Cheverus rebounds, hands Deering first loss
PORTLAND—After dropping two of its last three games, something which hadn't happened in four years, the Cheverus boys' basketball team, the reigning Western Class A champion, found itself at a crossroads Friday night.
Hosting undefeated Deering, a squad already coronated by many as the Stags' successors, Cheverus could have continued to struggle, or pull together and find a way to win.
The Stags chose the latter option.
At a packed and noisy Keegan Gymnasium, Cheverus found itself down 20-7 early in the second period before turning the game around.
The Stags turned up the defensive intensity, forcing a whopping 28 turnovers for the game, and went on a 27-4 run over two quarters and never looked back, prevailing, 49-40, improving to 8-2, while dropping the Rams to 9-1.
Cheverus was paced by 16 points from senior Louie DiStasio, who was whistled for three fouls in the first 13 minutes, but never received another, 15 from senior Cam Olson, who dominated all over the floor and even overcame a nasty injury late in the contest, 13 from senior Shawn Grover and a superb all-around effort from junior Michael Flaherty.
Just when you want to count the Stags out, they rise off the deck to show they're still championship caliber.
"We definitely needed this," said Olson. "We have a lot to work on obviously. This helps with the process going toward playoffs. Deering's not easy to beat. They're going to go far."
More of the same
Both Cheverus and Deering made deep tournament runs last winter and entered 2011-12 on the short list of Western A favorites.
The Stags opened with wins over Biddeford (57-38), Gorham (72-37), Portland (49-41), Westbrook (73-47), Noble (74-22) and Marshwood (59-40), then stumbled at Bonny Eagle, 46-37. After bouncing back with a 77-52 home triumph over Sanford, Cheverus was stunned at Scarborough Tuesday, 58-43.
While the Stags have stumbled in the new year, the Rams (regional semifinalists in 2010-11) had passed every test since the onset of the season.
Deering dispatched host Thornton Academy (62-41), visiting Marshwood (67-64) and Massabesic (82-31), host Noble (78-36), visiting Sanford (63-31) and host Bonny Eagle (57-55, in overtime). Since the calendar flipped to 2012, the Rams had their way with visiting Kennebunk (73-25), host South Portland (40-29) and visiting Biddeford (61-48).
Head-to-head (please see sidebar), Cheverus has owned Deering the past five seasons, winning all 10 encounters, including last year by scores of 61-51 at home and 43-36 at the Rams. Deering's last win over the Stags came Feb. 7, 2006 (51-47 at home), less than a month before the Rams would win the program's lone championship.
Since Cheverus opened Keegan Gym for the 2005-06 season, Deering has won there only once, 50-49, that first year. Since then, the Stags have pretty much handled the Rams easily, often putting the game on ice early.
Friday, Deering hung tougher, but in the end, Cheverus got the better of the Rams for the 11th straight time.
The game's first minute might have featured the best 60 seconds that Deering's even played at Cheverus.
The Rams won the game's opening tip and the ball quickly came to senior sharpshooter Jon Amabile, who sank a jumper for a 2-0 lead just three seconds in.
The next time down the court, Deering went up 5-0 when Amabile sank a long 3-pointer. The Rams could have extended their lead when junior Thiwat Thiwat went to the free throw line, but in a harbinger of things to come, Thiwat missed both attempts.
After the hosts got on the board courtesy a DiStasio jumper, Amabile sank another 3 and junior Labson Abwoch scored on a putback to make it 10-2 Deering, a little more than two minutes into the contest.
At the other end, DiStasio appeared to answer with a short jumper, but underscoring his team's early struggles, the basket was waved off due to an offensive goaltending transgression.
Cheverus did pull within six on a jumper from Olson, but Amabile made yet another 3. Amabile then sank two free throws and with 2:42 to go in the opening stanza, Thiwat made his second foul shot attempt for a 16-4 lead. After Grover got a point back at the charity stripe, Thiwat scored on a putback. Grover made a layup in the waning seconds, but the Rams appeared totally in control after the first quarter, up 18-7.
Just 11 seconds into the second period, DiStasio received his second foul. When Abwoch scored on a leaner with 7:09 to play before halftime, Deering had a 20-7 advantage.
Then, everything changed.
Olson got the comeback started with a putback. After Thiwat missed two free throws, DiStasio set up Olson for a layup. Olson followed with a foul shot to make it 20-12, but with 3:24 left before the break, DiStasio was whistled for foul number three and the situation appeared dire for the Stags.
Instead of pulling his star, like most coaches would, Cheverus coach Bob Brown left DiStasio in the game, trusting him to stay out of further foul trouble while hopefully providing a spark for the stagnant Cheverus offense.
The gamble paid off big time.
A mere 20 seconds after the foul, DiStasio calmly buried a 3 and suddenly, the Stags had crawled within 20-15.
"Coach called a timeout and asked us what we were doing on offense," DiStasio said. "We were keeping it on one side of the floor. We went out there with a mindset to swing it. From there, it's hard to play defense when you keep swinging it back and forth. We got layups and played tough and cracked down on defense."
At the other end, Amabile got his third foul and Deering continued to struggle.
Grover made a free throw with 2:12 remaining, Grover set up Olson for a layup a minute later and with 51.1 seconds to play before the break, Grover made a left-handed layup to make the score 20-20.
With 21.4 seconds left, DiStasio sank a fadeaway jumper in the lane and the comeback was complete.
At halftime, Cheverus some how, some way, was on top, 22-20.
"Tuesday night was a wakeup call for us," Flaherty said. "Scarborough was a team we should have beaten. We came out flat and didn't have any energy. We got down tonight and our fans brought us back. We made a couple plays and they picked up for us and we took it from there."
"It started with our defense," Olson said. "Coach just told us to stick with what we wanted to do. They have some really talented players. We had to take charge of the game. We got open shots on offense. We got back into the game."
"I was very concerned, but we came down and made a couple key plays and got decent shots," Brown added.
The Stags had ended the half on a 15-2 run. The surge was 10-0 after DiStasio got his third foul. Deering certainly helped by scoring just two points in the second period, turning the ball over eight times. All the good the Rams did early in the game had gone by the wayside.
"We turned the ball over," lamented Deering coach Dan LeGage. "That's the game right there. You can't give them extra opportunities and that's what we did. That says it all. We were just careless with the ball. We came out strong and shot the ball well, but they're tough here. They did a good job defensively in the second quarter. It was hard to get into any sort of flow since we weren't taking care of the basketball. (Amabile) got in foul trouble and that kind of slowed him down a little bit and they made adjustments. We weren't attacking the gaps. We weren't aggressive enough."
The contest was still very much up for grabs as the second half commenced, but it didn't take long for Cheverus to seize control for good.
A Grover 3-ball gave the Stags a little breathing room. After an Abwoch floater ended an 8 minute, 44 second drought and an 18-0 Cheverus run, DiStasio buried a 3 to make it 28-22.
Senior Pat Green answered with a floater in the lane, but Flaherty took a pass from junior Drew Ferrick and a made a layup, DiStasio set up Grover for a short bank shot and after an Olson steal and miss, DiStasio put home the rebound to extend the lead to 34-24.
Over 10 minutes and 15 seconds, the Stags outscored the Rams, 27-4.
"Some of Olson's drives were pretty spectacular," Brown said. "I thought one of the keys of the game was when he stole it, missed the layup and Louie tipped it in. Those are plays we needed."
Deering attempted to crawl back as Green set up Abwoch for a layup and Amabile somehow banked home a shot despite being blanketed by a defender, but DiStasio found Grover for a layup, Flaherty, after a steal, passed to Olson for a layup and with 1:58 remaining in the third, Grover assisted on a DiStasio layup for a 40-28 advantage.
The visitors got a 3 from sophomore Chhorda Chorn and a free throw from Abwoch, but DiStasio answered with a driving layup. As time expired in the quarter, Abwoch scored on a putback, but the Rams were still down by eight, 42-34.
Cheverus would put the win away in the fourth period, although Deering had its chances to make things interesting.
Twenty-three seconds in, Ferrick made a free throw. After more than two scoreless minutes, a leaner from Flaherty made it 45-34. Abwoch answered with a putback. Thiwat then stole the ball and Green had an open look at a 3, but it was off the mark.
With 3:17 to play, Grover passed to Olson (who had left the game with a cut to the head and returned with a prominent wrap around his noggin) for a layup and a 47-36 advantage.
"I got like an (inadvertent) tooth in my head," Olson said. "(The athletic trainer) wrapped it up and I was a little dizzy. I think it's because it was wrapped so tight."
With 2:29 to go, Abwoch was fouled and sank both attempts. Amabile then stole the ball and at the other end, had an open look at a 3, which could have made it a two possession game, but the shot was just off, essentially squashing any hopes of a late rally.
After the hosts kept possession alive thanks to a remarkable save from DiStasio, Flaherty fed Olson for a layup with 1:20 left. Amabile answered with a layup after a steal, but that was as close as the Rams would get and Cheverus ran out the clock on its 49-40 triumph.
"We could have given up when they came out on us, but we bounced back and fought and that's what championship teams do," DiStasio said. "It's a big step for us."
"I think the kids, especially after the Scarborough fiasco, showed a lot of character, dug down and made hard plays and didn't get pushed around," Brown said. "Deering's an excellent team, no question about that, but I give my kids all the credit in the world. We were down and I wondered if the kids could respond and they did. They responded in a way that we could be a good team. Everybody did it. Everybody made mistakes and everybody made good plays and looked for each other. That's a mark of what we're supposed to be about. We've had a hard time running good offense this year for whatever reason. Mostly bad coaching. We need to finish games better. They didn't make shots, fortunately for us. We came up with rebounds, got loose balls and steals."
DiStasio finished with 16 points, three rebounds and three steals. Even better, he never received a fourth foul.
"Coach Brown looked over at me and said he didn't want to take me out," DiStasio said. "He told me to play smart. I wouldn't help him sitting next to him. I know he likes me, but he doesn't like me that much."
"I'm not surprised one bit (at how Louie played with three fouls)," said Olson. "He's so mature. He knew with three fouls to play within himself and didn't foul. He played a heck of a game
"Louie's playing," Brown said. "If he had four fouls he'd play. I have a hard time seeing a great player wasting time on the bench. Every minute he plays, it's a bonus. He's good enough to play with fouls and say I'm not going to get anymore."
Olson scored 15 points and snared six boards and two steals.
Grover was steady with 13 points, seven rebounds, a steal and a blocked shot.
Flaherty only had four points, but his production went far beyond the scoring column. Filling in for senior captain James Kapothanasis, out indefinitely with mono, Flaherty played superb defense, stealing the ball six times and grabbing three rebounds.
"James is obviously a captain, a guy everyone looks up to," Flaherty said. "He runs our offense. We only had one practice knowing he'd be gone. We had a meeting today and coach went over everyone's roles. We spread it over a good group of guys and we came through. Luckily, we had the guys step in who had experience already. I went to Deering my freshman year, so that made it a little more fun for me."
"Flaherty played a hell of a game," Brown said. "(Kapothanasis) may be out the whole year. I heard that two days ago."
Ferrick added one point, six boards, two steals and a block.
Cheverus committed 17 turnovers and only made 4-of-12 free throws, but got the job done.
"There's only one way we can put pressure on and that's if the big guys inside play good defense," Brown said. "Grover and Ferrick played as good inside defense as we've had in a long time. They were physical, motivated and talking."
For Deering, Amabile led all scorers with 17 points, but he only mustered four after his first period explosion.
"We got a hand up and didn't let him go middle," DiStasio said. "If he went baseline, Shawn stepped up and took charges and got him into foul trouble."
"Once (Jon) missed a couple, we started to get physical with him and he got in foul trouble and had to worry about that," Flaherty said. "We made sure that we kept calling out 'Shooter!' That's coach's big thing. It gets in their head and makes them start thinking."
Amabile also had four rebounds and four steals.
Abwoch had 15 points, eight boards, three blocks and a steal. Chorn (five rebounds) and Thiwat (a game-high 14 boards) each had three points and Green finished with two.
Ultimately, the Rams were doomed by a stunning 28 turnovers. Six-of-13 free throw shooting didn't help either.
"(Cheverus) exposed some things we need to work on," LeGage said. "At this point of the season, that's good. We saw what we need to get better at. If we're going to be a team, these are the moments it really reveals itself. We'll see how we bounce back from this."
Deering (still first, barely, in the Western Class A Heal Points standings) is back in action Monday at 1 p.m., with another stern test, this time at up-and-coming Scarborough, a venue at which the Rams lost a year ago. Deering is home with Westbrook next Friday night.
"This is a good learning experience for us," said LeGage. "We'll work harder. There's still a lot of season. This would have been nice, but what it does for us is reveal what we need to work on. There's not a lot of rest since we play Scarborough Monday and they already have a win over (Cheverus)."
Cheverus (a very close second to the Rams in Western A) is off until next weekend when it hosts Windham Friday. A home showdown with Portland looms the following Monday evening.
"We're going to be a contender," said Flaherty. "As long as we do our thing and everyone does their role, we'll be all set."
"This was huge," Brown added. "It's not an easy stretch at all. I'm really pleased at the progress we've made."
The Rams-Stags rematch is Feb. 7, at Deering.
There's a very good chance we'll see an Act III as well.