PORTLAND—Inspiration can come from anywhere during the tournament.
For Deering’s basketball team, motivation has come from the desire to experience something that’s far from popular, but rewarding nonetheless.
After losing to rival Portland in the regular season finale last Thursday, the Rams, ranked fifth in Western A, entered the week hoping to find a way to gather for one more Saturday morning practice, but that would entail winning two games.
After surviving No. 12 Scarborough in a preliminary round contest played under difficult circumstances Tuesday, Deering had to get past fourth-ranked Gorham Friday evening at Portland Exposition Building in the quarterfinals.
Deering would do so, but not before running the gamut of emotions down the stretch.
After handling Gorham with ease in both regular season meetings, Deering looked to deliver an early knockout blow, but Gorham refused to buckle. Deering manage to jump ahead by 10 points on two occasions in the first half, as junior Malik White had 10 points, but Gorham, thanks to its press break and the dominance of its inside players, hung tough and was only down three, 34-31, at halftime.
Deering took an eight-point lead midway through the third period, but by quarter’s end, Gorham had pulled even, 45-45.
The fourth period would be a thrill-ride, as Gorham went on top for the first time and grabbed a 50-45 advantage when junior Billy Ruby scored on a putback with 6:18 to play.
Deering then ran off six in a row, taking a 51-50 lead when senior Garang Majok made a layup after a steal, but the game would be nip-and-tuck until the final horn.
Two free throws from junior Ben Williams and another from White put Deering ahead, 58-56, with under a minute to play, but Gorham, thanks to an old-fashioned three-point play from senior Nick Thibeault, retook the lead and put Deering on the ropes.
Majok rose to the occasion, however, making two foul shots. Then, after a timely Williams blocked shot, the Rams forced a turnover and Williams added a point at the line with 4.1 seconds showing. Williams missed his second free throw, however, and Gorham had a chance to steal it, but a desperation 3-point shot at the horn from junior Cody Elliott was off-target and Deering, for the second year in a row, survived a mighty scare in the quarterfinal round, 61-59.
White led all scorers with 21 points, Williams added 13 (all from the charity stripe) and Majok had 10 as Deering improved to 14-6, ended Gorham’s season at 13-6 and advanced to battle top-ranked, defending state champion Portland (17-2) in the semifinals Friday at 7 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Arena (formerly the Cumberland County Civic Center).
“After the loss to Portland, our motto was, ‘Next Saturday!'” said Rams coach Todd Wing. “Nobody loves a Saturday practice after a loss, but I told them, ‘How much would you love to be here next Saturday?’ They embraced the path. They can’t wait to get in that gym tomorrow. They’re great kids. They’re hungry kids. They’re deserving kids. It’s a blast.”
Deering and Gorham were highly touted entering the season and neither disappointed.
Deering was competitive throughout (see sidebar below for links to individual game stories) and even though it finished 12-6, it earned plenty of respect around the league. The Rams garnered the No. 5 seed for the tournament, then, despite not having practiced for several days, rallied past No. 12 Scarborough in Tuesday’s preliminary round, 78-62, to reach the quarterfinals for the 11th year in a row.
Gorham only lost five times, but two of them came to Deering: 71-49 in a “home” game played during the Holiday Tournament at the Expo in late December and 80-51 in Portland Jan. 13.
Friday marked the first-ever postseason encounter between the programs and it turned into a memorable contest.
The tone was set early as Deering forced a Gorham 10-second violation and White buried a 3-point shot 27 seconds in.
After Gorham got on the board on a fadeaway jumper from junior Sam Kilborn, Deering sophomore Jean Claude Nzenza hit a leaner. Gorham tied the score when Kilborn took a pass from senior Spencer Ruda, made a layup while being fouled and added the free throw to make it 5-5.
Deering retook the lead on two Williams foul shots, but Kilborn, after a steal, fed Ruby to tie the game again. Two more Williams free throws were countered by a layup from Gorham junior Trenton Bassingthwaite to make it 9-9.
Deering then appeared to get some breathing room, as Majok scored on a spinner, Williams made a foul shot and sophomore reserve Moses Oreste canned a 3.
Ruby then twice set up Bassingthwaite for layups, sandwiched around a long jumper from Deering junior Max Chabot, and it was 17-13 Deering after one period.
Deering tried to pull away in the second quarter, but Gorham kept rising off the deck.
After Kilborn made a free throw to start the frame, White hit a leaner, then canned a 3 for a 22-14 lead.
“I like it here,” White said. “The crowd, the Red Claws’ floor. I got fired up.”
“This is (Malik’s) spot,” Wing said. “Big-time players make big-time shots in big-time games. He came up big in the clutch.”
That forced Gorham coach Mark Karter to call timeout, but it didn’t help, as White went coast-to-coast for a layup and a 10-point bulge. After Ruby got two points back at the line, Majok made a layup for a 26-16 lead.
Ruby hit a leaner, but Majok countered with a jump shot and Deering was still up 10, but Gorham got a leaner from Thibeault, a Thibeault layup and a driving left-handed layup from Ruby to cut the deficit to 28-24.
After senior Jacob Coon tipped home a missed shot for Deering, Ruby set up Kilborn for a layup. Sophomore Raffaele Salamone made a layup for Deering, but Ruda made a layup, Kilborn hit two free throws and Ruda sank one to pull Gorham within a single point. Two Williams foul shots gave Deering a slight 34-31 halftime edge.
Little changed in the second half and it became clear that this one would go down to the wire.
White started the second half with a 3. After Kilborn made a free throw, Nzenza floated home a shot. Thibeault banked home a shot for Gorham, but another White 3 made it 42-34 Deering.
Back roared Gorham, as Thibeault scored on a spinner and after Salamone made two free throws, Ruby hit two foul shots, Thibeault made a layup and Thibeault canned a 3. Williams got a point back at the line, but a layup from junior Cameron Smith pulled Gorham even, 45-45, with eight minutes to go.
When Ruby drove for a left-handed layup five seconds into the fourth quarter, Gorham had its first lead. Thibeault added a foul shot and Ruby scored on a putback to make it 50-45, but Deering came to life.
First, Salamone made two free throws. Salamone then set up White for a layup, which was Deering’s first field goal in over eight minutes.
With 4:52 remaining, Majok stole the ball and raced in for a layup, putting Deering back on top, but Bassingthwaite made a free throw and Ruby scored on a putback to make it 53-51 Gorham.
Two Williams free throws tied the game and with 2:44 to play, White made a layup after a steal for a 55-53 Deering lead, but Kilborn tied the game with a layup.
Williams put Deering back on top, 57-55, thanks to two foul shots with 2:02 to go, but senior Tyler Bernaiche made one free throw for Gorham.
Bernaiche missed his second attempt, but Smith kept possession alive and Ruby had a look at a go-ahead 3, only to have it miss the mark.
White got the rebound for Deering, but he couldn’t score at the other end and a Kilborn rebound gave Gorham a chance to take the lead.
It didn’t happen, as Bernaiche was off-target and after getting the rebound, White was fouled with 46.9 seconds left.
White made his first foul shot, but missed the second and that allowed Gorham to go back on top.
With 27.4 seconds to play, Thibeault drove hard to the basket, laid the ball in and drew a foul in the process. His free throw completed the three-point play and made the score, 59-58, Gorham.
Deering was on the ropes, but refused to lose, as Majok drove and drew a foul, then made both free throws for a 60-59 lead with 18.6 seconds to play.
“I thought I’d only make one of two, but I made two,” Majok said.
Gorham would have a chance to answer, but a tremendous defensive play from Williams, who somehow got in position to block a sure layup by Thibeault, kept Deering in front.
“I tried to make a play on defense,” said Williams. “I was able to come from the outside and block it.”
“It was a crazy situation,’ Majok said. “Ben played defense and did a good job. That helped a lot.”
“That was quite a play,” Wing added. “That’s the one that stopped my heart. We feed off our athleticism. That’s been our staple all year long. We trust we can go small and make those plays. We did.”
The rebound went out of bounds to Gorham, but the Rams didn’t get another shot, as Ruby was called for travelling with 8.9 seconds to go .
Just two seconds later, Williams was fouled. He made his first free throw, but his bid to hit the second and make it a three-point game was a little long.
“I’m confident on the line,” said Williams. “I tried to make the first one and I did. I tried to make the second one, but I shot it too high. I was hoping they wouldn’t make a miracle 3.”
The rebound came to Elliott, who dribbled across midcourt. After momentarily losing the ball, Elliott got it back and just before the horn sounded, he unleashed a 30-foot prayer that appeared on target, but luckily for Deering, was just to the left of the rim and caromed off the backboard harmlessly as Deering survived, 61-59.
“It was a tough game,” Majok said. “It was really stressful. More stressful than fun.”
“It’s a great, great feeling,” said White. “Both teams played hard. It was a great game.”
“I’m speechless right now,” Williams said. “That was a crazy game. We battled. We came out and we executed. We knew they’d come out and be ready to play.”
“With a good team, it’s hard to pull away a third time,” Wing added. “We knew they’d make adjustments and they made adjustments in their press break. We adjusted so we could play solid defense and it paid dividends. (Gorham) just played better this time. They put up two duds this year and they happened to be against us, but they were number four for a reason. They’re a good team with good interior players. Their guards got them the ball. They played their game and they played it well.
“It was down to the final second. I thought that last one was going in. It just shows the heart of a champion. The guys battled through Gorham’s highs, our stagnant parts. They kept the course. They believed in each other and played solid team basketball. That’s what it takes to win.”
White had a breakout game, scoring 21 points, which included four 3-pointers. He also had four rebounds and two steals.
“If it wasn’t for Malik, I don’t think we’d be here,” Majok said. “He had a huge contribution tonight.”
Williams had 13 free throws to give him 13 points. He also had four rebounds and four steals.
Majok added 10 points, three boards, two steals, an assist and a block.
Salamone had six points (and four rebounds), Nzenza added four, Oreste three and Chabot and Coon two apiece.
Deering forced 21 turnovers, only committed nine and made a cool 20 of 24 foul shots.
“After the South Portland game earlier in the season, we started shooting every free throw in silence,” Wing said. “That’s how seriously we take it. Yesterday, we spent 15 minutes shooting free throws, because in tournament time, that’s what wins ballgames.”
And for the second year in a row, the Rams got a little extra help from the spirit of Brendan Conway, the team’s former assistant coach, who passed away in November, 2013.
“The memory of Brendan comes out in big games because he loved these moments,” Wing said. “He’d give you that smirk. He’s always on our minds. It makes you emotional. These guys after the game say, ‘Conway on three!’ That lives on.”
For Gorham, Thibeault had 17 points and five rebounds. Ruby finished with 16 points and collected six assists, five rebounds and two blocks. Kilborn had 13 points, a game-high 12 boards and a block. Bassingthwaite added seven points, Ruda had three, Smith two and Bernaiche one.
The Rams enjoyed a 29-21 rebounding advantage, but only made 14 of 23 free throws.
Deering had no luck with Portland during the regular season, dropping a thrilling 65-62 contest Jan. 15 at the Expo, then falling at home in the regular season finale Feb. 5, 66-44.
The Bulldogs (who dispatched No. 8 Windham, 57-50, in their prelim) have won three of the previous five playoff meetings, including a 64-49 decision in last year’s semifinals en route to the championship.
Deering will enter the game relishing its underdog status, while believing it can shock Portland.
“We look forward to it,” said Williams. “We have nothing to lose. We’ll be ready.”
“This is a big confidence booster going into Portland,” said White. “We have to play with heart. We’re rising to the occasion. We’ll keep playing our game. We like being the underdogs.”
“We’re more confident this time,” Wing added. “We know their players well. They know ours. We match up well with them. We didn’t play well the second time, but we’ll be ready. These guys are ready to go. They’d go now if they could.”‘
Deering senior Garang Majok looks to finish at the rim.
Deering sophomore Jean Claude Nzenza launches a jump shot.
Deering sophomore Raffaele Salamone fights for a rebound.
Deering junior Benedict Williams leans in for a shot.
Deering junior Malik White floats a shot over a Gorham defender during the Battle of the Rams’ Western A quarterfinal Friday night. Deering held on for a 61-59 victory and advanced to face Portland in the semifinals.
Jason Veilleux photos.
More photos below.
D- 17 17 11 16- 61
G- 13 18 14 14- 59
D- White 8-1-21, Williams 0-13-13, Majok 4-2-10, Salamone 1-4-6, Nzenza 2-0-4, Oreste 1-0-3, Chabot 1-0-2, Coon 1-0-2
G- Thibeault 7-2-17, Ruby 6-4-16, Kilborn 4-5-13, Bassingthwaite 3-1-7, Ruda 1-1-3, Smith 1-0-2, Bernaiche 0-1-1
D (5) White 4, Oreste 1
G (1) Thibeault 1