Cheverus downs Westbrook to win Western A championship
PORTLAND—The Cheverus boys' basketball team's triumphant and tumultuous 2009-10 season lives on.
The Stags overcame a slow start Saturday night in the Western Class A Final at the Cumberland County Civic Center, but turned up the defense and went on a 23-7 second half run to down No. 2 Westbrook, 56-46, and set up a date with Edward Little in next Saturday's Class A state championship game, at 7:05 p.m., in Portland.
Cheverus trailed 27-21 midway through the third quarter, but erupted for 14 straight points to seize control. The Blue Blazes never got closer than three the rest of the way and behind 22 points from embattled senior Indiana Faithfull, the Stags went on to earn their second regional title in three seasons.
"The first half we settled for 3-point shots," Faithfull said. "At halftime, we decided to take it to the hole and it worked. This is great."
"Can you believe it?!," Cheverus coach Bob Brown added. "It feels very good. They've got two of the best players in the state, but I think we took them out of their comfort zone. If they get there, you can't play with them. They're too talented."
After winning the 2008 state championship, the Stags enjoyed an undefeated 2009 regular season before being upset by eventual champion Thornton Academy in the semifinals. This winter, Cheverus was expected to be a top contender again and was sensational in the early going, only getting tested once, a 50-48 home victory over Westbrook on Dec. 8 on Faithfull's late shot. The Stags barely broke a sweat against their other foes and were cruising along with the top seed all but locked up near the end of January when they received a jolt.
While researching Faithfull's transcripts for a college recruiter, Brown discovered that his standout had served three semesters during his first year of high school in his native Australia, due to the difference of seasons in the southern hemisphere. Faithfull came to Cheverus as a sophomore and was about to use up his fifth semester in this country. The Maine Principals' Association's rule dictates that high school athletes are only eligible for eight consecutive semesters, meaning Faithfull's eligibilty expired at the end of the first semester.
Cheverus self-reported to the MPA and it looked as though Faithfull's high school career was over. The Stags still managed to finish the regular season 17-1 after losing at South Portland in the finale, earned the top seed, then prepared to make a tournament run without their star.
However, Faithfull's family filed a lawsuit against the MPA, claiming Indiana was a victim of prejudice, and just hours before the start of Cheverus' quarterfinal round game against No. 8 Scarborough on Feb. 12, it was upheld and Faithfull was reinstated (the MPA is expected to contest the ruling and resolution may still be awhile in coming).
Faithfull and his team were far from crisp against the Red Storm (a 49-34 victory) in the quarterfinals or versus No. 4 Windham in Wednesday's semifinals (a 40-30 win), but still found themselves where they expected to be all along, in the regional final.
Westbrook, meanwhile had a much more tranquil regular season, bouncing back from the Cheverus loss to win its final 16 and earn the No. 2 seed with a 17-1 mark. The Blue Blazes, behind their dynamic senior tandem of Dominic Borelli and Nich Jobin, dazzled in a 65-34 quarterfinal round romp over No. 7 Portland, then rallied for an epic 72-66 overtime decision over No. 3 South Portland in Wednesday's semifinal round.
The Stags and Blue Blazes hadn't met in the postseason since their epic triple-overtime affair (won 58-56 by Cheverus) in the 2003 semifinals. This one wouldn't be as memorable, but ultimately had the same result.
Westbrook got off to a promising start when after Faithfull missed a 3 at one end, senior Andrew Beckwith converted an old-fashioned three-point play 54 seconds in. Cheverus went up 4-3 when junior Alex Furness scored on a putback and senior Kyle Randall made a layup after a steal, but Jobin fed Borelli for a layup and the Blue Blazes were back on top, 5-4. Neither team then scored until the 2:27 mark, when Faithfull converted a three-point play. Beckwith answered with a foul shot and with 4.2 seconds to go in the first period, Borelli drove for a layup that gave Westbrook an 8-7 advantage.
Beckwith stretched the lead early in the second, scoring on a putback and a layup after a steal to make it 12-7.
Furness drove for a layup to cut the deficit to 12-9, but Jobin fed Borelli for another layup. Furness responded at the other end with a three-point play after grabbing an offensive rebound and it was 14-12 Blue Blazes.
A pullup jumper from Jobin made it a four-point game, but Faithfull hit a leaner. After senior Jose Nouchanthavong made two foul shots, Faithfull drove for a layup to pull the Stags within two. They then held the ball for the final shot, but Faithfull's leaner under pressure rolled off the rim, keeping Westbrook on top, 18-16, at the break.
The Blue Blazes got some separation in the third, but the Stags came roaring back.
After sophomore Louie DiStasio hit a 3-ball to give Cheverus a 19-18 lead, junior Sean Murphy answered with a 3, Beckwith hit a leaner and Nouchanthavong capped a 7-0 run with a layup. A pair of Furness foul shots got the Stags back within 25-21, but Jobin made a two for Westbrook.
Then, like they did two years ago in their state final upset of Bangor, the Stags dug deep, discovered another gear and took over.
With 3:51 remaining, DiStasio converted a three-point play. A minute later, a pretty spinner from Furness made it a 27-26 game. With 2:22 to go, Faithfull scored on a highlight-reel scoop shot to give his team the lead for good and 19 seconds later, junior Peter Gwilym scored on a layup after a steal, forcing Westbrook coach Mark Karter to call timeout.
It didn't help.
First, Faithfull made a layup after a steal. Then, he did it again, this time being fouled in the process and he made the free throw to cap a 14-0 run.
With 1:04 left in the quarter, a Borelli three-point play ended the surge, but Faithfull answered with a driving layup.
With 30.9 seconds to go, Beckwith made two foul shots and the Stags carried a 37-32 lead to the fourth.
Cheverus found a way to hold on.
Jobin opened the final stanza with a putback. After the teams traded turnovers, Faithfull was fouled and restored the five-point lead with a pair of free throws. With 6:15 remaining, Faithfull drove, kicked to Furness on the right wing and Furness made it 42-34 by draining a 3. Furness than made it a 10-point game with a layup, but Jobin sank a 3, then made a free throw to cut it to six.
Westbrook had a chance to draw closer seconds later, but couldn't convert. Gwilym then made a pair of foul shots for a 46-38 lead.
With 3:23 remaining, a Nouchanthavong putback gave the Blue Blazes hope, but Faithfull drove for a layup to make it 48-40 with 2:54 left.
Two Nouchanthavong foul shots made it 48-42 and after a turnover, Westbrook had two looks to get closer, but Borelli's 3 was off and Murphy's putback rolled out.
Gwilym made it 49-42 when he made the second of two free throw attempts with 1:56 left. Four seconds later, Nouchanthavong went back to the line and made two foul shots and it was 49-44.
Cheverus then turned the ball over, but Westbrook returned the favor.
The Stags ran 40 seconds off the clock before Faithfull was fouled. With icewater in his veins, he sank the first attempt and Cheverus had a 50-44 lead with 1:03 to play.
After Beckwith missed a 3, Gwilym rebounded and was fouled. He sank both.
"I just went back to the repetition from practice," said Gwilym. "They went in."
After Jobin missed a 3 at the other end, Gwilym was fouled again. With 28.1 seconds to go, Gwilym made one this time, but the damage was done.
Cheverus went on to put the finishing touches on its stunning comeback and advanced to its second state game in three years, 56-46.
"I thought the kids played so hard and so relentless in the second half," Brown said. "We haven't played well as I would have liked on the offensive end. We played well on defense. Scarborough only had 34 and Windham had 30. I think our press turned it around. A couple steals and layups. An inside-out 3. Solid defense at the other end."
Faithfull, who was named the regional tournament most valuable player, had his best game since his return.
"Indy's conducted himself like a gentlemen through everything," Brown said. "He's acted like a class kid."
"It starts with Indy," Gwilym said. "He's so unselfish. We all feed off that. We all played together in the second half and made plays and look what happened. We put everything we had into it. It's win or go home and we played with that attitude."
Characteristically, Faithfull deflected praise to his teammates.
"This is the best team I've ever played on," he said. "We're so close and we all have the same goal. I think (losing against South Portland) definitely helped us. It fueled the fire for us to come out and practice hard every day."
In addition to Faithfull's 22 points, Furness was huge with 18 and Gwilym had a key eight.
"I just tried to make plays and hustle," said Gwilym, who, as the Stags quarterback led his team to the regional final in football only to lose to Windham. "Sometimes the ball goes where you want it to and you get lucky. Tonight, that happened."
DiStasio added six points and Randall had two. Cheverus only turned the ball over nine times (forcing 17) and made a clutch 18-of-23 from the foul stripe.
For Westbrook, which bows out at 19-2, Beckwith led the way with 14 points. Nouchanthavong had 10, while the Jobin (10) and Borelli (9) combo only managed 19 total points.
"We worked a lot on Jobin and Borelli," Furness said. "We wanted to make sure they wouldn't score easily inside. We also made sure to get a hand up on the perimeter shooters so they wouldn't have easy shots."
"We wanted to make sure no one had an easy pass to Borelli or a look at an easy 3," Brown added. "I think we had about a 95 percent success rate on that. Against South Portland, Westbrook had nine 3s. They had two tonight."
Murphy finished with three points for the Blue Blazes, who hit 14-of-18 free throws.
The depth of what the Stags have endured over the past month and more notably the past 10 days, is unknown to the outside world, but what is for certain is that this group is tightly-knit and is bound and determined to win another Gold Ball.
"It feels great," Gwilym said. "We like (the motto of us against the world). We've thrived with it."
"Coming into the school, I got heat from other people, but everyone's been welcoming," said Furness, who transferred to Cheverus this school year from Wells. "They've turned into the best group of friends I have. It's been a great year."
"Everyone has their opinion of what's gone on, but we've hung together as a team and Indy hung in there and practiced and worked, then to come back and not know if he'll be with us the next day or not, this is probably the strangest season I've coached anywhere," Brown added. "It really is us against everybody. It's not easy. In fairness, I understand the people out there. My whole thing is that when they want to point at somebody, maybe they should look at the rule. If the court says it's wrong, maybe they should look at that."
The final step
Saturday, Cheverus (now 20-1) will face a 19-2 Edward Little squad that let a state title slip away a year ago in a 54-52 loss to Thornton Academy. The Red Eddies were seeded No. 2 in Eastern A and in dramatic fashion got past No. 7 Mt. Blue (59-44), No. 3 Bangor (60-57) and top-ranked Brewer (59-55), the final two in comeback fashion, to capture a second straight regional crown.
The Stags don't play Edward Little in the regular season. Back in 2003, when the Red Eddies were a Western A squad, Cheverus routed them, 87-55, in the regional final. That was team's most recent meeting.
While the Stags don't know much about Edward Little this time around, they'll close ranks one more time and look to win the program's ninth Gold Ball on a floor that's been mighty kind to them the past few seasons.
"Edward Little looks like a tough team," Furness said. "We'll spend the week getting ready for them."
"We haven't seen much of them and I don't know what to expect, but I'm sure they'll be a tough matchup," Gwilym said.
"It'll be fun," said Faithfull. "Edward Little's a great team. We better be ready."
"Edward Little's good," added Brown. "I've watched them play. They're very talented. They have some quickness. I do know that Mike Adams, in my mind, is one of the best coaches in the state. His teams always win, they're always ready and they play with class. I think it should be a nice matchup."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org