PORTLAND—A season of triumph and promise ended in utter agony Monday evening at the Portland Exposition Building.
The Cheverus girls’ basketball team posted a program record for victories and created plenty of excitement along the way, but with a first-ever postseason triumph there for the taking against Sanford in a Western Class A quarterfinal, the Stags simply couldn’t make the clutch plays down the stretch.
Cheverus, which led 13-6 after one quarter, went down by seven at halftime before rallying to take the briefest of one-point leads midway through the fourth quarter. The fifth-seeded Redskins went on top with 3:39 to go on a layup from sophomore Heather LeBlanc, extended the lead to four on senior Shae Riley’s three-point play and fended off challenges from the No. 4 Stags in the waning moments to hold on for a 45-42 victory.
Sanford senior Lindsay Nolette drained five 3-pointers, had 17 points and a pivotal steal in the final minute to help the Redskins improve to 15-4 and advance to a semifinal round date with top-ranked Deering (18-1) Friday at 6 p.m., at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
“Going into the 4-5 game, you never know,” said Sanford coach Kristy Parent. “We grew confident over the week and put it together. It was back-and-forth, but down the stretch, we hit some key foul shots, Shae Riley made that huge 3-point play and our defense was huge, so here we are.”
Cheverus, left to lament what-if, finishes 14-5.
“I just told the girls not to hang their heads,” said Stags coach Richie Ashley. “The ball just didn’t bounce our way. That’s the story of life sometimes.”
Down to the wire
Cheverus, which made it to the quarterfinals a year ago before losing to Biddeford, 45-38, entered the season as one of the favorites, along with city rivals Deering and McAuley, but the Stags went 0-3 against those teams and also lost at Gorham to wind up 14-4. Cheverus fell at home to Deering, 56-44, at home to McAuley, 45-42, and lost at the Lions, 58-39.
Sanford, which couldn’t get out of the preliminary round a year ago, had another superb season under the underappreciated Parent, now in her 10th season, losing only to top seeds Deering, McAuley and Cheverus, along with Windham.
Cheverus just edged Sanford, 50-47, at home Feb. 5. The teams had no playoff history. Cheverus was seeking its first postseason win after losing to Marshwood in the 2008 preliminary round, McAuley in a 2009 prelim and to Biddeford a year ago.
Monday, the Stags came out confident and sizzling, but couldn’t sustain it.
A steal and jumper from sophomore Brooke Flaherty got things started. The Redskins answered with a layup from senior Taylor Flood and a Flood putback, but Flaherty, after grabbing two offensive rebounds, was fouled and sank two free throws to tie it.
With 4:34 to play in the eight-minute first period, junior Morgan Cahill put Cheverus ahead with a layup. Junior Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy added a 3 before Flood went coast-to-coast for a layup. A hook shot from Flaherty and a leander from senior Britni Mikulanecz made it 13-6, forcing Parent to call a timeout.
The Stags (who didn’t turn the ball over a single time in the first eight minutes) took the lead to the second quarter and were undone by turnovers and foul trouble.
Thirty-eight seconds in, Sanford ended a 3 minute, 57 second drought when Riley buried a shot from just inside the 3-point stripe. With 6:35 to play in the half, LeBlanc induced Mikulanecz’s third foul and made one of two free throws. The next time down, LeBlanc made a layup to make it 13-11.
Cheverus got a leaner from Cahill, but senior Lindsay Nolette sank a 3 and Flood made a layup after a steal to put the Redskins back on top. After Riley grabbed an offensive rebound and made a circus scoop shot, Ashley called timeout.
“When Britni went down with three fouls, that really hurt,” Ashley said. “Athletically and in terms of poise and being able to matchup with (Sanford’s) guards.”
The Stags responded as sophomore Kylie Libby fed classmate Mikayla Mayberry for a layup. After senior Crysta Wilson made a jumper for Sanford, Flaherty brought Cheverus within a point with a leaner. Redskins sopohomore Samantha Adams and Libby traded free throws, but Nolette buried back-to-back 3s to give Sanford a 27-20 bulge at the break.
“Nolette hit shots,” Ashley said. “She had a great game. Very composed. We missed a lot of good shots too. That’s a credit to (Sanford’s) defense. We couldn’t buy a shot. If we hit one, the game would have changed.”
After avoiding a turnover in the first quarter, the Stags had five in the second, while Sanford didn’t have any.
“Defensively, we got key stops and transition baskets,” Parent said. “We got momentum going into halftime.”
The Stags answered in the third.
After Cahill made two free throws, LeBlanc answered with a bank shot. Cahill took a pass from Mikulanecz (who returned at the start of the period) to cut the deficit to 29-24, but Nolette stepped back and sank a 3. After Flaherty made a jumper, Palazzi-Leahy fed Cahill for a layup to cut the deficit to four. Flood answered with a pullup jumper, but at the other end, Mikulanecz set up Cahill for another layup to make it 34-30.
“We said the ball had to go inside to Morgan and Brooke,” Ashley said. “We started to do good things.”
Cahill made a free throw after LeBlanc picked up her third foul.
That forced Parent to go zone and Cahill would score just two points the rest of the way.
“We changed to the zone because LeBlanc got in foul trouble,” Parent said. “LeBlanc played great on Cahill. We put it in this week and it worked for us.”
Nolette answered with a free throw before Flaherty fed Cahill for a layup. Before the quarter ended, both Mikulanecz and Libby had chances to put Cheverus on top from beyond the 3-point stripe, but failed to knock down open looks.
The game then came down to the wire.
First, Nolette made it 38-33 with yet another 3, but Libby scored on a putback, Mikulanecz made two foul shots after a steal and with 4:51 to go, Flaherty managed to make a turnaround despite a tremendous degree of difficulty to give Cheverus a 39-38 advantage, its first since 15-14.
It lasted only 48 seconds, as LeBlanc made a layup. With 3:07 to go, Riley converted an old-fashioned three-point play to put the Stags on the brink, but after Palazzi-Leahy missed a layup, Mikulanecz drained a 3 with 1:16 showing to cut the deficit to 43-42.
After Sanford ran down the clock for nearly 40 seconds, LeBlanc broke free for a layup and had to be fouled by Flaherty. With 36.8 seconds to go, she made the first attempt and missed the second.
Cheverus came down and looked to tie or go up, but Palazzi-Leahy had the ball ripped away by Nolette, who was fouled by Mikulanecz (her fifth).
“I was trying to play defense,” Nolette said. “I’ve played defense against Taylor Flood in practice all year. She’s much quicker than I am, so it’s always a struggle to keep up. It finally paid off. It was the most exciting moment.”
“We tried to run something, but when Britni’s not in there, it’s tough,” said Ashley. “The ball got stolen.”
Shooting a one-and-one, Nolette calmly sank the first shot.
“I was thinking, ‘Don’t miss these,'” Nolette said. “It helped.”
She missed the second attempt, however, giving the Stags one final chance.
Palazzi-Leahy raced down hoping for a 3, but was smothered defensively. She passed to Cahill who shot with just over a second to go (it only would have cut the deficit to one) and it was short.
“I’m not sure we recognized the score at the end,” Ashley said. “Things were hectic.”
Just like that, Cheverus’ best season to date was over.
Sanford 45 Cheverus 42.
“This is so exciting,” Nolette said. “It’s the best game we’ve played collectively as a team. It feels amazing. It was adrenaline. We came out as a team. We practiced all week as a team. We focused on shutting down their big girl. It was defense first. We worked really hard, got turnovers and that led to fastbreak layups. We trust each other.”
“We had opportunities when we played the first time,” Parent added. “There’s not much in life we can do over. We had that opportunity. We talked a lot this week about how to handle those situations down the stretch and we did it. We’re seniors and as the season went on we gained momentum in that sense and experience. As a coach, you hope to learn lessons.”
Nolette, who didn’t score in the first quarter, wound up with a game-high 17 points, highlighted by her five 3-pointers. She also had four rebounds and the game-changing steal.
“I just kept shooting,” said Nolette. “Shooters just keep shooting the ball no matter what. It’s such a big step for us. We’re so excited.”
“Nolette was huge for us,” Parent said. “She’s very confident, especially in clutch situations. She kept shooting and good shooters do that.”
Flood added 10 points, six boards and two steals, LeBlanc had eight points, three rebounds, a steal and a block, Riley finished with seven points, four boards and two steals, Wilson added two (and six rebounds) and Adams one (along with five rebounds and a block). The Redskins only managed to make 5 of 15 free throws, but still held on. They turned the ball over 10 times.
Sanford is eager to take on Deering (which barely survived No. 9 Bonny Eagle, 37-30, in its quarterfinal Monday). The teams met way back on Dec. 14 in Portland (a 47-30 Rams’ victory in the Redskins’ opener).
The teams have met in the postseason in the 1989 semifinals (Rams, 67-66, in double overtime), the 2003 quarterfinals (Deering, 44-33), 2005 quarterfinals (Sanford, 52-41) and 2006 semis (Redskins, 42-30).
Sanford’s playing with house money and is looking forward to trying to spring another upset, but the Redskins know it won’t be easy.
“We’re going to work on focusing on (Deering senior standout Kayla Burchill), obviously,” Nolette said. “We’ll keep working as a team and going hard. I personally haven’t had much playoff success.”
“Deering’s a great team,” Parent added. “It’s an opportunity we didn’t have yesterday. We had them in the opener. We’re a better team now, but they are too.”
Cheverus got a team-high 15 points, along with 10 rebounds and two blocks, from Cahill. Flaherty dazzled with 12 points, six boards and two steals. Mikulanecz bowed out with seven points, three steals and two rebounds. Libby (who had 11 rebounds) and Palazzi-Leahy had three points apiece. The Stags made 8 of 10 foul shots and turned the ball over on nine occasions.
Cheverus had a solid season by any measure, but still has a couple of albratrosses to deal with. The Stags had three cracks at their city rivals, Deering and McAuley (both of whom they’ve never beaten), this winter and went 0-for-3, with just one game coming down to the wire. They’re still seeking their initial playoff win as well.
“I thanked Britni for her hard work, I thought she added a lot,” Ashley said. “Without her, we might not have had nine wins. I thanked the rest of the girls for their hard work and for being good kids. The kids care more about their teammates than themselves. They were upset, but they worked hard. I thought we had a good season. I hope this lights a fire for later on.”
Rest assured, this program will keep banging at the door. Cheverus only loses Mikulanecz and has more underclassmen talent than anyone. The sting of this loss can only help drive the Stags forward.
“Each year we have to try to do something we haven’t done,” Ashley said. “Our point guard started every game, our two big girls are back inside and we have Alexandra and pretty much everyone else back. We still have a lot of work to do. We have to continue to get better at the little things. We have to get bigger and stronger. Sanford looked like seniors out there and we looked like underclassmen.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @foresports