Deering holds off Cheverus in down to the wire semifinal
PORTLAND—While the Deering boys' basketball team entered Friday evening's Western Class A semifinal as the top seed, many fans and pundits treated the Rams' opponent, fourth-ranked Cheverus, as the favorite.
There were several reasons, most notably Deering's 22-point effort in a regular season-ending loss to Portland, in addition to the Stags' domination of the region for the past five seasons.
But in the first five minutes of the contest, the Rams came out, took it to Cheverus with abandon and proved that general consensus means absolutely nothing.
Deering delivered a quick blow, taking an early 10-1 lead, and went up by as many as 13 points before the Stags, as expected, came back.
Cheverus got as close as five points in the second quarter and after trailing, 43-33, with under three minutes to play, the Stags closed the game with a flurry of 3-pointers, drawing as close as 51-49.
The Rams held on as senior Cal London made a free throw and a last second Cheverus possession didn't result in a shot and Deering advanced, 52-49.
The Rams got 15 points from senior Jon Amabile, 11 of which came in the first half which helped build the lead, 14 from junior Thiwat Thiwat, including 10 free throws, and a solid team defensive and ballhandling effort to improve to 18-2, end the Stags' season at 14-6 and move on to meet third-ranked Bonny Eagle (17-3) in the Western A Final Saturday at 8:45 p.m., at the Civic Center.
"The guys came through," said Deering coach Dan LeGage. "They wanted this. We'll enjoy it tonight and come back tomorrow."
Deering and Cheverus square off twice a year, but surprisingly, have only met on average, once a decade in the postseason over the past half-century. The Rams have won three of those five meetings, including the most recent, a 45-42 regional final upset in 2005.
This winter, Deering, which got to the semifinals a year ago, lived up to its reputation as the favorite by winning its first nine games. After a 49-40 loss at Cheverus on Friday, Jan. 13, the Rams won three more, then dropped a 39-35 home decision to Portland. After three more victories, Deering was humbled at Portland in the regular season finale, 46-22.
The Rams still managed to earn the top seed for the tournament and after trailing at halftime, erupted in the second half to down No. 9 Biddeford, 66-54, in the quarterfinals last Friday.
Cheverus, which suffered its lone loss of the 2010-11 season in the state final to Bangor, has been more mortal this winter than in other years, losing five games for the first time in decade. The Stags started 6-0, but lost at Bonny Eagle and after a win, fell at Scarborough. After victories over Deering and Windham, Cheverus lost at home to Portland on a buzzer-beater. Late losses to Thornton Academy at home and at Deering caused some to write off the Stags, but a victory in the finale, at South Portland, left them 13-5 and fourth in the region.
Last Friday, Cheverus avenged its regular season setback with a surprisingly easy 49-30 win over No. 5 Thornton Academy in the quarterfinals.
In the semis, Deering game out guns ablazing and surprisingly raced to a big early lead.
Senior Pat Green took a pass from Amabile and hit a jumper to get the scoring started. Thiwat made a pair of free throws before Cheverus got on the board with 4:42 to play in the first period on a free throw from senior Cam Olson.
The Rams then got a floater from Amabile (which rattled home), a driving layup from Amabile and a putback from junior Labson Abwoch to go up 10-1, forcing the Stags to call timeout.
"I thought we had a great game plan going in," LeGage said. "The guys were focused. That was huge. A lot of teams don't go after them because they're afraid of getting beaten over the top. Our mentality was that we were coming to get them. That's the way we play. We try to utilize our athleticism as much as we can."
"Give all the credit to Deering," said Cheverus coach Bob Brown. "I didn't think their press would bother us and it bothered us. We had to make adjustments. Finally, we got it up and over and they got out of it. I thought Dan had his team very well prepared. All to credit to them."
With 1:38 remaining in the period, Stags freshman Zordan Holman got an offensive rebound and passed to senior Drew Ferrick, whose 3-pointer hit the rim, then dropped in. Deering then got a putback from Thiwat and as time expired, Thiwat took a pass from London and hit a short jumper to make it 14-4 after eight minutes.
When Amabile took a pass from Green and buried a 3-ball 21 seconds into the second quarter, the Rams had a 17-4 bulge, but Cheverus gradually got back in the game.
With 6:23 to go in the half, senior Shawn Grover banked home a contested shot. Olson followed with a putback, while being fouled and hit the free throw for an old-fashioned three-point play. Grover then hit a runner to cut the deficit to 17-11.
With 3:31 to play before halftime, Green made one free throw. Stags senior Louie DiStasio answered with a pair, but Amabile somehow converted a left-handed runner (with a little English) off the glass and the next time down, scored with his left hand again, this time laying it in.
Cheverus got two points back on a DiStasio jumper, but in the final second, Thiwat was fouled and made both attempts to give Deering a 24-15 lead.
Despite the Stags' strong effort in the second period, they only cut one point off their deficit.
Cheverus drew ever closer in the third quarter.
After Rams sophomore Chhorda Chhorn and Olson traded free throws, Green and DiStasio exchanged 3s.
Senior James Kapothanasis (from Olson) then connected on a 3 with 5:03 left and the Stags were within seven, 30-23.
Deering extended the advantage back to 11 as Thiwat made two free throws and Abwoch drove into the lane and slammed the ball home, but DiStasio made a leaner and after a possible Olson layup and-one was waved off for a charge on London, Flaherty stole a pass and raced in for a layup, which he missed. DiStasio alertly followed the play and laid the miss home and the Stags only trailed, 34-27, heading for the fourth.
There, they couldn't quite complete the rally as the Rams did what they had to do to survive.
Sixteen seconds in, Olson the stole the ball and appeared to race in for a layup, but he was called for a traveling violation and also hobbled off the floor with an ankle injury.
Abwoch made two free throws, but with 6:53 showing, Green fouled DiStasio on a 3-point attempt, which was painful for Deering for a couple of reasons. First, DiStasio got three free throws, but worse, it was Green's fifth foul and he was done for the night.
DiStasio made two of the three attempts, but Abwoch took a pass from London at the other end and made a layup to stretch the lead to 37-29 with 6:40 to play.
Olson came back on the floor and missed a 3. At the other end, Amabile made a jumper. Grover (from Kapothanasis) answered with a layup, but Amabile hit two foul shots to make it a 10-point game again.
With 4:21 to go, DiStasio hit both ends of a one-and-one, but again, Cheverus couldn't get a critical stop. Amabile drove for a layup, tried to put it in with his left hand, but the shot rattled out. From nowhere came London, however, and his putback gave Deering a 43-33 advantage with 3:44 to go.
After Grover and London traded misses, DiStasio was fouled by Amabile (his fourth) with 2:48 to play, and his two free throws got the Stags back within eight.
After a Rams' turnover, DiStasio was fouled and cut the deficit to six with a pair of free throws. After being fouled on an offensive rebound, Abwoch made one free throw, but with 1:53 to play, Grover hit a pair of foul shots and Cheverus was within five, 44-39.
After an Amabile miss (on which he was held, but no foul was called), DiStasio lined up a 3 to cut the deficit to two, but it was off the mark and Amabile got the rebound.
With 1:18 to go, Thiwat went back to the line and this time, hit both attempts to push the lead back to seven. After an untimely Stags' turnover, London was fouled with 1:06 showing and he made the second of two tries to make it 47-39.
Still Cheverus wouldn't quit.
With 54.3 seconds left in the game, Kapothanasis buried a 3-ball to keep hope alive.
Thiwat was fouled, but missed both tries and with 46 seconds to go, Kapothanasis was fouled and had a chance to make it a one-possession contest. He only made one shot, however, and two seconds later, Thiwat went back to the line and this time sank both of his tries to make it 49-43.
Back came the Stags as Flaherty took a pass from Holman and knocked down a 3-ball with 32.9 seconds remaining.
Deering managed to get the ball in to London, who drew a foul. With all eyes on him, London calmly made both free throws for a 51-46 lead with just 27.5 seconds left.
"It's a lot of pressure," London said. "When you hear everyone hitting the (side) boards, it's kind of scary, but it was win or lose. I wanted to win bad, so I had to focus. I shoot a lot of foul shots in practice. At least 50 or 60 every day. We made them under pressure."
After running some precious time off the clock, Cheverus got the ball to Kapothanasis on the left wing. Kapothanasis double-clutched, but went up and fired a 3 that again found nothing but net with 11.8 seconds showing and just like that, it was 51-49.
The Stags still had time to complete the rally, but had to hope for a steal or missed free throws.
With 3.8 seconds left, London was fouled (DiStasio's fifth). He made his first attempt, which meant the Rams couldn't lose on a 3, but his second free throw was off, keeping Cheverus' faint hopes alive.
The Stags got the ball up past their free throw line, then called timeout. They had 2.2 seconds to work with.
Brown had Ferrick inbound the ball. The play was designed to throw a lob to a racing Kapothanasis on the Deering side of halfcourt and give the red-hot senior a chance to tie it before the horn.
Problem was, the Rams were anticipating it and Amabile blanketed Kapothanasis as he raced down the sideline. Ferrick's throw was contested and ultimately, Kapothanasis couldn't handle it. The ball came to Deering junior Dominic Lauture and time ran out.
Deering 52 Cheverus 49.
"We expected it to be close," said Amabile. "We decided to be the aggressor and come after them and get a lead. Second half, we didn't come out as hard as we did in the first, but we picked it up and did what we had to do. We had to stay focused and hit foul shots and play great D."
"We just had to keep playing hard," Thiwat said. "Our motto all week was to get after them and try to scare them a little bit. It feels very good."
"We knew (Cheverus is) a great team," LeGage added. "We knew there was another run coming. It was just a matter of taking care of the basketball and getting good shots. I have a lot of respect for coach Brown and his program. We knew they'd come at us hard, slapping at the ball. We did a good job getting to the free throw line and we made them. (The guys) showed their composure during some difficult situations. They stayed focused. Thiwat, Labson, Cal just seized the moment. They made at least one of the two free throws to keep that cushion alive."
Amabile was held relatively in check in the second half, but still led the Rams with 15 points. He also grabbed four rebounds, had two assists and a steal.
Thiwat was in the middle of the action all night and finished with 14 points, four boards, three blocked shots and a steal. He made 10-of 14 free throw attempts.
"For me, (shooting free throws) was kind of fun," Thiwat said. "I shoot them a lot in practice. I usually don't get a lot in a game."
Abwoch added nine points, a team-high eight rebounds and a block.
Green had six points before fouling out.
As expected, his absence was felt.
"Pat's one of our best defenders," Thiwat said. "We missed his presence."
"It was absolutely brutal to lose Pat," LeGage said. "It'll be nice to have him back tomorrow night. He's an awesome kid. An awesome player for four years. He's a leader on the team."
London also had six points and made a huge impact, as he has often this winter, even though he's flown below the radar.
"I try my hardest," London said. "I feel like I owe the team. I come in and do what I have to do. I had to make my foul shots. I had to pass the ball. I'm not really a scorer. I like to distribute. I don't really think I'm the 'X' factor, I think the whole team is. We're a team. We win as a team and we lose as a team. Pat is our best ballhandler. When he fouled out, everyone got nervous, but I stepped up, Chhorda stepped up, even Thiwat got open and put it to his chin (waiting to be fouled)."
"Cal is like a coach on the floor," said LeGage. "He understands the game as well as any kid I've coached. He understands what needs to be done. We have an ongoing conversation. He really sees the game a little different and more maturely so we have an open dialogue all game long. I see what I see, but I don't know what they're feeling."
Chhorn rounded out the scoring with two points.
"All the guys are showing leadership," LeGage said. "Chhorda Chhorn came in as a sophomore, first game on this floor, and made some plays. He did a great job. I'm proud of him."
The Rams had a 27-22 advantage on the glass and only committed 14 turnovers, despite the swarming Stags' pressure. They hit 22-of-32 free throws, which was just enough to survive.
Cheverus was seeking its eighth regional final berth in 10 seasons, but couldn't complete the rally.
DiStasio led all scorers in his swan song with 19 points. He also blocked two shots and had two steals.
Kapothanasis was valiant to the end as well, scoring 10 points, including a pair of clutch 3s in the final minute.
Grover added eight points (and five rebounds), Olson, who was hampered by a sprained ankle, finished with six points and five boards, Ferrick had three points (and five rebounds) and Flaherty also made a 3 for three points.
Cheverus made 17-of-20 free throws and only committed 10 turnovers, but couldn't quite overcome the slow start.
"I look back on a number of plays that could have gone one way and they went the other way," Brown lamented. "I don't care if was ours, officials or (Deering). There were plays in that ballgame that didn't go our way. I'm absolutely not blaming officials. We lost a pass out of bounds, we missed layups. We didn't guard well at times. The whole nine yards. That ballgame could have easily been ours. I won't change my mind on that."
The Stags only had one returning starter this year (DiStasio) and had to deal with a lot of injuries, but still managed to put together a commendable season.
"I have a classy bunch of kids," Brown said. "It's been a fun year. It's a tough loss. I thought we were going to win it, to be honest with you. I think we accomplished a lot with what we were dealing with. They hung in there. If you saw us practice, you'd say, 'Holy God! Those guys are killing themselves.' I told them they played with courage and heart. They gave everything they had."
Cheverus loses five seniors, most notably DiStasio, Grover, Kapothanasis and Olson. Cameron Mullen was a reserve. That group will be hard to replace.
"I had four that played and one that was new," Brown said, of his seniors. "I'm going to miss them. They've been the heart and soul of the program for a few years."
Several other key contributors will return.
The question is will the 73-year-old coaching legend be back in 2012-13?
Maine high school basketball would be much poorer if he's not.
As of Friday night, Brown said he needed to give it some thought.
"I've got to sit back and evaluate," said Brown. "What's tough is that I have good kids, good parents, good administration and great assistant coaches. It all works. It's a tough thing to step away from."
Nice to be back
Deering advanced to its first regional final since winning it all back in 2006. The Rams will battle a dangerous foe in Bonny Eagle, which downed No. 7 South Portland, 54-39, in its semifinals. The Scots aren't content just making it to Saturday's game as they got to the regional final a year ago (losing a close game to Cheverus).
The teams' last playoff meeting was a year ago, in the semifinals, where Bonny Eagle pulled away in the second half to win, 43-34.
On Dec. 30, in Standish, Deering escaped the Scots, 57-55, in overtime.
The Rams will be doubted again, but like their chances.
"I hope we have believers now," said Thiwat. "I think we're motivated to go out and get it."
"We have to do the same exact thing as today," said London. "We have to come out and take it to them, not let them take it to us and we'll win."
"(Getting to the regional final) means a lot," said Amabile. "I've played all four years trying to get there and I'm finally there. We have to come after (Bonny Eagle), don't let them come after us, execute, don't turn the ball over. (The lack of respect we've received) has to do with the losses we had against Portland, but they can say what they want, we're in the finals."
LeGage knows that it will be a 32-minute (or more) battle of wills.
"That game earlier in the year was riddled with somewhere in the neighborhood of 60 fouls," LeGage said. "They dribble drive and try to attack and create contact. We have to keep in front of them, get hands on their shooters and do a good job boxing out. We'll try to utilize our strengths against them. It feels good. I'm happy for the kids. This is a really great group. They work so hard in practice every single day. It's nice to see them realize the fruits of their labor."
The winner will draw Hampden Academy (20-1 after surviving Mt. Blue in its regional final) in the Class A Final Saturday, March 3 at 9 p.m., at the Civic Center.