Cheverus girls erupt in second half to beat SP
PORTLAND—At halftime Saturday, the Cheverus girls' basketball team found itself trailing South Portland by three.
Instead of ranting and raving, Stags coach Richie Ashley had a simple message for his players:
Refocused Cheverus regrouped in a big way, scored the first 10 points of the second half to seize control and enjoyed a 17-1 run at one stage en route to a 58-42 victory, its second in a row.
The Stags had an almost two to one edge on the glass, thanks in large part to junior Brooke Flaherty, forced 25 turnovers and got 22 points from sharpshooting senior Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy and improved to 9-2, dropping the Red Riots to 6-8.
"We were just determined to come out and get our offense going," Palazzi-Leahy said. "We pulled together, got open shots and we hit them too."
Both South Portland and Cheverus have been regular contenders in recent years and each have tournament hopes this winter.
The Red Riots, who were eliminated by eventual state champion McAuley in last year's Western A quarterfinals, has played hard all year, yet entered the game with more losses than wins.
After a 55-47 home loss to Windham to get things started, South Portland won at Biddeford in overtime (37-33) and at home over Westbrook (29-28). Losses at Thornton Academy (47-43) and Deering (46-32) were sandwiched around a 38-25 home victory over Kennebunk. After downing visiting Massabesic, 49-39, the Red Riots were bested at Scarborough, 58-37, before rattling off consecutive home wins over Sanford (39-34) and Portland (49-30). That string was followed by losses to visiting Marshwood (49-44), host Gorham (49-36) and host Bonny Eagle (43-38).
As for the Stags, who were also ousted in last year's quarterfinals, by Sanford, they won their first five games, downing Biddeford (68-28), Gorham (51-43), Portland (56-40), Westbrook (43-32) and Noble (52-18). After losing at Marshwood, 59-49, Cheverus bounced right back and held off visiting Bonny Eagle, 46-40 and avenged last year's playoff loss with a 31-19 victory at Sanford. Then, the struggles began with a 48-36 home defeat to Scarborough. Losses at Deering (53-37) and Windham (61-58, in double overtime) followed before the Stags got back in the win column versus Massabesic Tuesday, 64-50.
This is Cheverus' 10th year as a varsity program. South Portland took the first 11 meetings between the schools by an average of 29 points, but two years ago, the Stags finally broke through with a 46-42 win at the Red Riots. They won a second meeting as well, 48-35, at home. Last winter, Cheverus beat South Portland 52-41 at home and by the same margin on the road.
Saturday, once they clicked into gear, The Stags certainly made a statement.
South Portland got the jump when sophomore Brianne Maloney made a bank shot after a steal. Senior Logan Neal added a 3-pointer and the Red Riots were up 5-0 early.
A layup after a steal by Palazzi-Leahy got the Stags on the board three minutes in. After Neal answered with a free throw, Cheverus' sophomore sparkplug Georgia Ford made two foul shots and Palazzi-Leahy buried a 3 to give the Stags their first lead. A free throw from Palazzi-Leahy and another Palazzi-Leahy 3-ball put Cheverus up, 11-6.
South Portland ended the 9-0 run when senior Maryalice Gurnee made a 3 and in the final minute, Neal hit a 3-ball.
Despite 10 turnovers, the Red Riots had a 12-11 lead after one period.
The game remained tight in the second quarter.
After a 3 from Ford put the hosts back on top, senior Jill Legere made a transition jumper and senior Libby Grant made a free throw to give South Portland a 15-14 advantage.
The Stags retook the lead as sophomore Mikayla Mayberry made a layup after a steal and Palazzi-Leahy hit a leaner to make it 18-15. Again, the visitors roared back as Neal fed junior Emily Gray for a layup and after breaking the press, junior Danica Gleason set up freshman Holly Black for a layup and a 19-18 lead.
A 3 from Gurnee stretched it to 22-18. After Palazzi-Leahy converted another leaner, Neal made a free throw and sophomore Mackenzie Bowring sank two for a 25-20 advantage.
Off an inbounds set with 33.5 seconds left in the half, Palazzi-Leahy fed Flaherty for a baseline jumper. Gurnee answered with a layup, but as time wound down, Palazzi-Leahy made a runner to make it 27-24 Red Riots at the break.
Cheverus forced 15 first half turnovers with its imposing press, but 20 percent shooting set it back.
That's when Ashley made things simple.
"I just told them to relax," he said, of his locker room message. "We put a lot of pressure on ourselves. We were 9-for-45 in the first half. I literally told everyone to close their eyes, take a deep breath and think about the thousand of shots you've taken in your backyard and knock down shots. It's not rocket science."
A new team was evident when the second half began.
Just 23 seconds in, after setting the tone with successive offensive rebounds, Flaherty was fouled and made both free throws. With 7:22 left in the third period, Mayberry put the Stags on top to stay with a putback.
South Portland coach Mike Giordano called timeout, but it didn't work as Mayberry sank a 3 and with 6:35 to go in the quarter, sophomore Sadie Lyons set up classmate Abby Maker for a 3 and a 34-27 advantage.
Giordano called a second timeout and it resulted in Maloney getting to the line and making one of two free throws to end the 12-0 run, but after a Maker steal, Ford made a layup, Palazzi-Leahy sank a free throw and Maker set up junior Victoria Nappi for a baseline jumper and Cheverus' lead was suddenly 39-28.
Over a four-plus minute span, the Stags had outscored the Red Riots, 17-1, and had taken firm control.
"We played well in the second half," said Palazzi-Leahy. "It took us awhile to get into it, but once we got into it and ran our offense, we got open shots and pulled it together."
"In the second half, I thought our press really affected them," Ashley said. "That's what happened the past three games. We don't play well in the first half, then we turn it on. We have to figure out how to play 32 minutes like that. We're athletic when we get things going. We played well together and hit open shots."
South Portland was shellshocked.
"They made a few shots and broke our back a little back," said Giordano. "They're good. I was pleased with the first half, but we couldn't get it going in the second. It was their press. They physically wore us down, we were tired, our shots didn't go in and they made a couple and we were playing from behind."
A layup by Maloney got the Red Riots back to 39-30, but Nappi answered with a long jumper. After Maloney made a leaner, Flaherty scored on a driving layup to make it 43-32. South Portland got a Gleason layup late and was still within single digits heading for the final stanza.
There, Cheverus ended all doubt.
Just 12 seconds in, Lyons buried a 3. Grant answered with two free throws, but Palazzi-Leahy hit a 3 and Flaherty drained a jumper to make it 51-36. A Legere free throw was answered by a Flaherty layup (set up by Palazzi-Leahy). After junior Emily Gray made a a leaner for the visitors, Palazzi-Leahy sank a dagger of a 3 with 2:18 to go and the lead was 56-39.
"I just keep shooting," said Palazzi-Leahy, who overcame a slow start and returned to form. "That's what my coach keeps telling me. My teammates work hard to get me the ball."
"Alexandra shot the ball really well in both halves," Ashley said.
The final minute saw plenty of reserves on the floor. Junior Jenna Wing made a pair of free throws and Black hit a jumper to finish the Red Riots' scoring and as time expired, Cheverus sophomore Armani Alonzo made a bank shot to bring the curtain down on the Stags' 58-42 triumph.
"Coach just tells us to play with heart and energy since defense wins games," Flaherty said. "We went into a little slump, but we're trying to get out of it now."
Palazzi-Leahy led all scorers with 22 points, thanks in large part to four 3-pointers. She also had four rebounds, two steals and a pair of assists.
Flaherty finished with 10 points, but that only begins to describe her impact. She added 16 rebounds (six on the offensive glass), a blocked shot and a steal. Flaherty, along with senior Allison Thomas (four boards) and junior Kylie Libby (nine rebounds, of which seven were offensive, and three blocks), allowed Cheverus to dominate the glass to the tune of a 54-30 rebounding advantage. Half of those boards came on offense.
"We don't have anyone really big, but we try to box out and get rebounds and get second shots," Flaherty said.
"We don't have a ton of size, but Brooke, Ali Thomas and Kylie dominated the glass," Ashley said. "It was effort. We did a good job defensive rebounding too."
Ford and Mayberry each had seven points, Nappi added four, Lyons (six rebounds) and Maker (five steals) three apiece and Alonzo finished with two.
Cheverus had 15 steals, was 6-of-8 at the charity stripe and turned the ball over 17 times.
Neal was South Portland's leading scorer with eight points (she also had a pair of steals). Maloney added seven points (along with six rebounds), Legere six, Gurnee five, Black (six boards) and Gray (seven rebounds) four each, Grant three, Bowring and Gleason two each and Wing one.
The Red Riots finished with 25 turnovers and made just 10-of-23 foul shot attempts.
"You can't give up (that many offensive rebounds)," Giordano said. "The kids played hard. They're working at it. We're trying to put 32 minutes together. If we do, we might scare somebody. We're playing 10 kids a night, which is good for the future. They're working hard. They haven't quit all year. I'm proud of them. They're a good group of kids."
South Portland (10th in the latest Western Class A Heal Points standings) has a daunting remaining schedule. Tuesday, the Red Riots go to unbeaten McAuley. After a trip to Noble Friday, they close at home with Deering Feb. 7 and McAuley Feb. 10. Only 11 teams qualify for the postseason, so South Portland still has work to do.
"We need to one (win) for sure," Giordano said. "Two would put us in. Hopefully we'll get two. The second one would be very special."
Cheverus (now sixth in Western A) is back in action Tuesday at home versus Kennebunk. After a trip to dangerous Thornton Academy Friday, the Stags go to McAuley Saturday and close the regular season at home versus Deering (Feb. 9) and Portland (Feb. 10).
Cheverus is hoping to avoid a preliminary round game. The Stags hope to continue to peak and be at their best in February.
"We'll keep working hard, running our stuff and take it game by game," Palazzi-Leahy said.
"We have to bring it every game, play our hardest, with heart and energy and be a family," Flaherty said.
"We have a big week," Ashley added. "We need to take care of Kennebunk Tuesday, then it's Thornton Academy and McAuley. We have to take care of Kennebunk first."