Portland stuns Cheverus to end nine-game skid
PORTLAND—After dropping nine consecutive games to their crosstown rival, the Portland boys' basketball team appeared to finally have Cheverus down and out Monday evening at Keegan Gymnasium, but even a 20-point lead wasn't enough of a cushion.
The Stags, behind a superb effort from senior Cam Olson, rallied and actually took their first lead of the game on two Olson free throws with seven seconds to go, but some how, the Bulldogs got up off the canvas to deliver the final blow.
Out of a timeout, the ball came to junior Nick Volger, who raced through the Cheverus defense and made a layup with 2.1 seconds to play to finally give Portland that elusive win over the Stags, 40-39.
Both teams are now 9-3 as the wild and woolly Western Class A wheel continues to spin round and round.
"Some calls didn't go our way, so we had to dig and fight to hold on to the lead," said Bulldogs coach Joe Russo. "I think we played well enough and deserved to win."
Beat goes on
Cheverus is the defending Western A champion, losing in the state final to Bangor. A vastly different squad (just senior Louie DiStasio returned as a starter) has held its own this winter. The Stags rolled in their first two outings, 57-38 at Biddeford and 72-37 at home over Gorham, then held off Portland at the Expo, 49-41. Wins over Westbrook (73-47), Marshwood (59-40) and Noble (74-22) followed, but Cheverus rung in the new year with a 46-37 setback at Bonny Eagle. After bouncing back to down visiting Sanford, 77-52, the Stags were stunned at Scarborough, 58-43. Again, Cheverus answered with an impressive victory, this time handing visiting Deering its first loss, 49-40. After a week off, the Stags defeated visiting Windham Friday, 64-40.
Portland's 2010-11 season ended with a 45-41 loss to Cheverus in the semifinals. This winter, the Bulldogs captured their opener, 52-43, over visiting Sanford, but lost at Marshwood (65-62) and at home to Cheverus (49-41). Portland then rattled off seven straight, beating Bonny Eagle (66-47), Scarborough (63-60, in OT), Gorham (46-36), Biddeford (61-52), Windham (73-38), Kennebunk (59-20) and South Portland (61-57). Thursday, the Bulldogs were upset at home by Thornton Academy, 63-61.
The last time Portland beat Cheverus it was Feb. 5, 2008, two days after the New England Patriots lost their last Super Bowl meeting with the New York Giants. The Bulldogs took that one at the Expo, 37-31.
Since then, the Stags have beaten Portland at the Expo, at home and at the Civic Center (see sidebar) and entered Monday's meeting with an 89-83 edge in the all-time series.
This encounter, like most, was hard fought and produced a palpitating and unexpected finish.
The first period was a slugfest that produced only six points over the first five-plus minutes.
The hosts got on the board first when senior Shawn Grover made the first of two foul shots 53 seconds in. Six seconds later, after Olson grabbed the offensive rebound and got it back to Grover, he went to the line again and made the first, but missed the second free throw.
After Portland senior Mike Herrick tied the score with a runner, a putback from junior Michael Flaherty made it 4-2 Cheverus.
The Stags wouldn't lead again until the game's final minute.
With 2:36 left in the first period, Volger gave the Bulldogs the lead with a 3. Sophomore Justin Zukowski added a jumper and after Olson made a free throw, sophomore Matt Talbot hit a jumper in the lane to make it 9-5. In the final minute, Olson took a pass from senior Louie DiStasio and made a layup to draw Cheverus within a basket.
To say Portland dominated the second quarter would be a major understatement. The Bulldogs went on an 18-2 run to seemingly seize control of the game.
First, Zukowski passed to sophomore Jayvon Pitts-Young for a transition layup. After Pitts-Young made a contested jumper, senior Zach Lane sank a 3 and the lead was up to nine. With 4:07 to go in the half, Grover scored on a putback, but that would be all of the Stags' offensive production in the frame.
After a steal by senior Peter Donato, Volger made a layup. The next time down, Zukowski sank a 3. After Herrick hit a pullup jumper, Zukowski scored on a driving floater and with 33.7 seconds remaining, Herrick scored on a putback and Portland took a commanding 27-9 advantage to the locker room.
"We did not come ready to play," said Stags coach Bob Brown. "I don't think I've ever had a team score nine points in a half. Maybe 50 years ago. We played like guys who hadn't been coached, who didn't know what they were doing."
As expected, Cheverus roared back in the third period.
Fourteen seconds in to the second half, a Pitts-Young putback pushed the Bulldogs' lead to 20, but the Stags went on an 8-0 run as junior Drew Ferrick scored on a putback, Olson made two free throws, DiStasio fed Flaherty for a layup and Grover sank a jump shot.
After the visitors scored on an inbounds pass from Herrick to junior Nate Smart for a layup, DiStasio made a layup, Ferrick made one free throw and Grover added a pair to make it a 31-22 game with eight minutes to go.
Cheverus closed the third quarter on a 13-2 run.
The Stags continued their rally early in the fourth when Olson made a layup, was fouled and hit the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play.
"Cam played a great game," Brown said. "He was our player the whole night. He played like he should."
With 5:52 left, Zukowski, after a steal on the defensive end, made a 3-pointer, ending an 8-0 Cheverus run and a 4 minute, 20 second drought. Eighteen seconds later, Ferrick converted a three-point play to make it a six-point game again, 34-28.
A driving baseline layup from Herrick gave Portland a little breathing room, off an inbounds play, DiStasio shook free, got behind the arc and sank a 3-ball and after a steal, DiStasio made a layup to cut the deficit to 36-33 with 4:02 still to play.
When DiStasio was fouled with 2:28 left, he had a chance to draw the Stags even closer, but he was off target on the front end of a one-and-one.
Cheverus made it a one-point game, 36-35, when Olson and Grover executed a pretty give-and-go, resulting in an Olson layup with 1:25 left.
At the other end, Smart's shot was blocked by Olson, but the ball went out of bounds to Portland. Volger then set up Smart for a shot from the wing which he hit. Many on hand thought it was a 3-pointer, but the officials credited it as two and the lead was 38-35 was 1:04 to play.
The Stags came down and again cut the deficit to a point when Olson rebounded DiStasio's missed 3 and was fouled before making both free throw attempts.
Out of a timeout, the Bulldogs weren't able to close it out as a DiStasio steal gave the ball back to Cheverus.
The Stags ran a lot of time off the clock, looking for a shot and finally, Olson barreled his way into the lane and hit the deck, losing the ball out of bounds. The call was a foul, much to the chagrin of the Portland bench, and with seven seconds showing on the clock, Olson calmly made both free throws to give Cheverus a 39-38 lead, its first since 5-4.
Out of the ensuing timeout, the Bulldogs looked to find an answer and it played out exactly as Russo drew it up.
Volger took the inbounds pass and raced upcourt. After he passed the midcourt stripe, he picked it up a notch, somehow got through three defenders, drove to the basket and laid the ball off the glass. It rattled home with 2.1 seconds to go.
"Coach told us we were going to win this game and we believed it," Volger said. "It was exactly how coach drew it up. We had a couple options. He told me if I got the ball to just go in and try to score. There were a couple guys open, but I decided to shoot it. I saw a hole and I don't know how I fit in between the trees. It felt good coming out of my hands. I got nervous when I saw it rattle on the rim, but it dropped. To do it here, in a game like this, is great."
"It was a great finish," Russo said. "To execute the play and score the basket, which wasn't easy, was a great play. We wanted (Nick) to get take it the whole way and get to the rim. He had two choices. Shoot it or dish it down low. He made one hell of a shot. It was a layup between three guys. He's 5-foot-8 and had to finger roll a layup, which is something you normally don't do."
After a last second desperation heave by the hosts was well short, Portland was finally able to celebrate a win over the Stags, 40-39.
"We needed a boost after losing to TA," said Volger. "That was a buzzkill since we had a nice little win streak going on. This is huge for Heal Points."
"Nicky Volger put the team on his back," Zukowski said. "He does things that not everyone else will notice. Not just that shot. He held DiStasio the whole game. He does the little things. It's a big win. I thought we played great in the first half and held on at the end. Coach makes up these plays and said we're going to win. It's all on him. We have a bunch of hustlers."
"We played a pretty decent game for 28 minutes," Russo added. "Cheverus hung in and played great D. We had to battle foul trouble and I had to rotate my guards. Zukowski and Jayvon both ended up fouling out. I had to keep an eye on Herrick too. The game goes in waves, we know that. I didn't think we'd coast and win by 40. They're too good a team. We knew they'd make a comeback and we had to be ready for it.
"The Thornton Academy game, we didn't come ready to play. Tonight, we talked about playing hard from the beginning. Their man-to-man at the end was relentless. Cheverus contested every shot. In the second half, we stopped pressuring the ball. We pressured the players, but we didn't pressure the ball and they were able to make passes."
Cheverus, which last lost at home Feb. 2, 2008 (68-47 to South Portland) left the floor in shock after its 33-game win streak on the Keegan Gym floor came to an end (it was just the Stags' fifth ever setback in the building's seven year history).
"We were supposed to get back and contain and we didn't," Brown said. "The message was there. We didn't do it. We didn't execute at the end, but that game was won in the first 18 minutes. I've got good kids and they responded. It was remarkable to come from 20 behind to go ahead, but all the credit to (Portland)."
Zukowski led the Bulldogs with 10 points (and three steals) before fouling out. Herrick finished with eight points, Volger seven, Pitts-Young (who also fouled out) had six, Smart four, Lane three and Talbot two. Donato didn't score, but had three blocked shots, two assists and two steals.
Portland finished with a 29-22 rebounding advantage and made four 3-pointers to the Stags' one. The Bulldogs did turn the ball over 17 times and didn't get to the line for a single free throw.
"I get along with the officials, but there were some ticky-tack things tonight," Russo said. "What hurt us was the fouls. They went to the foul line 21 times. We went none. Tell me they don't get calls."
Cheverus was paced by Olson's 14 points and seven boards. Grover finished with eight (along with six rebounds and three blocks), DiStasio seven (along with seven steals and three assists), Ferrick six (and six boards)and Flaherty four. The Stags only had nine turnovers and made 14 of their 21 foul shots.
"We got outhustled and outphysicaled at every juncture of the game, whether it was one-on-one defense, coming off screens, or stopping penetration," Brown said. "We played nice and they came to win and they kicked our butt."
Cheverus (second to Deering in the Western Class A Heal Points standings) is back in action Tuesday night at Massabesic. Friday, the Stags host dangerous South Portland. After going to Kennebunk Jan. 31, Cheverus closes with a home game versus Thornton Academy and trips to Deering and South Portland.
The Stags have now dropped three of six games and need to bounce back quickly.
"We have to come out and play like men," Brown said. "You can't come out and play like boys against Deering or Portland or good teams like that."
Portland (third in the standings) also plays Tuesday, at Westbrook. The Bulldogs visit Deering Friday. After hosting Noble and visiting Massabesic, Portland closes at home against South Portland and Deering.
This team still has a shot at a top seed and if it peaks in February like it usually does, look out.
"We should get on a good roll," Volger said. "We have good teams coming up, but if we can beat these guys, we can beat anyone. We definitely need to rebound and play better help defense."
"We didn't need this for Heal Points because the way the league is going, it doesn't matter who does what, but (the guys are) excited now," Russo said. "They see that the hard work pays off. We have to put two halves together. Tonight, we had a great first half, but not a good second half. We haven't been on all cylinders yet. When everybody has a good game, we can do more things."