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PORTLAND — If there was any doubt as to the identity of the best boys’ basketball team in the city of Portland, the Cheverus Stags squashed it like a grape like last week.
The Stags remained undefeated, retained the top spot in the Western Class A Heal Points standings and showed that the road to the regional crown will have to go through them after drubbing host Deering, 72-42, and Portland, 58-41.
Cheverus won the 2008 Class A championship and appeared bound for a repeat last winter. But after an undefeated regular season and a tougher than expected quarterfinal round win over Biddeford, the Stags were upset by eventual state champion Thornton Academy in the semis.
After graduating Mick DiStasio, among others, and losing Lenny Cummings to Portland, some expected Cheverus to come back to the pack this winter, but the Stags remain the standard-bearer.
Heading into last week, Cheverus had only been tested once, a 50-48 home win over Westbrook way back on Dec. 8. The Stags have received balanced scoring and their typical smothering defense, something Deering discovered to its horror last Tuesday.
The Rams had hung tight with Cheverus for a half in the final of the holiday tournament (won 49-37 by the Stags), but this time, the outcome was decided almost immediately.
Cheverus junior Griffin Brady kicked off the party with a jump shot. Sophomore Louis DiStasio followed with a 3-pointer, Brady scored on a putback, senior Indiana Faithfull hit a 3, DiStasio followed with a jumper and with 1:15 to go, Brady buried a 3 from the left wing for a 15-0 lead.
The start had Deering coach Dan LeGage lamenting to his assistants that his team was going to get shut out for the quarter. But with 23.5 seconds left, senior Eddie Tirabassi finally got the Rams on the board with a putback. Then, with just one second left, in a fitting ending to the period, sophomore Cameron Olson tipped home Faithfull’s miss in impressive fashion to give the Stags a stunning and commanding 17-2 advantage.
“Coming out strong helped,” said DiStasio. “We just attacked harder. We sped their offense up, which I think hurt them. We try to do same thing for every team. We pressure, move the ball and do what we can.”
“There were some spectacular plays,” added Cheverus coach Bob Brown. “We played well together. To me, the beauty of the whole thing, was that we really played together. I think we were ready for what they were going to do. We didn’t panic. We had possessions and scored and it was (15-0). That really destroyed what they were trying to do.”
Things didn’t improve for the home team in the second.
After Olson started the period with a layup, Tirabassi answered with one of his own, but DiStasio hit a turnaround jumper, then, in transition, took a highlight-reel pass from Olson and made a layup while being fouled. He canned the 1-and-1, and the Stags had a 24-4 lead. A putback from junior Jamie Ross momentarily stemmed the tide, but DiStasio hit yet another 3 and Faithfull threaded the needle to set up junior Alex Furness for a layup and a 29-6 bulge.
“We just moved the ball well,” DiStasio said. “That was our plan. Indy did a good job moving it around and I just got open.”
Junior Riko Augustino sandwiched a pair of floaters around two foul shots from Cheverus junior Peter Gwilym to make it 31-10. After Gwilym made a layup, Tirabassi answered with a jumper. Brady then made a layup and Tirabassi did the same to make it 35-14 at halftime.
The Rams did not score back-to-back hoops at any point in the first 16 minutes.
Another Cheverus surge to start the third ended all drama and inspired LeGage to mutter, “This is a good, old-fashioned (beating).”
Brady got it started with a hook shot. Faithfull followed with a 3, then provided highlight-reel material again with a behind-the-back pass to Brady for a layup. After senior Dennis Ross made a layup for the hosts, Faithfull hit two foul shots and it was 44-16.
By quarter’s end, the Stags had a 51-22 lead and after a foul-plagued, reserve-heavy fourth period, Cheverus slammed the door on its 72-42 win.
“I thought we played well,” Brown said. “We had a lot of contributions. The kids feel good. They like to play with each other. There are no individual personalities. We play very good defense. Offensively, we play together. It’s a very good combination.”
DiStasio led all scorers with 19 points.
“Louie’s a guy who believes he’s good and he is good,” Brown said. “He’s not afraid to make mistakes and he makes plays. He loves to be on the floor, running up and down and playing basketball. He’s a sophomore in name only.”
Brady and Faithfull both added 13. Eleven different Stags scored.
Deering, which got 11 points from Tirabassi, rebounded Friday with a 72-35 home win over Noble (behind 21 points from Tirabassi and 20 from sophomore Jon Amabile). The Rams (8-3 and sixth in Western A) went to Westbrook Tuesday and visit Portland Friday.
Friday night’s win at Portland wasn’t ensured quite as quickly, but after a slow start, Cheverus seized control.
The Bulldogs shot to a 4-0 lead on layups from sophomore Will DeFanti and senior Joe Zukowski, but that would be the hosts’ high-water mark.
The Stags answered with a 3 from senior Kyle Randall, a 3 from DiStasio and a steal and a layup from Faithfull. After Portland forged an 8-8 tie on a jumper from Thok and a layup from Cummings, Cheverus closed the period on a 9-0 run. Another 3 from DiStasio put the visitors on top to stay, Furness converted an old-fashioned three-point play and DiStasio added one more 3 to make it 17-8 after eight minutes.
“We were up four-zip and were attempting to put a game plan together,” said Bulldogs coach Joe Russo. “We wanted to control the tempo, but we threw the ball away. Once they got ahead, we were scrambling. We played two minutes of basketball in the first half hoping it would carry us, but it won’t against a team like Cheverus.”
The Bulldogs got within seven points twice in the second period, but drew no closer. The Stags pushed their lead to 31-17 at the half and extended it to as many as 26, 45-19, in the third, before Portland made it respectable down the stretch, falling 58-41.
“I felt we played very well for about two-and-a-half periods and we stumbled around for the rest of it,” Brown said. “We’re very different from last year. We’re much quicker and longer. Last year’s team had a lot of integrity and was solid. We weren’t a pressing team much last year. We are more this year. We play a different, but very effective style of defense. I don’t change. I’m too old to change. Teams have had a hard time scoring on us.”
Cheverus displayed its balance once again as nine different players scored. DiStasio led the way with 16, Furness had 12 and Faithfull added nine.
“Indy’s getting 13 or 14 a game, but other people are scoring,” Brown said. “The thing that’s good right now is that people have found their niche. Whether it’s Kyle as an off guard, Louie running around at the wings, Furness inside, Griffin rebounding. I can easily go nine-deep and they all can play.”
Portland was led by a game-high 19 points from Thok. The Bulldogs, who were coming off an inspirational 56-49 upset win at previously unbeaten South Portland (Thok had 26 in that one), fell to 6-5 on the season (good for seventh in the latest Western A Heal Points standings).
“We played well against South Portland and I was hoping we’d carry that confidence tonight,” Russo said. “Playing a good team in our gym, I expected us to at least battle from the opening tip to the closing bell. I don’t think we competed and I don’t know why.”
Portland was at Bonny Eagle Tuesday and hosts Deering Friday night.
The Stags, meanwhile, are 11-0 and have a sizable lead in the Heals. Cheverus wasn’t able to win a state title after undefeated regular seasons in 2005 and last year, but aren’t planning to lose anytime soon this winter.
“Everyone always says you shouldn’t go undefeated, but after 50 years, I have no idea,” Brown said. “Westbrook gave us a heck of a game and could easily have beaten us. We still have to play South Portland. They’re a very good team. If they get Keegan (Hyland) back, they’re an extremely good team.”
The Stags were home with Biddeford Monday and have a home showdown with South Portland Friday.
Look for this train to keep on rolling.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]