(Ed. Note: The Forecaster welcomes Jeff Christenbury to our stable of freelance writers. Jeff is a graduate of Boston University, a Saco city councilor, a teacher/marketing associate at Thornton Academy and is best known in local circles as the executive producer of the “Maine Rundown” and “Varsity” television shows)
PORTLAND—As the final buzzer sounded at Keegan Gymnasium Tuesday night, there was an audible sigh from the Cheverus girls’ basketball bench after the Stags survived a furious fourth quarter rally from Windham, but held on to beat the Eagles, 55-54.
Coming off a 15-day layoff, Cheverus (5-1) led most of the way, but five fourth quarter 3-pointers by Windham (4-2), including a desperation 3-ball which clanged in at the final buzzer, made the game much closer than many anticipated.
“They hit some shots, we didn’t play very disciplined,” Cheverus coach Richie Ashley said. “The credit goes to (Windham), they played well, they made shots and they made plays. They had 23 (points) in the fourth with five 3s. We had some young kids in there that got a little excited and a little hyper and they get out of position.”
“I didn’t think we played particularly bad,” said senior Britni Mikulanecz (14 points). “I don’t think shot selection was very good, especially in the first quarter. I think once we got the ball moving that’s when we started to have success, especially when we went on our run when we came out in the second half. I thought we shared the basketball well and that led to good things.
“It’s tough getting back in the swing of things,” junior Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy added. “We’re used to having a game every other day. I think we just needed to focus a little more on some of their shooters.”
After a three point bucket by Palazzi-Leahy (11 points) put the Stags up 49-37 with just 4:09 to go, Windham went on an 11-1 run to cut the lead to two points. Palazzi-Leahy and sophomore Mikayla Mayberry each put in a free throw to push the lead back to four points with less than 30 seconds to go, before another Windham 3-ball cut the lead to 52-51.
Palazzi-Leahy was fouled and hit one of two free throws, giving Windham a chance to tie or take the lead with less than 10 seconds left. However, Cheverus forced a difficult running shot which was off the mark and two clutch free throws by junior transfer Morgan Cahill (15 points) sealed the win, even after a 25-foot desperation 3 went in. It was one of 10 3-pointers hit by Windham, five of which came in the final frame. Meghan Gribbin hit four and finished with a game-high 22 points.
“Maybe just not keeping up the intensity as we did in the first half and how we did in the beginning of the second half,” said Palazzi-Leahy about the Windham comeback. “We definitely need to make sure that we make smart decisions throughout the whole entire game and especially the last quarter. We need to work on that a little more.”
“We thought they had a little bit of size so we were thinking to focus a little more inside and make sure we had all our spots covered,” Mikulanecz said. “We weren’t thinking (3s) would be a particular problem but our outside defensive lapses really hurt us.”
“We hit some foul shots at the end when we needed to put it away and that’s that,” Ashley said. “(Windham) deserves a lot of credit, they played very well.”
Cheverus was forced to play without one of its most experienced players for the stretch run. Mikulanecz fouled out with 2:20 left in the game with her team up seven. As the only senior on the roster, her absence can leave a void out on the floor.
“It’s awful, it’s awful,” Mikulanecz said. “I made a bad decision, it was some of the (fouls) earlier that hurt me. My fifth one, personally, I thought I had a clean steal but I need to know the limits and I know that the ref was being consistent and I got the same foul earlier so I have to take responsibility.”
“We had a lot of great players on the floor that were able to be leaders and made sure we played the best that we could,” Palazzi-Leahy said.
“We were up 10 with 2:47 left and when Britni fouled out we had one junior and four sophomores on the floor,” Ashley added. “They did a good job of holding that lead. We just have to learn from it and get better.”
Mikulanecz led all scorers with nine points at the break and several times set up teammates for easy buckets. As the third quarter was winding down, an errant Windham pass was intercepted by the senior and in mid air she passed it off to a teammate and seconds later Cahill cleaned up with an offensive rebound putback to give the Stags a 10-point lead heading into the final quarter.
“It’s great (to have Morgan),” Palazzi-Leahy said, of the post standout who played at Yarmouth her first two seasons. “Last year, I know we didn’t have as many bigs and it’s nice to know as a guard being able to get it in and get it back out and get the game going with a lot of bigs.”
While Cheverus’ largest lead would hit 14, the first half saw Windham jump out to a 6-1 cushion behind a pair of 3s. Palazzi-Leahy would tie things up at 6-6 with a deep 3 from the baseline and Cahill’s offensive rebound and layup capped off a 9-0 run to give the Lady Stags a 10-6 lead midway through the quarter. Despite holding a 12-9 lead after the first quarter, Ashley was unhappy with the tempo and lack of physical play from his young team.
“(Windham) played very hard,” Ashley said. “They were very physical with us. I think that we were a little tired, we played a little tired. It’s a hard thing coming back from break, kids staying up late, not taking care of themselves, and coming back to school and at Cheverus you get whacked when you come back, like other schools. We played like that, we played tired.”
“They were very physical,” Palazzi-Leahy said. “I think the fouls that we got we just needed to compose ourselves. I think that we just need to compose ourselves and make smart decisions on defense.”
Cheverus responded in the second quarter with tenacious defense that saw it pull away. After a scoring just two points in the first quarter, Mikulanecz came alive with seven straight points midway through the second, capped off by a steal at midcourt and a layup. Windham would struggle to find a rhythm against the high-pressure Cheverus defense and did not score a field goal in the last 4:33 of the quarter, leaving Cheverus with a 27-20 lead heading into halftime.
“When we play well on defense we can really shut people down,” Ashley said. “When we play solid and don’t try to overextend. When we don’t, we don’t play well, it’s an obvious thing.”
“I don’t think we had our eyes on the shooters as much as we did and I didn’t think it was going to be much of a problem,” Mikulanecz said. “We’re used to keying in on (Rebecca) Knight and (Alexa) Coulombe from McAuley so I thought that wasn’t going to be an issue at all, but I don’t think we really put enough focus on their shooters.”
Despite the close call on a cold Tuesday night, Cheverus survived and faces several winnable games (a trip to Massabesic Friday is next) before a showdown with Deering on January 22.
“After we lost a close one to McAuley and then coming back to win this one at the end with me on the bench, like coach said, it gave a lot of confidence to the young players,” Mikulanecz said.
“We’re just going to forget about this one, we got it over with and focus on the next game,” Palazzi-Leahy added. “We just have to work hard in practice and focus on getting better.”
“We have to finish and we have to rebound and take care of the basketball,” Ashley added. “Another thing is that we have to continue to get better. We have these kids who haven’t played a lot together so we have to continue to jell. We have to learn from it and we won by one and at the end of the year it’s going to say Cheverus ‘W,’ but I will say those Windham kids deserve a lot of credit, they played hard.”