Fast start leads Cheverus to easy win over Portland
PORTLAND—Saturday night, once again, the powerhouse Cheverus boys' basketball game had a victory locked up by halftime.
Hosting city rival Portland, just 24 hours after an impressive 17-point win at South Portland, the Stags raced to a 14-0 lead, were up 19-4 after one quarter and held a 39-11 advantage at the half as they cruised to a 70-43 triumph, their 13th in a row this winter and 17th straight dating back to last February.
Cheverus put nine players in the scoring column, got impressive efforts from the whole roster and further distanced itself from every other team in the region.
"We really came and played with energy," said Stags coach Bob Brown. "I wondered if we would or not because there was a lot of energy spent last night. It was a much better atmosphere last night than tonight. I was wondering how we'd respond."
Cheverus came into the game on a high, having beaten every top contender with relative ease, capped by the win at South Portland.
Portland appeared to have turned the corner a little over a week ago with its triple-overtime win over the Red Riots, but since then, the Bulldogs lost by 14 to visiting Bonny Eagle and by 23 at Deering Friday night.
Saturday's meeting was the second this winter. Cheverus pulled away in the second half to beat Portland at the Expo on Dec. 23, 49-28.
The 170th all-time meeting between the schools would be over quickly as the Stags took an 87-83 lead in the series with their seventh straight victory over their rival.
Just 16 seconds in, junior Louie DiStasio, who had a game-high 19 points in the win at South Portland, drained a 3 to give Cheverus the lead for good. After a turnover, senior Griffin Brady scored on a putback 55 seconds into the game, forcing Portland coach Joe Russo to call timeout.
Things wouldn't get better for the visitors.
DiStasio sank another 3 and senior Connor O'Neil hit back-to-back bombs from behind the stripe for a 14-0 bulge less than three minutes in.
"Anytime you get behind that early against a good team, it's an uphill battle," Russo said. "Their fullcourt run-and-jump took us out of the game. It shouldn't have. They do a nice job with it, but we know how to break it."
The Bulldogs got on the board with 3:38 to go in the first on a bank shot from freshman Jayvon Pitts-Young and junior Pete Donato made a layup after an inbounds pass, but DiStasio canned a long jumper, junior Shawn Grover made a layup and senior Peter Gwilym added a foul shot for a 19-4 lead after one.
In the first eight minutes, Portland turned the ball over 10 times. Cheverus had seven steals (four from O'Neil alone).
"We were just trying to put a lot of pressure on them," O'Neil said. "We moved the ball on offense. Coach told us we had to come out with a lot of energy and that's what we tried to do. Play the passing lanes and hopefully get some steals."
The second quarter started with promise for the Bulldogs when junior Mike Herrick hit a jump shot and after a DiStasio layup, sophomore Nate Smart hit a 3-pointer to make it 21-9, but the Stags would erupt for the next 16 points to end all doubt.
Cheverus' run began with two free throws from Brady. He added a hook shot, Gwilym sank a foul shot, DiStasio fed Brady for a reverse layup, DiStasio made consecutive hoops, O'Neil buried a 3 and with 1:08 to go before halftime, DiStasio made two free throws for a stunning 37-9 advantage.
"We got the inside-outside game going, got layups, got steals, came up with loose balls," Brown said.
A layup by Portland senior Dylan Goodman ended the run, but fittingly, as time expired, Cheverus junior James Kapothanasis tossed up a floater from the baseline that tickled the twine for a 39-11 halftime lead.
The visitors turned the ball over 18 times in the first 16 minutes. The Stags had nine steals and five blocked shots and held a 15-9 rebounding advantage.
The Bulldogs, to their credit, were much more competitive in the second half as the game's physicality increased, but they never made a serious run at a dramatic comeback.
With 5:09 to go in the third quarter, Russo received a technical foul with his team down 24. The Cheverus lead would balloon to as much as 30 (52-22 and 54-24) before the period ended with the Stags in control, up 56-31.
Down the stretch, Portland got as close as 24, 60-36, before Cheverus put the finishing touches on the 70-43 triumph.
"We didn't press in the second half," O'Neil said. "We played our halfcourt defense. We worked really hard in that, but we didn't do a great job of containing."
"I thought Joey's team played well in the second half," Brown said. "They didn't look at the scoreboard."
"We were working on some things in the second half and we got them off their feet and got them moving," Russo said.
Despite the score, until the final whistle, Brown was animated and coaching his kids.
"I'll never shut up," Brown said. "When I shut up, I'll go home."
Statistically, the Stags put on a show, which included a 30-23 rebounding advantage and 19 steals.
DiStasio led all scorers with 21 points. He also had a pair of steals.
"I think DiStasio played well last night and I thought he played out of his tree tonight," Brown said.
Then there was O'Neil, who scored 13 points (including three 3-pointers) and added two rebounds and seven steals.
"Connor's really come along," Brown said. "He's playing like a man possessed and is having fun doing it."
Brady had 13 points (along with four rebounds, a steal and a block). Kapothanasis added eight points.
"Kapothanasis made three shots tonight that I couldn't make if I took them 20 times," Brown said.
Rounding out the scoring were Gwilym with seven points, Cimino with four (along with five rebounds, a block and a steal), Grover with two (in addition to five boards and a block) and senior Joey Savino and sophomore Michael Flaherty one point each. Senior Nick Burns had three rebounds and a block and junior Cam Olson made three steals. Seniors A.J. Bennett and Emmanuel Wani and sophomores Flaherty and Malcolm Smith made the most of their limited minutes.
Cheverus' depth and balance has set it apart.
"We're a really deep team and that's helped us so much this season," O'Neil said. "It's a battle every day in practice. You never know what the lineup's going to be and that keeps everybody honest."
"The best thing I've got is that I've got a second group that plays as hard as the first group," Brown said. "If they don't, they'll look bad. They go at each other in practice. Every good team needs to be pushed and we're fortunate in that we get pushed every day."
Portland was paced by 10 points apiece from sophomore Nick Volger (who had a big second half) and Donato (who added nine rebounds, two blocks and a steal). Herrick finished with nine points (four boards and two steals), Smart eight (and four rebounds) and two apiece from Goodman, Pitts-Young and freshman Justin Zukowski. The Bulldogs finished with 28 giveaways.
Portland (now 6-7 and 10th in the Western Class A Heal Points standings) has work to do to extend its postseason streak to 19 seasons. Only eight squads make the playoffs and the Bulldogs need a couple big wins. They host Sanford Tuesday and go to Scarborough Thursday. Home games versus Biddeford and Deering and a trip to South Portland close out the slate.
"We have a couple goals," Russo said. "We want to finish up strong and get a couple more wins to make it a respectable year. It doesn't matter where they come from. I have two seniors and I don't want it to be a miserable year for them. We're building for next year and I hope it's enjoyable. You can't win all the time, so this is tough. We have Sanford, Scarborough and Biddeford this week. Whether we get in the tournament or not, we need to win for our psyche."
Cheverus has a stranglehold on the top spot and will look to finish the regular season strong and be ready to make a run at repeating as Class A champions for the first time since 1981-82. The Stags host Gorham Tuesday and Marshwood Thursday. They close at Deering and at home versus South Portland.
"We have to go into every game with the same mentality," O'Neil said. "Play as a team. If we can do that, we'll be fine."
"It'll be an interesting week," Brown added. "What we have to do is make sure we play our basketball and don't worry about anything else.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com