PORTLAND—While it wasn’t quite as emphatic as some, you can chalk up another victory for the undefeated, defending Class A state champion Cheverus boys’ basketball team.
The Stags continued their roll through the region Saturday night with a 61-51 home win over Deering, one of the teams vying to emerge as a contender to the throne.
Cheverus appeared to have this one put away early, grabbing a 22-6 second period lead, but to the Rams’ credit, they never buckled and made things interesting in the second half, drawing as close as seven points. They could get no closer, however, and dropped to 7-4, becoming the Stags’ 10th straight victim.
“This was excellent for us,” said Cheverus coach Bob Brown. “It’s really the first close game we’ve had. It was good for us to have to handle the pressure and have to make shots and foul shots.”
Saturday night special
Cheverus, the defending Class A state champion, ran roughshod over the Southern Maine Activities Association in its first nine games, with the exception of a 31-25 home victory over Kennebunk back on Dec. 17, a contest in which the Rams played a slowdown brand of basketball. The Stags’ most recent victory was a 63-48 home triumph over Scarborough last Saturday, which was their third in a row over playoff contenders (Thornton Academy and Bonny Eagle were the other victims).
Cheverus leads the league in team defense, is second to Thornton Academy in team offense and doesn’t boast a player in the top 15 scorers. The Stags just do everything well and feature the team concept better than anyone.
Deering, meanwhile, has been up and down in 2010-11. The Rams lost two of their first three games, to visiting Bonny Eagle and host Scarborough, then turned around and won four straight (highlighted by a 50-48 home victory over then-unbeaten Thornton Academy). A home loss to South Portland followed, but Deering bounced back with wins at league bottomfeeders Massabesic and Noble.
Entering Saturday night’s contest, Cheverus had beaten its city rival in eight consecutive meetings, including 30- and 10-point triumphs a year ago. Deering’s last win over the Stags came Feb. 7, 2006, a 57-41 triumph at home. The Rams last won at Cheverus on Jan. 17 of that same year (50-49).
This time around, the Stags came out strong as they always seem to do and their fast start proved to be the difference.
Just 32 seconds in, a layup from junior Louie DiStasio gave Cheverus the lead for good. Senior Griffin Brady followed with a tip-in and junior Cam Olson added a foul shot for a quick 5-0 advantage.
Deering got on the board on a free throw from senior Jamie Ross, but Olson made a layup after a steal, Olson sank a foul shot and with 4:24 to go in the first, DiStasio canned a 3-pointer to make it 11-1.
A 3-point shot from Rams junior Pat Green was answered by a layup from sophomore Matthew Cimino. After Deering sophomore Labson Abwoch made a foul shot, Cheverus junior Shawn Grover answered with a layup and senior Connor O’Neil made a 3 to give the hosts a commanding 18-5 lead after one quarter.
“It’s definitely a game changer to jump out early,” said DiStasio. “We kept playing our game and it was tough for them to come back. We knew they’d come with a lot of energy and that they wanted to win here.”
“Bob’s teams are known for coming out hard and fast and if you don’t withstand that initial rush, you’re in trouble,” said Deering coach Dan LeGage. “They outworked us in the first quarter. We were stagnant on offense, kind of standing around and they made shots early on and built a lead. It was tough to come back.”
When DiStasio sandwiched a pair of layups around a Ross free throw, the Stags were up 22-6 early in the second period and apparently en route to a rout, but thanks to the shooting of Green and an infusion of energy from seniors Riko Augustino and John Hughes off the bench, Deering began to show life.
First, senior Jackson Frey hit a foul shot. Hughes then made a steal and hit a layup. Amabile (who was sidelined momentarily in the first period after getting the worst of a collision with Cheverus senior Peter Gwilym) got open to knock down a 3 and Green added a jumper to pull the Rams within eight, 22-14, midway through the second.
DiStasio, who missed time earlier in the year with a leg injury, answered with a 3-ball and made a layup after a steal to push the lead back to 13.
“I’m definitely feeling better,” DiStasio said. “I just have to keep wrapping up. We wanted to move the ball around. We knew they’d really come at us. I was open and just hit some shots. We were expecting a little run. We kept playing and doing our thing.”
Deering got back within 10 on a Hughes 3, but after failing on a couple opportunities to draw closer, the Rams found themselves down by 14 when Cimino hit a jumper and O’Neil made a layup after a steal. A last-second 3 from Green, however, gave the Rams a little bit of momentum heading into the locker room, down 31-20.
The Stags tried to deliver a knockout blow in the second half, but never could as Deering battled them down to the wire.
After Cimino started the second half with a jumper in the lane, Amabile made two foul shots, Green did the same and Amabile scored on a layup after a steal to suddenly bring the Rams within seven, 33-26.
Cheverus answered with a 3-ball from Gwilym (who won football’s Fitzpatrick Trophy last weekend). Augustino answered with a bank shot, but Cimino hit a jumper, DiStasio was fouled on a 3-point attempt and made two free throws and Gwilym grabbed an offensive rebound and laid it home for a 42-28 lead. Deering got the last three points of the quarter as sophomore Thiwat Thiwat made a layup off an inbounds pass and Abwoch drained a free throw to make it 42-31 with eight minutes to go.
While the Stags were far from sharp or fresh, they did enough down the stretch to hold on.
After Ross pulled the Rams within nine on a layup nine seconds into the final stanza, Olson made a free throw and DiStasio hit a pair. Green answered with two free throws, but junior James Kapothanasis calmly buried a 3 from the wing to make it a 13-point game.
After Green got 3 back for Deering from behind the arc, Olson fed Gwilym for a layup. Undaunted, Green answered with a jumper and with 4:09 to go, Amabile hit a jump shot to make it 50-42.
Then, the most important sequence of the game occurred.
After a turnover, Ross raced in for a layup, but he was called for a charging foul. Instead of cutting the deficit to two possessions, the Rams’ hopes were dashed.
“I think that was the big call,” said LeGage. “We were making a run. That charge/block call turned the game back around in their favor. It is what it is, but we had momentum.”
At the other end, Brady made a free throw. Deering did get back within seven on an Augustino layup, but that’s as close as it would get as O’Neil made two free throws and Brady did the same to make it a 55-44 contest with 2:43 left.
The Rams got a foul shot from senior Nick Colucci, but Cheverus answered with flair as its energizer bunny Gwilym made a gorgeous save while falling out of bounds, placing the ball right into the hands of Olson, who made a layup for a 57-45 advantage.
Down the stretch, Deering got a layup after a steal by Hughes, a pair of Green free throws and a putback from Augustino, while the hosts got four free throws from O’Neil to put the finishing touches on their 61-51 triumph.
“It was a lot more fun than the blowouts,” DiStasio said. “I’m not surprised how good we are. Guys stepped up in the summer and the fall, so I had a feeling we’d be good.”
“At the end of the year, you have to have tests,” Brown said. “An awful lot of coaches say it’s good to lose a game. I don’t know if I agree with that, but you have to get tested. The kids did a good job handling the press. We got some steals.
“Deering’s a good club. Everyone said at the beginning of the season, it’s Deering, it’s Cheverus, it’s Thornton. South Portland’s a huge surprise, but Deering’s still there. I don’t care what their record is. They suffered from football at the beginning of the season, just like we did. They made some nice plays down the stretch and we seemed to get tired. I had four guys at the beginning at the game who were players, but at the end, they started to wear down.”
Cheverus had eight different scorers, led by DiStasio with 18.
“Louie’s getting there, but he wore down,” Brown said. “I had to take him out a couple times when he got tired.”
O’Neil added 11 points (along with four rebounds, a block and a steal), Cimino had eight points (three rebounds and two blocks), Gwilym (four rebounds, a steal and a block) and Olson (four rebounds, three steals) had seven points each, Brady five (as well as five rebounds and a block), Kapothanasis three and Grover two.
The Rams just didn’t have enough to come all the way back.
“Take away the first quarter and it’s a good game,” said LeGage. “We might have had the better of it in the second, third and fourth quarters. Louie was really good in the first half. A lot of those were hustle points. We made an adjustment at halftime and it helped. We had to see what they were doing to handle what we were throwing at them.
“Moving forward, hopefully we can build on this. A lesser team could have folded. That was a good sign. We just have to put four quarters together. That’s been our year. If we keep our energy at a peak, we can do some things.”
For Deering, Green had a sensational game, scoring 19 points and grabbing four rebounds while running the offense.
“Pat was fantastic,” said LeGage. “When his confidence is high, he’s a very good point guard in our league. Hopefully he’ll continue to have that confidence the rest of the season.”
Amabile was held to nine points.
“They went after Amabile and so does everybody,” LeGage said. “He got hurt in the first quarter. Everybody in the league has been really physical with him. They know he can score. He’s not a very big kid.”
Hughes finished with seven points, Augustino six, Ross four (along with six boards), Abwoch and Thiwat two apiece and Colucci and Frey (four rebounds and a steal) one each.
“We showed our depth a little bit,” LeGage said. “When the starters struggled a little bit, guys off the bench gave us a boost.”
Long way to go
Deering (seventh in the latest Western Class A Heal Points standings) is back in action Tuesday when it hosts Westbrook. Next Friday, the Rams welcome Portland. Deering hosts Cheverus on Feb. 8.
“We still have seven more games,” LeGage said. “We just passed the crest of the midpoint. This gives us some confidence. It’ll be huge for us the next time we play (Cheverus). Westbrook is a similar team. Portland’s improved. I think we’ve improved. We need some wins and make sure we’re in the playoffs. Once you get in the playoffs you can throw out the results. It’s a new season. We’ll regroup. I was proud of how we fought and didn’t fold. It’s slow, but it’s progress in the right direction. We’ll stay positive.”
The Stags (who appear to have a stranglehold on the top spot in the Heals) are at Biddeford Tuesday, then have their next huge test Friday at a South Portland squad which has shocked and amazed to date.
“As long as we keep talking and pointing on defense, we should be all set,” said DiStasio. “I think the biggest thing for us is going to be turnovers. We sometimes panic with the ball. That’s how teams get a lot of their points. We have to be patient and find the open man.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com