History made, perfection denied; Yarmouth upsets Falmouth
PORTLAND—At 5:20 p.m., Saturday, Feb. 25, 2011, a 39-year odyssey came to an end.
At the same moment, so did a run at perfection.
The first ever Falmouth-Yarmouth boys' basketball regional final more than lived up to billing at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
The top-ranked Yachtsmen, who had found a way to win seemingly unwinnable games from the get-go this winter, were looking to beat the third-seeded Clippers for a third time this season, but Yarmouth had other ideas.
Continuing a tournament-long trend, the Clippers raced to a fast start behind its opportunistic defense and the surprisingly deadly long-range shooting from senior Chris Knaub, led 16-9 after one quarter and took a seemingly safe 31-17 advantage into the half, but absolutely no one thought the game was over.
Sure enough, proud Falmouth roared back and got as close as three with a minute to go, but despite numerous chances in the final minute to draw even, couldn't even get a shot off and Yarmouth senior Josh Britten and junior Christian Henry iced the game at the free throw line as the Clippers won their first regional title since 1973, 56-50.
Knaub made five 3-pointers and led all scorers with 26 points. Britten added 12 and senior Sam Torres had 10 as the Clippers improved to 17-4, ended the Yachtsmen's year at 20-1 and advanced to meet Gardiner (19-2) in the Class B state championship game Friday at 8:45 p.m., at the Bangor Auditorium.
"It was sweeter that it was Falmouth," said Knaub. "They're a great team. All the respect to them. It was a great game. It's a great rivalry. It feels even better, I'm not going to lie, to beat them."
After capturing the Class B crown in 2010, 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 passed every single test and there were many. More than half their contests were decided in either the fourth quarter or overtime, but each game, a different hero emerged to help secure the 'W.'
Falmouth entered the tournament 18-0 and top-ranked and continued to find a way to advance, holding off ninth-ranked Poland's upset bid in the quarterfinals, 55-47, then rallying from 12-points down in the third period to escape No. 4 York in the semis, 49-45.
Yarmouth, meanwhile, has become one of the top contenders in Western B over the past five years, reaching the regional final last winter before falling to Cape Elizabeth.
This winter, Yarmouth produced 14 wins for the fourth time in five years and its four losses came by a combined total of nine points. Ranked third in the region, the Clippers obliterated No. 11 Lincoln in the quarterfinals, 77-35, then had a surprisingly easy time with second-ranked Spruce Mountain in Thursday's semifinals, 60-30.
Falmouth beat Yarmouth twice this year, by a total of seven points (46-42 at home and 46-43 away) and the road win came in overtime in the regular season finale.
The teams had met twice previously in the playoffs with the Clippers winning in the 1971 Western C quarterfinals (71-59) and the Yachtsmen taking a 2003 Western B quarterfinal (44-31).
Saturday, Yarmouth got the lead and Falmouth made its expected rally, but the end result was a surprise.
Just 39 seconds in, the Clippers started this game the way they did the previous two in the tournament, with a quick basket set up by the defense.
Knaub made a steal, passed to Britten and Britten hit a streaking Torres for a layup and a 2-0 lead. A jumper from senior Alex Cattell drew the Yachtsmen even and after Torres made another layup, again from Britten after a steal, Falmouth senior Matt Packard knocked down a 3-ball for a 5-4 lead.
That shot put Yarmouth behind for the first time the whole tournament, but the Clippers took only 13 seconds to go back on top for good when Britten banked home a leaner.
Knaub added a leaner and with 2:46 to go in the first period, Torres set up Britten for a 3 and an 11-5 lead.
"We love being in the lead," said Britten. "It's a great feeling. We always come out flying and our defense kills teams sometimes."
Yachtsmen senior Jack Cooleen hinted at inside dominance to come when he scored on a putback, but Britten banked home another jumper and with 1:44 remaining in the quarter, Henry set up Knaub for his first 3 of the day.
A floater from Cooleen pulled Falmouth within 16-9 after one.
Britten got the second quarter started with a leaner off the glass. Yachtsmen junior Charlie Fay answered with a putback and Fay fed Packard for a layup, cutting the deficit to five, but after another Britten steal, Britten passed to sophomore David Murphy for a layup and after a Henry steal, Knaub set up Torres for a layup and a 22-13 advantage with 4:26 to go in the first half.
Two Cattell free throws were immediately countered by a Knaub 3 and with 2:59 left in the half, Knaub took a pass from Torres and canned another 3-ball, making it 28-15.
Cooleen stemmed the tide with a putback, but Britten fed Torres for a layup and with 1.8 seconds to go, Knaub was fouled while shooting a 3-pointer. He only made one attempt, but when Packard's prayer from beyond halfcourt hit the back of the rim at the horn, Yarmouth pranced to the locker room with a 31-17 advantage.
Everyone on hand expected Falmouth to rally and the Yachtsmen sure enough slowly crept back in the game.
In the first 80 seconds of the third quarter, Cattell fed freshman Jack Simonds for a 3, Packard (from senior Matt Kingry) made a layup and Cooleen put home Simonds' missed 3 to make it 31-24.
"We didn't quit," said Falmouth coach Dave Halligan. "(A) 14 (point deficit) didn't become 22. The goal was to try to cut it in half by the end of the third quarter and get it under 10 in the fourth and see what happens. We've lived on the edge all year."
The Clippers bounced back as Knaub set up sophomore Nate Shields-Auble for a bank shot and with 5:26 to go, Knaub knocked down a 3-ball from beyond the NBA stripe to push the lead back to 12, 36-24.
"I didn't even realize what was going on," said Knaub. "I was just feeling my shot. I knew they'd be keying on Josh and I'd be open. I took advantage. Josh faces double coverage every night. I never liked playing (at the Civic Center) until this tournament. Last year, I didn't shoot well. This year, I wanted to conquer this court. It was personal."
When Britten got a leaner to bounce home 50 seconds later, Yarmouth had restored its halftime lead, but Cooleen hit a leaner, was fouled and made the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play and Cooleen added a leaner to make it 38-29.
Again, Knaub had the answer, taking a pass from Torres and burying a 3. Cooleen made two free throws and converted another three-point play, but after being fouled again while shooting a 3, Knaub made two foul shots for a 43-34 lead going to the final stanza.
There, Falmouth put itself in position to cap another stirring rally, but couldn't convert in the final minute.
A free throw from Packard to start the fourth was answered by a Shields-Auble layup (from Knaub). Cooleen scored on a putback, but after a steal, Torres raced in for a layup to restore a double digit lead.
With 4:22 left, Packard put on a show, driving and laying the ball home with his left hand while being fouled. Packard added the free throw and the Yachtsmen were back within seven, 47-40.
At the other end, however, Henry found Knaub for a short jumper. Cooleen answered with two foul shots, but Sheilds-Auble set up Knaub for a layup at the 3:17 mark and the Clippers had a nine-point bulge, 51-42.
Falmouth kept on coming.
Packard set up Cooleen for a layup at 3:05 and Packard sank two foul shots with 2:47 to go to make it a 51-46 contest.
With 2:08 to go, Knaub drove to the hoop and managed to score over Cooleen, but that would be Yarmouth's last field goal.
After Henry forced a held ball at the other end and the Clippers had the possession arrow, they had time to run down the clock, but Knaub rushed a 3, hoping for the dagger, only to see it hit nothing but air, giving the ball back to the Yachtsmen.
They took advantage with 1:36 left as Cattell buried a 3 and it was 53-49.
At the other end, Cooleen blocked a Shields-Auble shot and Falmouth transitioned looking to draw closer. Cattell had a look at another 3, but this one was off the mark and on the rebound, Packard was called for his fifth foul.
With 1:11 showing, Henry went to the line for a one-and-one, but missed the front end. The Yachtsmen got the ball to Cooleen, who was fouled with 1:03 to go. Cooleen made the first free throw, cutting the deficit to 53-50, but his second shot was no good and Shields-Auble rebounded.
Yarmouth ran the clock down to 34.1 seconds before Torres was fouled. He missed the first free throw and the second was off-target as well, but Shields-Auble got the rebound.
Instead of kicking the ball out to run time off the clock, Shields-Auble went up for a shot which hung on the rim for a split second before falling off. Kingry grabbed the rebound, but as he raced downcourt, he barreled over a defender and was called for a charge, getting hurt on the play.
With 28.5 seconds remaining, the Clippers hoped to take some time off the clock, but threw the ball away and Falmouth had another chance to tie. Simonds raced into the corner, looking to call timeout, but before he could make the signal, he stepped out of bounds and with 20.2 seconds showing, Yarmouth had the ball back.
Again, the Clippers failed to close, turning the ball over and the Yachtsmen had a third chance to tie, but after a timeout, the inbounder shuffled his feet and Falmouth had committed a fatal turnover.
"We had chances at the end," said Halligan. "I didn't know whether to cheer or cry. We dug a hole for ourselves. When you play from behind, you use a lot of energy. It caught up to us at the end. It had a lot to do with Yarmouth too."
This time, Yarmouth managed to hold on to the ball and Britten was fouled with 7.7 seconds remaining. He missed the first attempt, but after a timeout, he took a deep breath and buried the second shot, making it 54-50.
"Coach called a timeout and I settled myself down and focused," Britten said. "I knew it came down to making it a two-possession game. There was a lot riding on it. It was a great feeling to finally make one and go up by four."
"Our mental strength got us through down the stretch," Torres said. "It was turnover after turnover. We tried to hold on to the ball and made our free throws. We deserved to win the game. Josh hit a huge free throw to make it a two-possession game."
"It was scary, but we trust in our defense," Knaub said. "That's what got it done again tonight."
The Yachtsmen tried to rush down to keep hope alive, but Cooleen traveled and that was pretty much all she wrote.
With 2.5 seconds to go, Henry hit two foul shots to make it official and the Clippers were finally able to celebrate a win that was nearly 40 years in the making.
Yarmouth 56 Falmouth 50.
"We love being the underdogs," Britten said. "It gives us more energy and passion. It's great to come out and get the win. (Going 20-0) is a great season, but in the playoffs, it's one game. We came away with it. We knew it would be a battle the whole game. They always come back. They're a great team, a second half team. I'm just happy we pulled away with a win. "
"We've worked all season for this," Torres said. "At the end of the regular season, we said it was a new team and a new season. We try to jump out early. We try to get good starts in the first quarter and the third quarter. We just worked to keep our composure. We knew Falmouth would make a run. That's who they are. They made their run and we held on. Coach stressed they'd come at us."
"The captains last year left such good tracks for us to follow," said Knaub, who, along with Britten and Torres, is a tri-captain this winter. "We've tried to follow their lead and just try to take it to the next level. We work hard every night. Sam, Josh and I have been playing since we were young. We've worked hard. The underclassmen are following and they're pushing us every night."
"One thing we've had this postseason is fast starts," Yarmouth coach Adam Smith added. "I felt we'd have one tonight and that propelled us into halftime. I told them (the Yachtsmen would) make a run. They're Falmouth. They had us where they wanted. They made that run and we withstood that run. The (guys have) earned what they've gotten. It hasn't come easily."
Knaub has had games this year when his shot was on, but nothing like Saturday, on the biggest stage he's played. He made five of his team's six 3s, hit four other field goals and made three free throws for a game high 26 points. He also had three rebounds, three steals and two assists.
"If (Chris) doubles my points every night, we'll be great," said Britten. "We want to get the ball out of my hands a lot and have other people step up. He has ice in his veins. He was past the NBA line a couple times and he still sank shots. It's incredible."
"Chris is the glue for us this year," Smith said. "He just stabilizes things on the defensive end and backboard. Tonight, he saw an opening where he needed to step up. I'm not surprised. He stepped up all game long. He took it on his shoulders to help Josh out. I couldn't be happier for him. He's a tremendous young man and a hard worker."
Even Falmouth had to tip its cap.
"Somebody always steps up in the tournament," said Halligan. "Simonds did last game for us, Knaub did it for them."
As was the case in the regular season, the prolific-scoring Britten, who was first in the league in scoring this year, was held in check by the Yachtsmen defense, but he made his presence felt regardless. In addition to 12 points, Britten had six assists, four steals and three rebounds.
After the game, Britten was named the Pierre "Pete" Harnois Award winner, as the regional tournament's outstanding player-sportsman, named for a one-time standout athlete at the University of Connecticut and longtime basketball official, who, as the Chief of Police in Westbrook, was killed in the line of duty in 1959.
Proving once again that the Maine high school sports circle is ever-tiny, Britten's boys' soccer coach, Mike Hagerty, is the late Harnois' nephew.
"It's a great honor," Britten said. "I'm really proud of it."
"Josh takes on a lot of pressure," said Smith. "He took a lot of stress off the other guys. Chris was open because Josh is on the floor. Sam is able to penetrate since Josh is on the floor."
Torres, who stole the show in the semifinals versus Spruce Mountain, pitched in with 10 points, a game-high five steals, two assists and two boards.
"Sam always brings shutdown defense," said Knaub. "He did a great job on Packard tonight. He's so quick. He gets that touch and he's gone. He's finishing too. I couldn't be happier for him."
"When young men get confident you can see it," Smith said. "Sam, the 18 points he had the other night, wasn't a fluke. It was a confidence-builder for him and he stepped up and took it to the rim in situations he wouldn't have earlier in the year."
Shields-Auble, who wasn't available for the overtime loss to Falmouth to end the regular season, made a difference Saturday with four points, four rebounds and Yarmouth's lone blocked shot.
"Having Nate's presence inside was huge, in all aspects of the game," said Britten. "(Falmouth) had a lot of offensive rebounds, but Chris does a great job using his body and Nate is just explosive."
"We lost at Falmouth in a four-point game and we didn't have our complete offensive package together," Smith said.. "At the end of the year, we were missing (Nate). I thought he might tip the scales a little bit, at least on the boards and take a little pressure off Chris. Chris didn't have to battle the big guys all game long like he had to do in the last game of the year. That opened him up for shots he had the legs to take."
Henry (three steals) and Murphy added two points apiece.
The Clippers were outrebounded, 31-13, only shot 6-of-16 from the free throw line and turned the ball over 18 times, but had 15 steals and built just enough of a lead to hold on.
Smith was quick to admit that his team has warts, but that it doesn't really matter.
"We're not a good foul shooting team and we don't make any apologies for it," Smith said. "We're not averse to turning the ball over either. What we do is make sure we stick together for the entire 32 minutes. We weren't rattled at any particular time and we played like it. We made enough shots and took care of the ball enough and just made a few less mistakes than they did down the stretch."
Kudos to Coach
Afterwards, credit didn't only go to the players, but also to the architect of this program's amazing resurgence.
"It's great to go to the state game," said Britten. "I'm glad we can do it for coach. It's all due to coach. He's a great coach. He came in and got players and we haven't looked back since. We work our tails off in practice."
"Coach Smith is the most deserving coach," Torres said. "We wanted to win it for him. He puts in so much time and cares so much about this team and the program. He has the most passion of any coach. He cares more about his players than any coach in the state."
Smith deserves hosannas simply for sticking around after his second season (2005-06), which ended with a record of 1-17. Even then, however, he was adamant that he'd get Yarmouth to a competitive and even a championship level and that vision has been realized.
"One thing I'm very proud of is that (the kids) play with the same passion I coach with," Smith said. "They play hard. I coach hard. We bring it to the gym every night. I preach playing hard and through adversity. These guys display that on the court. It's what I have wanted for the program. What I've wanted for every player we've had. Trying to get across to them that it's not time and score, it's their effort for 32 minutes. Always giving their best no matter what, no matter the circumstances and good things will happen. We may have had better teams that didn't get this far. This is a tribute to the mentality of going all-out, at all costs."
For Falmouth, which has six Gold Balls in its trophy case, but had never before this year gone undefeated in the regular season, this was a tough loss to swallow, especially since the Yachtsmen were on the brink of coming up with yet another improbable rally.
Falmouth was led by Cooleen, who became more and more of a factor the later the season grew, with 23 points, seven boards, two blocks and a steal.
"Jack came out a little slow, but he picked up the pace," Halligan said.
Packard, who was clutch all year, scored 13 points before fouling out. He also had three rebounds and two steals. Cattell had seven points (and seven rebounds), Fay four points and seven boards and Simonds three points. Kingry didn't score but had five rebounds and three assists.
The Yachtsmen made 13-of-16 foul shots, but were ultimately done in by 31 turnovers and digging a deficit that was too deep to crawl out of.
"We lost to a good team," said Halligan, who was incredibly gracious in defeat, even offering to help Smith prepare for the title game. "I feel bad for my kids, but I'm happy for Yarmouth. They worked hard to be here. They deserve credit. I can't fault the effort of my kids. A lot of people didn't expect us to be here, but we expected to be here. The kids expected to be here because of how hard we worked. We set some goals and far exceeded those goals.
"The loss is disappointing, but the effort wasn't. I told them I was awfully proud of them and they should be proud of themselves. Their family, school and community are proud of them. These kids will go on and do great things. There are a number of kids in that locker room who have won championships in other sports. They did the best they could and left it on the court. We'll try to get back here next year. That's our goal. Kudos to Yarmouth. We wish them the best of luck."
Friday evening, in the soon-to-be-razed building affectionately known as "The Mecca," Yarmouth will meet the Gardiner Tigers, who rose from the No. 3 seed to win Eastern B, thanks to wins over No. 6 Nokomis, No. 2 Medomak Valley and top-ranked Mt. Desert Island.
The schools have no history on the hardwood, but interestingly have met in the Class B boys' hockey state final twice, with the Clippers winning both, in 2001 and 2002.
The history boys from Yarmouth seem to add a new chapter every year and now there is only one more "hasn't happened since" to accomplish. The Clippers are seeking just the second Gold Ball in school history. The first came way back in 1968.
The way Yarmouth is going, don't bet against this group being the second.
"We'll come out confident, quick and get after it defensively and that transfers to our offense," said Knaub. "We have to get after it defensively and that will take care of the rest."
"We're just going to play our game," Torres said. "We'll key in on (Gardiner's) key players and try to shut them down."
"I'm really excited to play next week in Bangor," said Britten. "We've had two tests with teams we didn't know much about. I expect Gardiner will come out strong. We'll take it to them with our defense."
Smith was eager to start prepping for the Tigers.
"Every team has a couple good players, maybe three or four," Smith said. "(Gardiner) may have five. We'll play defense how we play defense. We'll attack their defense. If they're man or zone, we'll attack. We make sure we play the best we can. That's all we can do."