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PORTLAND—It appears as if reports of the demise of the Deering boys’ basketball team have been greatly exaggerated.
Friday night, in a crucial early-January showdown with highly touted and undefeated Thornton Academy, the Rams put forth their finest 32-minute effort in a long time, led most of the way, then held on for dear life to win, 50-48.
Deering got 22 points from junior Jon Amabile, 13 from senior Jackson Frey and withstood an errant last-second 3-point bid from Golden Trojans’ senior James Ek, the league’s leading scorer, to improve to 4-2 on the year, dropping Thornton Academy to 5-1.
“It’s a big win,” said Amabile. “We needed it. We didn’t panic. If we did, it would have been a different story, but we handled it well.”
Deering, which has lost in the quarterfinals four straight years since winning its lone state championship in 2006, entered the 2010-11 campaign being touted as one of the top three teams in Western A, along with defending state champion Thornton Academy and defending state champion Cheverus.
The Rams struggled mightily on offense in the early going, however, and dropped two of their first three contests, 44-41, to visiting Bonny Eagle and 42-28 at Scarborough, the team’s lowest point production in years. Deering did edge host Sanford, 60-58, and bounced back from the Scarborough loss with a 62-44 home win over Gorham four days before Christmas.
That win allowed the Rams to turn the corner and Tuesday, they improved to 3-2 with another 62-point performance in a 19-point win over visiting Biddeford.
Despite the early struggles, Deering coach Dan LeGage was sure that the offense would come. He did his best to keep the kids’ confidence up.
“At the holiday break, I was able to talk to one of my old coaches and he kept reminding me that it’s a long season,” LeGage said. “That the shots will eventually start dropping. As long as kids are working hard, to stick with it. Those two losses, we didn’t break 30 percent shooting. I told the guys to stay positive. That shots would go in and when they do, combine that with defense and we can compete with anybody.”
Thornton Academy, the 2009 Class A champion, which lost to Windham in last year’s quarterfinals, won its first five outings this winter, over Portland (57-53), Kennebunk (64-45), Gorham (83-50), Bonny Eagle (63-58) and Sanford (70-54). The Golden Trojans, behind Ek and senior Andrew Shaw, two of the league’s top three scorers, have emerged as the most explosive offensive team around.
Deering and Thornton Academy had enjoyed some compelling meetings prior to this one. Two of the past four went into overtime. The teams also met in the 2007 and 2009 quarterfinals. The Golden Trojans won both games. In the latter encounter, the Rams led by a point with 15 seconds to go, before Thornton Academy got the game’s last four points to win, 51-48, setting the stage for its title run.
Friday, Deering made an early statement and did just enough to win.
After a sluggish start, the visitors broke the ice on a bank shot from Shaw nearly two minutes in. That would be the Golden Trojans’ lone lead until the fourth quarter.
The Rams then went on a 6-0 run to assume control.
A layup after a steal by Amabile got things started. Frey followed with a left-handed layup, then Frey took a pretty pass from senior Nick Colucci and made a layup for a 6-2 lead.
After Thornton Academy pulled within one on an old-fashioned three-point play by senior Josh Woodward, Deering rattled off nine straight.
Amabile got the run going with a layup, Frey then hit a 3 to make it 11-5. After a technical foul on Ek, Frey made two foul shots. With 2:41 to go in the first period, Amabile made a layup for a 15-5 advantage.
“Most of our points came on defense,” Amabile said. “Getting stops and running the floor. We ran the floor and got rebounds.”
“It was huge to get off to a good start,” LeGage added. “We obviously haven’t been shooting well. We just attacked the rim.”
The Golden Trojans ended the run with a free throw from junior Justin Pollard. After a Shaw jumper was countered by a Frey layup, Shaw hit a 3 to pull the visitors within six, 17-11, after one stanza.
The second period remained up-tempo and was nip and tuck throughout.
Ek made a 3-pointer 15 seconds into the quarter to make it 17-14. After Amabile hit a jumper, Woodward made a layup to again pull Thornton Academy within three, 19-16. Deering then got back-to-back 3s, from Colucci and Amabile, to go up nine, but layups from sophomore Adam Ek and Woodward made it a 25-20 contest.
With 3:09 remaining in the half, Amabile hit a layup, but James Ek canned a jumper and Pollard hit two free throws to again make it a three-point contest, 27-24. Amabile put Deering up five with another layup, but a jumper from Shaw pulled the Golden Trojans back within three, 29-26, at halftime.
The Rams led by as many as seven in the third quarter, but couldn’t pull away.
Amabile started the second half scoring with a free throw. He then made a layup after a nice pass from Frey to make it 32-26. Pollard countered by tipping home a missed shot, but Frey sank a jumper and senior Jamie Ross made a free throw for a 35-28 advantage.
A layup from Pollard and a putback by senior Alex Newton again brought Thornton Academy back to within three, 35-32, but Amabile hit a free throw and sophomore Labson Abwoch made a layup to make it 38-32.
Late in the quarter, Pollard sank a 3 to again make it a three-point contest, but again, Deering had the answer as a layup from senior John Hughes made it a 40-35 contest heading for the fourth.
The visitors would finally get over the hump in the fourth, but the Rams got off the deck and pulled out the victory.
Just 10 seconds into the fourth, James Ek sank a 3. Twenty-three seconds later, a bank shot from Adam Ek tied the score at 40-40, the first deadlock since 2-2.
With 6:08 to go, Amabile put Deering back up with a 3-ball, but Adam Ek hit a jumper in the lane and with 4:36 remaining, an Adam Ek layup gave the Golden Trojans a 44-43 lead, their first since 2-0.
With its season at a crossroads, the Rams rose to the occasion.
After a timeout, Colucci got the ball, drove in and made a layup with 4:13 showing to put Deering ahead to stay, 45-44. With 3:23 to go, Ross got great inside position and made a layup. With 1:47 left, Abwoch scored on a putback of an Amabile miss to stretch the advantage back to five, 49-44.
“We’re trying not to fold under pressure,” Amabile said. “We try not to take bad shots and get the best look on the floor.”
With 1:28 to play, Adam Ek was fouled after an offensive rebound, but he missed both free throws.
Thornton Academy was then forced to foul and with 1:10 to play, Ross was sent to the line for a 1-and-1 opportunity.
Ross banked home the first attempt, but missed the second. Amabile managed to get the offensive board and keep the possession alive. The ball came back to Ross, who was fouled again with 57.3 seconds to go. This time, Ross missed the front end of the 1-and-1.
With 49.1 seconds remaining, Shaw was fouled while taking a 3-pointer. He had a chance to pull his team within a possession, but he missed the first attempt. He made the next two to make it 50-46, then, after a turnover, Shaw raced in for a layup with 35.8 seconds to go, and suddenly it was a two-point ballgame.
After surviving another near-turnover, Hughes had a chance to build on the lead when he went to the line with 17.5 seconds remaining, but he missed the front end of the 1-and-1 and the visitors had one final opportunity.
Thornton Academy, with the ball in Adam Ek’s hands, had plenty of time to work for a good shot, but Deering’s defense wouldn’t allow it. As time wound down, James Ek threw up a desperation 3 that wasn’t even close. The rebound caromed off to the right of the basket and Abwoch secured the loose ball as the horn sounded.
Rams 50 Golden Trojans 48.
“We tried to get the ball out of Ek and Shaw’s hands,” Amabile said, of the endgame. “When they got it, we played them tight and tried not to foul. Make them take the worst shot they can get and get the rebound. This helps make up for our losses. We still need some work, but we’re coming along.”
“This will hopefully have the guys see what hard work and consistency can do, beat arguably the top team in the league right now,” LeGage added. “If we play good defense and stick with the plan, we can be in the conversation. We kept throwing different guys on Ek. You can’t let (Ek and Shaw) get 40 points. We had to slow down one of them. We felt in the first half we had a bit of an advantage on Ek. Colucci did a great job on Shaw. Athletically, he matched him. He’s such a good athlete. We asked him to play defense tonight.”
Amabile led all scorers with 22 points. He also had seven rebounds and five steals.
“Thornton’s a good team,” Amabile said. “We came to play. We just wanted it more tonight.”
“Amabile’s not a vocal kid,” LeGage added. “He’s quiet. He leads by his play. He just wants the ball.”
Frey stepped up and added 13 big points, along with three rebounds.
“Frey loves to play,” LeGage said. “He had such a great start. He was fantastic defensively.”
Colucci finished with five points (and three rebounds), Abwoch and Ross (eight rebounds, five steals) had four points apiece.
“What Jamie does for basketball doesn’t show up in the statistics,” LeGage said. “Near the end of the game, he stepped in the huddle and said, ‘Which one of you guys is going to get this rebound?’ He challenged the guys. He went out and got it. He’s a winner. He’s used to big-game situations.”
Hughes added two.
“Everyone who came in was focused on one thing, not on themselves and how much they played,” LeGage said. “For the first time in a long time, everyone just went in and did what I asked them to do. That’s what you have to do to beat a team like this. That’s what made me most proud. It was a great high school game. I think the fans got their money’s worth. It was physical, but the refs let the kids determine the outcome of the game.”
The Golden Trojans were led by 13 points by Shaw (he also had nine rebounds and three blocked shots). Pollard had nine, both Eks finished with eight, Woodward had seven (and a game-high 12 rebounds), Newton two and Smith one.
Thornton Academy (now seventh in the Western A Heal Points standings) can’t linger on this loss. The Golden Trojans host Cheverus in another pivotal contest Tuesday night. After that showdown comes home games with resurgent Scarborough and surprising South Portland, a trip to Westbrook and a home game against unheralded Marshwood.
As for Deering (which shot to fifth in the Heals by virtue of the victory), it goes to Kennebunk Tuesday, then hosts South Portland Thursday. The Rams still have two games each against Cheverus and Portland before the end of the season and still have work to do.
“We just have to build on this passion,” LeGage said. “We can’t let down against Kennebunk. We have to come back with the same energy and effort. I’ll caution the guys that it’s a long season. It’s a great game, but it’s over with. We need to shoot free throws better. There were a few times we were stagnant on offense. We have to keep our energy and passion high no matter who we’re playing if we want to win and get to the Civic Center.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Deering sophomore Labson Abwoch looks to take a shot while being hounded by Thornton Academy senior Andrew Shaw.
Deering sophomores Labson Abwoch (left) and Thiwat Thiwat blanket a Thornton Academy player. The Rams’ defense was stellar throughout.
The imposing defense of Deering senior Jamie Ross (along with classmate Jackson Frey) made life miserable for Thornton Academy senior James Ek.
Deering senior Jackson Frey goes up while being defended by Thornton Academy senior Josh Woodward.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com
Deering junior Jon Amabile goes up for a shot during Friday night’s exciting home win over Thornton Academy.
More photos below.