Cheverus passes first test, beats TA with surprising ease
PORTLAND—For the first time in a very long time, the Cheverus boys' basketball team isn't facing the pressure of being the top seed in the Western Class A tournament.
The Stags, ranked fourth this time around, were thought by many to have the potential to be one-and-done this winter, but Friday night at the Portland Exposition Building, they hinted that they might make a run at yet another state championship.
After a sluggish start, Cheverus completely stifled fifth-ranked Thornton Academy in a quarterfinal round showdown, allowing only 10 first half points. The Stags put forth a superb balanced offensive attack, forced 17 turnovers and trailed for all of 29 seconds before pulling away to eliminate the Golden Trojans, 49-30.
Cheverus got 14 points from senior James Kapothanasis, 13 from senior Cam Olson and improved to 14-5, ending Thornton Academy's season at 12-7, setting up a semifinal showdown with top-ranked Deering (16-3) in the semifinal round Friday at 6 p.m., at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
"We played the way I hoped we play," said Cheverus coach Bob Brown. "I'm really pleased with the kids. What you saw is what we prepared all week. That doesn't always happen. We really came to play."
Cheverus and Thornton Academy went 35 years, from 1972 to 2007, without squaring off once in the postseason, but that year was the first of three successive tournament showdowns. The Stags took out the Golden Trojans in the 2007 semifinals and in the regional final the next winter, but Thornton Academy took the most recent encounter in stunning fashion, ending Cheverus' undefeated run in the semifinals before going on to win its first state championship.
Once again this winter, both teams have been among the best in the region.
Cheverus, which fell in the state final to Bangor a year ago, had its ups and downs in the regular season.
After the Stags rolled in their first two outings, 57-38 at Biddeford and 72-37 at home over Gorham, they held off Portland at the Expo, 49-41. Wins over Westbrook (73-47), Marshwood (59-40) and Noble (74-22) followed, but Cheverus rung in the new year with a 46-37 setback at Bonny Eagle. After bouncing back to down visiting Sanford, 77-52, the Stags were stunned at Scarborough, 58-43. Again, Cheverus answered with an impressive victory, this time handing visiting Deering its first loss, 49-40. After a 64-40 home win over Windham, the Stags lost to visiting Portland on a buzzer beater, 40-39. A 51-31 victory at Massabesic got Cheverus back on the winning track and a 49-33 home triumph over South Portland gave Brown his 200th win with the program. After a 69-15 win at Kennebunk, the Stags dropped another tough home decision, 46-45, to Thornton Academy, then lost to host Deering for the first time in 12 meetings (50-46). Cheverus did bounce back to win its finale last Friday, 45-39, at South Portland, and garnered the No. 4 spot.
Thornton Academy, which was ousted by Deering in an upset in last year's quarterfinals, started slowly in 2011-12, but really hit its stride late.
The Golden Trojans fell in their opener, 62-41 to visiting Deering. After a 53-37 home triumph over Kennebunk, Thornton Academy fell to 1-2 after a lopsided loss to visiting Bonny Eagle (56-38), in a game which they trailed 15-0 after one quarter and 34-7 at halftime. The Golden Trojans bounced back, however, with wins at South Portland (43-41) and at home over Massabesic (51-48) and Gorham (61-35). After Thornton Academy dropped a 49-44 decision at Scarborough, the Golden Trojans made a statement with a 57-37 home victory over Marshwood, then downed host Kennebunk (54-30) and Windham (44-41), before dropping a tough one at Sanford (54-53). Again Thornton Academy showed its resilience, upsetting host Portland (63-61). After victories over visiting Biddeford (78-49) and at Noble (82-54), the Golden Trojans fell at home to Westbrook (59-56). Again, they didn't fall into a losing streak by rallying for a win at Cheverus (46-45) and closed with a 56-55 home victory over Scarborough and a 59-45 triumph at Biddeford to wind up fifth in the region.
In the regular season meeting, the teams were back and forth before Thornton Academy made the plays at the end to grab the win. This time, however, the Stags made life miserable for the Golden Trojans and advanced.
The game started slowly and it took almost three minutes to break the scoring ice. The Golden Trojans finally did so on a free throw from junior Jeff Gelinas for what would be their lone lead of the contest.
Cheverus' first points came with 4:39 to go in the first quarter when junior Drew Ferrick tipped in a missed shot. Kapothanasis set up Olson for a layup and a 4-1 lead, but Thornton Academy answered with two Gelinas free throws, before senior Louie DiStasio (who was battling the flu) scored on a putback and senior Shawn Grover took a pass from junior Michael Flaherty and made a layup to push the lead to five. The Golden Trojans finally scored their first field goal with 1:03 left in the quarter, a jumper from junior Connor McCrum, and trailed by three heading for the second period.
There, things just got better for the Stags, who began the quarter with a 14-0 run to take firm control.
A driving layup by Olson got the surge started. Kapothanasis then did the same, punctuating his drive with a pretty scoop shot. Kapothanasis added a leaner, Olson made a layup after a steal and DiStasio and Kapotahnasis hit back-to-back 3s to make it 22-5 with 4:19 to play before halftime.
"It gave us a lot of confidence to come out and have a run like that," said Olson, who has already quarterbacked Cheverus to a Class A football state championship this school year. "We just rolled from there."
"We always want to get a fast start," said Kapothanasis, who missed six games earlier this winter with mono. "We usually struggle in the first half. If we get a lead, we can take it away. We had a great team game. We really came together."
A bank shot 3 from senior Justin Pollard finally ended a five minute drought, but Kapothanasis was fouled while shooting a 3-pointer and made both free throws. A runner from junior Adam Ek got Thornton Academy back to 24-10 at the break.
Cheverus never let the Golden Trojans entertain comeback hopes in the third period.
A jumper from Grover pushed the lead back to 16. Pollard was fouled on a 3 and made all three attempts, but Kapothanasis answered with another 3 and after Ferrick was fouled, but had to leave the game momentarily, freshman Zordan Holman sank two foul shots for a 31-13 advantage. Kapothanasis made a runner off the glass to push the lead to 20, but Pollard again was fouled on a 3 and this time made two shots. He then scored on a driving layup, was fouled and made the free throw for an old-fashioned three-point play and junior Eric Christensen followed with a layup to make it a 33-20 game heading for the final stanza.
While the Golden Trojans never quit, they could draw no closer than 12 points down the stretch.
At the start of the fourth, Pollard made a free throw, but the Stags reasserted control when, on a fast break, Kapothanasis fed Olson for a layup and Olson was fouled on the play. Olson added the free throw for a three-point play. With 6:46 to go, Ferrick made a foul shot to extended the lead to 16 before Gelinas answered with two free throws.
After a pair of Olson foul shots, Gelinas converted a three-point play. A Grover foul shot was answered by a Pollard putback with 4:32 to go, cutting the deficit to 40-28.
A pair of Grover free throws was answered by one free throw from Christensen and another by Pollard, but Cheverus closed on a 7-0 run, ending all doubt as DiStasio made two free throws, Olson hit one, Holman fed Ferrick for a layup and Ferrick made a free throw and DiStasio hit another after a technical on Gelinas, who fouled out.
That was all she wrote as the Stags advanced, 49-30.
"We just stuck to the game plan," Olson said. "Coach Brown has done this for years and years. We trusted him. We just played our game. That's what we have to do. We stuck to our basic defense. We made plays tonight."
"We played great defense," Brown said. "I'm not sure we can play better defense than we did. I thought we showed patience on offense, got the ball to the right person at the right time and got good shots. I thought foul shooting was good down the stretch until the end when tired bodies took over.
"One of the things you don't realize is that Louie didn't practice Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. He was sick all week. We still played well. It was an unbelievable performance. It was gutty on his part. Our score was about the same as the last game. Their score wasn't. That was different. This is really the first time we've had our team. I'm not sure, with Louie being sick, that we even had that."
Kapothanasis had a season-high 14 points (along with four rebounds and two steals).
"I feel like I'm 100 percent," he said. "I feel like I'm back to my old self. With Louie sick, coach told me I'd have to step it up. I put in a lot of what we worked on in practice, curling off screens. I got open, my teammates got me the ball and I had a good night."
"With James back, it doesn't have to be just Louie," Brown said.
Then there was Olson, who was his typical sparkplug self all over the floor, scoring 13 points, grabbing four rebounds and collecting five steals.
"Cam's a competitor," Brown said. "He's all over the place doing the right thing at the right time. He had a hell of a game."
DiStasio, who was clearly not himself, managed to score eight points and snare seven boards.
"Louie was obviously a little sick, but he finds ways to help the team without scoring and got us the ball where we could score," Olson said. "When he's feeling good we're even better."
Grover added six points (had a game-high 11 rebounds and also finished with three steals), Ferrick five (along with four boards) and Holman three (along with three rebounds and two blocked shots)
Cheverus had a 33-23 advantage on the glass.
"Grover hit the boards, Drew hit the boards, Zordan did amazing," Kapothanasis said.
The Stags also forced 16 turnovers (accumulating 12 steals in the process), while only giving the ball away on 11 occasions, and made 16-of-25 free throws.
For Thornton Academy, Pollard's swan song resulted in a game-high 15 points. He also had six rebounds. Gelinas added eight points and five boards. Christensen had three points, Ek and McCrum (five rebounds) two apiece. The Golden Trojans finished 15-for-20 at the line.
Civic Center awaits
Cheverus will next face Deering in the semifinals.
Over the past 50 years, the teams have played five tournament games with Deering holding a 3-2 edge. The most recent was the 2005 Western A Final, when the upstart Rams shocked the undefeated and top-ranked Stags, 45-42.
Both meetings this regular season were close and while Deering is the higher seed, Cheverus is full of confidence as it heads across town.
"We have to focus and try to bring it," Kapothanasis said. "I feel like right now, we can beat any team in the state."
"We can definitely beat them," Olson said. "We've done it before. It'll be a tough one."
"This is anybody's tournament," added Brown. "We'll see the best team, at least in the regular season, in the next game. Portland's the hottest team going in. I haven't even thought about Deering, to be honest with you. I was so concerned about this game. If we play like this, we'll give them a game. It still boils down to putting the ball in the basket."