Stags back to states after beating Bonny Eagle
PORTLAND—For all the success the Cheverus boys' basketball program has had in recent years, the two things it hasn't been able to do is go undefeated while winning a state title and repeat as state champions.
Now, the Stags will have an opportunity to accomplish both feats.
Thanks to Monday's down-to-the-wire 30-27 victory over Bonny Eagle in the Western Class A Final, Cheverus (21-0, riding a 25-game win streak) will face either Edward Little or Bangor (those teams meet Tuesday night in the Eastern A Final) Saturday at 7:05 p.m. at the Augusta Civic Center in the state title tilt as the Stags seek to go back-to-back for the first time since 1981-82 and finish without a blemish for the first time since 1981.
Beating the Scots in the regional final wasn't easy, but once again Cheverus made enough plays on both ends of the floor to advance.
The Stags led almost the whole way before Bonny Eagle went up, 27-26, on a 3-pointer from fabulous freshman Dustin Cole with 1:19 to go. Undaunted, Cheverus senior Griffin Brady, who hadn't hit a shot all night, buried a 3-ball with 52.4 seconds remaining, senior Connor O'Neil added a foul shot and in the waning seconds, the Stags withstood three potential game-tying 3-point attempts to survive and advance.
"I told the kids they don't hold up a sign that says '9' or '10' (for style points)," said Cheverus coach Bob Brown. "It's not pretty. Someone said that we only had 30 points, but I pointed to the scoreboard and said, 'They only got 27.' We did something right."
Cheverus was rarely tested during an 18-0 regular season, but the Stags have had their hands full in the tournament as the top seed. In the quarterfinals, No. 8 Marshwood pushed them for nearly 32 minutes before they moved on with a 52-40 victory. Then, in the semifinals Wednesday, Cheverus let an early 11-0 lead slip away and found itself down five points in the fourth period before rallying to hold off No. 5 Portland, 45-41.
Bonny Eagle has been this year's feel-good story, winning 15 of 18 games behind the brilliance of Cole and the veteran play of seniors Jeff Arnell, Levi Meggison and Steven Simonds and junior Cole Libby. The Scots wound up second in the region and after having their way with No. 7 Westbrook in the quarterfinals (48-33), they earned an impressive 43-34 win over No. 6 Deering in Wednesday's semis.
The teams met just once in the regular season, on Jan. 13, when the Stags raced to a 25-1 lead after one quarter and humbled Bonny Eagle in Standish, 63-34.
The teams last met in the playoffs in 1997 regional final, 63-52 win for Cheverus.
Monday's contest would be much closer than the regular season game, but when the dust settled, the result was the same and the Stags were regional champions again.
It took all of 30 seconds for the Stags to take the lead when junior Louie DiStasio canned a 3-pointer. Sophomore Matt Cimino added a jumper from just inside the 3-point stripe for a 5-0 advantage.
After Bonny Eagle got on the board on a jumper from Arnell, Cheverus junior James Kapothanasis knocked down a 3. A short jumper in the lane from Simonds made it an 8-4 Stags' lead after one quarter.
Even though Bonny Eagle struggled mightily in the first eight minutes, it was in far better shape than in the first meeting.
"The first game was just the first quarter," Simonds said. "After that, the last three quarters, we were right with them. We were scared. Tonight, we were prepared and we played right with them."
Both offenses continued to plod along in the second period.
A pullup jumper from Cole and a Cole foul shot made it an 8-7 game, but Cheverus got a little breathing room on a 3 from senior Peter Gwilym, the team's sparkplug off the bench. Cimino added a tip, but Meggison answered with a layup for the Scots. In the final minute, DiStasio hit a bank shot and the Stags took a 15-9 lead to the break.
"We played very well defensively," said Bonny Eagle coach Phil Bourassa. "Once we get to a game like this, we were reasonably pleased with the halftime score. You'd like to be winning, but to hold them to 15, we had confidence our shots would fall. Tonight they didn't."
After Cheverus threatened to pull away midway through the third quarter, Bonny Eagle roared back to make things very interesting.
Stags senior Joey Savino and Simonds traded foul shots to start the second half. After DiStasio hit a jumper with 4;49 left in the third, Cheverus appeared on the brink of pulling away, up, 18-10, but Meggison scored on a putback and Simonds made a putback to make it 18-14.
After DiStasio hit a jump shot, Arnell converted an old-fashioned three-point play (a putback, foul and free throw) to make it a 20-17 game. Late in the stanza, O'Neil made a jumper, but DiStasio was whistled for his third foul and the Scots rode that momentum to pull within one heading to the fourth thanks to a jumper from Libby and a putback by Meggison.
"When steals are there, I try to grab them, but it hurts me sometimes because I get a foul," said DiStasio, about his defensive approach.
For the second straight game, the Stags' intestinal fortitude would be tested with the season on the line and for the second consecutive time, they rose to the occasion.
With 6:32 to play, O'Neil hit a jumper in the lane to make it 24-21 Cheverus. After several misses at 3-pointers from well behind the arc, Bonny Eagle finally made one, as Simonds was true with 1:48 to go, tying the score at 24-24. That shot ended a 5 minute, 58 second drought.
Fourteen seconds later, DiStasio calmly buried a jumper to put the Stags back on top, 26-24, ending his team's 4:58 dry spell.
"We just wanted to take the lead right back," said DiStasio. "Everyone cheers against us, but we like that. We like the challenge."
Then, with 1:19 showing, Cole, the freshman who plays like anything but, sank a 3-ball and for the first time all season, the Scots had a lead over Cheverus, 27-26.
With its repeat title hopes fading, the Stags executed their offense perfectly, got the ball to the frustrated Brady on the wing and his 3-pointer hit nothing but net for a 29-27 advantage with 52.4 seconds left.
"I was open and said I'm going to shoot it and it went in," Brady said.
"That was gutsy," Brown said. "He took the shot and if he doesn't take it and make it, we don't win."
"Both teams were cautious, it seemed like and hesitant, shooting-wise, but we started hitting shots," said Simonds. "They just hit big ones after our big ones and it dulled our momentum."
The game was far from over, but Simonds' 3-pointer from roughly 30 feet away was well short and a held ball on the rebound resulted in the possession arrow pointing Cheverus' way.
With 15.8 seconds to go, O'Neil had a chance to make it a two possession game, but he only made the first of two free throws, giving the Stags a 30-27 advantage, but leaving the Scots with a final chance.
After a timeout, Bonny Eagle got the ball in to Simonds, but his attempt was blocked by Gwilym.
Luckily for the Scots, Simonds got the ball right back and took another shot, but it was off the mark. With time winding down, Meggison grabbed the rebound, raced out to the 3-point stripe and fired up a prayer as time expired.
Cheverus 30 Bonny Eagle 27.
"We had a play and we almost executed it right," Simonds said. "(Gwilym) got to me quicker than I thought and it didn't work out. I got another look, but it was a tough look."
"We knew they'd foul us since it's the smart thing to do, but I think we had a good look at it and thought (Simonds) might been fouled," said Bourassa. "It was directly in front of me and sounded like he got fouled, but by no means did that decide the game."
"We wanted to stay as tight as possible without fouling the 3-point shooter," Brady said. "We didn't want to make it an easy shot. I was a little nervous. We wanted to get the rebound. It was a close call."
The Stags had lived to play one more day.
“It wasn't easy," said O'Neil. "It was a battle from the start. We're making mental mistakes on offense, but we're still playing great D and that's how we're able to get out with victories. We were stagnant on offense, but when we got movement and came off screens, we were able to put it in the bucket. Watching (Bonny Eagle) throughout the season, they've progressed so much. They're a really good team and we're happy to come out with a win. It's huge."
"We had to work for it," Brady said. "We couldn't hit our shots. We ended up coming through.
DiStasio wound up earning the George Vinall Award as the outstanding player-sportsman in the Western A boys' tournament as he led all scorers in this game with 11 points. He also had three steals.
“We knew it would be a battle and that they'd come out strong," DiStasio said. "We were ready for their pressure.”
"(Louie) did some nice things," Brown said. "Unfortunately, he's on the floor too much, but he's critical for our defense. He's a competitor and gets fired up."
O'Neil had five points (four rebounds and two steals), Cimino four (three steals, two boards and two blocked shots), Brady (three rebounds), Gwilym (three rebounds and a steal) and Kapothanasis three apiece and Savino one. Cheverus had 14 turnovers and made just 1 of 4 foul shots.
"I thought Bonny Eagle played well," said Brown. "We have some fixing to do, obviously."
For Bonny Eagle, Simonds bowed out with eight points, nine rebounds and a steal. Cole had six points, as did Meggison (who also had five rebounds and a steal). Arnell finished with five points, three boards, two blocks and a steal and Libby had two points and five rebounds. The Scots handled the Stags' daunting matchup defense well in that they only turned the ball over 15 times, but they had a devil of a time getting good looks. Bonny Eagle made 3 of 5 free throws.
“Some nights shots just don't fall," lamented Bourassa. "If you told me we'd go 2-of-18 from 3 and we'd have a chance to win, I'd say you're crazy. We played well defensively, held them to one shot and boxed out well. I have all the confidence in our guys' shooting. That's what they gave us. They were sagging, respecting our dribble-drive and letting us shoot it.
"I don't think it was sloppy. We limited them to one shot. We coined the phrase 'no pick-twos.' In football, when you throw a pick-six, it's a return for a touchdown. They feed off of steal scores and we didn't allow it. We just didn't make shots."
The Scots go home at 17-4, but this was one of the finest seasons in program history. One that came as a big surprise to most.
“We were a team that knew we were better than people thought," said Simonds. "We knew we'd be overlooked, but we went places.”
"Nobody had us here, but we had us here," added Bourassa. :We had a great summer. The kids bought in to the defensive side of the ball and that's what got us here. We defended and boxed out and that's why we were here and why we were close. Every single senior has a great personality. What a bunch of great kids. It was an absolutely pleasure coaching them."
Bonny Eagle loses Arnell, Meggison and Simonds, but has a solid returning nucleus, starting with Cole and Libby and will be heard from again.
"Cole was huge tonight," Simonds said. "He goes by people and creates space. He's a big asset and will be. That's the bright light, he and Libby, who still has one more year. The team has a good future with good young kids coming up."
"(Dustin's) a one-man pressbreaker," said Bourassa. "He's a phenomenal little player. I'm excited to see him progress. We have a lot of work to do in the offseason.”
Here we go again
Bangor (20-1) or Edward Little (20-1) will be the only team left standing between the Stags and their destiny.
Cheverus split two recent state games with Bangor. The Rams beat the Stags, 48-43, in overtime, in the 2003 title tilt, but the underdog Stags rallied to vanquish Bangor in the 2008 final, 49-41.
Just last year, Cheverus defeated Edward Little in the finale, 55-50.
The Stags have come this far. They're bound and determined to finish the job in Augusta.
"I think it'll be fun and I think we can get it," DiStasio said.
“I think we have a good shot, but we have to play hard, like always," said Brady.
"It's what all high school players dream about, to play for a state title," said O'Neil. "I think we have it in us. We have to keep up our defense and clean up mental mistakes we're making on offense."
Brown knows his team still has work to do.
"We're just not doing much right at one end," Brown said, alluding to the offensive woes. "We have to fix it. Bangor and Edward Little saw us and probably laughed. We rely on our defense. We haven't played good offense once in this tournament. Every now and then, but not a whole game. Defensively, we're doing OK. The other end, who knows what's happening? I don't. I'm not a magician. We've had open layups and breakaways we missed. We had inside shots. My big guy's now going to be a guard outside shooting. I think where we failed was mentally on the offensive end. When we did run offense, we got nice shots. Trouble is, we're not running offense. These kids are coming out and playing.
"We're 21-0 and we've done it ugly. I call something out and the other coach calls out what I'm going to do. Everyone's prepared. Our team is always more ready at the beginning of the season than everyone else. By the end of the season, everybody's caught up. We kept winning as the season went along, but by smaller and smaller margins. Portland was about as small as you can get. Tonight was about as small as you can get. If we see Edward Little, they're good. We played them in the spring and the summer and both games went to overtime.”