PORTLAND—Indiana Faithfull fronted the relentless defensive enterprise known as the Cheverus Stags boys’ basketball team as the Stags tossed another conference rival on the barbie and remained unbeaten in style with a revealing 80-46 victory over the defending Class A state champion Thornton Academy Trojans Tuesday night in the friendly confines of Keegan Gymnasium.
In a pivotal midseason showdown between two teams that entered the contest with identical 6-0 records, Cheverus (coming off yet another holiday tournament championship) delivered yet another message to the rest of the league with a dominating performance that in no way resembled the Trojans’ 47-41 upset in last year’s regional semifinal that ended the Stags’ season and 24-game win streak.
Faithfull, the Stags’ 6-foot-4 senior point guard, pocketed 10 steals in less than three quarters of action and generously shared his findings with slick passing in transition for easy buckets to help build a 16-7 lead after the first quarter and an 18-point halftime advantage. The Cheverus lead escalated to 30 with 34 seconds left in the third quarter and reached high water at 37 by the five-minute mark of the fourth.
“We all came to play tonight,” said Faithfull. “We started out with a lot of energy and it was just a good team effort. It’s a great win, but it’s not the big one. We definitely have a lot of room to get better but the intensity and effort is there.”
With a balanced offense paced by sharp-shooting senior Kyle Randall’s game-high 11 points, three other Stags posted double-digits and 12 scored at least one point. Junior Alex Furness hit a pair of 3-pointers on his way to 10 points, and junior forwards Griffin Brady and Peter Gwilym each added 10.
Faithfull and sophomore guard Louie DiStasio finished with eight apiece.
DiStasio swished a 3-pointer for the Stags’ first points and first lead of the game and sank a pair of foul shots in the center of a 10-0 run that broke a 4-4 tie three full minutes into the game. The final hoop in the decisive run that ended with an early 14-4 cushion for Cheverus came when Faithfull crossed over on Thornton Academy junior guard James Ek and finished a crafty scoop shot in the paint.
Gwilym, an exceptional football player in the fall, checked in midway through the first quarter like he just broke huddle and picked up two offensive player control fouls in less than two minutes – though he did take a charge in between – then eventually won out with his hustling play and put together perhaps his best game to date for the Stags, at least on the hardwood. Cheverus coach Bob Brown referred to Gwilym as the “greatest competitor I’ve ever coached on any level,” high praise indeed from the most respected coach in all of Maine basketball.
Cheverus led 39-21 at intermission and outscored the Trojans 21-11 in the third quarter before Brown summoned his reserves in firm control, 60-32, to begin the fourth.
Gwilym’s third quarter 3 gave the Stags’ their biggest lead of the game at 25 and his foul shot with 30 seconds left in the quarter put Cheverus on top by 30 points, an even 60-30, before the Trojans hit a pair of free throws with 11 seconds left for a 28-point lead to end the third.
“Thornton Academy is a good team,” said Gwilym. “We were able to take them out of what they wanted to do with defense. That’s what this we’re all about it. It always starts with our defense. We have no hard feelings about last year. With two undefeated teams this was a big game in its own right.”
Thornton Academy junior Andrew Shaw recorded a team-high 10 points. Ek, a Portland High transfer, finished with eight points. Senior captain Tomas Littlefield also added eight.
Despite struggling to advance the ball up court against the Cheverus press and even more problems against its halfcourt matchup zone, the Trojans were downright efficient at the foul line, hitting an impressive 22 of 26 attempts. Thornton Academy scored a total of 14 points in the fourth quarter, nine from the stripe, when junior guard Corbett Smith went 8-for-10 from the line and senior Tyler Tanguay netted 1 of 2.
“Part of our ability to play defense is Indy (Faithfull) putting a lot of pressure on the ball handler,” said Brown. “But we also did a good job of closing down passing lanes to the wing against one of the better teams in the league. Thornton Academy is very well coached and I expected this to go right down to the wire. There wasn’t one thing I thought stood out for us. We did everything well and played unselfish basketball. I’m certainly pleased with the effort. I like the fact that we are all on the same page. You’ll never see one of our guys taking any time off and that’s the mark of a good team.”
The Stags now replace Thornton Academy (6-1) as the top-ranked team in the Southern Maine Activities Association with their fourth victory of 34 or more points in seven consecutive wins. Cheverus boasts the league’s top-scoring offense, averaging 74 points-per-game, while also leading the league in average points allowed, 40. After knocking off the Trojans, only South Portland remains unbeaten, also at 7-0, in the 16-team league. The Stags will play five times, including on Jan. 18 at home against Biddeford to replace the scheduled date of Jan. 2 postponed for snow, before hosting the Red Riots on Friday night, Jan. 22.
South Portland has managed to stay afloat despite the absence of senior guard Keegan Hyland. Widely considered the state’s top player, Hyland led the league in scoring each of the last two seasons, and could return from a series of injuries that ultimately led to a fractured bone in his left hip as early as this Thursday night at Deering (6-1). In any event, Hyland will most certainly be back on the floor in time for the first of two meetings with Cheverus, setting the stage for what should prove to be one of the better individual matchups in recent memory when he squares up against Faithfull.
The outcome of Hyland, the most prolific scorer in South Portland history, dealing with Faithfull’s tenacious, ball-hawking brand of defense, has the potential to be a significant factor come tournament time. The Stags will travel to South Portland in early February for the regular season finale for both teams.
Cheverus welcomes the Bonny Eagle Scots (4-3) at 7 p.m. Thursday, then travels to Scarborough (4-3) Saturday for a rare 1 p.m. tipoff to close out a three-game week of action.