PORTLAND—With two games in a 24-hour span this weekend, the Cheverus girls’ basketball team had ample opportunity to look ahead to a pending showdown with its rival/nemesis.
Instead, the Stags took care of business and enter Tuesday’s heavily anticipated battle with McAuley at 4-0.
Saturday afternoon at the Portland Expo, just hours removed from a 71-15 romp at Kennebunk, Cheverus dominated Portland from start to finish and rolled to a 59-21 triumph behind a stifling defense and a balanced attack, showing off all the attributes that has it on the short list of title favorites.
Junior sharpshooter Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy led a list of 11 scorers with 16 points as the Stags took control by halftime, leading, 34-13.
“We played well,” said Cheverus coach Richie Ashley. “Portland’s good. They have a good coach. They’re tough kids. I’m happy. The girls have played very well together.”
The Stags arrived as a contender a year ago, winning 13 times and giving Biddeford a scare in the quarterfinals before losing, 45-38. Several young players saw big minutes a year ago and even though they’re still underclassmen, entered 2010-11 with plenty of seasoning. If that wasn’t enough, three newcomers have joined the program.
Britni Mikulanecz is the lone senior. She was a member of Deering’s 2008 and 2009 Class A championship teams and is one of the state’s premier defenders. She’s had the opportunity to flash her offensive talents this winter, shooting when she has the chance and demonstrating an unrivaled skill of finding open teammates with crisp passes.
Morgan Cahill was a strong player at Yarmouth her first two seasons and has made an immediate impact at Cheverus as a junior. She had a game-high 27 points in a win over Westbrook Tuesday.
Sophomore Kylie Libby spent her freshman year at Falmouth and figures to be an ever-growing star with the Stags.
That group came together nicely over the summer and rolled to wins in its first three contests, 67-34 over Noble, 67-35 over Westbrook and 71-15 at Kennebunk Friday.
Portland, meanwhile, is coming off a 5-13 campaign, but hopes to contend in 2010-11. The Bulldogs opened with a 55-41 loss at Thornton Academy, defeated Noble, 53-49, then lost, 59-39, to Marshwood.
Cheverus beat Portland, 73-56, a year ago and Saturday, the Stags raced to an early lead and never looked back.
Just 42 seconds in, Mikulanecz gave Cheverus the lead for good with a jumper. After sophomore Brooke Flaherty added a layup, the Bulldogs responded on a pair of foul shots from standout junior Nicolette Kapothanasis.
The Stags would open things up with a 9-0 run as sophomore Mikayla Mayberry scored on a putback, Palazzi-Leahy converted an old-fashioned three-point play, Cahill made a layup and Mikulanecz added two foul shots to make it 13-2.
Sophomore Delea Malual’s layup ended the run, but Palazzi-Leahy answered with a 3-ball. A layup from senior Stephanie Rogers pulled Portland within 10, 16-6, after the first stanza.
Cheverus ended all doubt in the second period.
Sophomore Victoria Nappi got things started with a 3 and Palazzi-Leahy added a layup after a steal. After junior Angie Reali made a free throw for the Bulldogs, Cahill scored on a layup, Palazzi-Leahy buried a 3 and made a layup to make it a 28-7 contest.
After junior Nyaliep Deng made a layup for the hosts, Palazzi-Leahy made another layup after a steal and Flaherty scored on a turnaround jumper. Deng made two foul shots, but Cahill answered with a left-handed layup. Just before halftime, Deng scored on a leaner, but the Stags took a commanding 34-13 advantage to the break.
The visitors salted it away in the third quarter and Ashley pulled his starters before the period ended.
Palazzi-Leahy made a free throw and Cahill scored on a putback early in the stanza for a 37-13 lead. After Deng made a hook shot, Nappi scored on a layup and added a jumper, Cahill scored on a putback and junior Megan Carroll made a bank shot. A Malual free throw ended the 8-0 run, but before the quarter ended, sophomore Danielle Kane made a layup, freshman Abby Maker scored on a putback and sophomore Casey Honan hit a jumper to make it 51-16.
The fourth quarter was relatively even as both teams’ reserves saw ample action and Cheverus cruised to the 59-21 triumph.
“We planned on getting done what we had to,” Palazzi-Leahy said. “We have a lot of great people this year. We have height and work really well together. We have five great girls on the floor together.”
“We’re learning,” Ashley said. “We play very, very hard. I was happy at the end too that the girls came in and played hard. They play against the starters in practice. Not much of a dropoff. They’re just as important as the starters because they push them in practice.”
Palazzi-Leahy led all scorers with 16 points.
“Alexandra’s done a very good job of being a leader,” Ashley said. “The sophomores have done a good job showing the new guys what we do. That’s gone a long way. The new kids have accepted how we do things. They’ve bought into what we do.”
Cahill added 10 points , Nappi had seven, Honan 5, Carroll, Flaherty and Mikulanecz scored four each, Kane had three and Maker, Mayberry and sophomore Eden Monsen all had two.
In addition to her four points, Mikulanecz forced several turnovers and added an array of pretty passes to set up teammates.
“It’s been really welcoming (at Cheverus),” Mikulanecz said. “I’m getting my shots and I feel like everyone else is getting their shots. We’ve come together nicely the first four games. I feel like I can still use my point guard skills, but I’m more involved over here.”
“Britni’s like another coach on the floor,” said Ashley. “I’m very pleased with her. I think she’s handled it well. She’s been a good leader”
For Portland (1-3), Deng had nine points, Malual six, Kapothanasis and Rogers two each and Reali and senior Nyador Nguany both had one.
The Bulldogs are now off until Jan. 4 when they welcome Gorham. They will host their annual holiday tournament in the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day.
Cheverus, meanwhile, has a huge test Tuesday when it hosts undefeated, preseason favorite McAuley (led by Division I-bound standouts Rebecca Knight and Alexa Coulombe), a rival the Stags have never beaten.
Although it’s only December, this is a pivotal game. If Cheverus wins, it will leap to the top of the favorites’ list. Another loss to the nemesis Lions, however, might damage this still-young team’s psyche. Expect the biggest and loudest girls’ crowd in school history for this potential epic.
Rest assured, the Stags will be ready.
“It’s a big test,” Palazzi-Leahy said. “We’re pumped up. We want to play to the best of our ability and play as a team. It’ll be fun. We’ll be excited.”
“I think we’re ready,” Mikulanecz said. “We’ve worked hard in practice. We know they have two players especially that we need to look out for, but we can’t take any of the five on the floor lightly.”
“It’s a big game,” Ashley added. “The girls have earned the opportunity to play in a big game. McAuley’s a very good team. They have two great players and a good supporting cast. They’re well coached. We need to take care of us and be ready to play. It’s only December. As long as we play well, that’s all we can ask. I’m happy for the girls to have an atmosphere like that.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org