Cheverus can't repeat; Stags let fourth quarter lead slip away in 58-49 loss to Bangor
AUGUSTA—A second straight state championship and an undefeated season were close enough for the Cheverus boys' basketball team to taste Saturday evening at the Augusta Civic Center.
Then, the Bangor Rams swooped in and took it all away.
In an exciting, back-and-forth Class A state final, the Stags overcame a sloppy start, led by as many as six points in the fourth quarter, but couldn't close the deal as the Rams finished the game on a 20-8 run to win the crown, 58-49.
Cheverus fell behind with just over two minutes to go, but had chances in the late going before falling just short, seeing its two-season win streak end at 25 games and its 2010-11 season finish at 21-1.
Bangor also winds up 21-1 with its 12th state championship and its first since 2007.
"I give the kids credit," said Stags coach Bob Brown. "They worked their butts off. We played as hard as we could. I told the team I'm proud of how they conducted themselves. I'm proud we were 21-0. I'm proud of how we played."
Not to be
After winning it all a year ago, holding off Edward Little in the final, 55-50, all the while overcoming the Indiana Faithfull eligibility controversy, Cheverus faced no distractions and few challenges in 2010-11 en route to a perfect regular campaign.
The Stags, as always, got off to a great start, drubbing visiting Noble (102-29). After a 52-35 victory at Westbrook, Cheverus got a scare from visiting Kennebunk, which played a slowdown style, before winning, 31-25. A 49-28 victory at Portland brought a perfect end to the 2010 portion of the season.
After opening 2011 with wins at Windham and at home over Massabesic, the Stags had to run the gauntlet of several contenders, but passed every test.
Cheverus impressed at Thornton Academy, 52-37, then really made a statement at Bonny Eagle, racing to a 25-1 lead after the first quarter en route to a 63-34 triumph. Home wins over Scarborough and Deering were followed by a victory at Biddeford and a statement-making 63-46 romp at a South Portland squad that many thought would be the Stags' top competition.
On Jan. 29, Cheverus dominated visiting Portland, 70-43. The Stags then held off visiting Marshwood (57-40) and Gorham (80-37) before winning at Sanford and Deering and closing with a 50-35 home win over South Portland.
Cheverus earned the top seed in Western A for the fourth year in a row and found the going much tougher in the regional tournament than it did in the regular year.
In the quarterfinals, No. 8 Marshwood hung tough for almost 32 minutes before the Stags finally got some breathing room at the end for a 52-40 win. The semifinals proved to be a scare as No. 5 Portland rallied from an early 11-0 deficit to lead by five early in the fourth quarter. The Stags did come to life in the nick of time to survive, 45-41. Then, Monday, in a regional final that was far from an aesthetic delight, Cheverus did just enough to beat No. 2 Bonny Eagle, 30-27, to make it 25 wins in succession.
Bangor, meanwhile, actually stumbled out of the gate, suffering a 65-52 loss at rival Hampden Academy in the opener, but didn't lose again. In the regional tournament, the top-ranked Rams had no trouble versus No. 8 Brunswick in the quarterfinals (67-38). In the semis, versus No. 4 Mt. Blue, the Rams moved on by virtue of a 41-34 triumph. Tuesday, in the Eastern A Final in Augusta, Bangor and No. 3 Edward Little, the two-time reigning regional champion, went back-and-forth for 32 minutes, but the Rams finished stronger and won, 41-38, to get back to the big stage.
The Stags appeared in the state game for the 14th time.
Cheverus' first trip was in 1930 (a 21-12 victory over Houlton). The Stags also won it in 1940 (over Bangor), 1948 (over Bangor), 1961 (75-54 over Presque Isle), 1981 (72-63 over Cony), 1982 (64-58 over Cony), 1997 (63-52 over Mt. Blue), 2008 (over Bangor) and last year over Edward Little.
The Stags lost in 1939 (35-23 to Winslow), 1964 (69-59 to Stearns), 1998 (57-49 to Skowhegan) and 2003 (to Bangor).
Bangor has played in 22 prior state games, winning half of them.
In the very first state final, in 1922, Bangor lost to South Portland, 24-21. The first championship came the following season, 41-22, over Portland. The Rams returned to the state game in 1936 (a 30-15 loss to Portland) and also fell in 1940 (to Cheverus), 1941 (37-29 to Edward Little), 1946 (50-35 to Edward Little) and after downing Bath for the 1947 championship (60-44), lost in 1948 (to Cheverus) and 1951 to Westbrook (71-54).
The Rams won it all in 1955 (45-36 over Morse), but lost to Morse the following season, 52-33. In 1959, Bangor edged Lewiston by a point, 65-64, but in 1962, it lost again to Morse, 53-44. The Rams didn't return to the state final for 30 years, then, under coach Roger Reed, lost arguably the most storied game of them all, 81-79, to South Portland, in five overtimes.
The following season, Reed won his first crown, 62-37 over South Portland. Titles followed in 1995 (52-41 over Bonny Eagle), 1996 (46-43 over Westbrook), 2000 (45-36 over Westbrook), 2001 (57-56 over Deering, on Joe Campbell's legendary buzzer beater), 2003 (over Cheverus) and 2007 (56-39 over Portland). Three years ago, the Rams suffered a loss to Cheverus at the Civic Center in Portland.
It was the fifth time Bangor and Cheverus squared off in the state final.
The first came in 1940 (24-17 Stags). The teams also played in 1948 (Stags 35-34), 2003 (Rams, 48-43, in OT) and 2008 (Stags, 49-41).
An interesting sidebar was that this was the same matchup as the football state final back in November. In that one, the Stags erupted in the second half and enjoyed a 46-8 victory.
Saturday, Cheverus had its chances, but just couldn't get out of town with the Gold Ball.
A turnaround jump shot from junior Louie DiStasio (the MVP of the Western A tournament) and a free throw from senior Griffin Brady, hinting at a big game to come, gave the Stags a 3-0 lead two minutes in, but suddenly, they forgot how to hold on to the ball, turning it over 11 times the rest of the quarter, as Bangor took early control.
The Rams got on the board on a layup by senior standout Zach Blodgett. Senior Tristan Thomas followed with a 3, Thomas made two foul shots and a layup from junior Patrick Stewart made it 9-3 Bangor after one.
When Stewart hit a leaner 21 seconds into the second period, the Rams had an 11-3 lead, but Cheverus finally came to life.
With 6:28 left in the half, senior Connor O'Neil drained a 3 to end the 11-0 run and a 7 minute, 32 second drought. After Blodgett made a jump shot, O'Neil hit a long jumper and Brady scored on a runner to cut the deficit to 13-10.
"I looked up at the scoreboard and we were behind by six or eight and we were playing well, but everything ended up in a turnover or no production," said Brown, who believed he hadn't coached a game in Augusta in 32 years. "I thought it would be a long night. Finally, Connor hit a couple shots and got us back in. We kept playing and making plays. Guys were diving all over the floor for the ball."
Stewart answered with a layup, but Brady buried a 3 to make it 15-13. After Rams senior Sean Mackintosh made a jumper, Brady answered with another 3 and with 3:14 to go in the half, the Bangor bench was called for a technical foul, forcing Reed to remained seated for the remainder of the game. DiStasio made both free throws to put Cheverus back on top, 18-17.
The Rams came right back and regained the lead behind two Blodgett foul shots. Stewart added a putback, but the Stags made it 21-20 Bangor at halftime when junior Cam Olson fed Brady for a layup.
The Stags had overcome 14 first half turnovers and their long scoreless stretch to be right in the game at the break. The Rams had 10 turnovers of their own in the first 16 minutes, but had proved to be every bit as good as the unbeaten champs.
The third period would see the squads go back and forth.
A jumper from Bangor senior point guard Luke Hettermann, who would become a thorn in Cheverus' side, got the second half started. After O'Neil fed DiStasio for a layup, Brady made a layup, then drained a jump shot for a 26-23 advantage.
The Rams battled back to tie on a free throw from Thomas and a Blodgett putback before O'Neil and Hetterman traded 3-pointers to make it a 29-29 contest.
After Olson and Thomas traded hoops, Brady made a free throw and Olson a layup to give the Stags a slim 34-31 margin with eight minutes to go.
Twice in the fourth period, Cheverus went up six, but the Rams had the last laugh.
Forty-eight seconds in to the final stanza, Olson converted an old-fashioned three-point play, making a layup, drawing a foul and hitting the free throw. After Bangor senior Josiah Hartley, who was part of the football state drubbing in November, made two foul shots, Olson fed Brady for a layup with 5:20 to play, restoring a six-point bulge, 39-33.
Then, Thomas took over.
First, Thomas made a fallaway jumper with 4:25 remaining. Then, with 3;48 to go, Thomas buried a 3 to make it a 39-38 game.
Things seemed to again turn in Cheverus' favor 15 seconds later when Thomas picked up his fourth foul and DiStasio made two free throws, but Blodgett answered with two foul shots and after a putback from Brady with 2:30 showing, Stewart made a layup and was fouled, setting up a crucial sequence.
Stewart had a chance to complete the three-point play and tie the score with 2:11 to go, but he missed. Blodgett got the rebound, however, and put the ball home to give the Rams then lead for good, 44-43.
"(Thomas) went back-to-back and then we had a turnover," Brown said. "Then, we didn't check out on a foul shot. That's what championship games are. Make those plays or you go home."
After a Stags turnover, Hettermann hit two free throws to make it 46-43 with 1:43 left. DiStasio made one foul shot with 1:25 remaining as Thomas fouled out, but seven seconds later, Hettermann went back to the stripe and again calmly made both attempts for a 48-44 advantage.
After DiStasio missed a 3, Brady was there for the offensive rebound and was fouled. He made both free throws with 1:05 remaining to pull Cheverus within two, 48-46.
With 54.1 seconds to play, Hettermann went to the line, missed the first and made the second, but Hettermann somehow got his own rebound and was fouled again. This time, he sank both tries and the lead was up to five, 51-46.
"I wasn't nervous," said Hetterman. "I just focused and put them in. Once I made a couple, I felt comfortable at the line."
O'Neil had a 3-point shot blocked by Blodgett and senior Jacques Larochelle, who had replaced Thomas, got the rebound. The ball came to Hettermann, who was fouled again with 34.7 seconds to go.
Hettermann again stepped up huge, sinking the first free throw, then the second and the Rams were closing in on glory, up, 53-46.
A 3-ball from DiStasio with 17 seconds to play got Cheverus back to 53-49 and after Hettermann missed two foul shots with 12.6 seconds showing, the Stags still had life, but they turned the ball over and Bangor put the win on ice.
With 3.3 seconds remaining, Larochelle made two free throws. After one final Stags turnover, Larochelle went back to the line with 1 second to go, made the first, but missed the second. Hartley got the offensive board and just before the horn, scored on a putback to give the Rams a 58-49 triumph.
"We just took it to them," Thomas said. "We knew what we wanted to do and we went and did it. We got it down low and hit shots at the end. We really played a great game. Everybody in the whole town is looking up to us and we made them proud."
"Every game has its own personality and every team is different," Reed said. "This is just another group of great Bangor High kids who go out and play their hearts out. Cheverus also played their hearts out. It was just a matter of who would get a run at the end and stretch it out a little bit, who would hit foul shots. We were fortunate to get to the line and we made them. Two good teams. One had to win. One had to lose. That's the way it went.
"Everything went our way late. Not to take anything away from Cheverus. They're a great basketball team. We've played a lot of close games this year. I think that helps coming down the stretch like this. We were down five or six, took timeout and I said, 'We have to make some plays. We're not out of this thing.' That's what we did."
Cheverus was left shellshocked.
"It was runs," Brown lamented. "They had their run at the right time. I thought we were in great position up six. They made a couple good plays and we missed foul shots and turned the ball over. You can't make those mistakes in a 32-minute game with the score like that.
"(Bangor's) a little bigger and stronger. Their point guard, to be honest with you, was better than I thought he was. He had a nice game. We get quite a few turnovers from point guards and I'm not sure we got one off him. We didn't execute the way we should have executed.
"Going 21-1 sounds good as long as the 1 isn't the last game. If you lose the first game like them, it's a hell of a year. Bangor has kids who can really play. I give them credit. I don't think we lost the game. I think they won it. That's what our guys have to understand."
The Stags got 22 points from Brady in his final game. He also blocked five shots and had four rebounds.
"Griff did a nice job," Brown said. "He played very aggressively. We went away from our big guy, put him in the middle and he did a nice job."
DiStasio fought his way to 12 points. O'Neil added eight points, four boards and two steals in his swan song.
Olson was huge off the bench with seven points and two rebounds.
"Cam didn't even play in the Western Maine Final," said Brown. "He had three days of great practices and came in and was a major factor in us getting the lead. He played defense and made passes. Great job. I'm glad he's a junior."
Cheverus was done in by its 21 turnovers. The Stags made 10 of 16 free throws.
"A lot of things we did were uncharacteristic, but I do think that we played better tonight than at any time in the Western Maine tournament so I'm pleased with that," Brown said. "Some of the guys who came in, (senior) Peter (Gwilym) and Cam, really did a really nice job."
Brady, Gwilym and O'Neil, along with Andrew Bennett, Nick Burns, Joey Savino and Emmanuel Wani will depart.
"The key with the seniors is that they're good, quality kids," Brown said. "Even guys on the team who didn't play much. Fortunately for me at Cheverus, I run into good kids. Who's a better competitor than Peter Gwilym? Connor O'Neil goes after it the same way. Nick Burns came on. You ask him to go in and he plays well. Joey Savino did a nice job at point. I wasn't playing him at the beginning of the year, but he turned it up. Griffin was a Mr. Basketball candidate. He's pretty good. I'll miss the seniors."
The Rams wound up scoring 58 points, seven more than any other Cheverus opponent mustered this year and more than any foe since South Portland went off for 68 on Feb. 2, 2008.
"You really can't prepare for the matchup zone," Reed said. 'We tried some things. We just played off instinct and what we know as basketball players. Set some screens and try to get some open shots. We can't duplicate their defense. We can't practice against it. We don't know how to play against it. When you go man-to-man all the time like we do, we don't teach zone. They do a good job of that.
"We've got some pretty good players who can score. Besides DiStasio, I thought we had a little more punch in our lineup than they did. He seemed to always be their go-to man. I know they had more than that. We were just lucky enough to win tonight."
For Bangor, Hettermann was an improbable leading scorer with 14 points, all of which came in the second half. He also had three steals and a rebound.
"It feels really good," Hettermann said. "We were struggling early. We tried to figure out what they were doing. At halftime, we talked about getting the ball in the middle and moving it around and running our sets. That worked out better. We just make plays when we need to. That's what wins Gold Balls."
"Luke isn't expected to score many points for us," Reed said. "He's expected to be the floor general. Tonight, he was in the pressure cooker. He was big tonight. That's the most he's scored in all the years he's played for me. He's a really gutty kid. He may be 5-7, but he doesn't know it."
Thomas scored 13 points, including the quick five which keyed the fourth quarter rally. The Rams were able to overcome his absence in the waning moments.
"I was very concerned with the fouls, but when I got my fifth and had to come out, I knew the team could take it over," Thomas said. "We're not five deep. We're the whole 15 deep. I knew Jacques Larochelle would take over."
"I was concerned I put (Tristan) back in too early, but he was the hottest hand we had at the time when I took him out," Reed said. "I knew they'd go at him. I was worried since Jacques doesn't usually score like Thomas does. (Tristan) can hit those 3s and jump shots all over the place. Jacques hit some big foul shots."
Blodgett had 12 points, four rebounds and a block, Stewart added 10 points, seven boards, a blocked shot and a steal, Hartley four points and three rebounds, Larochelle three points, three rebounds and a steal and Mackintosh two points.
The Rams gave the ball away 16 times, but made 21 of 28 foul shots.
"The whole team is really a great group of kids," Reed said. "We don't have any heroes. Jacques Larochelle comes off the bench every night and plays defense like you wouldn't believe. He doesn't get his name in the paper as far as points, but he guards one of the two best players on the floor every night. Zach Blodgett gets big baskets for us. Tristan hit big shots late. Even Pat got some lucky bounces tonight and put them in. He was great tonight. Big at times. He's another one who guards one of the best players on the floor. He's a very smart player. We were lucky to be ahead at the end. We're glad to have it. I'm happy for the kids. They've worked so hard."
Cheverus has won its last two championships in even-numbered years, 2008 and 2010, so that might bode well looking ahead to 2011-12.
The likes of juniors DiStasio, Shawn Grover and Olson and sophomores Matt Cimino, Michael Flaherty and Malcolm Smith are due to return and junior James Kapothanasis will be back as well. He was expected to be a factor Saturday, but couldn't play.
"James broke a bone in his foot by himself in practice," Brown said. "He rolled his ankle and broke a bone. It was one of those freak things. He was coming. I intended on using him today. He was somebody who could have given Louie a break and he can shoot. You'll be writing about him next year."
Don't be surprised if the Stags ride the sting of this defeat to a title run a year from now.
"We have to get bigger and stronger and get more disciplined," said Brown, who will 73 when next season dawns. "Hopefully we have a shot at maybe coming back. A lot of other people don't want it and will have something to say about it. If the guys want it badly enough, maybe they'll work hard enough for us to have a chance to come back. We'll challenge the underclassmen. We have some talent there. It depends how hard they want to work at the game and if they want to get back to this level. If they do, we have a shot."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @foresports