PORTLAND—Generally, a team facing the pressure of a first tournament game at an unfamiliar venue is going to struggle to find its way.
The Greely boys’ basketball team was an exception Saturday afternoon.
The Rangers, seeded first in Western Class B, took it to eighth-ranked Gray-New Gloucester from the get-go in the teams’ quarterfinal round tilt at the Portland Exposition Building, shooting lights-out in a 28-point first quarter.
Greely pushed its lead to 20 at halftime and was never seriously tested in the second half as it cruised to a 78-56 win over the Patriots behind 31 points from senior standout Sam Johnston, dominant inside play from senior Tanner Storey and a superb complementary effort from junior Liam Maker.
The Rangers improved to 17-2, ended Gray-New Gloucester’s season at 11-9 and advanced to meet equally hot Yarmouth, the 15-4 No. 4 seed, in Thursday’s semifinal round at the Cumberland County Civic Center (7:30 p.m. tip).
Putting on a show
Since winning its third Class B championship in four seasons back in 1998, Greely has been to the semifinals or regional final on eight occasions, but hasn’t been able to take that final step. The Rangers have been ousted by Cape Elizabeth three years running in the semifinals. Last year they fell, 51-43.
The Patriots had a solid first year under new coach Tony DiBiase, the 400-game, multiple state title-winner. Gray-New Gloucester won at Yarmouth and also downed Wells. The Patriots beat Maranacook in a preliminary round game to advance to the Expo.
Greely beat Gray-New Gloucester twice this year, 51-39 at Gray Jan. 15 and 91-42 at home last week.
The neighbors have squared off five times in the postseason in the past four decades. They played in the 1971 quarterfinals (Patriots, 39-36), 1973 quarterfinals (Rangers, 70-35), 1981 quarterfinals (Rangers, 61-52), 2001 second round (Rangers, 57-33) and 2009 quarterfinals (Greely, 68-35).
This time, although Gray-New Gloucester comported itself well, the Rangers had way too many weapons.
Just eight seconds in, Greely freshman Mike McDevitt banked home a shot to break the ice. After the Patriots tied the game on a layup by senior Ryan Cavallaro, Storey got into the action and made a layup to make it 4-2 Rangers.
Senior Josh Farynaz’s layup tied the game again. After Johnston fed Storey for a layup, Gray-New Gloucester senior Adam Jensen canned a jumper to even the contest at 6-6.
With 6:04 to play in the first quarter, the Rangers took the lead for good as Johnston knocked down a 3-ball. After Farynaz answered with a leaner for the Patriots, Johnston fed McDevitt for a layup, Johnston canned a 3 and Maker got into the act with a layup after a steal to give Greely a 16-8 bulge.
Senior Nicholas Bennett’s 3 momentarily stemmed the tide for Gray-New Gloucester, but Maker answered with a 3, Maker scored on a putback and Johnston buried two foul shots. After Cavallaro made one free throw, Storey converted a bank shot and Johnston gave his team a commanding 28-12 with a 3-pointer.
“I knew I had to come out strong,” Johnston said. “We wanted to be ready to go and not be flat. We did that really well.”
“That was really the way we were looking to come out, to bring the intensity,” Storey said. “We put up some shots before the game. We got into a rhythm. That’s what coach has been preaching all year. We didn’t want to come out flat and allow them to set the tone for the rest of the game. We did a good job of that.”
“We were right there, but they shot over us and around us,” lamented DiBiase. “It’s hard to defend them and they don’t miss. Johnston had one of those games. He’s tough.”
The Rangers’ sizzling shooting cooled a bit in the second quarter, but they managed to add to their lead.
After Bennett made a jumper, Johnston hit a fadeaway jumper to make it 30-14. Jensen sank two foul shots but Johnston made a 3-point shot, then converted an old-fashioned three-point play (leaner, foul and free throw) to push the advantage to 36-16.
After a Farynaz jumper, Johnston made a leaner. Jensen hit a free throw, but with 3:38 to go before halftime, Johnston’s jumper gave him 20 points and Greely a 40-19 lead.
A pair of Farynaz free throws were countered by a baseline jumper by McDevitt. Jensen made a driving layup, but Storey scored on a putback and junior Nick Clark converted a three-point play to make it 47-23. The Patriots got back within 20 at the half behind a long jumper from freshman Samuel Johnson and a pair of Jensen free throws.
The good times continued for the Rangers in the third period.
A Storey layup was countered by a three-point play by Jensen, but Maker scored on a putback, Storey made a layup and with 5:10 to go in the stanza, Maker scored on another putback for a 55-30 lead.
Gray-New Gloucester went on a 6-0 run (senior Heath Martell made two free throws, Jensen hit two, then Jensen made a layup) to cut the deficit to 19, but Clark stemmed the tide with a foul shot. After Jensen made a layup, Clark hit a runner. A pair of Martell layups sandwiched around a jumper from Johnston closed out the quarter with Greely on top, 60-42.
To their credit, the Patriots embarked on one final rally in the fourth before the Rangers ended all doubt.
After Johnston made two free throws eight seconds in, Storey scored on a putback and Maker made a layup for a 66-42 lead, but Gray-New Gloucester rattled off eight straight points as Cavallaro made two free throws, Farynaz converted a three-point play and Farynaz sank a 3 to make it 66-50 with 4:28 to go.
A Johnston layup was answered by a pair of Cavallaro free throws and it was 68-52 with 4:08 remaining. The Patriots had a chance to draw even closer, but missed a 3 and Greely put it away.
First, Johnston converted a three-point play. He then hit a leaner with 2:21 to go for his final points of a stellar afternoon. Cavallaro made a putback for Gray-New Gloucester, but Rangers senior Jon Coyne made two free throws. After Jensen sank a pair for the Patriots’ final points, a 3-ball in the final minute from junior Cooper Allen accounted for the finishing touch on Greely’s impressive 78-56 triumph.
“It was important to get past this game,” Storey said. “Gray’s a better team than they’ve been in the past.”
“We started off well,” Marks added. “I thought we came out to play. We didn’t throw the ball away. I’m pleased with our first game. I wanted to get everyone on the floor.”
Johnston, the Western Maine Conference’s seventh-leading scorer, had a vintage performance. He not only had 31 points, but also added three rebounds and two steals.
“I just wanted the ‘W,'” said Johnston. “I don’t know how many points I scored. I tried to bring energy to more than scoring. Other kids brought it with me.”
“Sam did great,” Storey said. “He really went off. He did a really nice job.”
“Sam led us and that’s what we look for him to do,” Marks added. “He plays with focus. He has a goal and he’s not letting it go. He plays well, especially when he has to.”
Storey was a beast inside, scoring 14 points, grabbing nine boards and blocking a shot.
“Inside we try to control the boards and set the tone,” Storey said. “We’ve tried to work on getting it inside and finishing it off.”
“Tanner really controls the paint,” Johnston said. “He blocks shots and intimidates.”
Maker was superb as well, scoring 13, adding seven rebounds and three steals.
“Liam had six offensive rebounds,” Johnston said. “He’s a good starter for us. He finds his times to score and contribute.”
Clark finished with nine points, McDevitt six, Allen three and Coyne two. Greely had just 11 turnovers and made 10 of 11 free throws.
“The role players stepped up,” Johnston said. “They’re great defensive players. We have kids off the bench who can play with us. We’re deep this year.”
For Gray-New Gloucester, Jensen led the way in his swan song with 20 points, four rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot. Cavallaro (five boards) had a dozen points, Farynaz 11, Martell six, Bennett five and Johnston two. The Patriots gave the ball away 15 times, seven in the first quarter, and shot 20 of 29 from the free throw line.
“We played well,” DiBiase said. “I thought we had a tough matchup in the first round. That’s as good a team as there is, with maybe the exception of Cheverus. They’re big inside, they’re quick and they’re long. We kept coming back at them. For this team, that doesn’t come down here all the time, for us to come here and play well in the second half, it’s big. Any team other than (Greely), we were competitive with all year long. They’re the favorite.”
Gray-New Gloucester loses the likes of Bennett, Cavallaro, Farynaz, Jensen and Martell, but DiBiase is building a program that should become a regular contender.
“We had a competitive freshman and JV team this year,” DiBiase said. “We have good young kids coming up. It was really important to get here. To build the fact that we got to the Expo. It was exciting for the community. I saw a lot of young faces in the crowd. We have a legitimate feeder system now. Eventually, that will pay off.”
Greely moves on to the semifinals, but will be tested by the confident and talented Yarmouth Clippers.
The teams split the regular season meetings, each winning on the road as the Rangers survived at Yarmouth (61-53) after the Clippers shot just 13 of 33 from the foul line and Yarmouth earned its first win (50-48) in Cumberland in memory behind the 3-point shooting of senior Matt Murphy.
“We played them well at home, but Murphy went off,” Storey said. “We can’t allow that. We need to close out on defense. They have good perimeter players. We’ll have to step up. I do like our chances. If we keep playing as a team, as a family, I think we have a really good shot.”
“We’ll bring the same energy,” Johnston said. “We know Yarmouth well. I think we’ll be ready for them.”
“I thought we did a good job on (Yarmouth junior sharpshooter Josh) Britten the first time,” Marks added. “Murphy had a career night the last time against us. Hopefully that won’t happen again. I think we’re playing well right now. I’m not sure we’re peaking yet. Our inside game is stronger than all year. We’re not making foolish plays. It’s coming into focus.”
The Clippers and Rangers have met three prior times in the playoffs. In the 1970 quarterfinals, Greely eked out a 58-57 decision. Yarmouth’s lone win came in the 1973 regional final (50-46). Four years ago, in the quarterfinals, the Rangers rolled, 67-53.
If Greely advances, it will play in the Western B Final Saturday at 3:45 p.m., at the Civic Center. The Class B state final is Friday, March 4 at 8 p.m., at the Civic Center.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @foresports