Cheverus returns to form, handles Oxford Hills

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Cheverus senior Jack Casale goes up for a shot over Oxford Hills sophomore Spencer Strong during the Stags’ 54-44 win Thursday night. Casale led all scorers with 28 points.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

Cheverus 54 Oxford Hills 44

OH- 10 7 10 17- 44
C- 10 17 15 12- 54

OH- Verrier 6-2-17, Fleming 4-2-10, Keniston 3-3-9, St. Pierre 2-0-6, Carson 1-0-2

C- Casale 10-7-28, Matthews 4-2-11, Ephron 3-2-9, Shibles 2-1-5, Foster 0-1-1

3-pointers:
OH (5) Verrier 3, St. Pierre 2
C (3) Casale, Ephron, Matthews 1

Turnovers:
OH- 19
C- 18

FTs
OH: 7-16
C: 13-19

PORTLAND—Two days after a humbling loss at Edward Little, Cheverus’ boys’ basketball team had one final opportunity to make a positive statement before the holiday break when it hosted Oxford Hills Thursday evening at Keegan Gymnasium.

While the Stags got off to a slow start and had to overcome foul troubles by their two best players, they were able to hit their stride and show just how dangerous they can be.

A sluggish first period ended 10-10, as senior standout Jack Casale scored eight points to keep Cheverus even.

Casale picked up his second foul just one second into the second quarter and junior Jesse Matthews soon received his second as well, but the Stags turned to a strong defensive effort to keep the game close and when Casale returned to the floor, Cheverus roared to life.

Leading by a mere point midway through the second period, Cheverus erupted for 11 straight points to seize control, as junior Tobias Ephron and Matthews both hit clutch 3s and Casale capped the run with a leaner.

The Stags were up by 10 points, 27-17, at halftime, and continued to open things up in the third quarter, as another 10-0 run, this one capped by a Ephron steal and layup, produced a 39-21 lead.

Cheverus was on top, 42-27, going to the final stanza and there, the Vikings got no closer than 10 and the Stags went on to a 54-44 victory.

Casale led all scorers with 28 points, Matthews added 11 with seven rebounds, four steals and two blocked shots and Cheverus improved to 4-1, dropping Oxford Hills to 3-3 in the process.

“We didn’t play well (at Edward Little),” said Casale. “We knew we had to come out ready to play. We knew (Oxford Hills would) be ready, so we had to be tough.”

Tough stretch

Cheverus got off to a fast start this winter, beating host Sanford in overtime (51-49) and edging visiting Scarborough (57-51) and Windham (64-59). Tuesday, Cheverus met its match at Edward Little in a playoff rematch, falling, 71-51.

“EL’s a very good team,” said Stags second-year coach Ryan Soucie. “That was a tough environment and we weren’t ready. Yesterday we talked in practice that we had to remember what that felt like.”

Oxford Hills was a semifinalist in 2015-16 and expects to compete again. The Vikings opened by doubling up visiting Lewiston, 68-34. After a 54-52 loss at Edward Little, Oxford Hills lost at defending Class AA champion Portland, 72-50, then bounced back to down visiting Leavitt (61-34) and Windham (61-60).

Last winter, the host Vikings beat the Stags, 77-62.

Thursday, Cheverus returned the favor.

Both offense struggled in the first half as several fouls were called.

A Casale free throw got the scoring started 12 seconds in, but Oxford Hills got a 3 from senior Cole Verrier and a free throw from junior Atreyu Keniston.

After junior Will Shibles made a baseline jumper for the Stags, Keniston countered with two free throws.

Casale cut the deficit to one with a floater, but Keniston made a bank shot for an 8-5 lead.

Casale then made two free throws and hit a 3 to put Cheverus back on top before Verrier drove for a left-handed layup to make it 10-10, which is how the first quarter ended.

In the first eight minutes, Casale had eight points and the Stags forced seven turnovers, but they couldn’t get any separation.

After a slow start to the second period, Cheverus opened up a lead.

Just one second in, Casale was called for his second foul and he had to sit for several minutes.

Not surprisingly, the Stags’ offense struggled, but so did the Vikings’ and it took until 5:17 remained in the half for the first points of the quarter to be scored, as sophomore Matt Fleming made two foul shots.

With 4:40 left, Matthews made two foul shots to end a 6 minute, 27 second drought and that brought the Stags to life.

Shibles set up junior Tobias Ephron for a layup to put Cheverus up for good.

Casale then scored on a putback while falling down, forcing Oxford Hills coach Scott Graffam to call timeout.

It worked initially, as Verrier buried a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 16-15, but the Stags closed the half on an 11-2 run.

Casale got the surge started by banking home a shot in the lane. Ephron followed with a 3, sophomore Patrick Foster sank a free throw, after keeping play alive with an offensive rebound, Ephron passed to Matthews for a 3 and with 21.4 seconds to go in the half, Casale’s leaner in the lane produced a 27-15 lead.

With 7.5 seconds to go, Verrier made two free throws to end a 3:42 drought and the 11-0 Stags’ run, but the margin was 10 at the break.

“When I’m in there, it takes pressure off everybody else,” Casale said. “When Jesse’s on the floor, it takes pressure off me and when we’re all on the floor, we’re hard to defend. When one of us goes out, it’s hard. We got into our offense and once I came off the bench, we were good. We attacked the rim and didn’t settle for jump shots.”

“Having Jack on the bench is never a good thing, but we stemmed the tide,” Soucie said.

In the first half, Casale led all scorers with 14 points. Verrier had 10 points for the Vikings, but the visitors did commit 14 turnovers to just seven for Cheverus.

In the third period, the Stags didn’t let up.

After Fleming opened the second half with a leaner, Shibles drove the baseline and made a layup.

Verrier countered with a bank shot, but Casale scored on a floater, Matthews scored on a floater from the baseline and with 3:09 to go, Matthews buried a jumper for a 35-21 lead, forcing Graffam to again call timeout.

Cheverus didn’t buckle, however, as Casale banked home a shot in transition and Ephron made a layup after a steal.

Verrier made a left-handed layup, but with 1:10 to go in the frame, Casale scored on a drive, was fouled and hit the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play.

Oxford Hills got a runner and a putback from Fleming before the end of the quarter, but that only cut the deficit to 42-27 heading for the fourth.

There, the Stags put it away.

Fleming tried to make things interesting by hitting a jumper 55 seconds in, but Casale answered at the other end with a jump shot.

Cheverus’ highlight reel hoop came with 5:32 to play, when Casale lobbed an alley-oop pass to Matthews, who put the ball home with a reverse layup.

“We have that as a play and no one’s stopped it yet,” Casale said. “(Jesse’s) got a bad ankle now. Once he gets off that bad ankle, he’s going to throw it down. He’s great around the rim, getting up and finishing.”

After Casale made a free throw, Fleming set up sophomore Colton Carson for a layup, but Shibles passed to Casale, who made a pretty reverse layup and Shibles added a free throw for a 50-31 lead with 2:29 to go.

The Vikings attempted one last-ditch comeback, as junior Chris St. Pierre made consecutive 3-pointers, but St. Pierre and Verrier missed long-range shots which could have cut the deficit to 10.

With 48.5 seconds to go, Keniston did make it a 50-39 game with a bank shot, but Casale hit two free throws.

After Keniston banked in another shot, Ephron made two foul shots for Cheverus’ final points.

Verrier got a long-range 3-pointer to fall with 11.4 seconds to go, but the Stags went on to the 54-44 victory.

“Everybody played great defense and talked and did their role,” Casale said. “We all did what we had to do. We’ve come out stagnant the past couple games. We wanted to come out strong after halftime. We wanted to play good defense and get to the rim.”

“We want to defend our home gym,” said Matthews. “We’re undefeated here so far. We just wanted to send a message. We locked down on defense a lot more. The other night, we just couldn’t stop (Edward Little) on the defensive end. We were more patient on offense and got good looks and things started rolling for us.”

“We started a little slow tonight, but we ratcheted it up on defense and got stops.” added Soucie. “It starts with our defense. We had a lot of steals. That’s who we have to be. If we don’t get stops, we’ll have a hard time.”

Casale continued his superb early season by scoring 28 points. He also grabbed seven rebounds.

“Early in the game, I was settling too much for outside shots,” Casale said. “I attacked the rim and got it going at the free throw line.”

“Jack hit some big shots,” Matthews said. “It was a big night for him. He’s our leader. We look up to him. He does everything for us.”

“Jack knows he’s our guy and that he has to be the guy,” Soucie added. “He accepts it. He’s got a lot of grit and hates to lose. Sometimes that passion gets in the way a little bit, but he’s been really good about reigning it in and focusing it in a positive direction. He wants the ball. He wants to be in that spot. He’s a gamer. He got to the rack, got fouled, got big rebounds. I had him guarding Fleming the whole game. He got tired, so I switched him off at the end. He played smart. We need him to score double digits every game for us to have a chance.”

Matthews stuffed the stat sheet with 11 points, seven rebounds, four steals and a pair of blocks.

“Jesse did his thing, got some big rebounds,” said Soucie. “He hit some big shots. Tough shots. We know he can score.”

Ephron finished with nine points, Shibles had five and Foster added one (to go with three rebounds).

“Pat Foster came off the bench in the first half and battled,” Soucie said. “He’s earned his minutes in practice. He took it to the rack and got offensive rebounds.”

Junior Perrin Conant didn’t score, but he grabbed four rebounds and had a couple steals.

The Stags turned the ball over 18 times, but did make 13 of 19 free throws.

Oxford Hills got 17 points from Verrier. Fleming fouled out, but not before he registered a double-double of 10 points and 10 rebounds. Keniston had nine points, St. Pierre six (to go with five rebounds and four steals) and Carson two (to go with 10 boards).

The Vikings turned the ball over 19 times and only converted 7 of 16 foul shots.

The road ahead

Oxford Hills plays one more game in 2016, at home versus Mt. Blue Tuesday.

Cheverus is idle until Jan. 2, when it goes to Massabesic.

The Stags project to keep getting better.

“It’s early,” Casale said. “We’ve got a long way to go on offense. Our camaraderie is good. Moving forward, if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’ll be good.”

“We want to make a deep playoff run this year, but we have to rebound the ball better,” Matthews said.

“We’re getting there,” Soucie added. “We’re good enough to beat the teams we should beat. We’re still trying to get to where we can beat the top teams. We’ll get some rest and keep improving.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

Cheverus junior Jesse Matthews goes up with the left hand.

Cheverus junior Will Shibles leans in for a shot.

Cheverus sophomore Patrick Foster hangs in the air to elude Oxford Hills sophomore Colton Carson.

Cheverus junior Tobias Ephron drives on Oxford Hills senior Cole Verrier.

Cheverus junior Jesse Matthews blocks the shot of Oxford Hills sophomore Matt Fleming.

Cheverus junior Perrin Conant defends Oxford Hills junior Atreyu Keniston.

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Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.