SOUTH PORTLAND—As if McAuley, Deering and Portland weren’t enough already, the South Portland Red girls’ basketball team now has to deal with another upstart across the bridge that makes its home within city limits.
The young, fast and athletic Stags pressured the Red Riots into 25 turnovers with a near-frantic, wide open fullcourt press, watched four freshmen provide more than half their offensive output and pulled away late for a 46-42 victory in a wild one Friday night at Beal Gymnasium.
Freshmen forward Brooke Flaherty scored 10 of her team-high 12 points in the second half, and freshmen guard Mikayla Mayberry saved the day with a clutch steal and coast-to-coast layup with just 29 seconds left in the game to stretch what was a two-point lead into the final four-point advantage.
The Stags feature the league’s second-leading scorer in sophomore Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy, not exactly an ancient relic herself, and do start a trio of senior captains with Anna Snook, Hanna Lyons and the dangerous Theresa Hendrix. But after that, Cheverus relies heavily on four sensational freshmen in Flaherty, Mayberry, Casey Honan and Victoria Nappi, all providing athleticism, energy and one bright-looking future.
On a night Palazzi-Leahy (six points) struggled to find her range from the field, the Stags needed every last contribution they could get from their young stars in waiting. With Flaherty and Mayberry (six points) leading the way, the four freshmen combined to score 25 points and help the Stags improve to 10-3 with a hard-fought win over an experienced South Portland team.
Lacking greatly in size, both in width and length, Cheverus does everything in its power to avoid knock down, drag-out games decided in the halfcourt. This is accomplished mainly by putting the ball in the hoop, which in turn allows the Stags to set up their ferocious fullcourt defensive pressure and speed the pace up to where they like it.
This philosophy was in action on Friday against the Red Riots (7-7), when after missing wildly on several possessions the Stags fell behind 7-0 to start the game. But when Honan dropped in the Stags’ first hoop over four minutes in, what followed was a frenetic 10-0 run that ended with a 3-pointer from Lyons and a sudden 12-9 lead with 38 seconds left in the first period.
South Portland senior Danielle McCusker, the game’s top scorer with 14 points, answered right back with a 3-pointer to tie the game 12-12 after the opening quarter, setting up a most-unusual first half scoring pattern.
Including her 3 that closed the first, McCusker scored five-straight to start the second quarter and junior Stephanie McDonough swished a long jumper to close out a 10-0 run for South Portland to take a 19-12 lead.
Cheverus didn’t score for a full six minutes, then suddenly came to life and ran off nine straight to close out the quarter and went to half leading 21-19. Flaherty started things off with a short jumper in the lane with 2:04 left in first half, allowing the Stags to press on the make and Mayberry to pick off an errant pass and drive the length of the floor for two more. Honan hit her second field goal and Palazzi-Leahy banked home a wild 3 high off the glass with eight-seconds left for the Stags first lead of the night at intermission.
“We want to play an up-tempo style,” said Cheverus coach Richie Ashley. “We’re not as big as most teams, and against a well-coached, veteran team like South Portland we have to play that way. We didn’t want them to be able to get settled and pound it down low. When we play fast, it makes it easier for us to do that. If we play together and put the ball in the basket, that allows us to set up our press. I think we’re a pretty good team when we do that.”
As it turns out, the back-and-forth excitement of the first half was just the beginning of a highly entertaining contest that would not be decided until Mayberry’s heroics with half a minute left in the game.
Each team played with great energy in a third quarter that ended with Cheverus still on top by only two points. The difference was both teams scored 17 points in the third, an up and down quarter that squeezed six of the game’s eight ties into eight minutes of fast-paced action that finally came to a tongue-dragging end with Cheverus clinging to a 38-36 advantage.
“We like to get up and down the floor,” said Flaherty. “That’s definitely our game. We’ve been working hard in practice and tonight we made some big shots when we needed them. We’re starting to play much better together as a team.”
Palazzi-Leahy scored the first and last basket of the third, slashing down the lane for her first bucket to put the Stags up 23-19 30 seconds in. South Portland junior Danielle DiBiase started to get things going, sinking a pair of jumpers to tie the score 23-23, pausing for Flaherty to add a hoop for Cheverus, then catching a deep ball over the top of the press and making good on a tough layup to tie the score once again, 25-25, just three minutes into the third.
But once again Flaherty came through for Cheverus, hitting another short jumper in the paint. McCusker answered with two free throws for the Red Riots to tie the score, but the Stags answered when senior Keturah Smith hit a long jump shot for her only points of the game, before McCusker iced another pair from the line to make it 29-29 with 3:30 left in the third quarter.
Hendrix (10 points) scored the next five points for Cheverus, netting a long jumper to go with a three-point play when she pulled down an offensive rebound and put it back up and in while being fouled.
In between, McCusker scored her final field goal, and South Portland freshmen Danica Gleason (five points) followed Hendrix’s three-point play with a driving layup to pull back within one at 34-33 with two minutes left in the third.
Mayberry swished a jumper from the left-elbow extended to give the Stags a three-point lead, but Gleason knifed down the lane for a tough two and added one foul shot after the Red Riots got a stop to tie the game for the last time at 36-36.
But the lightning quick Palazzi-Leahy gave the Stags the lead for good when she scored to make it 38-36 as both teams took a well-deserved break in between quarters.
Flaherty connected again to start the fourth and on the make Palazzi-Leahy stole the inbound pass and slashed across the lane for a pretty two as the Stags opened their biggest lead of the game at 42-36.
South Portland struggled mightily to execute on offense throughout the entire fourth quarter, particularly down the stretch, and would not score another field goal the rest of the way. The Red Riots scored six points in the fourth on 6-for-10 shooting from the line, with sophomore Libby Grant (five points) hitting one of her two tries from the stripe to pull within a score at 44-42 with two minutes still left to play.
After a series of unsuccessful possessions for both teams, the clever Mayberry put the Stags’ program-best 10th win of the season on ice when she picked her South Portland counterpart just over halfcourt and raced the length of the floor for an easy two with just 29 seconds left to end all scoring and give Cheverus the 46-42 win.
“We didn’t execute at the end of the game,” said South Portland coach Mike Giordano. “We just couldn’t find a way to score late when we needed to. Cheverus is a good, athletic team. They come right after you and force you to be a player. Tonight we didn’t do a good job handling that. They are a tough matchup for us on defense. But at the same time, we’re a tough matchup for them on offense, we just didn’t take advantage of that. We need to execute on offense, rebound and take care of the basketball to win games. If we don’t do one or two of those things we’re sitting here with a four-point loss against a good team.”
With four games left, South Portland (ninth in the latest Western Class A Heal Points standings, which would give them the last postseason spot) will look to salvage the season and earn another playoff berth in Giordano’s 14th season. This week the Red Riots travel to Bonny Eagle on Tuesday and host Westbrook on Friday, before closing out the season at home against Portland and on the road for a rematch with Cheverus.
Don’t look now, but with five games left in the regular season the Stags are fifth in the region. Cheverus will host Gorham and Marshwood this week on Tuesday and Thursday nights, a pair of teams still fighting for the eighth and final playoff spot. The Stags close out the season with three tough games, on the road in Sanford and at home against McAuley, before hosting South Portland in the regular season finale.