February hoops madness tips off (Portland edition)

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The city of Portland will be a hoops hotbed over the next couple of weeks and there will be plenty of excitement in the capital city of Augusta as well.

The annual basketball tournament kicks off with the preliminary round Tuesday and Wednesday. The Western A quarterfinals will be held Friday, Saturday, Monday and Tuesday at the Portland Exposition Building. The Western C quarterfinals will be contested Monday and Tuesday at the Augusta Civic Center.

Eight of nine local squads made the cut and all have Gold Ball dreams. Here’s a look.

Roaring again

The Western Class A girls’ tournament is viewed by many as the McAuley Invitational, but the Lions, even as defending champions with a perfect record, can take nothing for granted.

Last week, McAuley capped an 18-0 regular season (its first in 10 years) with wins at Portland (58-30) and South Portland (51-32). At the Bulldogs, the Lions forced 17 first quarter turnovers in jumping out to a 19-4 lead after eight minutes. Sophomore Allie Clement had nine points in the period. By halftime, the lead was up to 33-12 and McAuley cruised behind 20 points from Clement and 10 from senior Alexa Coulombe. In the win over the Red Riots, senior Sadie DiPierro hit a couple clutch early 3s to help the Lions build the lead to as much as 26-7 in the first half. South Portland got as close as 11 points in the third, but a 3 at the horn by Coulombe stemmed the tide and McAuley went on to the victory. Clement had 14 points, Coulombe a dozen and DiPierro 10.

The Lions, who have also gotten big-time contributions this winter from junior Molly Mack, sophomores Olivia Smith and Jackie Welch and freshman Olivia Lux, have won 22 straight dating back to last year and garnered the top seed in the Western Class A Heal Points for the first time since the 2006-07 season.

“I feel like we’ve gotten better every month,” said McAuley first-year coach Billy Goodman. “I wasn’t worried about our record since I was new and they were new to me. I was more concerned with how we’d jell. The girls handled the pressure all season and have done well. It’s a mentally tough group.”

McAuley will either face No. 8 Westbrook (8-10) or No. 9 Sanford (10-8) in the quarterfinals Monday at 8:30 p.m. The Lions dispatched the Redskins at home, 45-23, on Jan. 24 and downed the visiting Blue Blazes, 64-34, Feb. 3.

McAuley has its share of postseason history with both schools. The Lions lost to Westbrook in the quarterfinals in 1980 and 1991, then beat the Blue Blazes in the 2007 quarters. McAuley beat Sanford in the 1987 preliminary round, the 2000 prelims (launching the storybook run to the state final that started the basketball phenomenon at the school), the 2002 and 2004 semifinals and the 2005 and 2007 regional finals.

“Both teams were missing a good player when we played the first time,” Goodman said. “The winner will have a full team waiting for us. Every other team (in the field) has lost a game and anything can happen. A lot of teams have a chance. We have to shore up our defense, which hasn’t played that great lately, and continue to play team basketball and move the ball around on offense.”

It’s quite possible McAuley could match up with Deering in the semifinals. The Rams have given the Lions fits in recent meetings.

Deering, which graduated reigning Maine Miss Basketball Kayla Burchill, started the season 0-2, but finished red-hot, capping a 14-4 campaign with victories at South Portland (49-35) and Cheverus (48-42) last week. The Rams got 12 points apiece from senior Ella Ramonas and junior Marissa MacMillan, along with 10 from junior Chelsea Saucier in the win over the Red Riots. Against the Stags, they were down 12-4 after one period and 20-15 at halftime, then erupted in the third period behind three 3s apiece from Ramonas and senior Emily Cole and held on down the stretch to extend their winning streak to six games. Ramonas led all scorers with 21 points.

“I told the kids I’m very proud of them,” Deering coach Mike Murphy said, following the win over Cheverus. “We could be 17-1 with a break here and there. Ella was sick the first two weeks of the season. All four games that we lost were tight. We had kids playing different roles this year. I’m happy for the kids. They like the challenge and they usually stand up to it and fight. They have pride. They compete.”

Deering earned the No. 4 seed and with it a tough quarterfinal round test with No. 5 Windham (14-4) Monday at 7 p.m. On Jan. 24, the Rams held off the visiting Eagles, 41-32, despite 19 points from Windham senior standout Meghan Gribbin, who was recently named the league’s MVP. MacMillan, who stands 6-foot-3, had 17 points in that win.

“(Windham has) the best player in the league,” said Murphy. “She controls the ball and the tempo. We’ll have our hands full. You can’t take anything for granted. Quarterfinals are tough. If you’re lucky to get through that, anything can happen. McAuley’s the favorite. They have the most talent. They have an all-star team from the Western Maine Conference and an all-star team from the SMAA combined.”

Cheverus entered the season with high hopes and won seven of its first eight. The loss to the Rams last week was the Stags’ sixth in nine outings. Junior Brooke Flaherty had a team-high nine points in that one. Friday, Cheverus pulled away to beat visiting Portland, 62-41, behind 18 points from sophomore super sub Georgia Ford. The Stags finished the regular year 11-7 and garnered the No. 7 seed.

“It seems with us that almost every game, we have one rough quarter,” said Cheverus coach Richie Ashley. “If somebody could give me the reason why, I’d be a happy man. I don’t know what it is.”

The Stags are seeking their first ever playoff victory and have a great shot to get it Wednesday at 7 p.m., when they host No. 10 Gorham (8-10) in the preliminary round. On Dec. 13, in the second game of the season, Cheverus won at the Rams, 51-43. The teams have no playoff history.

Ashley feels his squad’s tenacity will serve it well.

“We don’t quit,” he said. “The girls have a lot of pride. We pride ourselves as a coaching staff and as a team that we’ll play hard.”

The Western A semifinals are Wednesday of next week. The regional final is Saturday, Feb. 25. The Class A state game is March 3. All of those rounds will be contested at the Cumberland County Civic Center.

Portland’s losses to McAuley and Cheverus to end the season left it 2-16 and 15th in the standings. Only the top 11 teams qualified for the playoffs. Against the Lions, on Senior Night, senior Mary Roma opened the game with a free throw for her first varsity point. Senior Angie Reali had a team-high eight points in that one. Against the Stags, junior Ella Purington led the way with 14 points.

In Western C, Waynflete battled injury much of the season, but managed to end the year on a six-game win streak to wind up 11-7, good for seventh in the Heals. Last week, the Flyers defeated visiting Greater Portland Christian School (59-25) and triumphed at Pine Tree Academy (48-26) and Sacopee (53-21). Junior standout Martha Veroneau had 21 points against GPCS, had 21 more (along with seven rebounds and six steals) at Pine Tree and scored 21 again against the Hawks.

Waynflete hosted No. 10 Lisbon (7-11) in the preliminary round Tuesday evening. The teams didn’t play this year and had no playoff history.

“I think for us to go 11-7, finish seventh and host a prelim game is a good accomplishment for the regular season,” said Waynflete coach Brandon Salway. “Six of our seven loses were to playoff teams. This team really has been day to day with injuries. I’ve lost track of how many starting lineups we’ve had. I think this group still wants more. The goal for every team is to get to the quarters and then anything can happen.”

The Flyers entered the preliminary round wary.

“Lisbon is a solid team,” Salway said. “They have some good size and a couple of good shooters. They are one of the teams that have beaten the top seed, Hall-Dale. We’ll need to be up tempo and be competitive on the glass. We’re playing and shooting with a lot more confidence right now, so that is a definite positive for us. We’ll need to stay out of any kind of foul trouble to get to Augusta.”

If Waynflete was victorious, it would square off with No. 2 Madison (15-3) in the quarterfinals Tuesday at 4 p.m., at the Augusta Civic Center. The teams don’t play in the regular season. They met previously in the 2006 preliminary round (a 71-32 victory for the Bulldogs) and the 2010 regional final (a 37-23 Madison triumph).

Salway feels the region is wide open.

“(Fourth-ranked) Traip right now is playing really well,” he said. “They have senior leadership and are well coached. I think they will be a very tough out. (Top-ranked) Hall-Dale is talented and battle tested. (Third-ranked) Boothbay will be a tough matchup for anyone. Madison has had success in Augusta, no one knows that better than us.”

The Western C semis are Thursday of next week. The regional final is Saturday, Feb. 25 and the state final is Saturday, March 3. All games will be held in Augusta.

Flip a coin

The Western A boys’ tournament has been dominated by Cheverus, Deering or Portland for the past decade, but this winter, there’s great uncertainty in a region that could see any of a half dozen teams emerge as champion.

The Rams wound up with the No. 1 seed with a 15-3 record, but ran the gamut of emotions last week, rallying for a stirring 50-46 home victory over Cheverus, then struggling mightily in a 46-22 blowout loss at Portland. In the victory, junior Labson Abwoch had 16 points, including the go-ahead layup, senior Pat Green added 14 and senior Cal London had a superb effort, highlighted by tipping a missed free throw to senior Jon Amabile for the clinching layup.

“It’s a good win,” said Rams coach Dan LeGage. “(Cheverus has) been the measuring stick in the league. If you want to consider yourself a serious contender over the past several years, you have to beat them.”

Against the Bulldogs, Deering scored just five points in the first period, had a mere 12 at halftime and only 16 after three quarters. Abwoch and junior Thiwat Thiwat led the team with a mere five points apiece.

“We shot 8-of-39 and had 19 turnovers,” LeGage said. “It spiraled out of control. It’s not how we wanted to play. We’ve had some games where we didn’t play well, but we hadn’t had a clunker like that.”

Regardless, the Rams are the top seed for the first time since their championship year of 2006.

“Overall, given the strength of the league with so many good teams, I’m pleased,” LeGage said, of the regular season. “We had some good wins. The kids showed perseverance and character. They’re playing with confidence.”

The Rams will face either No. 8 Scarborough (10-8) or No. 9 Biddeford (9-9) Friday at 8:30 p.m. Deering beat both teams in the regular season, winning 61-48 over the Tigers Jan. 10 and 55-44 at the Red Storm six days later. Deering has no postseason history with Scarborough. The last time the Rams faced Biddeford in the playoffs was in the 1991 quarterfinals (a 65-56 win for the Tigers).

“Both teams are very different now,” LeGage said. “Biddeford is very dangerous with (senior standout Bobby) Cote. Scarborough has regrouped and is playing good basketball. They’re full of great athletes. It’s like a one-game season now. The team that executes and makes the fewest mistakes will be the most successful.”

Portland closed the regular season strong, as it always seems to do, beating visiting South Portland, 52-48 (behind 21 points from senior Mike Herrick), three days prior to the victory over Deering (where sophomore Justin Zukowski scored 12 points and senior Peter Donato added 10) which allowed it to finish 14-4, good for second in Western A. It’s the Bulldogs’ highest ranking since being No. 1 five years ago. Portland won its final five games.

“I’m extremely pleased with the way the kids are playing, how they play together, the way they understand their roles and how they get along,” said Portland coach Joe Russo. “The kids just played hard against Deering. We knew they’d want to beat us and the first game was close. I’m not surprised we beat them, but I was surprised at the score. It’s been a good year from the beginning. I was disappointed with a couple losses that could have gone either way, but the kids gave me all they have.”

The Bulldogs will face either No. 7 South Portland (10-8) or No. 10 Westbrook (8-10) in the quarterfinals Saturday at 9 p.m. In addition to last week’s victory, Portland also beat the host Red Riots, 61-57, on Jan. 13. Last year, in the quarterfinals, the Bulldogs upset South Portland in emphatic fashion, 69-45, to take a 13-12 edge in postseason meetings between the longtime rivals. Portland’s most recent playoff encounter with the Blue Blazes came two years ago in the quarterfinals (a 65-34 setback).

“Either one of those teams will be tough,” Russo said. “Westbrook already beat us. They’re big. We always have good games with South Portland. It seems like we’re always playing them in the first round (the teams also met in 2009). All the games will be tough. The kids know if we play hard we can be successful.

“It’s as open a tournament as I’ve seen in 20 years. Teams 1-8 usually aren’t as strong as this year. Our chances are as good as anyone’s. What I like is as well as we’ve played, we don’t have one guy who stands out. They all help each other. We can still play even better.”

Then, there’s Cheverus, the defending regional champion, which saw its four-year run of being the top seed come to a close this winter. The Stags, who returned just one starter (senior Louie DiStasio), wound up 13-5 and fourth in the standings. Last week, Cheverus lost at Deering despite 26 points from DiStasio. The Stags then bounced back in the finale to edge host South Portland, 45-39. DiStasio led the way in that one with 21 points.

“We’re heading in the right direction,’ said Cheverus coach Bob Brown. “For whatever reason, up until the end of the season, we’ve only played in spurts. When you ask me the last time we played a full game against a really good team, I couldn’t tell you. We have to have more than Louie. We’ll need different people at different times. I knew we’d be good this year, but I didn’t know if we were good enough.”

Cheverus will battle dangerous No. 5 Thornton Academy (13-5) in the quarterfinals Friday at 7:30 p.m. On Feb. 3, the Stags let one get away and were stunned at home by the Golden Trojans, 46-45. The teams’ most recent playoff encounter was Thornton Academy’s shocking 47-41 semifinal round upset in the 2009 semifinals.

“I expect it will be a very physical game,” said Brown. “It’ll come down to making shots and executing. A mistake could cost the ballgame. Our emphasis in practice is tightening the ship. I think it’s going to be anybody’s ballgame.

“I think any of five or six teams have enough to put three wins together. It’s totally different this year. I think anyone could beat anyone in the opening round and I can’t remember another year I would have said that. I don’t think there’s a team in the first round who will say, ‘Boy am I glad we play those guys.’ I think everybody will say, ‘We better play well or we’re going home.’ It’s going to take three good ballgames. I’ve never coached a season like this where the season really didn’t matter as long as we got in. If we play well, we’ll move on. If we don’t, we’ll go home. That goes for everybody.”

The Western A semifinals are Friday, Feb. 24, at the Civic Center. The regional final is the following night at the same location. The Civic Center will also host the Class A state final, Saturday, March 3.

In Western C, Waynflete has enjoyed its best season since moving up to Class C. The Flyers wound up 14-3 (setting a program record for victories in a regular season) and second behind Dirigo in the Heals. Waynflete closed with one-sided victories at Pine Tree Academy (100-28) and Sacopee (60-28). Senior Abshir Horor had 27 points, junior Mohammed Suja 22 and freshman Harry Baker-Connick 15 to help the Flyers hit the century mark. Against the Hawks, junior Jack Cutler led the way with 15.

“This has been, thus far, the most offensively balanced team that I’ve had at Waynflete,” said Flyers coach Rich Henry. “We’d had our share of talented players, but from top to bottom, this team has been pretty remarkable. We have nine players averaging double digits in terms of minutes played, and seven players averaging six or more points a game. It’s also a team with good chemistry. They enjoy seeing each other succeed on the court and they play unselfishly on offense and defense.”

Waynflete will face either No. 7 Wiscasset (10-8) or No. 10 Traip (5-12) in the quarterfinals Monday at 4 p.m., at the Augusta Civic Center. The Flyers don’t play Wiscasset in the regular season. A year ago, Waynflete edged Wiscasset, 50-48, in a double overtime thriller in the quarterfinals. Waynflete sees plenty of Traip, beating the Rangers at home, 77-45, way back on Dec. 13 and 35-32, Jan. 20, in Kittery.  The only previous playoff meeting between the schools came in the 2007 quarterfinals (a 60-49 Traip triumph).

“I’m very pleased with getting the No. 2 seed, but those seedings don’t come with any extra baskets or rebounds,” Henry said. “There are high quality opponents in the tournament. The stage is larger than what we’ve seen during the regular season, so attention to the fundamentals needs to be front and center. Hopefully some of the experience from last year will pay off, because the entire environment is different than what we’re used to.

“Wiscasset has a few players back from our double overtime game last year, but has a new coach and system. We have some more familiarity obviously with Traip and our two games this year were significantly different. Early in the season, it was more of an up and down game. When we played them at their gym it was much more of a halfcourt, slow down game. Both teams are well coached, and I’m sure whoever wins will be well prepared for us Monday.”

The Western C semifinals are Thursday and the regional final is Saturday. The Class C state final is Saturday, March 3. All of those rounds will be contested in Augusta.

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

Sidebar Elements

Senior Louie DiStasio and the Cheverus boys’ basketball team hopes to soar above the competition when the Western A tournament begins Friday.

Cheverus junior Brooke Flaherty and Deering junior Marissa MacMillan will be heard from when the Western A girls’ tournament begins Monday afternoon.

Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.