SOUTH POTLAND – Entering the final regular season game of her career, Britni Mikulanecz wanted to make sure she made it count. The senior did just that, scoring a game-high 17 points while helping Cheverus to a 52-41 win over South Portland Friday evening at Beal Gymnasium.
The Stags finished the regular season 14-4, the program’s best record to date, claiming the fourth seed in the Western A playoffs and will face No. 5 Sanford (14-4) in the quarterfinals, Monday, Feb. 21 at 7 p.m.
“I think we’re right where we want to be,” Mikulanecz said. “I think we’re a top-notch team. We went through a little bit of a slump, but we’re back on our feet and all it means for us is that people aren’t going to take us as seriously and we’re just going to play our game and not worry what everybody else says.”
The first quarter was a back-and-forth battle to start. After Cheverus took an early 6-2 lead thanks to two buckets from sophomore Brooke Flaherty (nine points) and one from Mikayla Mayberry (six points), South Portland scored the next five points to take the lead, 7-6. Cheverus used opportunistic defense, including four blocks on Red Riots’ three point attempts, and after a deep 3 from junior sharpshooter Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy, the Stags were back in the lead. After South Portland tied things up, Cheverus coach Richie Ashley called a timeout, unhappy with his team’s hustle.
“We wanted to make sure that we (fought hard),” Ashley said. “We have a team goal of winning all of those battles, so I just wanted to remind them that we need to do those things.”
The timeout would spark the Stags, who would go on a 9-2 run to end the quarter. Two baskets by Mikulanecz and five points from Palazzi-Leahy (17 points) put Cheverus up 18-11 after one.
The second quarter started with a dearth of offense for Cheverus. The first field goal for the Lady Stags didn’t come until 5:03 had elapsed in the quarter. In the meantime, South Portland cut the lead to 19-18. The teams would trade baskets the rest of the way, with Mikulanecz, Palazzi-Leahy and Mayberry each pitching in points. The visitors lead by one, 26-25, at halftime.
“We were in a lot of foul trouble,” Ashley said. “(South Portland) made some good plays, some good passes and some good shots. They did some good things. I think in the second half we shut it down defensively.”
“At halftime I knew it was my last high school regular season game and I knew that one place that I wasn’t going to be is on the bench and being a senior it was just time to pick the pace of the game up and not let it turn around,” Mikulanecz added,
Absent from the first half offensive attack for Cheverus was their low post players. Junior standout Morgan Cahill, who has been battling the flu for the past few days, did not get on the score sheet in the half, and sophomore centers Flaherty and Kylie Libby combined for just four points. With their inside game quiet, the Stags had to rely on their own version of the Big Three, which includes the underrated Mayberry.
“Mikayla I don’t think gets enough of the credit,” Ashley said. “She’s a sophomore point guard that’s started every single game and I think that it’s the three of them, the three-headed monster.”
“Mikayla scraps all the time,” Mikulanecz added. “There’s never a second she’s not working. She knows the pace of the game so she knows when she makes a bad play, she knows how to change that quickly. She doesn’t need coach Ashley to tell her she made a bad pass, in her head she’s saying ‘I’m the point guard and it’s my time to turn it around.’ I think that’s a big part of growing up for her. She’s like a senior.”
The third quarter began with South Portland taking its first lead since early in the first when Danica Gleason (10 points) hit a two-pointer. But later in the quarter, it was Flaherty who would step up and help put the Stags back in the lead for good. Baskets with 5:54, 2:37 and :54 remaining in the quarter, backed up by five more points from Mikulanecz, gave Cheverus a 40-35 lead at quarter’s end. The Stags used Red Riots turnovers to create scoring opportunities, but also benefited from a stronger inside presence.
“Brooke is a good player, she was an all-rookie team player last year and she can step up,” said Ashley. “Morgan has been a little bit under the weather this week and Brooke really did a great job. She made some big shots when she needed to make them. She’s a real leader even as a sophomore.”
Mikulanecz stole the ball and scored a fast break layup to start the fourth, putting her team up by seven. After South Portland reduced the deficit down to four, Cahill scored her only points of the game on a layup before fouling out with 4:46 to go. Flaherty and Libby would patrol the paint for the rest of game with gusto, and the Cheverus defense wouldn’t allow a South Portland field goal in the last 5:51 of the game. It was Mikulanecz, Palazzi-Leahy and Mayberry leading an 8-2 run to finish the game, and finish the regular season for the playoff-bound Stags.
“We had a good season,” Ashley said. “Fourteen wins are the most Cheverus has ever had. Last year we had 13. We’re still in the four spot, we’re going to play Sanford, who’s a hell of a team. They have a great coach and we know they will play real hard so we have to go down and take care of business. We have to have a good week of preparation and practice.”
“Being the only one that’s been to the Civic Center (with Deering the past three years), I just tell (the team) that it’s a fun experience,” Mikulanecz said. “I think with our athleticism we’re going to excel on the big court and we just have to play like we did tonight. It was great to get back on our feet tonight.”
The Stags edged Sanford, 50-47 at home on Feb. 5. The teams have no playoff history. Cheverus is seeking its first playoff win as a program.