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PORTLAND—While its cloak of invincibility has vanished, at least for the time being, the Cheverus boys’ basketball team, the defending Class A state champion, continues to find a way to get the job done.
After a 16-point, 11-turnover first half Thursday evening, the Stags used their superb pressure defense to create offense in the second half and they gradually pulled away to defeat host Portland, 49-28, at the Portland Expo.
Senior Griffin Brady scored all nine of his team’s points in the first period and wound up with 17 overall, pacing a balanced attack, and Cheverus improved to 4-0 on the year, dropping the young and inexperienced Bulldogs to 1-3.
“The second half was better, more of what we wanted to do,” said Stags coach Bob Brown. “We moved the ball better.”
Cheverus lost just once a year ago en route to its second Class A championship in three seasons. The 2010-11 Stags got off to a dazzling start with a 102-29 pounding of Noble and a 52-35 victory at Westbrook, but last Friday, Cheverus had to rally late to avoid what could have been an epic upset and edge Kennebunk, 31-25.
Portland lost in last year’s quarterfinal round and has possibly the least experience of any team in coach Joe Russo’s long reign. The Bulldogs almost upset Thornton Academy in the opener (falling, 57-53), rolled at Noble. 62-49, then lost at Marshwood, 60-36.
The Stags entered the game winners of five straight over Portland, but it took awhile to assert control in this one.
In the early moments, it appeared as if Cheverus would romp as Brady put on a show.
First, he drained a 3-ball to break the ice 2 minutes, 11 seconds in. Twenty-six seconds later, he buried a shot just inside the 3-point stripe and with 4:11 remaining in the opening stanza, he scored on a putback for a 7-0 lead.
Sixteen seconds later, the Bulldogs finally got on the board when sharpshooting junior Mike Herrick made a floater. A minute later, Portland sophomore Nate Smart converted a rarely-seen four-point play, as he sank a 3-pointer from the left wing, was fouled and hit the free throw to cut the deficit to 7-6. Another Brady putback with 1:23 to go ended the first period scoring and gave the visitors a 9-6 advantage.
“Rebounds and putbacks worked,” Brady said. “I think I took most of the shots in the first quarter.”
In the opening eight minutes, the teams combined for 15 points and 15 turnovers.
The second quarter didn’t get much better if you were a fan of offense.
After Stags senior Peter Gwilym scored on a layup after a steal, Portland scored six straight to take its lone lead. First, junior Peter Donato made a jumper in the lane. Herrick sank two free throws and with 2:24 to go before halftime, Herrick made a layup to make it 12-11 Bulldogs.
With 49.5 seconds remaining in the half, Brady made a layup to put his team ahead to stay and with 10 seconds to go, sophomore Malcolm Smith buried a 3-ball to make it 16-12 at halftime.
The Stags forced 16 Portland turnovers in the first half, but due in part to 11 giveaways of their own, only managed to lead by four.
Cheverus was a new team in the third period and seized control for good.
After Portland got within two 14 seconds in on a hook shot from senior Matt McInnis, the Stags ran off 10 straight points.
A layup from sophomore Matt Cimino got it started. Senior Connor O’Neil sank a jumper, Cimino made another, O’Neil converted a layup after a steal and with 5:28 left in the third, Brady was fouled and made both free throws for a 26-14 bulge.
“We spread the floor and did a better job running the offense,” said Brady. “We reversed the ball. We didn’t do that in the first half. We were worried (Portland) was going to keep it close. Our defense was huge.”
A Herrick 3 ended the surge, but Cimino answered with a putback to make it 28-17.
After Herrick sank another 3-ball, junior Cam Olson converted an old-fashioned three-point play, Brady scored on a short hook and Olson made a pair of layups after steals to push the lead to 17, 37-20.
A reverse layup from Portland senior Dylan Goodman momentarily stemmed the tide, but Gwilym made a free throw to give the Stags a 38-22 lead heading for the fourth period.
“Our defense was the same both halves,” said Brown. “We had to stop playing one-pass and run the offense. We did a better job in the second half. “
In the fourth, Cheverus salted it away.
After Herrick hit a jumper to start the quarter, Cimino made a jump shot and Brady scored his 16th and 17th points on a putback. The Bulldogs got two points back when Goodman made two free throws after a technical foul, but O’Neil sank a 3, Gwilym made a free throw and O’Neil hit one after a Portland technical. In the final minute, senior Emmanuel Wani made two free throws for the Stags before Donato hit a jump shot to account for the 49-28 final score.
“I feel good that we did what we had to do,” Brown said.
Brady led the way with 17 points.
“Brady had a solid game,” said Brown.
O’Neil added eight points, Olson had seven, Cimino and Gwilym six apiece, Smith three and Wani two.
“Cam Olson was great off the bench,” Brown said. “Gwilym is coming off the bench now. He’s like the energizer bunny.”
For Portland, which wound up with 28 turnovers, Herrick had 14, good for half of the team’s 28 points. Donato, Goodman and Smart each added four, while McInnis finished with two.
“It was a nice first half, but the second half was not very nice,” Russo said. “I’m pleased with how we played good halfcourt defense. I’m not really pleased with how we took care of the ball against the press.”
Cheverus now holds an 86-83 all-time edge over the Bulldogs.
Both teams will take part in the Portland High Holiday Tournament next week at the Expo. On Tuesday, Portland faces Lake Region at 2 p.m. and Susan Wagner of New York at 6:30 p.m. Cheverus meets Scarborough at 3:30 p.m. and Transit Tech of New York at 8 p.m. Thursday, Cheverus plays Greely at 2 p.m.
The Bulldogs return to league action on Jan. 4, at Gorham.
“We have an inexperienced team,” Russo said. “We’ll work on a few things during the Christmas tournament.”
Cheverus is at Windham on Jan. 4 and knows it’s still a work in progress.
“It’s coming along,” Brady said. “We’re still getting better. We have a lot of newcomers and we’re still getting used to each other. We have to get the offense right and execute plays. People are gunning for us, but we play to win.”
“Right now, we’re not very good,” Brown added. “We only have one starter from last year (Brady) on the floor. Everyone else is learning to play. We hope to get better and be a good team by February. Everyone thought that we were ‘way up here (raises hand over head)’ and everyone else was ‘down here (lowers hand).’ I think now, people realize that everyone is ‘down here.'”
The Stags host Portland in the rematch Jan. 21.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com