The 2015-16 basketball regular season was full of excitement and the upcoming tournament figures to be memorable.
There are new classifications and locations this winter, but high drama will remain the constant.
Portland’s boys’ team is in the midst of a three-year run of dominance unparalleled in the long and storied history of the program.
After going undefeated to win the Class A title in 2013-14, the Bulldogs got back to the big game a year ago, only to lose to Hampden Academy. This winter, Portland capped another tremendous regular season at 17-1 after beating host South Portland (68-38) and Cheverus (59-48) last week.
Last year at South Portland, the Bulldogs scored 16 points in 36 minutes in an overtime loss. This time around, Portland needed less than seven minutes to eclipse that total and rolled to a 68-38 victory behind 11 first quarter points from Terion Moss and a team-high 13 points from Griffin Foley.
“We knew they had something to play for and they really wanted to win, so we knew we had to come out and match their intensity and energy and we did,” Foley said.
“We knew (South Portland would) be fired up,” said Bulldogs coach Joe Russo. “We’re worth a lot of points, it’s a rivalry, it was in their gym and they have talent, but all 10 guys contributed tonight.”
In the finale, Amir Moss and Terion Moss both had 16 points, Joe Esposito added 13 and Foley finished with 10.
Portland is heading to the playoffs for the 24th straight season and earned the top seed for the third year in a row (although Western A has given way to Class AA North) and earned a bye into the semifinals Tuesday, Feb. 16 at the Augusta Civic Center.
There, the Bulldogs will face either No. 4 Edward Little (10-8) or No. 5 Cheverus (9-9). Portland downed the visiting Red Eddies, 82-64, three days before Christmas and in addition to beating the Stags last Thursday, the Bulldogs downed visiting Cheverus, 72-42, Jan. 20.
Portland is 6-2 in previous playoff meetings against Edward Little, with a 65-60 loss in the 2003 Western A semifinals the most recent.
Portland has split 22 previous playoff meetings with Cheverus, dating back to 1932. The Stags took the most recent encounter, 45-41, in the 2010 semifinals.
“We haven’t peaked yet, which is good,” Russo said. “We’re getting better every game.”
Deering had a terrific season as well, finishing 16-2 after beating host Scarborough (81-58) and visiting South Portland (49-47). Against the Red Storm, Anthony Lobor and Malik White both had 17 points, while Raffaele Salamone added 13 and Manny Chikuta had 11. Max Chabot made a buzzer-beater to down the Red Riots in the finale. Chabot had a team-high 10 points as the Rams posted their best record since the 2005-06 team went 17-1 en route to the program’s first state championship.
“(Beating South Portland) is good momentum going into the tournament,” said Deering coach Todd Wing. “We’ve shown steady improvement. We don’t have to rely on one guy to lead us. Our stats are spread around. That’s an advantage.”
The Rams are heading to the playoffs for the 13th year in a row, earned the No. 2 seed for the tournament and also earned a bye into the semifinals Tuesday of next week where they will face either No. 3 Oxford Hills (14-4) or No. 6 Bangor (5-13). Deering won at Bangor, 66-60, Dec. 19 and beat the visiting Vikings, 81-59, Jan. 18.
The Rams last met Oxford Hills in the playoffs in the 1964 Class LL quarterfinals (a 76-57 Deering victory).
The Rams have played Bangor just once in the postseason and it’s a painful memory. In the 2001 Class A Final, an undefeated Deering powerhouse lost to Bangor on Joe Campbell’s buzzer-beater, 57-56.
Wing said that his Rams will be ready for either foe.
“Oxford Hills has arguably the best player in the state (Andrew Fleming),” said Wing. “We beat them, but the second time is always difficult. We only beat Bangor by six points up there. We don’t know a lot about them. They’ve been competitive against a strong schedule. We’ll have our hands full. We’ve steadily improved in terms of wins each year. It’s a credit to my staff at the freshman and JV levels.”
If Deering and Portland both win their semifinals, they’ll square off in a highly anticipated regional final, which unfortunately will be played in Augusta instead of Portland. The Rams have lost eight straight meetings to the Bulldogs, including playoff ousters each of the past two years. Ultimately, this Deering team will be judged on whether or not it can finally solve mighty Portland.
“If we play them, we’ll have to defend them on the perimeter and we can’t allow wide open 3s,” Wing said. “We’ll have to get back on transition. We’ll have to have a Plan A and a Plan B. One of the things we’ve done well is prepare for the playoffs. We’ll do our homework.
“Augusta is probably the best venue, but if we play Portland, it would be ludicrous we’re not playing at the (Portland Exposition Building).”
Cheverus went 9-9 this winter, finishing on a 1-5 skid after falling at Gorham (48-40) and at home against Portland (59-48). Jesse Matthews had 14 points against the Rams. In the loss to the Bulldogs, Jack Casale had 15 points and Matthews added 14. The Stags earned the No. 5 seed and will meet No. 4 Edward Little in the quarterfinals Thursday at 5:30 p.m. at the Augusta Civic Center (Cheverus’ first game in that venue since dropping the 2011 Class A state final to Bangor, 58-49).
“I believe we are trending in the right direction,” said Stags first-year coach Ryan Soucie. “We ended our season with arguably the toughest schedule around over the final three weeks. We competed well in all of those games, except for the Portland game at the Expo. Even though we lost some close games during that stretch, I believe our players gained some confidence playing against the top tier of teams.”
The Stags won the regular season meeting, 52-40, at home on Dec. 18. Cheverus beat the Red Eddies in the 2003 regional final (87-55) and in the 2010 Class A state final (55-50), a title that was later vacated by the Maine Principals’ Association.
“We’re preparing one day at a time for our first round game against EL, a team we saw earlier this season and a team who has improved as the season has gone on,” Soucie said. “I have a lot of respect for (EL) Coach (Mike) Adams and the job he does. They will certainly be a nice challenge for us. Everyone is 0-0 now and we know anything can happen during tournament play. We’re excited about the opportunity to continue with our season and I believe our team is ready to embrace the challenge.”
If the Stags advance, they’ll have a showdown against Portland in the semifinals Tuesday of next week.
In Class C South, Waynflete produced another tremendous season, posting a winning record and making the playoffs for the sixth year in a row.
Last week, the Flyers capped a 16-2 campaign with a thrilling 48-47 overtime win over visiting Traip Academy and a 67-51 victory at Sacopee Valley. Against the Rangers, Waynflete let a 13-point lead slip away and the game went to overtime where Traip led by three as time wound down, but the Flyers have a clutch hero unlike any other in senior Milo Belleau, who added to his legend by converting a rarely seed four-point play (3-pointer, foul, free throw) with 14.6 seconds left and Waynflete held on for an improbable victory.
“It was Senior Night and I’ve been in this gym a lot since I was in sixth grade,” Belleau said. “You can talk about luck, but it just made sense. That’s all I can say. The (3-point shot) was more important, so there wasn’t pressure on the free throw.”
“What can you say about Milo?” Waynflete coach Rich Henry said. “I’ve had other great players, but when you think about what Milo did in soccer (a standout goalkeeper) and what he’s doing in clutch situations in basketball, it’s unbelievable.”
Belleau had 13 points, Will Nelligan 11 and Yai Deng 10 in the win over the Hawks.
“We had a brief team discussion after our last regular season game and I told them that we should feel very good about the regular season,” Henry said. “We played a very demanding schedule, had tough opponents and some really close games that hopefully steels us for the tournament. We’ve had our share of obstacles or hurdles due to injury, sickness, etc, but the team battled through those things pretty well.”
Despite its glowing record, Waynflete only earned the No. 4 seed in a deep and talented Class C South and will face either No. 5 Wiscasset (13-5) or No. 12 Buckfield (7-11) in the quarterfinals Monday at 8 p.m. in Augusta.
The Flyers didn’t play either team this year. Waynflete lost to Buckfield in the 1992 Western D quarterfinals and the 2005 Western D preliminary round. The Flyers beat Wiscasset in both prior playoff meetings: 50-48 in overtime in the 2011 Western C quarterfinals and 59-48 in the Western C quarterfinal a year later.
“I think it’s going to come down to handling the playoff atmosphere and adjusting to any differences in the way the games are called, while at the same time being aggressive on both ends of the floor,” Henry said. “It’s a very exciting time of year, and I enjoy seeing the different reactions from the players. The upperclassmen have a bit of a familiarity with the setting, but the freshmen and sophomores, who may be seeing all of this for the first time, you can almost see the light bulb go off as they connect how the veterans have talked about working hard in practice, setting the stage for the tournament. Once they have that experience, things start to fall into place and the motivation is established for that group.
“I feel good about our chances, We’ve had these close games. My fondest wish is for us to put together four quarters of consistent basketball. That’s what we’re shooting for, four quarters of consistent Waynflete basketball and this group of seniors is the group to do that. The kids have put forth a great effort.”
The Class AA girls’ tournament, north and south, features several teams capable of emerging as champion.
In the South, McAuley capped another stellar regular season with wins last week at Portland (70-41) and at home over Cheverus (43-25). Against the Bulldogs, Jess Willerson led the way with 23 points, while Sarah Clement added 17. The Lions improved to 25-0 all-time with the victory over the Stags, as they overcame a slow start (trailing, 7-2, after one period) to pull away on Senior Night behind big contributions from seniors Clement, Willerson (18 points), Brooke Howard and Chelsea Rairdon.
“It’s huge for our school,” Clement said. “That’s what drove us, doing it for our school. I think we’ve really come together and have learned a lot about the game and each other.”
“Senior Night meant a lot to me,” Rairdon said. “My whole family and the team was here to support me. It was awesome.”
“It was a team effort tonight,” Howard said. “We all know defense wins games. With great defense comes even better offense.”
“It was the emotions early, Senior Night, the “Holy War,’ but we showed up in the second quarter and showed them how we can play,” said Willerson, who played for Cheverus her freshman and sophomore seasons.
“I’m really proud of my team,” added McAuley coach Billy Goodman, who won his 100th game with the Lions. “The things we’ve worked on the past three weeks, we really executed tonight. Our seniors really stepped up. I could not be prouder of a group of girls.”
For the first time since 2010-11, the Lions aren’t the top seed. They finished second in the region to undefeated Gorham and earned a bye into the semifinals Tuesday, Feb. 16 at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland (formerly the Cumberland County Civic Center) where they will meet either No. 3 South Portland (15-3) or No. 6 Scarborough (7-11).
McAuley split with the Red Riots this year, winning at home in the opener Dec. 4, 46-37, then falling at South Portland Jan. 12, 57-45. The Red Riots have won three of the five prior playoff meetings, but the Lions won the last two, including a 39-34 semifinal round triumph a year ago.
McAuley beat the Red Storm twice this year, 63-44 three days before Christmas on the road, then 43-38 at home Jan. 26. The Lions won both prior playoff meetings between the teams: 61-43 in the 2012 regional final and 47-38 in the 2013 semifinals.
“Sixteen wins with these girls, a lot of them new to varsity, I’m very proud of them and our record, but they want more,” Goodman said. “I feel like we need to stick to what we’re doing. I respect every team that’s in the playoffs. Whoever we get next will be the toughest team. There are a lot of good teams and we need to be ready. We’ve been the underdog in some games this year. We have nothing to lose. If they give me all they’ve got, that’s all I can ask for.”
In Class AA North, Deering wound up 11-7 and fourth after a 38-26 home win over Scarborough and a 55-52 loss at Portland. Tasia Titherington had eight points in the victory. Against the Bulldogs, Amanda Brett had 18 points, while Titherington added 14 and Delaney Haines finished with 11.
“We’ve been inconsistent this season,” said Rams coach Mike Murphy. “We’ve played a lot of young kids.”
The Rams meet No. 5 Cheverus (10-8) in the quarterfinals Wednesday at 5:30 p.m. in Augusta (see theforecaster.net for game story).
“Cheverus is tough,” Murphy said. “They have a bunch of scorers. We have a lot of respect for them. We’ll have to play with a focus. We have to take care of the ball. We need to play good team defense.”
Count Murphy as another coach not thrilled with the change of venue to Augusta.
“It is what it is right now, but it’s mind-boggling,” Murphy said. “It will be a totally different feel.”
The Stags closed with losses to visiting Gorham (64-36) and at McAuley (43-25). Against the Rams, Cheverus got nine points from Abby Cavallaro, but had no answers for Gorham’s tandem of Emily Esposito and Mackenzie Holmes (who combined for 56 points).
“We’d won six of seven and tried to get things going, but we just couldn’t tonight,” said Stags coach Steve Huntington.
In the final “Holy War” (McAuley is dropping its religious affiliation following this school year), Cheverus hoped to beat the Lions for the first time, but went cold down the stretch and lost despite five points apiece from Cavallaro and Kaylin Malmquist.
“We weren’t getting the shots we wanted,” Huntington said. “We shot too many 3s and those 3s weren’t coming from touches in the paint first. We were easy to guard.”
Cheverus and Deering met Dec. 30 and the host Rams prevailed, 59-42. The Stags won the lone prior playoff meeting, 33-31, in the 2013 semifinals.
“I do like where our mindset is right now,” Huntington said. “We’re not executing as well as we’d like on the floor, but the girls are in a good place overall moving forward. We’re in a better place mentally than the last time we played (Deering). I look forward to it.”
The Cheverus-Deering winner meets top-ranked Oxford Hills (15-3) in the semifinals Tuesday of next week in Augusta.
The Rams lost, 44-37, in Oxford Jan. 18. Deering won both prior playoff meetings with a 55-43 victory in the 2008 Class A Final the most recent.
The Stags beat the visiting Vikings, 67-49, back on Dec. 22. The teams have no playoff history.
Portland missed the playoffs with a 2-16 record, but after falling at home to McAuley (70-41, despite 13 points from Taylor Sargent), the Bulldogs ended the season in style by upsetting visiting rival Deering, 55-52 (Nettie Walsh had 13 points, Rose Griffin finished with 12 and Sargent and Kate Johnson each added 10).
In Class C South, Waynflete finished 7-11 and 13th after a 44-29 loss at Traip Academy and a 28-24 win at Sacopee Valley. In the loss, Lydia Giguere had a team-high nine points. In the victory, Giguere led the way with a dozen points.
“We had a successful regular season with lots of growth as a team,” said Waynflete first-year coach Mike Jefferds. “The combination of a tough schedule, young team and my first year as coach gave us some challenges, but the girls rose to the occasion at every opportunity. Certainly a record of seven wins and 11 losses does not look like success to the outsider, but those that are a part of this team know we were successful. With 11 games on our schedule against class B teams, we had some serious challenges. We competed in every single game and the girls stayed positive and upbeat the whole season.”
The Flyers traveled to No. 4 Madison (11-7) for a preliminary round game Tuesday. Waynflete doesn’t play Madison in the regular season. The Flyers are 2-3 all-time against Madison in the playoffs, with a 48-41 preliminary round loss last year the most recent.
“Our schedule is going to help us going into the playoffs,” Jefferds said. “We feel like we are ready for anything entering the tournament. Our first opponent, Madison, is a really tough team, but we know if we play our game and do all the things we have been working on to improve this season we will be OK.”
If Waynflete sprung the upset and advanced, it would play either No. 5 Hebron Academy (8-4) or 12th-ranked Traip Academy (7-11) in the quarterfinals Tuesday of next week in Augusta. The Flyers didn’t play Hebron this year. They split with the Rangers winning at home, 35-31, and losing in Kittery, 44-29. Waynflete has no playoff history with either school.
Waynflete senior Milo Belleau (jumping for joy after his late four-pointer helped the Flyers edge Traip Academy in overtime last week) and his teammates have enjoyed many memorable moments this winter and like their chances entering the Class C South playoffs.
McAuley’s Emily Weisser goes up for a shot as Cheverus’ Brooke McElman defends during the Lions’ 43-25 in the teams’ regular season final last Thursday. McAuley improved to 25-0 all-time versus the Stags and appears to be rounding into title form entering the playoffs.