A gripping regular season, which was capped by a night of memorable drama, now gives way to tournament frenzy for boys’ basketball teams from the city of Portland.
One local squad, perennial powerhouse Cheverus, will be on the sidelines for the first time in 13 seasons, but certainly made its last impression count.
Defending Class A champion Deering saved its best for last as well and could be primed for a repeat run.
Preseason favorite Portland did not have a good final week, but the Bulldogs remain capable of running the postseason table.
Then there’s Waynflete, which is coming off the best regular season in program history. The Flyers can’t wait to get to Augusta and continue to turn heads.
In Western A, Deering stumbled three times in the regular season, but played very well the final week, downing host Cheverus (64-52) and holding off visiting nemesis Portland (37-30). Against the Stags, Labson Abwoch had 23 points, while Dominic Lauture added 16.
In the win over the Bulldogs, the Rams’ first in five tries, Deering got a huge dose of momentum when Medhane Haleform banked home a 3-point prayer from halfcourt at the horn. Deering never trailed again and found its range from the free throw stripe. Two foul shots from Abwoch put the Rams ahead to stay and a superb defensive effort kept them on top. Portland twice drew within a point, but could never get over the hump as Haleform (seven points), Abwoch (14 points) and Lauture (10 points) came up big time and again.
“It feels very good,” Abwoch said. “Everyone played hard together. We stayed focused. I’m proud we stepped up. It’s the last home game for the seniors. It’s a big momentum win.”
“We knew them and they knew us,” said Lauture. “It was who executed better. It was tough to hold on, but we had to execute and not turn the ball over. Every year, people say Deering’s not that good. Even when we’re in first place, but we all know how to win. We take from last year and execute like last year.”
“I’m happy for the seniors,” added Rams coach Dan LeGage. “They gave us a good contribution. In their last regular season game, they went out with a win over their crosstown rival. The guys are realizing what it takes to beat good teams.”
Deering finished 15-3, just like last year, and earned the No. 2 seed in the final Western Class A Heal Points standings. While Abwoch and bruiser Thiwat Thiwat have plenty of big-game experience, this year’s squad is bolstered by players like Haleform, Lauture, Ahmed Ismail Ahmed, Ahmed Ali, Liam Densmore, Kevin Masse and Kyle Richards.
The Rams will begin their repeat title quest Saturday at 9 p.m., versus No. 7 Thornton Academy (11-7) or No. 10 Windham (7-11). Those teams met in a preliminary round contest Tuesday. Deering opened with a 77-28 home win over the Golden Trojans back on Dec. 7, but Thornton Academy is a vastly better team now. The Rams also downed the Eagles, 69-34, at home Jan. 22.
The Rams and Golden Trojans have met four times over the past 50 years in the playoffs, including three times since 2007. The last meeting was two years ago in the quarterfinals, a 41-33, Deering triumph. The Rams haven’t played Windham in the tournament since the 2001 quarterfinals (a 70-53 win).
Deering likes the fact it’s being overlooked by some pundits, but knows it needs to continue to improve to repeat for the first time in program history.
“I think we’re good,” said Haleform. “We have a good spot. We have to practice and get motivated.”
“The guys persevered and won 15 of 18 games,” LeGage said. “That’s wonderful, but we’ve worked too hard to get here to not work hard in the playoffs. In the tournament, if you have a hiccup, you’re done. We have to have consistency. It’s good heading into the playoffs that we’re starting to realize our potential. We have to put a consistent effort together.
“This is the year of parity. It will be the team that puts the most consistent effort together for four quarters. There’s no way you can play badly this year and sneak by. You have to play well. If we can keep on the upward path of effort, focus and execution for 32 minutes, we can do it.”
Portland entered the final week with a good shot at finishing first, but losses at South Portland (52-42) and Deering dropped the Bulldogs all the way to fourth. At the Red Riots, Portland struggled early, fell behind and never quite caught up despite 13 points from Jayvon Pitts-Young and a dozen from Justin Zukowski.
“We shot so poorly we wouldn’t have beaten anybody the way we shot tonight,” said Portland coach Joe Russo. “We didn’t get the ball inside. We had good looks, especially early. I really thought we did a nice job to come back.”
The Bulldogs struggled to score again against Deering, made only 2-of-12 second half foul shots and were led by seven points from Zukowski, but Russo wasn’t discouraged afterwards.
“That was an old-fashioned slugfest,” Russo said. “Just like the old days. It was fun to be involved in. The kids worked their tails off. I would have liked to win, but it was fun basketball. We had plenty of chances. The foul line was the difference. We shoot free throws all the time. It’s all a state of mind.”
The Bulldogs have perhaps the most scoring depth in the tournament. Pitts-Young and Zukowski are joined by dangerous Matt Talbot, steady veterans Nate Smart and Nick Volger and a trio of strong bench players, Steve Alex, Steve Angelo and Cosmo Dontao.
Portland will open the tournament Friday at 7 p.m., versus dangerous No. 5 Westbrook (13-5), a team which upset the Bulldogs on the Expo floor, 46-45, Jan. 22. The teams have played 10 times in the postseason over the past 50 years with the Blue Blazes winning six of them, including the most recent encounter, 65-34, in the 2010 quarterfinals.
Portland is notorious for peaking as the season goes on, but this year’s group didn’t finish strong.
Is Russo worried?
The Bulldogs might just have the opposition right where they want them.
“We have the same record as last year,” Russo said. “The South Portland game, I looked at the tape. If we would have made just a couple shots, we would’ve won. (Against Deering), if we made free throws, we would have won the game. Every year we peak and have an early exit. This is a good omen for us.”
There will be two other quarterfinals this weekend.
South Portland (15-3), which looked like the team to beat prior to Friday’s upset loss at Cheverus, earned the top seed and will play the winner of the preliminary between No. 8 Marshwood (9-9) and No. 9 Sanford (10-8) Friday at 9 p.m., at the Expo.
Bonny Eagle (15-3), a regional finalist last winter, goes in third and will meet No. 6 Scarborough (12-6) or No. 11 Gorham (6-12) Saturday at 7 p.m., at the Expo.
Looking ahead, the semifinals are Wednesday at the Cumberland County Civic Center. The Western A Final is Saturday, Feb. 23, at the Civic Center. The Class A state final is Saturday, March 2, at the Augusta Civic Center.
Cheverus did everything it could to extend its postseason streak to 13 seasons, but fell agonizingly short.
After falling at home to Deering last Tuesday, 64-52 (Emmanuel Ismail had 12 points, while Andrew Cloutier and Zordan Holman each had 11), the Stags hosted red-hot, top-ranked South Portland Friday in the finale. Cheverus shocked the Red Riots, holding on for a 56-51 victory behind 11 points apiece from Ismail and Drew Ferrick. That gave the Stags a 6-12 record, but in the final accounting, Gorham just edged Cheverus out for the 11th and final playoff spot.
“It was a great end to our season,” said Stags first-year coach Dan Costigan. “It was a testament to the guys staying together. I was happy for the kids. They’re great kids. They battled all year and got better. They played their best at the end. It’s too bad our schedule is the way it was. We played all the good teams at the end, which is when we played our best. We knew we had to beat South Portland and Biddeford had to beat Thornton Academy for us to get in (Thornton Academy won). People told me after (we beat South Portland) that we were in. I didn’t think so, but I crossed my fingers.
“I’m very proud of how our season went. We had new faces, guys who hadn’t played varsity, and we had new coaches this year. We ran out of time. We ran out of practices and games.”
Cheverus should start from a better place next winter and figures to begin a new postseason streak.
“We’ll have kids who have been there next year,” said Costigan. “That’s critical. We’ll have a good nucleus back.”
In Western C, Waynflete finished 15-1, a program benchmark, after an 80-31 romp at Sacopee Thursday (standout Serge Nyirikamba had 14 points, Jack Cutler added 11 and Pace Hutchinson had 10).
While Waynflete was led offensively by Nyirikamba, it had a different hero every night.
“The players, from the leading scorers to the role players, have developed a strong sense of team,” said Flyers coach Rich Henry. “They’ve worked hard in practice, they’ve really supported each other and they’ve been able to translate that chemistry onto the court. The leaders on the team have been terrific, not just the captains (Jack Cutler, Max Belleau and Paul Runyambo), but there’s a great group of juniors and sophomores who get the concepts we’re teaching. And the freshmen that we’ve carried on the varsity roster have done exactly what we asked them to do at the beginning of the season, to be sponges, soaking up as much information from the coaches and the upperclassmen as possible. Finally, my assistants, Mark Lockman and Brayton Chase, have put in a great deal of time working individually with players, scouting, doing all of the stuff that makes my role easier.”
Waynflete wound up a close second to Boothbay Region in the Heals and will open its quest for a first ever regional and state championship Monday of next week at 4 p.m., against either No. 7 Winthrop (11-7) or No. 10 Monmouth (6-12) in the quarterfinals at the Augusta Civic Center. The Flyers didn’t play either team this year. Waynflete lost to the Ramblers, 74-42, in the 2006 quarterfinals. They have no history with the Mustangs.
After reaching the semifinals each of the past two seasons, Waynflete has higher aspirations this time around.
“There are three teams that have been within a stone’s throw of each other for virtually the entire season, Boothbay, Dirigo and us,” Henry said. “The oddsmakers may have those teams as some sort of favorite, but the tournament is really about a hot team that can translate the momentum established over the last few weeks of the regular season into the playoffs, so you have to look at the next three or four teams, like Old Orchard and some others and figure they have as good a chance as any. For us, I look for the way we defend in the halfcourt and how we move the ball offensively. We’ve always stressed trying to stay fundamentally sound and as the stakes of these games increase, the team that is able to blend athleticism and fundamentally sound play usually does okay.”
Elsewhere in Western C, top-ranked Boothbay (17-1) will face either No. 8 Wiscasset (10-8) or ninth-ranked St. Dom’s (7-11), No. 3 Dirigo (17-1), the defending state champion, meets No. 6 Old Orchard Beach (13-4) or No. 11 Mt. Abram (8-10), and fourth-ranked Madison (11-7) battles No. 5 Hall-Dale (10-8) in the other quarterfinals.
The Western C semifinals are Thursday, Feb. 21 and the regional final is Saturday, Feb. 23. Both rounds are in Augusta. The Class C state final is Saturday, March 2, at the Bangor Auditorium.
Deering senior Dominic Lauture shoots over Portland senior Nate Smart during the teams’ regular season finale Thursday night. The defending Class A state champions prevailed, 37-30, and leapfrogged the Bulldogs into the No. 2 spot for the playoffs.