SANFORD—While Thursday evening’s game at Sanford was far from pretty, the end result was a thing of beauty for the Cheverus girls’ basketball team.
The Stags started slowly, managing only two points in the first quarter, but they ultimately seized control behind a staunch defensive effort and the sharpshooting of junior Brooke Flaherty and went on to a 31-19 triumph, improving to 7-1 and even better, avenging an agonizing playoff loss from a year ago.
Flaherty scored a game-high 13 points and Cheverus allowed only eight field goals on the night as it continues to evolve into what might be a special team come February.
“This win was definitely a little sweeter,” said Flaherty.
Cheverus won a program record 14 games in 2010-11, but lost to Sanford in the quarterfinals, 45-42.
This winter, the Stags returned most of their top players (with the exception of graduated Britni Mikulanecz and Morgan Cahill, who transferred to Yarmouth). Cheverus won its first five games, downing Biddeford (68-28), Gorham (51-43), Portland (56-40), Westbrook (43-32) and Noble (52-18). Last Friday, however, the Stags were knocked from the unbeaten ranks, 59-49, at Marshwood. Tuesday, Cheverus bounced right back and held off visiting Bonny Eagle, 46-40.
Sanford was eliminated by Deering in the semifinals last year, 51-45, to finish 15-5 and entered the game with five victories in seven outings. The Redskins downed Bonny Eagle (39-37), Portland (49-31) and Gorham (41-38) before falling at home to Deering (38-32) and Marshwood (46-38). Sanford bounced back with victories over Kennebunk (31-18) and Noble (46-28).
Cheverus won the past two regular season meetings between the schools and Thursday, made it three straight, although it didn’t come easily.
The teams combined for 11 turnovers and just four points in the first period.
The Redskins broke the ice a minute, 18 seconds in when sophomore Morgan Fogg fed senior Maria Veino, who would pose problems all night, for a layup.
Sanford wouldn’t score again until well into the second quarter.
The Stags missed their first three field goal attempts, saw a couple foul shots go awry and gave the ball away four times before finally scoring on a play that would become commonplace as the evening progressed.
With 3:29 to go in the first, senior Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy, one of the league’s top shooting threats, passed to Flaherty at the right elbow and Flaherty calmly sank a jumper to tie the score.
That would be it until 10 seconds into the second quarter when Flaherty passed to sophomore Abby Maker for a layup.
“We weren’t running the offense as well as we hoped,” Flaherty said. “(Sanford’s) a strong, physical team and they play good defense. We knew we had to be physical. We always get everyone’s best game.”
“This is a tough place to play,” added Cheverus coach Richie Ashley. “(Sanford’s) very well coached. They play hard. They play excellent man-to-man defense. Probably one of the best in the league.”
With 5:37 left in the half, Sanford junior Taylor Littlefield got a leaner in the lane to drop, ending a 9 minute, 5 second drought.
The Redskins wouldn’t score another field goal until the second half.
With 5:32 remaining before halftime, Cheverus took the lead for good when junior Kylie Libby found Flaherty for a jump shot. Forty-five seconds later, Palazzi-Leahy sank a 3 and with 3:22 left in the half, sophomore Sadie Lyons set up sophomore Georgia Ford for a 3 and a 12-4 lead.
The hosts ended a 4:36 drought and the Stags’ 8-0 run when Fogg made a free throw with 1:01 remaining, but with 21 seconds to go, Libby banked home a shot to give Cheverus a 14-5 lead at the break.
Despite 12 turnovers and poor shooting, the Stags were in control, but they knew that Sanford wouldn’t quit.
Flaherty helped extend the lead when she started the second half with a turnaround jumper in the lane, then took a pass from Palazzi-Leahy and made a layup for an 18-5 lead.
“We’ve worked on coming off screens in practice,” Flaherty said. “My shots just kind of fell tonight.”
“We weren’t patient (in the first half),” said Ashley. “We were forcing shots. We were content to have two passes and a heave. When we were patient, we got layups and elbow jumpers.”
After the Redskins drew within nine on a layup from Veino and a Veino putback, Flaherty took a pass from Lyons and sank a jumper. The next time down the floor, Flaherty grabbed an offensive rebound, was fouled and sank the first free throw for a 21-9 lead.
Senior Allison Thomas added a foul shot, but Veino made a layup and Caron hit a bank shot to cut Cheverus’ lead to 22-13 entering the fourth period.
Any Sanford comeback hopes were dashed as Palazzi-Leahy hit a 3 and Libby scored on a putback to make it 27-13. After Veino made a free throw, Palazzi-Leahy made a layup after a steal to push the advantage to 29-14 with 3:13 to go.
With 2:47 left, Redskins junior Taylor Littlefield passed to classmate Samantha Adams for a layup, but one final time, Flaherty took a pass from Palazzi-Leahy and drained a jump shot.
In the final minute, Caron made a free throw and Veino hit a layup after a steal, but that was all she wrote and the Stags ran out the clock on their 31-19 triumph.
Flaherty not only led all scorers with 13 points. She also had six rebounds, a steal, assist and a blocked shot.
“Brooke’s been unbelievable,” Ashley said. “She’s almost like a point-center. She’s such an intelligent player. She’s a three-year starter, a junior captain. She has such good composure. She’s worked so hard on her game. She knows what she wants to do.”
Palazzi-Leahy added eight points and also grabbed three boards, dished out three assists and had a steal.
“Alexandra is very selfless,” Ashley said. “She just wants Cheverus to win.”
Libby was dominant at the defensive end, grabbing eight rebounds. She also had two steals, a block and an assist to go with her four points.
“Kylie’s long and active,” Ashley said. “She’s hard to guard.”
Ford (three points, two steals, two rebounds and a block), Maker (two points, three boards and a steal) and Lyons (one point, three rebounds and two assists) also scored and sophomore Mikayla Mayberry added five rebounds and a steal and Thomas had two boards and a steal.
“Georgia was really the key tonight in terms of guard play,” Ashley said. “She and Sadie stepped it up when our press bothered them in the third quarter and we made a run.”
Cheverus had a 32-21 edge in rebounds, but made just 2-of-8 free throws and turned the ball over 20 times.
“Things are still coming a little slow,” said Ashley. “We’re doing a few things differently this year. I’m taking what I learned from my time with (Cheverus boys’) coach Brown and what (longtime Biddeford girls’ coach and current Cheverus assistant) coach Cote brings. It’s not always pretty. It takes some time to jell.”
For Sanford, Veino impressed with 11 points, 13 rebounds, three steals and a block. Caron (three points), Adams (two), Littlefield (two) and Fogg (one) also scored. The Redskins made only 3-of-12 foul shots and committed 16 turnovers.
Sanford (now eighth in the latest Western Class A Heal Points standings) is back in action Tuesday at South Portland.
Cheverus (third in the Heals) will host undefeated and second-ranked Scarborough Tuesday. Three days later, the Stags go to Deering, seeking a first-ever victory over the Rams.
“We have a big stretch ahead,” Flaherty said. “I’m loving it. We’re a family. We say it before every game and in timeouts and we mean it.”
“It doesn’t get any easier,” Ashley added. “Since I’ve been coaching, this is the best overall that the league’s been. There are eight teams that can beat you. You’ve got to come ready to play every single night.”
C- 2 12 8 9- 31
S- 2 3 6 8- 19
C- Flaherty 6-1-13, Palazzi-Leahy 3-0-8, Libby 2-0-4, Ford 1-0-3, Maker 1-0-2, Lyons 0-1-1
S- Veino 5-1-11, Caron 1-1-3, Adams 1-0-2, Littlefield 1-0-2, Fogg 0-1-1
C (3) Palazzi-Leahy 2, Ford 1
C (32) Libby 8, Flaherty 6, Mayberry 5, Lyons, Maker, Palazzi-Leahy 3, Ford, Thomas 2
S (21) Veino 13, Cannon 3, Caron, King 2, Littlefield 1
CE (10) Ford 3, Libby 2, Flaherty, Maker, Mayberry, Palazzi-Leahy, Thomas 1
S (12) King, Veino 3, Cannon, Caron 2, Adams, Fogg 1
C (3) Flaherty, Ford, Libby 1
S (2) Cannon, Veino 1