PORTLAND—The first step toward a second successive Class A state championship was fraught with potholes for the Cheverus boys’ basketball team Friday night at the Portland Exposition Building, but the Stags found a way to survive and advance.
Against plucky, upset-minded No. 8-seed Marshwood, top-ranked Cheverus trailed after one period, found itself tied late in the third and couldn’t fully exhale until the waning moments.
A long jump shot from Louie DiStasio put the 19-0 Stags ahead to stay with 3:23 remaining in the third quarter and spearheaded a 12-3 run. Down the stretch, the champions turned to their unrivaled defense and made enough free throws to move on and set up a delicious semifinal round showdown versus resurgent No. 5 Portland (12-7) Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
The victory was Cheverus’ 23rd in a row.
“We knew (Marshwood would) come out tough and that they had nothing to lose and wanted the win big-time,” DiStasio said. “They played their hearts out. They came out strong and we knew they would.”
Getting it done
Cheverus won its second Class A state championship in three seasons last winter, holding off Edward Little in the final, 55-50.
Cheverus was barely tested this regular season, winning its 18 games by an average of 22 points, with only four being by 10 points or fewer. The Stags were at their best against the teams perceived to be their top competition, triumphing at Bonny Eagle, Deering, Portland, South Portland, Thornton Academy and Westbrook and downing the Bulldogs, Rams and Red Riots at home.
Marshwood had to defeat Noble, 61-47, in the regular season finale to earn the final spot. The Hawks have come light years from 2009-10, when they won just three of 18 games. Longtime Marshwood coach Mike Zamarchi once played for Cheverus coach Bob Brown at the University of Southern Maine.
“He’s one of the best coaches in the state,” Zamarchi said, of Brown. “Ever. We play the same style.”
The Stags beat visiting Marshwood, 57-40, back on Feb. 3. The teams’ last playoff meeting was an epic in the 2005 semifinals (a 47-46 Stags’ victory). They also went to OT in the 2004 semis (where Cheverus prevailed, 46-43), in the only other postseason game between the schools.
This time, the Stags would have a slightly easier time, but they were pushed nonetheless.
Neither team produced much offense in the first period and it was clear that the Hawks had come to play.
It took over three minutes for someone to score and Marshwood senior Adam Augulewicz did the honors, canning a 3-pointer. With 3:35 to play in the eight-minute first stanza, Cheverus finally broke the ice when sophomore Matt Cimino made a jumper. Senior Peter Gwilym followed with a putback to give the Stags their first lead, but a jump shot from junior Matt Crosby and a pair of foul shots from senior Addison Casey made it 7-4 Hawks. A layup after a pretty spin move from senior Griffin Brady pulled Cheverus back within one heading for the second period.
Action heated up there, but Marshwood wouldn’t go away.
A 3-ball from junior Jack Verill gave the Hawks their largest lead, 10-6, but DiStasio hit a jump shot, made a layup after a steal and junior Cam Olson made a layup to put the Stags up, 12-10. A Verrill layup tied the score, but Brady buried a 3. After Verrill made a pair of foul shots, Casey made one to tie the game anew, 15-15.
With 2:40 to play before halftime, DiStasio made two free throws. Senior Connor O’Neil and senior Joey Savino followed with layups to made it 21-15 Stags. After Crosby made two free throws, Cheverus junior Shawn Grover allowed his team to finish the half strong as he scored on a tip-in and a layup to make it 25-17 Stags at the break.
“Everyone’s excited about the tournament,” Brady said. “Some guys haven’t played in this atmosphere before. It was just a case of getting shots to fall.”
“The whole team stepped up,” said DiStasio. “Especially Shawn, when he came in, had a couple baskets and some good blocks and rebounds. That was big.”
Most on hand thought Cheverus would go on a third period run and slam the door, but to their credit, the Hawks refused to wilt.
A 3-ball from Verrill started the second half on a positive note for the underdogs. Verrill followed with a jump shot to cut the deficit to 25-22. DiStasio answered with a 3, but Crosby made a free throw, hit a 3 and with 4:17 to play in the third, hit a bank shot from a tough angle to shockingly tie the score at 28-28.
“We kept it close,” said Zamarchi. “I thought my kids played unbelievable and played hard. (The Stags) usually go on runs, but we held them. We got right back into it in the second half. I’m very proud of the kids.”
After a Cheverus timeout, DiStasio came through, hitting a long jumper (that Brown argued should have been a 3) to finally put the Stags ahead to stay. Savino followed with a 3 before two Augulewicz foul shots pulled the Hawks back to 33-30 heading for the final quarter.
There, Cheverus finally put the win away.
A layup by Brady and an O’Neil 3 pushed the lead to 38-30. After Casey made a foul shot for Marshwod, a Brady layup capped the 12-3 surge and made it 40-31 with 6:20 to play.
With 4:44 to go, Hawks senior Tyler Hickey made a layup, but 29 seconds later, DiStasio made a layup after a steal for a 42-33 advantage.
A pullup jumper from Crosby with 2:36 remaining (seconds after Verrill fouled out) was answered by two Brady free throws 12 seconds later. Marshwood got back to 44-38 on a Hickey 3 with 2 minutes to go, but after DiStasio broke the fullcourt press, he fed Brady for a layup and a 46-38 lead.
Savino made one free throw and DiStasio two to give the Stags their first double-digit lead, 49-38. After Casey sank two foul shots with 42.9 seconds left for the Hawks’ final points, DiStasio made one free throw and Gwilym two to bring down the curtain on the 52-40 triumph.
“(Marshwood’s) a good team,” Brady said. “They came out with fire in their belly, ready to play. Our shots weren’t falling. ”
DiStasio led all scorers with 16 points. He also had three rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot.
“A lot of times it’s just getting back into it,” DiStasio said. “We wanted to get back into the flow. Once we get it going, it’ll be fun.”
Brady was huge at both ends from start to finish, scoring 13, adding 10 rebounds, five blocks and a steal.
“I went after the ball every time,” Brady said. “I said to myself I was going to go after loose ball and I got every rebound in the second half except one.”
Savino finished with six points, O’Neil had five, Grover and Gwilym four each and Olson and Cimino two apiece. Late in the contest, Cimino left with an apparent knee injury. The hope is that he’ll be able to play in the next round.
The Stags had an off-shooting night from the field, made just 10 of 20 foul shot attempts and had to overcome 13 turnovers.
“We’re not shooting well,” lamented Brown.
The Hawks finished the year 10-9, but Zamarchi was thrilled with his team’s effort.
“It was a total team effort,” Zamarchi said. “The kids played their hearts out, especially the seniors.”
Marshwood got 12 points apiece from Crosby and Verrill (who also had four rebounds, three steals and a block). Casey had six points (and eight boards), Augulewicz five (along with five rebounds and three steals) and Hickey five.
The Hawks made 13 of 20 foul shots and turned the ball over 17 times, a relatively low number versus the Stags’ swarming defense.
“Going in, we knew about (Cheverus’) pressure, Zamarchi said. “They’re long and athletic. We handled the pressure pretty well.”
Marshwood graduates Augulewicz, Casey and Hickey, but should be back in the mix in 2011-12.
“We’ll build on this,” Zamarchi said. “We’ll have key guys back. The seniors went out the right way. We missed the playoffs last year and won three games. This year, we gave the best team in the state a great effort. We had nothing to lose. The kids knew that. There was a lot of pressure on (Cheverus). For us to be right there, I’m very happy.”
Civic Center city showdown
Next for Cheverus is Portland, which improved to 12-7 Friday with a dazzling 69-45 quarterfinal round win over South Portland.
The Stags had no trouble with the Bulldogs this year, winning, 49-28, at the Expo Dec. 23 and 70-43 at home Jan. 29. Cheverus has beaten Portland seven straight times dating to Feb. 5, 2008 (a 37-31 Bulldogs’ triumph at the Expo), but Portland is playing with house money and is as hot and confident as anyone.
“Portland will come out and be quick and they’re on a roll,” Brown said. “It’s almost like they’re impervious to everyone’s evaluation of them. They’re making plays. They’re very quick and that could be problematic.”
The teams have met 21 times in the postseason dating back to 1932, with the Bulldogs holding an 11-10 edge. The last meeting was in the 2008 semifinals, a 63-49 Cheverus victory.
“We expect Portland to come out strong like Marshwood did and we’ll have to play better than we did tonight,” DiStasio said.
“It’ll be a good game,” Brady added. “You can’t underestimate any team this time of year. Everyone wants the Gold Ball. For some of us, it’ll be easier. It’s a new atmosphere to play in. Overall, we’ll be fine.”
One note of interest, the Stags finished undefeated twice before under Brown (2005 and 2009), but failed to reach the state game each time. The program’s last perfect season came 30 years ago. Cheverus hasn’t repeated since 1981-82.
The semifinal round winner will play in the regional final Saturday at 9 p.m., at the Civic Center. The Class A state final is Saturday, March 5, at 7 p.m., at the Augusta Civic Center.