PORTLAND—Five long years.
That’s how long it had been since the Deering boys’ basketball team had won a postseason game.
The last victory came on March 4, 2006, 47-37, over Hampden Academy, and what a victory that was, the first and only state championship in program history.
Since then, however, the Rams simply couldn’t get the job done, falling in the quarterfinals four years running.
That all changed Saturday night in a Western Class A quarterfinal round tilt at a raucous Portland Exposition Building as Deering proved that its late-season swoon meant nothing, riding the scoring acumen of junior Jon Amabile, the leadership of indomitable senior Jamie Ross and a smothering defensive performance, keyed by unheralded bench player sophomore Thiwat Thiwat, to a 41-33 victory over Thornton Academy.
The sixth-ranked Rams led most of the whole way, went on top for good on a Ross three-point play with 2:49 to go in the third period, but couldn’t exhale until two Amabile foul shots iced it with 6.7 seconds left. Deering improved to 11-8 on the season, ended the third-seeded Golden Trojans’ year at 15-4 and advanced to take on red-hot No. 2 Bonny Eagle (16-3) in Wednesday’s semifinal round. Tip time is 6 p.m., at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
“I couldn’t be prouder of the kids,” said Rams coach Dan LeGage. “I asked them to play 32 minutes, give me everything they had, every ounce of energy and togetherness and focus and they did it.”
Best for last
Deering has been up-and-down this year, sandwiching losses to Bonny Eagle and Scarborough around a victory over Sanford, then winning eight of 10 (which included triumphs over Thornton Academy, Westbrook and Portland), before stumbling down the stretch, losing four of five to wind up sixth in the region.
Thornton Academy won the state championship two years ago, but fell in last year’s quarterfinal round to Windham. As one of the favorites this winter, the Golden Trojans went through a rough spell in January, falling to Deering (50-48), Cheverus (52-37) and South Portland (82-78, in double-overtime) in a four-game span. Thornton Academy, led by its senior standout, Andrew Shaw, righted the ship and won its final nine games, but lost standout senior James Ek to a season-ending knee injury.
Deering has been eliminated from the tournament by Thornton Academy in two of the past four years. In the 2007 quarterfinals, the then-defending Class A champion Rams lost, 64-50. Two years ago, Deering almost upset the Golden Trojans in the quarterfinals, but fell, 51-48, and Thornton Academy went on to win the state championship. The teams also met in the 1965 quarterfinals (a 50-46 Rams’ win).
This time, Deering found a way.
It was clear from the opening tip that points would be at a premium and neither squad hit 20 before the half.
Amabile got the scoring started with a bank shot 1 minute, 17 seconds in. Amabile added two foul shots and sophomore Labson Abwoch hit a leaner off the glass to give the Rams a 6-0 lead, but the Golden Trojans then came to life.
A layup by Shaw broke the ice, junior Justin Pollard canned a 3 and with 2:07 to play in the eight-minute first quarter, Shaw hit a seemingly impossible turnaround, fadeaway jumper to put Thornton Academy on top, 7-6.
Deering wouldn’t trail again.
With 1:48 to go in the first, the Rams got a baseline jumper from Thiwat, who was pressed into service when junior Pat Green got in early foul trouble and senior Riko Augustino went down with a shoulder injury. Amabile added a free throw, but another jawdropping fadeaway from Shaw tied the score at 9-9 heading for the second stanza.
There, Deering got momentary breathing room as Ross made a layup and Abwoch hit a jumper. Golden Trojans sophomore Adam Ek countered with a layup, but Thiwat made a pair of free throws to make it 15-11. After Thornton Academy got back within one on an Ek layup and a Shaw free throw, Rams senior Jackson Frey made two foul shots. A steal and layup by Pollard again pulled the Golden Trojans within a point, but Amabile hit a leaner. With just over a minute to play, senior Corbett Smith responded with a leaner for Thornton Academy to make it a 19-18 Deering lead at halftime.
The Golden Trojans would twice tie the score in the third period, but the Rams closed hot and took a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
Fifteen seconds into the second half, Amabile canned a 3 from the top of the key. Senior Josh Woodward answered with a layup for Thornton Academy, but after a Ross steal, Amabile made a layup to make it 24-20.
Undaunted, the Golden Trojans drew even behind a Smith free throw and a Shaw 3, but Thornton Academy’s standout wouldn’t score a single point in the game’s final 12 minutes, 38 seconds.
Deering retook the lead on a Green jumper, but Ek tied the score with a leaner.
With 2:49 to go in the third, Ross blew past a defender, made a layup, was fouled and completed the old-fashioned three-point play with a free throw to put the Rams on top to stay. A leaner in the waning seconds from Amabile gave them their biggest lead to that point, 31-26, with eight minutes to go.
As expected, the Golden Trojans refused to go quietly, but Deering dug deep and found a way to survive and advance.
Two Ross free throws 59 seconds into the fourth made it 33-26, but Pollard made a layup, then hit a jumper to cut the deficit to 33-30 with 6:19 to play.
Thornton Academy had a couple chances to draw closer, but couldn’t do so and with 4:39 remaining, Amabile made a layup after a steal to push the lead to five, 35-30.
After Frey missed a layup which could have extended the lead, Ek was fouled with 3:45 to go. He made his first attempt, but in a rarely seen interpretation of the rules, was called for a lane violation and the point was wiped away. Ek made the second free throw, but instead of it being a three point game, the Deering lead was 35-31.
With 3:11 to play, Shaw had a chance to pull his team closer, but he missed the front end of a one-and-one. The Rams then responded as Thiwat fed Abwoch for a short bank shot and a 37-31 advantage with 2:52 left.
“We wanted to spread them out, use our athleticism, make them defend us and hit shots,” LeGage said.
With 2:03 showing, Pollard made a layup and drew a foul, but he missed the and-one and the Golden Trojans still trailed by four.
Amabile missed the front end of a one-and-one with 1:30 to go, but Pollard’s 3-point attempt was partially blocked by Ross and Abwoch came down with the rebound.
Attempting to run down the clock, Deering twice had to call timeout to avoid a turnover. The Rams eventually gave the ball away and with 32.5 seconds left, Thornton Academy sophomore Dakota Tarbox fired a 3 then went halfway down before spinning out. Amabile rebounded and was fouled and the Rams had dodged a bullet.
This time, Amabile’s aim from the stripe was true and he made it 39-33 with two free throws. Pollard then missed a long 3 and Ross got the board. With 20.8 seconds left, Green had a chance to ice it, but he missed the first of a one-and-one.
A dramatic rally wasn’t to be for the Golden Trojans, however, as Shaw threw up an NBA-range 3-pointer that wasn’t even close. Amabile grabbed the rebound, was fouled and finally, with 6.7 seconds to go, put the eagerly awaited victory on ice with two free throws.
“I wasn’t thinking anything, but that I had to make it,” Amabile said. “I blocked out the crowd and sealed the game.”
The clock then ran out and Deering exulted over its 41-33 victory.
“It feels great,” Amabile said. “Hard work in practice pays off. We had a good week. We stayed focused on the game. We played hard on defense. I thought it would be more wide open. We like to push the ball, but we can play slow too. We executed and played well on defense.”
“It’s nice to finally win,” said Ross, who admitted he was still bitter over losing the Western A Final football game by a point to Cheverus in November. “This is a huge step. I haven’t been to the Civic Center. As a senior, it’s big to be a part of it and go down there. Part of our problem this year was closing games out. We did a good job tonight. We got the ball inside and got them in foul trouble, they got frustrated.”
This was a true team victory for the Rams, who were led by Amabile’s 20 points, five steals and four rebounds.
“I only took shots I had,” Amabile said. “I didn’t force anything and tried to get the team involved. I knew I had to be a team leader and tonight was the time to do it.”
“Jon Amabile was Jon Amabile,” LeGage said. “He scored 20 points. He did what he needed to do.”
Ross, the sensational football quarterback and Fitzpatrick Trophy finalist, whose leadership on the hardwood can’t be underestimated, finished with seven points, 10 boards and a steal.
“Jamie Ross’ leadership was unquestioned,” LeGage said. “I’ve said that all year. When he decides to do that consistently, we’re so much better. The other guys on the team really respect him and they step up.”
Abwoch had six points, three rebounds, a block and a steal.
“They really keyed on Labson down low,” said LeGage. “They were physical with him when he got the ball. He made big shots and was a presence in the middle. “
Thiwat added four points, but more importantly, his defensive impact on this night simply couldn’t be quantified.
“I thought the man of the hour was Thiwat,” LeGage said. “He came in and held Shaw to three points in the second half. He was an absolute man-child. This was his coming out party. We’ve been working with him all season long, trying to get him minutes and developing him.”
Frey (five rebounds) and Green each ended up with two points.
Deering overcame 17 turnovers and made 12 of 16 foul shots.
“We worked hard this week,” LeGage said. “It’s nice to see that hard work translate to the game. We certainly made some mistakes. We’ll have to clean up some unforced turnovers, but a lot of that had to do with TA. They were a No. 3 seed for a reason.”
For Thornton Academy, Pollard led the way with 11 points (and had four rebounds). Shaw was held to a mere 10, nine points below his second-in-the-league scoring average, and had five rebounds, two blocks and a steal.
“We really emphasized limiting Shaw,” said Ross. “We couldn’t have done a better job on him. We’re really pleased with how we handled him. We limited everyone else. We weren’t leaving Pollard, because he has a hot hand. We switched off and tried to attack and ambush Shaw. We tried to do anything we could.”
“The intention was to not let (Shaw) score,” LeGage added. “We knew their offense pipes through him completely, especially without (James) Ek. We were able to double down at him, zone trap him and run a couple guys at him. Our whole game plan was to come at him from different angles. At times we did that really well. We wanted their other guys to beat us. It was a gamble. Pollard beat us a couple times in the second half, but I think we wore (Shaw) down. Thiwat, Labson, Jackson early, did a great job.”
Ek finished with seven points, Smith (three rebounds) had three and Woodward (four rebounds and a steal) added two.
The Rams next make the trip to the Civic Center to face Bonny Eagle, which won 15 of 18 regular season games and dominated Westbrook, 48-33, in its quarterfinal Saturday.
The Rams opened the regular season with a 44-41 home loss to the surprising Scots, letting a big halftime lead slip away.
The teams’ last playoff meeting came in the 2005 quarterfinals (a 44-39 Deering triumph). They also met in the 1993 quarterfinals (a 69-65 Rams’ victory).
“It’ll be a good game,” Amabile said. “We have to stay focused. I like our chances.”
“We’ll get ready for Bonny Eagle,” Ross said. “They’ve gotten better. What we’ll try to do is do what we did tonight. We’ll spread the ball out and rebound. If we do, I think we’ll be alright.”
“We’re going to get back to work,” LeGage added. “We had three goals: First, get in the playoffs, never mind our record, second, get to the Civic Center and third, play for a championship. We, as a family, didn’t worry about what other people said. We just worked hard and knew we’d peak at the right time. The kids bought in.
“Bonny Eagle is very, very dangerous. They have three or four kids who can shoot.”
Looking ahead, the Western A Final is Saturday at 9 p.m,. at the Civic Center. The Class A state final is Saturday, March 5, at 7 p.m., at the Augusta Civic Center.