Top-ranked Falmouth holds off Poland in quarterfinals
PORTLAND—The top-ranked Falmouth boys' basketball team let a 16-0 lead slip away in its Western Class B quarterfinal round game against No. 9 Poland and found itself tied early in the fourth period after a stirring Knights' rally.
What would have been harrowing for most teams, instead was just more of the same for the Yachtsmen, who have made a living out of extricating themselves from precarious situations this winter.
And Saturday afternoon, at the Portland Exposition Building, it happened again.
After senior Matt Kingry made a clutch defensive play to ensure the score remained tied, senior Matt Packard hit a go-ahead leaner with just under six minutes to play and Falmouth never looked back, riding the 26-point performance of senior Jack Cooleen to a 55-47 victory.
Cooleen, Kingry and Packard got plenty of help from classmate Alex Cattell and improved to 19-0, ended Poland's year at 11-9 and advanced to battle No. 4 York in Thursday's semifinal round, at 7:30 p.m., at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
"With these kids, it's another night at the office," said Falmouth coach Dave Halligan. "They work hard. We're not the most talented or athletic group, but we play pretty well together at crunch time. If you take the (19-0) away, we're just a good team. If we play well, we'll be successful. If we don't, we won't be successful. They're great kids. They work hard in practice and leave it on the floor. I'm pleased with what we're doing and how we're doing it."
After capturing the 2010 Class B Gold Ball in dramatic style, its first title at that level, Falmouth struggled in 2011, losing several close contests en route to an 8-10 mark, as it missed the playoffs for the first time in 27 years.
This winter, the Yachtsmen returned to form and then some. They opened with a 60-37 home win over defending regional champion Cape Elizabeth, then had their way at Fryeburg, 66-37. After rallying past host Greely, 55-48, Falmouth held off visiting Poland, 61-58, rallied past visiting Yarmouth (46-42) and crushed visiting Traip (75-26) to wrap up the 2011 portion of the schedule.
The winning continued in the new year as the Yachtsmen opened with a 44-37 triumph at York and had its way with host Freeport (62-34) and visiting Gray-New Gloucester (71-26). On Jan. 14, Falmouth hosted Greely and the teams put on a thrilling show that took two overtimes before the Yachtsmen prevailed, 53-51. Wins at Lake Region (83-50) and Cape Elizabeth (52-37) were followed by a 60-39 home victory over Wells, which saw Falmouth explode in the fourth period. After rolling at Poland (64-39) and at home over Lake Region (84-31), the Yachtsmen survived another tough game at Wells (58-47), then had to go to overtime to beat visiting York, 57-52, and host Yarmouth in the finale, 46-43.
Poland entered the season with high hopes and started 5-2, but injuries short-circuited the season. The Knights won enough to wind up 10-8, good for the No. 9 seed in Western B. Poland had to go to perennial contender Mountain Valley, the eighth-seed, for the preliminary round Tuesday, but earned an impressive 53-35 victory and even better, saw senior standout Jacob Littlefield (who missed much of the season with a broken wrist) return to the lineup.
While Poland has made life difficult for Falmouth in recent meetings, the Yachtsmen went 2-0 against the Knights this winter and in the teams' first-ever playoff meeting, found a way to advance.
Falmouth looked like it would run away and hide in the first period, scoring 16 straight points, while Poland, in just the program's second-ever quarterfinal, took awhile to get comfortable.
Cooleen was in the middle of everything the first two minutes, scoring the game's first eight points on a layup (set up by senior Jeremy Lydick), two free throws, a reverse layup (set up by Packard) and two more free throws.
"All week we worked on getting the ball inside" Cooleen said. "The guards worked on getting it in and I've worked on finishing with (junior) Charlie Fay."
With 5:55 to play in the first, Packard joined Cooleen in the scoring column with a putback. He added a runner with the left hand, kissing it off the glass 43 seconds later and the lead was 12-0.
Poland coach Tyler Tracy called his second timeout, but it failed to stem the tide.
Out of the break, senior Alex Cattell set up Cooleen for a layup and with 2:47 remaining in the stanza, Kingry knocked down a baseline jumper and Falmouth appeared on the brink of running away, up, 16-0.
"I wasn't surprised (we were way ahead), but I was happy," Halligan said. "We did some things and we executed."
Finally, with 2:38 to go in the first, senior Ricky Bryant got the Knights off the schneid with a layup (finishing on a pass from senior Logan Nichols). Bryant followed with a putback and sophomore Caleb Martin added a free throw. After a runner from Packard, Nichols hit a contested jumper as time wound down and despite its disastrous start, Poland was only down 11, 18-7, after one.
Things got even better for the Knights in the second period.
After Cooleen got the scoring started with a layup, senior Andrew Peterson knocked down a 3 and Littlefield got involved in the scoring, knocking down a jumper, then banking home a tough-angle leaner to cut the deficit to 20-14.
Cooleen restored order with a putback and Kingry spotted a wide open Cattell for a layup on an inbounds pass and the lead was back to 10, but Nichols set up Bryant for a layup, Nichols scored on a driving layup and with 2:26 left, Nichols scored again after a drive, this time with the left hand, to make it 24-20.
"It's not the first time we've (lost a lead) this year," said Cooleen. "Once we get up to a 12- or 16- point lead, we play for ourselves and not the team and we lose the lead like we did."
After a Falmouth timeout, Cattell found a wide open Cooleen for a layup, Littlefield answered with two foul shots at the other end. With 1:20 left before halftime, Cooleen scored on a putback, his 17th and 18th points of the half. A free throw from Bryant made it 28-23 Yachtsmen at halftime.
When Peterson took a pass from Bryant and made a layup 13 seconds into the third, the Knights appeared on the brink of coming all the way back, but they went cold and Falmouth pushed the lead to seven behind a layup from Fay (on an assist from Kingry) and two Cattell foul shots.
After 4 minutes and 45 seconds of scoreless basketball, Nichols scored on a leaner off the glass, but at the other end, Kingry found Cooleen under the basket and Cooleen went up for a reverse layup. Nichols made a jumper, but Packard set up Cooleen for another layup and the Yachtsmen were up, 36-29, with 1:40 to go in the third.
Again, Poland fought back and after Nichols hit a leaner and Nichols set up Littlefield for a 3-pointer, the Knights were only down, 36-34, heading for the fourth period.
There, Poland would make a bid to complete the comeback, but in the end, Falmouth made the plays it needed to survive and advance.
With 7:32 remaining in the game, Nichols drove in and banked home a finger roll and the Knights had come all the way back to tie.
"Once we got the lead, we got comfortable with what we were doing, while Poland played with senior urgency," Halligan said. "They're a veteran team. They're not a No. 9 seed. Littlefield's one of the best players in the state. Nichols stepped up."
Poland had its chances to go on top, but Littlefield missed a 3 and with six minutes to go, the game turned when Peterson stole a pass and raced in for what looked to be a go-ahead layup.
Instead, out of nowhere, Kingry raced in and while he didn't get a hand on the shot, he did affect Peterson's shooting motion and the ball rolled off the rim.
"I didn't want him to get a clean layup," Kingry said. "I didn't want to foul him. I think my presence affected this shot. I just hustled back."
"That was huge," said Cooleen. "It really shifted the momentum back to us. If they had taken the lead, they would have been all jacked up and probably would have kept scoring."
At the other end, Falmouth went on top for good when Packard, who had endured a long cold spell, hit a leaner to make it 38-36 with 5:47 remaining.
After Nichols missed a shot and got his own rebound, only to have Kingry steal the ball. At the offensive end, junior Grant Burfeind, who has an unrivaled flair for the dramatic, hit a clutch 3 and the Yachtsmen were up five, 41-36, with 5:17 to play.
After a Knights' timeout, Falmouth got the ball back and in transition, Burfeind found Cooleen for a layup and even more of a cushion. A driving left-handed layup from Nichols stemmed the tide, but with 3:29 remaining, Kingry scored on a putback and it was 45-38.
With 3:12 showing, Peterson buried a 3-pointer and Poland was within four, but with 2:34 to go, Cattell hit the first of two free throws.
At the other end, Nichols missed a shot and Cooleen grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He missed the front end of a one-and-one, but after Nichols got the rebound, Cattell stole the ball back and with 1:37 remaining, Packard went to the line and hit two free throws to make it 48-41.
Fourteen seconds later, Martin set up Peterson for a layup, but Burfeind fired a touchdown pass to a wide open Cooleen for a layup, pushing the lead back to seven.
At the other end, Cooleen blocked a shot, got the rebound and was fouled, but he missed the front end of a one-and-one. Nichols cut the deficit to five with a layup and after Cooleen made one of two foul shots, Littlefield had a look at a 3 that could have made it a one-possession contest, but it was off the mark and Cooleen rebounded.
With 26.5 seconds to go, Kingry made the first of two free throws. Eight seconds later, Nichols was inexplicably fouled while shooting a 3, but he only made two shots to make it 52-47.
After running six seconds off the clock, Kingry went back to the line and made one shot. He missed the second, but soared from nowhere to get the offensive rebound and got the ball to Packard, who was fouled.
With 2.8 seconds remaining, Packard put the icing on the cake, making both free throws, and Falmouth held on for the 55-47 triumph.
"Coach told us the first game's always the hardest," said Kingry. "We came out and got too comfortable, up 16-0. We need to know when to keep up the intensity and close out a game early."
"It's good we had so many close games this year" Cooleen said. "We know what to do in the situations at the end of the fourth quarter to score points, keep possession or avoid fouls."
"We've been in this situation probably 10 times this season" said Cattell. "We know how to close and we did. We don't get nervous. We know exactly what to do in crunch time. We get it to who we need to and put the ball in the basket. That's how we play. We're a good team. We lock down at the end of the game. We win with defense."
Cooleen had what was likely the best game of his career, scoring 26 points, grabbing 10 rebounds and blocking three shots.
"That's what we expect from Jack every time" Packard said. "He doesn't think he can dominate like that, but we think he's the best big man there is. He can finish like that all the time. He probably shot 80 percent today."
"He's a senior captain and made the shots he made to make" Halligan said. "It was nice to see. Jack's the only one who's been here (as a sophomore reserve on the championship team). that makes a difference."
Packard, who started hot, cooled down, then came up big at the end, had 12 points and eight boards.
""I think it took awhile to get used to (shooting here)," said Packard. "I tried to take over a little myself and wasn't making shots. There were a few shots I forced. Then, I tried to kick the ball to people who were doing well, like Jack inside."
Cattell was his usual steady self with six points and six rebounds. Kingry, who excelled defensively, had six points, Burfeind had three (on the team's only 3-pointer) and Fay finished with two.
Falmouth had a 36-20 rebounding advantage, gave the ball away 15 times and shot 14-of-21 from the foul line.
For Poland, Nichols was superb with 20 points and four rebounds. Peterson added 10 points. Littlefield, still not 100 percent, but plucky regardless, had nine points and five boards.
"He broke his right wrist so we knew he could still shoot well (since he's left-handed)," said Kingry. "He handled the ball well. We did what we could to shut him down."
"I wasn't sure what to expect from him," Cooleen said. "He's a phenomenal player. i knew he could go off. He missed some shots, but still played well. We got it done. That's all that matters."
Bryant finished with seven points and six rebounds and Martin had one point.
The Knights made 6-of-8 free throws and turned the ball over 11 times.
"This team is tough; it's a special team," Tracy said. "That's kind of our season. We keep getting checked and knocked down, but we keep standing back up. I'm really proud of them. Not many teams have been down 16-0 and scratched away and come back. We had two possessions where we had great looks to take the lead. That layup and an open shot at the end. We had a great crowd today, and I think if we'd put that one in over the edge, we could have caught a second wind."
Falmouth's road is about to get much tougher when it squares off with York in the semifinals. The Wildcats have the size that Poland didn't with Aaron Todd. Liam Langaas will create problems as a ballhandler.
"It's going to be a different game since they have big players," Cooleen said. "Poland has more guard-oriented players. Todd's probably the best big guy in Class B. We'll work hard this week."
"Langaas can get to the hole and he looks to dish and tries to get other guys involved," Cattell said. "Todd's one of the premier big men in the state. It's going to be tough.
The Yachtsmen managed to win both meetings with the Wildcats this winter, although neither came easily. Falmouth has only played York once before in the postseason, a 59-49 win in the quarterfinals two years ago.
The Yachtsmen know that win No. 20 won't come easily, but they wouldn't have it any other way.
"The Civic Center's a different environment, but it's the same size court," said Kingry. "We opened the back part of our gym to get used to the open feel. We'll hopefully adjust quickly. We still don't feel like we have the bulls-eye (as the favorite), which is good. It's good to still have a chip on our shoulder. We still feel like we have nothing to lose."
"It's going to be a good matchup," Packard said. "We came out today and thought we were the better team, but we learned we can't turn it on and off. York has good runs in them. We have to play like we have a chip on our shoulder. We still don't have any respect. At the beginning of the year, no one would have given us any chance against York. Now, at 19-0, they still don't respect us. We like the high pressure situations. We've been in them a lot during the season. When it gets down to the wire, we know we can win."
"I expect a battle" Halligan added. "I still think (York's) one of the best teams in the state. Our roles could easily be reversed. If we do the little things, the big things will take care of themselves. Little things make a big difference. That's what we've been doing all year. We could as easily be 12-7 as 19-0. We're 1-0 now. focusing on the next game."