers improved to 11-9, ended the Phoenix’s season at 18-1 and advanced to face No. 5 Lincoln Academy (14-5) in the semifinals Thursday at 4:30 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Arena (formerly the Cumberland County Civic Center).
“It’s huge,” said Cape Elizabeth coach Chris Casterella. “It was a gutsy performance by the kids. This team is different because we don’t play with fear. They left their heart out there. We’ve come back multiple times this season. That’s a testament to them.”
While Spruce Mountain was running the table and earning the top seed in Western B, Cape Elizabeth was up and down.
The Capers began with a 50-47 win at Wells, then lost at home to Gray-New Gloucester, 64-46. After prevailing at Freeport (62-47), Cape Elizabeth won at Yarmouth (41-31) and at home over Kennebunk (63-52) to wrap up the 2014 portion of the schedule. After starting 2015 with a 63-31 setback at Falmouth, the Capers beat visiting Wells (56-37), but losses at Gray-New Gloucester (54-46) and at home to Yarmouth (50-35) followed. Cape Elizabeth then won at Traip Academy (61-33) and Kennebunk (49-32) and earned its biggest victory (46-45 over visiting Lake Region), then lost at home to York (60-46), beat visiting Poland (44-19) and closed with home losses to Greely (63-30) and Falmouth (59-47) and setbacks at Greely (35-25) and Fryeburg Academy (48-40) dropping it to the No. 9 seed. Last Wednesday, the Capers went back to Fryeburg Academy, the No. 8 seed, and sprung a mild upset in the preliminary round, 34-26.
Tuesday, Cape Elizabeth and Spruce Mountain met for the first time and it proved to be memorable.
At the start, the Capers showed they could compete.
After the Phoenix went on top on a putback from senior Vanesa Barnes, Tinsman tied it with a layup.
Senior Nicole Hamblin made it 4-2 Spruce Mountain, but a short jumper from junior Carter Harvey was followed by a pullup jumper from Bowe and a Sawyer putback and it was 8-4 Cape Elizabeth.
After a free throw from junior Rylee Moore snapped a 4 minute, 18 second drought, the Phoenix got a layup from senior Samantha Richards to pull within 8-7 after one quarter.
The Capers held the lead most of the second period, but really should have been up by more, as they missed several good layups.
After Hamblin hit a jumper to start the second quarter, giving Spruce Mountain a 9-8 lead, an old-fashioned three-point play from Harvey put Cape Elizabeth on top. Sawyer added a jumper (taking an inbounds pass from Braxton before finishing), Braxton made a free throw, Bowe put home a miss and Harvey added a foul sot for a 17-9 advantage.
After lying dormant most of the half, the Phoenix’s offense finally came alive in the final seconds, as a finger roll off the glass by Hamblin ended a 7:29 drought and a layup from Keene as time wound down made it just a 17-13 Capers’ lead at the break.
Cape Elizabeth lamented a missed opportunity, as it should have had a healthier advantage.
“It was very frustrating,” Braxton said. “I myself missed some layups. Our offense wasn’t as good as it should have been. Defense is what did it for us.”
“Being up four at halftime, we should have been up 14, but that reinforced that we could play with them,” Casterella said. “We missed layups and free throws. A ton.”
Spruce Mountain then retook the lead in the third period.
After Keene made a free throw, senior Kailee Newcomb did the same. Bowe answered with a foul shot and Tinsman took a pass from Harvey and made a layup to make it 20-15.
“Getting to 20 from 17 took forever,” said Casterella. “I said to my assistant, ‘the first team to 30 is going to win.'”
The lead didn’t last, however, as Spruce Mountain sophomore Alexis Bessey made two foul shots, Castonguay buried a 3 and inside the final minute, Castonguay hit another 3-ball for a three-point lead. A driving layup from Bowe ended the Phoenix’s 8-0 run and a 5:06 drought, but Cape Elizabeth was behind, 23-22, with eight minutes to go.
A free throw from junior Emily Hogan pushed Spruce Mountain’s lead to two, but a driving layup from Braxton tied the game at 24-24 with 7:31 to play.
A left-handed hook shot from Richards gave the Phoenix the lead again, but with 5:43 to go, a Bowe leaner made it 26-26.
Hamblin hit a jumper for Spruce Mountain, but with 4:53 remaining, Tinsman hit a clutch jumper to tie the game for the final time, 28-28.
A free throw from Newcomb with 3:55 left gave the Phoenix their final lead.
At the other end, the Capers got the biggest hoop of the game, as Braxton up top spotted Sawyer open on the right side and Sawyer calmly buried a 3 for a 31-29 advantage.
“The rest of the team did an awesome job passing the ball around,” Sawyer said. “That’s something we’ve been focusing on, passing to break down their defense, which was awesome. I just happened to be open. I just shot. I don’t really think after I shoot. It just kind of happens, but it felt good.”
“We keep passing to her because that’s her shot,” Braxton said. “I knew she’d put one in eventually. That was awesome for her.”
“(Hannah’s) absolutely my best shooter,” Casterella added. “She’ll be in the record books at Cape for 3-point shooting. I was getting on her all game for not being on her toes. When she hit that 3, she got her legs under her. That was a huge, huge bucket for us.”
With 2:32 to go, Hamblin was fouled and made her first free throw, but missed the second.
Spruce Mountain would have another chance to go ahead, but twice Sawyer, despite playing with four fouls, blocked Richards’ shots to keep Cape Elizabeth on top.
“Those were risky blocks, but I just tried my best to keep my hand on the ball and not reach,” Sawyer said.
“There was a fear of her picking up her fifth foul, but I wasn’t going to lose with her on the bench,” Casterella said. “She was a huge bright spot for us. She was smart and she made it through the rest of the game without fouling. She gets in good position. Those were just clean blocks that were huge for us.”
The Capers then ran over a minute off the clock, nearly turning the ball over three separate times before Braxton was fouled with 13.7 seconds showing.
Braxton drained her first free throw to make it 32-30.
“I was focused,” said Braxton. “I felt the entire game I hadn’t played well, so I felt it was time to redeem myself. I blocked everything out and tried to make it.”
The second free throw was just off target, however, and Richards got the rebound, giving the Phoenix a final chance.
Hamblin would try to tie it with a leaner, but the shot was not good. The rebound came to Sawyer, but she was off balance and fell down and travelled, giving the ball back to Spruce Mountain, but only 0.3 seconds remained.
Out of a timeout, the Phoenix only had time to try to set up a play where the ball was tipped in (there wasn’t time for a catch and shoot), but Braxton made it a moot point, when she got a hand on the inbounds pass and the horn sounded.
“Coach said, ‘OK Montana, you need to get a tip on this and everyone else, no stupid fouls,'” said Braxton. “I tipped it and everyone went crazy. That was awesome.”
“I was just trying to stay on my girl and focus on her and (Montana) tipped it,” Sawyer said. “It was an awesome feeling.”
Braxton rushed over to Casterella for a hug and the players mobbed each other, celebrating the 32-30 win, the program’s biggest victory since the first Clinton Administration.
“It feels amazing,” Braxton said. “They had a really good record and they’ve been consistently good in the past. We came in knowing we had to play well and if everything went our way and we executed, possibly we could pull it off. We came out strong and knew we could play with them, but I was nervous the whole entire game.”
“We came in believing we could make a game of this,” Casterella said. “We liked the matchup. I said we just had to be better than them on one day and we were. We scored the big basket when we needed it. We didn’t have a lot of great looks at the hoop, but the kids were persistent and persevered and got key rebounds to get shots.”
Bowe led the way in the scoring column with nine points. She also had 10 rebounds. Sawyer had seven points and was even more dominant on the glass, collecting 12 rebounds, while also blocking six shots. Harvey and Tinsman both had six points, while Braxton finished with four (to go with 10 boards, four steals and two blocks).
The Capers only made 5 of 11 free throws and turned the ball over 22 times, but still managed to spring the upset.
“It was our defense,” Casterella said. “It took me all season to come around to the fact that we needed to play zone defense. I finally accepted it and the girls did a phenomenal job. We don’t have a deep bench. I don’t play a lot of kids. We aren’t the quickest team. We didn’t want to give up transition points. During the season, we gave up a lot of easy baskets. We had to limit their ability to get those. The girls did a great job hustling back. They dug in.”
For Spruce Mountain, Hamblin had nine points, Castonguay six (to go with five rebounds), Richards four (to go with a team-high nine rebounds), Keene three, Barnes, Bessey and Newcomb two apiece and Hogan and Moore one each.
The Phoenix turned the ball over a dozen times and made 8 of 14 foul shots.
The last time Cape Elizabeth took part in a semifinal, it was held at the Augusta Civic Center, meaning Thursday will be the Capers’ first-ever contest at the erstwhile Cumberland County Civic Center.
Awaiting Cape Elizabeth will be a Lincoln Academy squad which was very impressive in its 50-40 upset win over No. 4 York in its quarterfinal Tuesday.
The teams don’t play in the regular season. The last playoff meeting was an epic, a 64-63 overtime victory for the Eagles in the 1996 Western B Final. Lincoln Academy also beat the Capers in the 1990 quarterfinals, while Cape Elizabeth won a prelim in 1994.
This time around, the Capers will look to make the most of an opportunity they’ve been seeking for a generation.
“We have to play better on offense and we have to stay consistent on defense,” said Braxton. “It won’t be easy whatsoever. We have to come to play.”
“It’s unbelievable,” Sawyer said. “I’m so happy to be a part of it. I’m so happy we can play another game. It will be a tough game, we’ll have to be ready to play. I’m just so happy we can live to see another day.”
“The goal was to make it to the playoffs,” Casterella added. “Then, it was make it to the Expo, because that’s the real tournament. Then it was, we have nothing to lose, let’s get to the Civic Center. Now, it’s why stop now?
“I know nothing about (Lincoln). They have big kids. It’ll be interesting. It’s uncharted territory for both of us. We’ll show up. Our game is our game. Take the good with the bad. We’re thrilled to be moving on. It’s huge for the girls. We’ll see what happens.”
Cape Elizabeth junior Carter Harvey goes up for a shot.
Cape Elizabeth junior Montana Braxton and Spruce Mountain senior Samantha Richards fight for possession.
Cape Elizabeth seniors Hannah Sawyer (20) and Ashley Tinsman defend Spruce Mountain senior Vanesa Barnes.
Cape Elizabeth’s student section enjoys itself during the victory.
Cape Elizabeth junior Montana Braxton goes up for a shot during the Capers’ 32-30 upset win over top-ranked Spruce Mountain in Tuesday’s Western Class B quarterfinal.
More photos below.
CE- 8 9 5 10- 32
SM- 7 6 10 7- 30
CE- Bowe 4-1-9, Sawyer 3-0-7, Harvey 2-2-6, Tinsman 3-0-6, Braxton 1-2-4
SM- Hamblin 4-1-9, Castonguay 2-0-6, Richards 2-0-4, Keene 1-1-3, Barnes 1-0-2, Bessey 0-2-2, Newcomb 0-2-2, Hogan 0-1-1, Moore 0-1-1
CE (1) Sawyer 1
SM (2) Castonguay 2