SACO—Arguably the two best boys’ basketball teams in Western Class A, winners of the past three state championships, met for the lone time in the regular season Tuesday evening.
When all was said and done, it was the defending champion Stags of Cheverus who earned bragging rights, demonstrating once again how team depth, balance and poise can carry the day.
The Stags led virtually the whole way, pulled away late and improved to 7-0, handing Thornton Academy (5-2) its second successive defeat, 52-37.
“Everybody that came in tonight did something well,” said Cheverus coach Bob Brown. “It’s fun. We’ll go home tonight feeling we had a hell of a game.”
Cheverus has been the dominant Western A program in recent years, but the one team able to go toe-to-toe with the Stags has been Thornton Academy.
In 2008, the Golden Trojans went to Keegan Gymnasium and won by 12, but in the rematch, in the regional final, Cheverus enjoyed a 40-31 triumph and went on to defeat Bangor in the state game.
Two years ago, the Stags won in Saco, 57-48, during an undefeated regular campaign, but in the semifinals, Cheverus’ run was brought to a sudden and stunning half when Thornton Academy stunned the Stags, 47-41, en route to its first and only championship.
Last winter, Cheverus pounded the Golden Trojans in the regular season, 80-46.
Both teams have impressed in 2010-11.
The Stags opened by suggesting that they’d have no peer this winter, pummeling Noble, 102-29, but the team has proved mortal since, although Cheverus found a way to prevail each time out. Following the Noble game, the Stags downed host Westbrook (52-35), held off a slowdown-minded Kennebunk squad (31-25) and beat host Portland (49-28), host Windham (45-35) and visiting Massabesic (80-27).
Thornton Academy, meanwhile, entered the campaign stinging after losing to Windham in last year’s quarterfinals. The Golden Trojans won their first five games this winter, at Portland (57-53), over visiting Kennebunk (64-45), Gorham (83-50), Bonny Eagle (63-58) and at Sanford (70-54). Friday, Thornton Academy didn’t play or shoot well at Deering and went down to defeat for the first time, 50-48.
Tuesday’s game was close for three-and-a-half quarters, but in the end, the champions had too much.
Thornton Academy senior Andrew Shaw got the scoring started just 18 seconds in when he buried a 3-ball. After the visitors got on the board on a layup from senior Connor O’Neil, Golden Trojans senior Josh Woodward scored made a layup to give the hosts a 5-2 advantage.
That proved to be their highwater mark.
Cheverus then went on a 12-2 run to take the lead for good.
After junior Cam Olson made a bank shot, a turnaround shot from 6-foot-9 sophomore Matt Cimino put the Stags ahead to stay. Junior Louie DiStasio followed with a layup for an 8-5 lead.
After Woodward made a couple foul shots to pull Thornton Academy back within a point, 8-7, Olson made two free throws, Shawn Grover scored on a hook shot, then 11 seconds later, the up-and-coming junior slammed the ball home after a turnover for a 14-7 lead.
A pair of free throws from sophomore Eric Christensen pulled the Golden Trojans back to 14-9 after one period, but Cheverus had survived an early flurry and had imposed its will.
“(Thornton’s the premier team in southern Maine, York County,” said Brown. “They have a lot of talent, they’re well coached, they play excellent defense and they’re very physical. I think they got us early and their shots went in early.”
The game remained close in the second quarter.
An early 3-pointer from junior Justin Pollard made it a two-point game, 14-12, but the Stags again got some breathing room when senior Nick Burns hit a long jumper, Olson scored on a leaner and DiStasio made a layup for a 20-12 advantage.
The hosts stemmed the tide behind a Shaw 3-ball, but Grover made two foul shots. With 1:29 to go before halftime, Shaw made another 3-pointer, but Cheverus went into the locker room up, 22-18, as seven different players scored at least two points.
As was the case in the second period, Thornton Academy threatened to go ahead early in the third, but could never overcome its deficit. A putback by sophomore Adam Ek made it a 22-20 contest 30 seconds into the second half, but Olson made a bank shot, Cimino stepped back and buried a 3 and DiStasio hit a baseline jumper for a 29-20 lead.
After Shaw ended the 7-0 run with two free throws, Grover made a free throw. At the other end, Golden Trojans senior sharpshooter James Ek scored his lone two points of the night (at the line). Olson answered with two free throws for a 32-24 lead. After Shaw hit two foul shots and Woodward made a layup to make it a four-point game, Grover hit two free throws and DiStasio buried a jump shot for a 36-28 Cheverus lead with eight minutes to play.
In the fourth, the Stags put the game away.
First, the Golden Trojans twice pulled within six as Shaw made two free throws (before O’Neil answered with a layup) and Woodward took a pretty pass from Adam Ek and converted a layup, but with the score 38-32 and just under five minutes to go, Cheverus demonstrated once again why it’s the champion.
Over the next four-plus minutes, the Stags embarked on a 12-0 run to end all doubt.
First, senior Peter Gwilym, a senior who’s earned acclaim on the gridiron after leading Cheverus to a championship in November, scored on a layup with 4:35 to play. Twenty-nine seconds later, he made another to stretch the lead to 10, 42-32.
After Cimino made a layup, Gwilym scored once more in close for a commanding 46-32 lead with 2:04 to go.
“Everything starts with the defense,” said Olson. “We converted that to offense and it led to scores.”
“I don’t think our defense got a whole lot better, we just wore them down,” said Brown. “We have a lot of players. We were fresher. Gwilym had to sit out with four fouls. I put him back in and he made several plays in a row that were energy plays. He has an unbelievable knack of knowing where the ball is. He comes up with balls when everyone else is done playing. One of the things he does better than most other kids I’ve had, it doesn’t matter which foot he goes off of, he’s able to adjust his body in the air and shoot with either hand, depending on which is closer. I’d love to say I taught him that, but I didn’t.”
Two free throws from O’Neil, followed by two more O’Neil foul shots capped the run and made it 50-32. After Pollard ended a 4 minute, 51 second drought with a 3-ball, Burns hit two free throws. With 32.5 seconds left, senior Alex Newton made two foul shots for the hosts to account for the 52-37 final score.
“We did our offense and we stuck to our gameplan,” Olson said. “They came at us with everything they had, but we stuck with it and in the end it worked. We’ve always had a rivalry with them. We expected them to play good and they did, but we were ready.”
Thornton Academy was led by Shaw’s 15 points, which is below his average.
“(Shaw) made some shots early, but coach told us to keep our hand above the ball,” Olson said. “After awhile, he got tired.”
Pollard added eight points for the Golden Trojans, Woodward had six and Christensen, both Eks and Newton all had two points.
Cheverus had eight scorers, paced by Grover, who had 11 points. DiStasio, Olson and O’Neil all added eight, Cimino finished with seven, Burns and Gwilym four apiece and Savino two.
“Coach stresses that everyone has a part on the team and no matter who plays, they get the job done,” Olson said.
“Everyone made plays,” added Brown. “I don’t know who was an outstanding player for us. Everyone did something at different times. Joe Savino did a nice job. Cam made some plays that were tough. The big kid stepped back and made a nice 3 from the top of the key.”
Big games to come
Thornton Academy is back in action Thursday at home versus impressive Scarborough. Saturday, the Golden Trojans host another pleasant surprise, South Portland.
Cheverus, meanwhile, has its share of tests upcoming. The Stags are at Bonny Eagle Thursday and host Scarborough in a rematch of last year’s quarterfinals Saturday. The weekend of Jan. 21-22, Cheverus has back-to-back home games versus city rivals Portland and Deering. The Stags still have games at Deering and South Portland and a home test with the Red Riots before all is said and done, meaning Cheverus still has a long way to go before it can start thinking about defending its title.
“It feels great, but we have to go back and work and have more good games,” Olson said. “It’s a big win, but we have to put it behind us. We need to become more of a team. We’re almost there, but we need to keep playing hard and ensure we do the right things. We can’t wait for the challenge. We’ll do our best.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Cheverus senior Joseph Savino comes to a jump stop as he’s defended by Thornton Academy senior Corbett Smith.
Cheverus junior Louie DiStasio leans in as he attempts a shot while defended by Thornton Academy senior Josh Woodward.
Cheverus sophomore Matthew Cimino gets a hand up to defend against the drive of Thornton Academy senior James Ek. Ek, the league’s leading scorer, was held to two points on the night.
Cheverus senior Connor O’Neil drives to the hoop while being defended by Thornton Academy senior Corbett Smith.
Cheverus junior Cameron Olson goes up for a shot over Thornton Academy senior Andrew Shaw.
Cheverus junior Shawn Grover elevates for a dunk during Tuesday night’s game against Thornton Academy. The Stags undefeated with a 52-37 victory.
More photos below.