THE PLAYOFFS Cheverus does just enough to advance to semifinals
Deering falls in heartbreaker; Waynflete eliminated by Dirigo
By Michael Hoffer
PORTLAND —The start of the Western Class A boys' basketball tournament brought some curious results last weekend at the Portland Expo.
While the Portland Bulldogs were peaking at the right time, stunning higher-seeded South Portland (please see story, this page), Cheverus also moved on to the semifinals, but the Stags had to scratch and claw to defeat Biddeford, 35-25.
Deering put forth a tremendous effort, but ultimately dropped a 51-48 decision to Thornton Academy.
In Western Class C, the Waynflete Flyers pulled a preliminary round upset at Boothbay, but saw their season end Monday night with a 66-38 loss to top-ranked Dirigo in Augusta.
SUBHEAD-Not so invincible
Entering the tournament, many felt this would be the Cheverus Invitational as the Stags ran roughshod on Western Class A this year, winning 18 games without a loss. Cheverus was rarely tested and its smallest margin of victory was nine points.
The top-ranked Stags drew No. 8 Biddeford Friday night. The Tigers went 10-8 in the regular season and had to defeat Scarborough in the preliminary round. Cheverus cruised to a 64-39 win in the regular season match-up, Jan. 2 in Biddeford. The last playoff meeting between the teams came in the 1997 preliminary round, where Cheverus prevailed 85-63.
After a slow start, the Stags took over, riding a 15-0 run to a 15-2 lead as Indiana Faithfull had eight points. By halftime, Cheverus was up 24-8.
Then, everything changed on an improbable play by Faithfull, the junior point guard who has dazzled since his arrival from Australia last year.
After a steal in the third period, Faithfull cruised in for what most thought would be a layup, but instead, he hesitated, then tried to dunk with his right hand (he's left-handed) and was stuffed by the rim. Compounding the miss, Faithfull was whistled for a frustration foul and was yanked by coach Bob Brown. The Stags immediately deflated and didn't recover until the game was on the line.
"The thing that I have a hard time with is we're in the tournament playing to win," Brown said. "No one's up there ranking (for style like in figure skating or gymnastics) with an 8 or a 10. You score."
After three, Cheverus was still up by a dozen, 29-17, but the Stags wouldn't score again until 2:21 remained.
A layup by Biddeford senior Robin Wilson made it a 10-point game. Senior Abdirahman Mohamed buried a 3 with 6:11 to play and it was 29-22. With 3:32 to go, junior Abdimajid Mohamed made a 3 and suddenly it was 29-25.
After Cheverus dodged a bullet on a 3-point attempt from the elder Mohamed, junior Lenny Cummings took a pass from senior Mick DiStasio and made a layup to end a 7:09 scoring drought and an 8:07 stretch without a field goal.
Cummings made another layup 21 seconds later and added a tip-in with 1:00 left, giving the Stags a 35-25 win.
Brown was far from pleased in the aftermath.
"The team that won 18 games wasn't there tonight," said the veteran coach. "We didn't play well together. I'm not sure why. I didn't think we practiced well (Thursday) and I think the results showed. We had no flow. It's almost like we were a step slow. We didn't explode inside. We just didn't play well.
"Everyone said we're the best team in the state. Not tonight, baby. Not tonight. A bunch of teams were up there watching and thinking 'Yahoo, we can get them.'"
Cheverus was led by Faithfull, who had 10 points, all in the first half. Cummings added nine, including six crucial points late. DiStasio had eight.
The Stags advanced to meet No. 4 Thornton Academy (16-3) in the semifinals Wednesday at 7:30 p.m. at the Cumberland County Civic Center. The Stags won the regular season meeting 57-48 at Saco on Jan. 27. Faithfull had a huge game, scoring 21 points in a contest which saw the Stags seize control in the second half. It remains the closest game Cheverus has had this year. The Stags also beat Thornton Academy 40-31 in last year's regional final.
"If we play (badly) Wednesday, we go home," Brown said.
If Cheverus can advance, it would meet No. 2 Westbrook (17-2) or No. 6 Portland (14-6) in the regional final Saturday at 9 p.m. at the Civic Center. The Stags won 60-44 at Westbrook Jan. 19 and swept the Bulldogs, 59-44 at home Jan. 10, 50-33 at Portland Feb. 3.
The Class A final is Saturday, Feb. 28 at 4 p.m. at the Augusta Civic Center.
Deering went 12-6 this year, a record highlighted by unexpected home wins over Thornton Academy and South Portland. The Rams, with just two seniors, matured at just the right time and gave the Golden Trojans a mighty scare Friday night in the best game of the weekend.
Deering led 9-6 after one period and didn't trail until Thornton Academy senior Michael Guerin made a 3-pointer at the first half horn for a 20-19 advantage.
Thornton Academy then began the second half with a flourish, scoring the first 13 points of the third period to seemingly seize control.
The Rams rose from the dead, riding three 3-pointers from senior Khadar Abbas to get within 34-30, heading for the fourth.
The teams went traded blows in the fourth. Deering looked as if it might pull off the upset when sophomore John Hardy scored on a backdoor layup with 25 seconds to play to give his team a 48-47 lead.
"I thought we had the game," Rams coach Dan LeGage said. "We ran that play a couple times. It was born in JV games."
But Thornton Academy bounced off the ropes.
Inbounding the ball under their basket with 13 seconds remaining, the Golden Trojans got a break as senior James Morse got free, took a pass and was fouled. He calmly sank both free throws to give Thornton Academy a 49-48 lead.
Deering had a final chance to win it. Predictably, the ball came to Abbas. This time, however, the Golden Trojans were ready for him, as senior Doug Wilcox shot out, soared and blocked Abbas' shot. Morse corralled the loose ball and raced in for a layup as time expired to account for the 51-48 final score.
LeGage felt Abbas was the best option at the point.
"We wanted to keep it simple with our young kids on the floor," he said. "We ran a double screen for Khadar. He'd hit six 3's. As a coach, you want to get the ball in the your best player's hands. I don't think the backdoor would have worked again. He curled high. James slipped. Wilcox made a good defensive play, had the wherewithal to leave his man and blocked the shot. That was that. I thought for sure when James fell, Khadar would bury it. It was just a good defensive play."
Deering was led by Abbas, who had 20 points in his final game.
"Khadar had an amazing senior year,' LeGage said. "I never thought back in November that we'd be relying on him to carry us. His consistency from the perimeter was amazing. He shined in the big games. That said a lot about him."
The Rams finished 12-7, but will be heard from again.
"Looking at the season as a whole body of work, I think the kids, especially the seven sophomores, grew up," LeGage said. "It should make them better players in the future. I feel like we have a good core coming back. Next year it will be South Portland and Westbrook. Portland and Cheverus are always there too. I hope we'll be stronger. The key for the sophomores is to stay together. If they continue to play and work on their games, they'll be legitimate contenders.
"I felt like we went in there and gave people a reason to watch us in the future. We lost tonight, but we'll be a team to watch."
Waynflete was 2-9 at one point this winter, but came to life and to earn the No. 9 seed in Western C with a 6-12 mark. The Flyers upset No. 8 Boothbay, 54-42, in last Wednesday's preliminary round, pulling away in the fourth period and riding senior Hassan Jeylani's 21 points. Junior John Malia added 17.
"I had no idea how we'd do in that arena," said Waynflete coach Rich Henry. "We were fortunate to start well. Between their foul trouble and good, solid play on our part, we got ahead and they had to foul. We hit our free throws."
The run came to an end Monday in Augusta with a 66-38 loss to Notre Dame-bound standout Thomas Knight and No. 1 Dirigo.
The Flyers, who finished 7-13, trailed 17-8 after the first and 34-13 at the half. Knight led all scorers with 27. Jeylani led Waynflete with 17 in his final game. Malia added 12.
"I think we were in the classic 'happy to be there' mentality," Henry said. "The atmosphere was educational for the kids. Making the preliminary round was a good goal. To make it to the quarterfinals was great. We enjoyed it while it lasted."
Jeylani is the lone graduating senior. Look for Waynflete to ride this experience to even better results in 2009-2010.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com