BIDDEFORD—Wednesday afternoon at Biddeford High School, the Cheverus girls’ basketball team came of age.
Pushed the limit time and again by a tough and talented Tigers squad that was a regional finalist a year ago, the Stags rose to every challenge and eked out a stirring 56-55 overtime decision to improve to 7-1 on the season.
Cheverus couldn’t hold a 12-point third period lead and barely escaped in regulation when a last-second shot rimmed out, but the Stags never trailed in the extra session, taking the lead for good on freshman Brooke Flaherty’s short jumper before finally exhaling when a shot at the horn fell short.
“It’s a statement win, a wonderful win,” said Cheverus coach Richie Ashley. “This almost guarantees we’ll get in the playoffs if we take care of the teams we’re supposed to.”
The Stags have slowly climbed the competitive ladder in recent winters, reaching the preliminary round in each of the past two seasons, but this time around, Cheverus has higher aspirations and so far has been very impressive.
The Stags easily dispatched Noble, Westbrook, Kennebunk and Portland before suffering their lone loss, 46-39, at McAuley, in a rematch of last year’s postseason battle. Cheverus rebounded with a 53-50 victory at Windham, then won 62-35 over visiting Massabesic.
Biddeford won its first four games this season, then lost at Deering and fell 44-39 at home to undefeated Scarborough Monday.
Wednesday’s game started slowly, but turned into high drama.
The teams combined for just 14 points in the first period, as the Stags forced the Tigers to turn the ball over seven times.
Cheverus got three free throws and a layup from sophomore Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy and a putback from sophomore Allison Thomas for its points, while Biddeford relied on a leaner and a 3-ball from junior Keila Grigware and a layup from junior Amethyst Hersom to forge a 7-7 deadlock.
Play picked up in the second quarter.
The Tigers got a pair of layups from Hersom to go up 11-7, but Flaherty answered with a layup. After Grigware hit two foul shots, senior Aimee Michaud made a layup to give the hosts a 15-9 lead, but the Stags would rally and force a tie thanks to a layup from senior Hanna Lyons, a free throw apiece from Lyons and Palazzi-Leahy and a putback from omnipresent senior Theresa Hendrix.
Biddeford went back on top on a Hersom free throw, added a jumper from senior Jen Vadnais and made it 19-15 when sophomore Alyson Roy made a foul shot, but the hosts wouldn’t score again until the third period.
Cheverus closed the half on a 7-0 run. First, with 2:08 left before halftime, Palazzi-Leahy drained a 3-pointer, the Stags first non-layup or foul shot of the game. A minute later, Hendrix made two free throws to put the visitors on top and with 42 seconds left, freshman Mikayla Mayberry sank two foul shots for a 22-19 edge at the break.
Cheverus then opened the second half with nine more points to seemingly seize control.
First, Palazzi-Leahy made her second 3. Lyons followed with a jumper, Flaherty scored on a leaner and Lyons buried another shot just inside the 3-point stripe for a 31-19 advantage with 4:55 to go in the third.
“We want to play up-tempo and try to get off as many shots as we can,” Ashley said. “I told them to keep shooting it and it would fall. They believe in themselves.”
After a 5 minute, 41 second drought, the Tigers finally ended the 16-0 Cheverus run with 4:42 to play in the quarter when Michaud made a jump shot. Grigware followed with an old fashioned three-point play and senior Lauren Rousseau finally made her offensive presence felt with a leaner to cut the deficit to five, 31-26.
The Stags pushed the lead back to 10 when Palazzi-Leahy made two free throws, then followed with a three-point play, but the hosts got the final nine points of the period to make things very interesting.
A rebound layup from senior Jaclyn McCurry got the rally started. Grigware added a jumper, McCurry made a layup and in the final minute, Rousseau sank a 3 to make it 36-35 Cheverus with eight minutes to go (or so we thought).
The fourth period featured three ties and four lead changes.
The Tigers went back on top on a jumper from Grigware (their first lead since 19-18), then got a layup from Vadnais and a foul shot from Rousseau for a 40-36 advantage.
Back came Cheverus as Lyons made a layup (ending a 14-0 Biddeford run and a 5 minute, 9 second drought) and Palazzi-Leahy calmly sank a 3-pointer for a 41-40 lead.
The Tigers went back up 43-41 on a three-point play by Michaud, but with 4:43 left in regulation, Flaherty scored on a short turnaround jumper to tie the score. The hosts got a long jumper from Vadnais and two free throws from Grigware before Flaherty made a layup. Michaud answered with a bank shot, but Hendrix sank two free throws and with 2:20 to go, Palazzi-Leahy did the same to make it 49-49.
After the Tigers missed a pair of foul shots, Lyons gave the visitors the lead with a layup with 2:02 to go, but 29 seconds later, McCurry was fouled and hit both shots to make it 51-51.
Cheverus turned the ball over on its next possession. Biddeford looked to go ahead, but Rousseau’s shot was off and Flaherty grabbed the board with 22 seconds left. Ashley called timeout, hoping to set up a winning basket, but with 5 seconds left, the Stags turned the ball over again, giving the Tigers the final shot.
The ball quickly came to Grigware and she got a good look, but the ball rimmed out and it was on to a four-minute overtime.
Cheverus promptly took a 53-51 lead when Hendrix sank a jumper 16 seconds in. Biddeford answered on a Michaud bank shot, but with 2:48 to go, Flaherty made a short jumper after Hendrix (who did a little of everything in the extra session) kept the possession alive with an offensive rebound.
With 1:27 left, Palazzi-Leahy made one of two foul shots for a 56-53 advantage, but just eight seconds later, Grigware was fouled and made both free throws to make it 56-55.
That’s how the game would wind up, but not without some scary moments for the Stags.
With just 9 seconds to go, Mayberry had a chance to extend the lead, but missed two free throws. Flaherty grabbed the rebound, but turned the ball over and Biddeford had a chance to win it. The ball would wind up in Hersom’s hands and she got a good look at the basket, but her last-ditch effort hit the rim and fell harmlessly short.
Cheverus 56 Biddeford 55.
“We played a great game,” Hendrix said. “We gave it all we’ve got. Normally teams fall apart when the other team comes back, but we didn’t. We just pushed harder. Every girl stepped up. Our freshmen girls showed a ton of maturity. This is just the beginning. We’re coming along.”
“It was a great game,” added Ashley. “Biddeford’s a great team. Well coached. We didn’t give up or settle for moral victories. I’m very, very proud of them. I think we came of age, but we have to keep going. We’re still young.”
Palazzi-Leahy led all scorers with 23 points. Lyons added 11, Flaherty had 10, Hendrix eight and Mayberry and Thomas two apiece. Cheverus hit 17-of-24 free throws and forced 26 turnovers (while giving the ball away 24 times).
“We had great senior leadership with Theresa, Hanna and Anna (Snook),” Ashley said. “Alexandra played very well. Brooke had 10 points.”
For Biddeford, Grigware had 18 points, Michaud 11, Hersom seven, McCurry, Rousseau and Vadnais six each and Roy finished with one.
“I thought our pressure was good,” Ashley said. “Grigware earned her 18. We did a good job boxing out.”
Cheverus is now idle until Tuesday when it faces another big test, at Thornton Academy. After going to Bonny Eagle two days later, the Stags get their most daunting challenge when Scarborough visits Saturday, Jan. 9.
“We have to continue to play well,” Ashley said. “We have some tough ones ahead.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com