Deering surges in second half, advances to semifinals
PORTLAND—The top-ranked Deering boys' basketball team got all it could handle and more over the first 16 minutes from the upstart No. 9 Biddeford Tigers, but ultimately, the Rams had too much size, poise, defense and heart to bow out in their first postseason game Friday evening at the Portland Exposition Building.
Trailing by three at halftime, Deering game out guns ablazing in the second half and the Tigers couldn't stop the Rams' three-pronged scoring attack of senior Jon Amabile (24 points) and juniors Labson Abwoch (20) and Thiwat Thiwat (20). Mix in another superb defensive effort from senior Patrick Green, who held Biddeford senior standout Bobby Cote to 20 points (only five after halftime) and clutch performances from the supporting cast and Deering pulled away for a 66-54 victory in a Western Class A quarterfinal.
The Rams only led by three early in the final stanza, but rattled off eight straight pionts to earn a little breathing room and never looked back as they improved to 16-3 on the year, ended the Tigers' season at 9-11 and set up a semifinal round showdown with No. 4 Cheverus Friday at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
"The first game's always the toughest," said Deering coach Dan LeGage. "There's always that gigantic ball of nerves. There's hype. I just told the guys to stay with it and keep communicating."
This season, the Rams were viewed as a favorite from the start and with the exception of a couple slips up, they've lived up to billing.
Deering won its first nine contests this winter, downing host Thornton Academy (62-41), visiting Marshwood (67-64), visiting Massabesic (82-31), host Noble (78-36), visiting Sanford (63-31), host Bonny Eagle (57-55, in overtime), visiting Kennebunk (73-25), host South Portland (40-29) and visiting Biddeford (61-48). After a 49-40 loss at Cheverus, the Rams bounced back to win at Scarborough (55-44), at home over Westbrook (48-41) and at Windham (41-28) before falling to visiting Portland, 39-35. Wins over visiting South Portland (49-38) and at Gorham (61-54) were followed by a stirring come-from-behind 50-46 home triumph over Cheverus, Deering's first win over the Stags in 12 tries. The regular season closed with a thud, however, last Friday when the Rams came to the Expo and were routed by Portland, 46-22.
Biddeford has been no stranger to the Expo in recent years even though it fell short of the playoffs last winter with a 7-11 record.
This season, the Tigers started 0-2 with a home loss to Cheverus (57-38) and a setback at South Portland (65-53). A three-game win streak followed as Biddeford downed host Windham (56-44), host Massabesic (74-41) and visiting Westbrook (67-53). After losses at Scarborough (52-24) and Portland (61-52), the Tigers defeated visiting Kennebunk (59-40). Biddeford fell to 4-5 with a 61-48 loss at Deering, then enjoyed home wins over Gorham (56-48) and Noble (48-41). The fun ended with a 63-60 home loss to Scarborough and setbacks at Thornton Academy (78-49) and Marshwood (67-58) followed. The Tigers then shocked visiting Bonny Eagle (69-62) and added wins over visiting Sanford (64-55) and at Kennebunk (66-55). Biddeford closed the regular season last Friday with a 59-45 home loss to Thornton Academy and wound up 9-9, good for the No. 9 seed.
That necessitated playing Scarborough in the preliminary round and for the fourth time in seven years, the Tigers beat the Red Storm in that round, 65-59, to advance to the quarterfinals.
Over the past 50 years, the teams had four prior playoff meetings, with Biddeford winning three (please see sidebar). The Tigers took the most recent encounter, 65-56, in the 1991 quarterfinals.
Friday, the Tigers came out confident, hitting shots in a fast paced first half, but in the second, Deering turned to its size advantage and gradually pulled away.
Biddeford took a quick 3-0 lead on a foul shot from Cote and a Cote leaner, but Thiwat scored on a putback and Abwoch did the same. A free throw from Amabile extended the Rams' lead to two, but junior Cameron Nadeau knocked down a 3 to put the Tigers back in the lead.
Compounding matters early, Green was whistled for his second foul in the game's first minute.
"I came out wanting to play physical," Green said. "We all want to play physical. I picked up two quick ones and I had to play smart. You can't let it get to your head."
"We knew there was the potential of foul trouble," LeGage said. "We had the game within the game of managing foul trouble. We knew there would be fouls because it's the tournament and we were pressing."
After Thiwat tied the game with a foul shot, Biddeford junior Nicholas Leblond hit from behind the 3-point arc, but Abwoch took an inbounds pass from Green and tipped it home, Thiwat made a free throw and after a steal by junior Dominic Lauture, Abwoch soared for a slam dunk. Abwoch added two foul shots, then made a layup after a steal for a 15-9 advantage.
Nadeau then started a rally with a pretty floating, left-handed bank shot. Junior Matt Cote followed with a layup. After Amabile hit a bank shot, Bobby Cote set up two layups with nice passes, the first to senior Andrew Descoteaux, the next to Nadeau, and the game was deadlocked, 17-17, heading for the second quarter.
There, Biddeford continued to make things difficult.
After Abwoch opened the period with a free throw, Amabile went coast-to-coast for a layup, but Bobby Cote scored on a putback. After a nice driving layup from Amabile, Cote knocked down an NBA range 3 and after a Thiwat layup put Deering back on top, Cote sank another long 3 for a 25-24 Tigers' lead.
The Rams retook the lead when Thiwat made a pair of free throws. Amabile added another, but Cote answered with a pair to tie the score. Two Amabile free throws were answered by a touchdown pass from Cote to junior Patrick Wilson for a layup. Amabile hit a floater in the lane, but Cote made two more free throws and senior Nathan McKeown knocked down a long 3 and Biddeford led, 34-31, at halftime.
Despite the deficit and with the prospect of an upset buzzing in the crowd, LeGage wasn't worried.
"In the first half, even though we gave up some easy buckets, I liked the pace of the game," he said. "When we were down at halftime, the pace fit us. We watched them play Tuesday. They're a team that has karma. They had it going. They were clicking. Credit to (coach) Mike Fecteau. He did an unbelievable job with those kids. He had them believing, feeding off Cote. They were playing so well together. We knew we couldn't sit back in a zone against them. We knew we had to go get them. At halftime, I was looking at the Biddeford kids and I could see they were fatigued. I thought our physicality, athleticism and conditioning would make a difference. It was just a matter of when."
Deering came out a vastly different team in the third period, forcing six Tigers' turnovers in the first two minutes. Thiwat scored on a putback, Abwoch made a free throw, Thiwat gave the Rams the lead for good with a layup after a nice drop step with 6:17 to go in the quarter and Amabile hit a jumper after a steal to make it 38-34 and force Fecteau to call timeout.
"We weren't really worried," Amabile said. "We knew we'd play hard. We worked our (rear ends) off pretty much. No one gave up. We just jumped the ball. We're a confident team."
Out of the break, Amabile fed Abwoch for a layup to stretch the lead to six.
"We came in (the locker room at halftime) and we talked," Green said. "We knew this was it. It was all or nothing. We knew we had to step it up on defense, rebound and we needed to push the ball. Our big men played phenomenal."
Cote made a free throw and Matt Cote sank two foul shots to make it a 40-37 contest, but undaunted, Deering opened the lead to 44-37 as Thiwat hit a jumper in the lane and Green hit a leaner after a steal from junior Dominic Lauture.
After a fastbreak layup by Matt Cote, Thiwat showed his range by knocking down a long jumper and Amabile went coast-to-coast after a steal for a layup, giving the Rams a 48-39 advantage. A layup from Matt Cote cut the deficit to seven and as Deering was trying to run out the clock on the period, senior Felipe Barbosa-Silva stole the ball and raced in for a layup. He missed, but Bobby Cote was there to put it in as the horn sounded and the Tigers were still very much in the game, down, 48-43.
Biddeford, which committed 10 turnovers in the third period, cut the deficit to three on two Cote foul shots 12 seconds into the fourth.
The Rams then, finally, opened it up.
First Abwoch hit a jumper. After two Amabile free throws, Thiwat hit a leaner and Abwoch did the same to make it 56-45 with 5:31 to play.
Two foul shots from Wilson ended the run and Cote fed Leblond for a layup to make it a five-point game, but again Deering responded as Abwoch scored on a putback and Amabile made a bank shot for a 60-51 advantage with just over two minutes remaining.
A 3-ball from Barbosa-Silva with 1:45 showing kept the Tigers' hopes alive, but they wouldn't score again.
A driving layup by Amabile, two Amabile free throws after a steal and a pair of foul shots by Thiwat made it official as the Rams advanced, 66-54.
"We knew they'd play hard," Thiwat said. "We expected them to shoot a lot of 3s. That's pretty much what their offense is made of. We defended it as well as we could, but they made some. We knew we had to play harder. People think we're overrated. We heard (the Biddeford crowd chanting that)."
"We started switching on the press," Abwoch said. "We started passing a lot more. People got open. I knew they'd come out swinging. They played a great game. I think we needed to get on the shooters more. "
Amabile, one of the league's top shooting outside threats, didn't make a 3-pointer in the game (in fact, Deering did make a single shot from behind the arc all night), but still led all scorers with 24 points. He also had six rebounds, four steals and two blocked shots in a superb all-around effort.
"Jon was back being Jon," LeGage said. "Tonight, he was the scorer he's always been."
Abwoch, despite battling foul trouble much of the game, had 20 points and seven boards.
"Coach told me to keep my hands off," Abwoch said. "I should have kept my feet set. I think we were just devoted to defense."
Thiwat also had 20 points and grabbed eight boards as the Rams' size proved to be too much for Biddeford to counter.
"There are teams out there who can challenge, but our mentality should be that we'll go out and get every rebound," Thiwat said.
"We had a huge height advantage," LeGage said. "We wanted to get the ball inside more. They played a sagging zone. We tried to get into the paint. As the game wore on, we did a better job getting the ball inside. I thought Thiwat stepped his game up to a whole new level."
Green finished with two points, but that doesn't begin to describe his impact. The senior always draws the opposition's top scorer and in Cote, he had his hands full, but after allowing 15 points to the standout in the first 16 minutes, he buckled down big-time in the second half.
"It was a team effort," Green said. "My job was to get in his head. Credit to him. He's a phenomenal player. It was just a collective effort. I was getting up on him, trying to disrupt his game. I knew my teammates had my back."
"Patrick did a great job on Cote," Amabile said. "We just had to come at him."
"Cote's a great player," said Abwoch. "Coach told us we had to bear down on him. We did a great job on him and held him down."
"Patrick studied a lot of film this week with me," added LeGage. "He got angry and said he was going to stop him in the second half and he did. He showed some serious character holding Cote to five points in the second half."
Senior Garang Ater, sophomore Chhorda Chhorn and Lauture all had key contributions as well, helping fill the void of senior Cal London, who missed the game because he was sick.
"Dominic was great off the bench," LeGage said. "I think it's the best Chhorda's played all year. We needed the guys to do what they do well. We'll get Cal back. He's been a big part of what we do. We're excited to get him back healthy."
Deering finished with a 25-22 rebounding advantage and managed 10 steals. The Rams turned the ball over a mere 12 times, despite the frenetic pace, and made 18-of-25 free throws, including all six attempts in the final quarter.
For Biddeford, while Bobby Cote had his moments, his 20 points were relatively harmless. He also had five rebounds. Matt Cote was the team's second-leading scorer with eight points (and four boards). Leblond and Nadeau each added seven, Wilson had four, Barbosa-Silva and McKeown (a game-high nine rebounds) three apiece and Descoteaux two.
The Tigers committed 30 turnovers and that helped short-circuited their upset hopes. They made 12-of-16 free throw attempts.
Deering doesn't return to action until this coming Friday, when it will have another showdown with Cheverus (14-5, after its quarterfinal round win over Thornton Academy), as the action moves across town.
The Rams hadn't enjoyed much success against the Stags until the win on Feb. 7, but that had to give them confidence for the rematch. 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.
Deering knows it won't be easy, but finds itself one step away from its first regional final in six years.
"It's going to be a dogfight," Green said. "It's anybody's game. We'll come out and play hard. We have to do the same thing we did the second time. It's a team effort."
"I think it's going to be a great matchup," said Amabile. "If we hold it down on defense, be focused and if everyone plays hard, I think it's going to be fine."
"I feel we can go all the way," Thiwat said. "So do my teammates. We're ready to work hard. We have to stay focused and play with lots of intensity. We have to box out and get rebounds."
LeGage expects a 32-minute (or more) battle.
"Cheverus has been there," he said. "They're a veteran team. They're well coached. We'll go in and try to do the best we can. The whole mantra of the playoffs is anybody can win it. We'll come ready and play as well as we can."