PORTLAND—Entering the 2009-10 season, the Cheverus and Westbrook boys’ basketball teams were considered two of the best in Western Class A.
After Tuesday night’s showdown at Keegan Gymnasium, it’s pretty clear that not much separates them.
In an early-season contest that showcased the strengths and weaknesses of both squads, the Stags saved their best for last, riding a contested bank shot from senior standout Indiana Faithfull with 7 seconds left to take the lead, then getting a clutch defensive play from new junior Alex Furness to hold on for a 50-48 victory.
“(Westbrook’s) a great team,” said Faithfull, the Australian point guard extraordinaire. “For us to win this game early in the season shows a lot. We’ll definitely be a contender this year.”
Just getting started
Cheverus’ recent dominance has been well documented. The Stags won the 2008 Class A championship and were absolutely sensational last winter, going 18-0 in the regular season (including a decisive 60-44 triumph at Westbrook Jan. 19), but Cheverus went cold in the tournament and was upset by eventual champion Thornton Academy in the semifinals.
The Blue Blazes were a semifinalist as well in 2008-09 and were eliminated by Portland in the semifinals. This year’s team, led by senior standouts Dominic Borelli and Nich Jobin, could be something special.
Both teams won easily in their first outing. The Stags pummeled Noble, 80-35, while Westbrook was a 71-30 home winner over Kennebunk.
Tuesday, both teams came out cold, but came to life and produced quite a show in front of a surprisingly less-than-capacity crowd.
It took 2 minutes, 16 seconds for the ice to be broken on two foul shots from Furness. A minute later, Faithfull hit a foul shot to make it 3-0. The first field goal of the game came with 4:21 left in the first period when Blue Blazes senior Jose Nouchanthavong hinted at a huge night to come with a layup. After Faithfull scored on a rebound layup for a 5-2 advantage, Westbrook tied the game on a 3-ball from Borelli. A 3-pointer from junior Connor O’Neil and a layup from freshman Matt Cimino made it 10-5 in favor of the hosts, but Jobin scored after an offensive rebound and Borelli made two free throws to pull the Blue Blazes within one, 10-9. After O’Neill and junior Zach Gardiner traded hoops, Faithfull hit a 3-pointer with 2 seconds left to put Cheverus up 15-11 after one quarter.
When junior Griffin Brady made a layup, Furness scored on a second-chance layup and Brady made another shot in close, the hosts led 21-11 and appeared primed to run away, but with 5:09 left in the first half, Nouchanthavong was fouled by Faithfull (his third) and momentum began to shift.
Nouchanthavong hit two foul shots to end a 9-0 run and Jobin drained two free throws to pull Westbrook back within six, 21-15. After a layup by sophomore Louie DiStasio made it 23-15, Nouchanthavong stole a pass and went in for a layup, then, on the next Cheverus possession, did it again and was fouled on the play and made the free throw to pull the Blue Blazes within three, 23-20, with 2:02 left in the half. A 3-ball from O’Neil restored order momentarily, but Borelli made a layup and Jobin cleaned up a missed shot and made a layup to make it a 26-24 game at the break as Westbrook closed on a 13-5 run.
“Having Indy and Louie on the bench took away a lot of what we can do, especially on defense,” lamented Cheverus coach Bob Brown. “(Indy) hurts us as much on the defensive end by not being there as offensively.”
The third period would feature five lead changes. An old-fashioned three-point play by Borelli gave Westbrook its first advantage, 27-26, just 25 seconds into the second half. After Brady made a free throw to pull his team even, senior Andrew Beckwith made a layup to put the Blue Blazes up two, 29-27. Senior Kyle Randall buried a 3 to put Cheverus back on top, 30-29, but Nouchanthavong answered with a layup for a 31-30 advantage.
With 5:21 left in the third, Randall hit a second 3-ball and 26 seconds later, Brady made a layup after an offensive board for a 35-31 lead. With 4:19 left, Faithfull hit a runner to make it 37-31, but Westbrook answered with a 3-ball from junior Sean Murphy, a layup from Jobin, a layup from Beckwith and a layup after a steal from Jobin for a 40-37 advantage. With time expiring in the third, Faithfull drove to the hope and drew a disputed foul from Murphy. He then made one of two foul shots to make it a two-point game, 40-38, heading for the fourth period.
The Stags capped a 7-0 run when Furness and DiStasio hit 3s to start the fourth, pushing the lead to 44-40, but Borelli’s old-fashioned three-point play pulled the Blue Blazes back within a point, 44-43, with 5:08 to go.
Faithfull hinted at his heroics to come with a floater for a 46-43 lead, but Nouchanthavong answered with a 3 and the game was tied at 46-46 with 4:16 left.
Faithfull gave Cheverus a 48-46 advantage when he scored on a layup with 2:59 to go, but Borelli answered with a rebound layup 52 seconds later, making it 48-48. Moments later, Westbrook had a chance to go ahead, but Borelli rushed an off-target 3 and the Stags got the rebound with a minute-and-a-half to go and would hold for the last shot.
To the surprise of no one, the ball came to Faithfull and he drove toward his right (off-hand) side. Even though the Blue Blazes had a foul to give, they chose not to and despite being closely guarded, Faithfull floated up and banked home the shot that made it 50-48 with 7.0 seconds to go.
“We didn’t want to put the ball in their hands,” Faithfull said. “We wanted to make sure we got the last shot. It just happened I got a layup and luckily enough it went in. It was luck.”
“He took the shot before I wanted him to,” Brown added. “I wanted him to take it. His game has improved enough for him to stop and stick it as well as go by people.”
Westbrook still had plenty of time to answer, but after advancing the ball past halfcourt, Cheverus used its last non-shooting foul and with just over a second left, the Blue Blazes had to inbound just inside halfcourt. Furness would come up big, deflecting the ball back over to the Westbrook side where Borelli corralled it. His shot (which wouldn’t have counted since it came after the horn) was just off the mark and the Stags celebrated their 50-48 triumph.
“We have a young team,” said Faithfull (a team-high 15 points). “Obviously they have the top two big guys in the state. We lost a lot last year, but we play hard.”
“Alex is the longest kid I’ve got,” Brown said. “He deflected the ball.
“I thought we’d get physically pushed around since they’re bigger and stronger, but our kids didn’t back down. We’re tall, lean and lanky, but tonight, we also were tough.
“It was a good crowd, but it wasn’t packed. If it was January or February, you couldn’t get into this place. (Westbrook’s) a good basketball team. They have good size, talent, the whole nine yards. We didn’t destroy them on the press. Both teams pounded each other. I thought they’d be the best team.”
In addition to Faithfull’s 15 points, O’Neill had eight, Brady and Furness seven each, Randall six, DiStasio five and Cimino two.
Westbrook (1-1) was paced by Borelli’s 15 points. Nouchanthavong had a breakout game with 14. Jobin finished with 10, Beckwith had four, Murphy three and Gardiner two.
The Blue Blazes return to action Friday at home against dangerous Windham (in a rematch of last year’s quarterfinal).
The Stags (2-0) go to Kennebunk Friday, then face another stern test Tuesday when Portland comes calling.
“We have Portland Tuesday,” Brown said. “They’re small, but scrappy.”
Cheverus and Westbrook won’t meet again, unless they square off in the tournament.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com