Deering does it; Second half surge gives Rams Class A title
PORTLAND—The Deering boys' basketball team didn't exactly feel the love or respect it felt it was due as the top seed in the Western Class A tournament.
So the Rams went out and did the one thing that got everyone's attention once and for all.
Win the state championship.
After closing the regular season with a 22-point dud of a performance in a loss at rival Portland, Deering came together with abandon, made all the big plays when it had to in the regional tournament, which was capped by arguably the biggest shot in school history, then faced a very tall task in Hampden Academy in Saturday's Class A state final at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
The Broncos were the first team this winter that had more size than the Rams. They were fundamentally solid and capable of lighting it up, but for one last time, Deering met every challenge.
After falling behind in the first period and trailing late in the first half, the Rams took momentum into the locker room when senior Jon Amabile made a milestone layup after a steal to give Deering a 19-18 lead.
In the second half, the Rams completely took control, breaking open a close game with a stunning 17-2 run and they never led by less than seven the rest of way, going on to a 59-50 victory for the second state title in school history.
Deering got 27 points from the superb Amabile in his swan song, strong post play from juniors Labson Abwoch and Thiwat Thiwat and solid contributions from everyone who took the floor as it wound up 19-3, ending Hampden Academy's season at 20-2 in the process.
"A lesser group of kids might have crumbled, but they showed their character and their togetherness," said Deering coach Dan LeGage, who beamed after winning his second title. "We took care of our own. We're close and it paid off tonight. We peaked at the perfect time. We were sitting at the top all year long and everyone kept saying there's parity. People see what they want to see and say what they want to say. These kids heard it all. All the knocks all year long, these guys took that personally. It motivated them tremendously. The more people took shots at us, the more these kids were united."
After winning its lone title in 2006, Deering remained among the top contenders in Western Class A, yet the Rams lost their first playoff game every season between 2007 and 2010.
Last winter, Deering turned the corner, upsetting Thornton Academy in the quarterfinals before being eliminated in the semifinals by Bonny Eagle.
This season, the Rams passed just about every test.
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 a49-40 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 50-46 home triumph over Cheverus. The regular season closed with that surprisingly one-sided 46-22 loss at Portland.
But the Rams managed to turn that setback into a positive.
"I think that was a wakeup call," said senior Pat Green. "We lost to them twice in the regular season. We came into the playoffs ready."
"That loss was a difference maker," Thiwat said. "We knew we couldn't just win because we're ranked No. 1. We knew we had to play hard. We knew we could go all the way and that we had to work hard."
"Everybody has bad games," said Amabile. "It's all a matter of putting it aside."
Even with that loss, Deering earned the top seed in Western A with a 15-3 mark.
The Rams got a scare from ninth-ranked Biddeford in the quarterfinals before pulling away to win, 66-54. Deering then held on for dear life to eliminate No. 4 Cheverus, 52-49, in the semifinals before winning the region when Green's 3-point prayer was answered at the horn for a 45-42 win over Bonny Eagle.
Deering played in its first state game way back in 1937, a "slugfest" which resulted in a 16-14 loss to Winslow.
After a 63-year drought, the Rams returned to states in 2001 and lost in one of the most famous (or infamous from the Deering perspective) buzzer beaters in state game history when Bangor's Joe Campbell somehow put in a rebound to break Deering's heart, 57-56. The Rams returned to states to following winter, but were humbled by Brunswick, 83-62.
LeGage took over the Deering program for the 2002-03 season and after a couple of tough years, the Rams got back to the ultimate stage, only to lose to Hampden Academy, in its first state final appearance, 59-49.
A year later, however, finally, Deering managed to raise a Gold Ball as a second half rally spelled a 47-37 win over Hampden Academy.
The Broncos hadn't gotten back to the state final since. Last winter, they went 15-3 in the regular season, but ended 16-4 after a loss to Edward Little in the semifinals.
This season, Hampden Academy was viewed as the Eastern A favorite and never disappointed.
The Broncos won their first seven games, but it wasn't always easy. After a 56-48 victory over rival Bangor in the opener, Hampden Academy defeated Skowhegan (72-43), Mt. Blue (66-57), Lawrence (49-47), Messalonskee (52-41), Brewer (57-48) and Cony (56-38).
The run ended with a 43-40 loss at Lewiston Jan. 6, but the Broncos bounced back and took their last 10 regular season outings, beating Mt. Ararat (70-58), Brunswick (38-37), Erskine (64-45), Bangor (42-39), Skowhegan (90-43), Mt. Blue (65-63), Lawrence (51-41), Brewer (67-43), Cony (67-42) and Messalonskee (64-50).
At 17-1, Hampden Academy earned the top seed and eliminated No. 9 Erskine (53-38) in the quarterfinals, fifth-ranked Bangor (47-37) in the semis and No. 3 Mt. Blue (46-44) in the regional final, on junior Brian Fickett's layup off an inbounds pass with three seconds remaining.
Saturday, the Broncos appeared to have too much athleticism and skill for Deering to contend with for much of the first half, but with the season and the Gold Ball on the line, the Rams proved once and for all that they were champions.
First, Hampden Academy senior Christian McCue, a Mr. Maine Basketball finalist, put on an exhibition in the first quarter.
The 6-foot-2-inch McCue got the scoring started with a layup 64 seconds in. After Thiwat answered with an old-fashioned three-point play (a leaner, foul and free throw), The Broncos went on top, 4-3, on a putback from 6-4 junior Matt Palmer.
Deering went back on top when Green made a layup after a steal by senior Cal London, but McCue answered with a 3-ball. After Green set up Abwoch for a dunk and Amabile made a free throw, McCue sank another 3 to make it 10-8 Hampden Academy.
Amabile said anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better by tying the game with a leaner in transition, then putting the Rams up with a jumper, but 6-5 sophomore Zach Gilpin tied the game with a leaner and McCue's floater with 39.2 seconds left made it 14-12 Broncos after one exciting, fast-paced quarter.
McCue had 10 of his team's 14 points in the first eight minutes, but was held scoreless in the second period as both teams went cold.
After a driving layup from Gilpin made it 16-12. Deering got a jumper from Amabile to end a 4 minute, 10 second drought, but 6-foot-7 senior Fred Knight gave Hampden Academy an 18-14 advantage when he hit a leaner with 4:10 to go in the half.
The Broncos wouldn't score again until the second half.
The Rams didn't exactly capitalize, but got things going as the half neared.
After London cut the deficit to three with a free throw, Thiwat hit a jumper.
Then, with 1:09 to go, Amabile stole the ball and went in for a layup, making it, 19-18 Deering at the break.
It wasn't just any basket for Amabile. Those two points gave him 1,000 for his high school career.
"Jon's just something," Abwoch said. "He has a knack for scoring. He's such a team guy. He's not so concerned about points. He wants to help his team all the time."
Amabile's layup also gave the Rams some momentum going into the half.
Thiwat made a layup after a steal 26 seconds into the third period, but with 6:31 remaining, Gilpin scored on a driving baseline layup while being fouled, then hit the free throw to end a 7-0 Deering run and a 5:39 drought, tying the score, 21-21.
At that point, it looked like the teams would fight each other to a photo finish, but the Rams were about to embark on their best stretch of basketball of the entire season.
With 6:08 to go in the third, Thiwat managed to force home a leaner over Knight and Deering had the lead for good.
"It was different to face their size," Thiwat said. "Very different. We got into the flow of our game and got used to their size."
Abwoch added a layup before Knight made one of his own, making the score 25-23.
The Rams then rattled off 13 straight points to seize firm control.
After Deering kept a possession alive, sophomore Chhorda Chhorn passed to Amabile for a 3. Green then set up Thiwat for a leaner. After Thiwat missed a dunk attempt, London was then for the putback. Amabile was fouled after a steal and made a free throw, Abwoch hit a foul shot, London hit Amabile for a backdoor layup and Thiwat made a driving layup with 2:20 left in the quarter to shockingly push the lead to 38-23.
The Rams' pressure defense had created offense which overwhelmed the Broncos.
"We pressed the whole first quarter too, but in the second half, we came out and bumped it up another level," Green said. "We got on the glass more. We rebounded and were more physical. (Labson and Thiwat) played unbelievable."
"The guys just played great," said LeGage. "It was no secret we had to make the game go up and down. When we saw the film, we saw that pressure bothered them. We knew we had to press them. All year, we've worked on the press. Until the end of the season, we never felt we were quite ready to use it exclusively. It was always a work in progress. So was the halfcourt trapping zone. We decided it was now or never and decided to do it right. They broke (the press) easily in the first half. I knew we had to keep grinding on them and I knew our athletes, who work so hard to be in great shape, would come through.
"They outrebounded us by a significant amount in the first half. That gave them more opportunities. We took shots that were challenged. We talked at halftime about taking shots that were open. Getting the offense to come to us. Defensively, we had to do a better job with positioning and rebounding. Once we put the ball in the hole, we pressed more effectively. As that was more effective, we got steals and changed between halfcourt trapping zone and I don't think they saw that coming."
Gilpin set up Fickett for a layup at 2:01, but Amabile answered with a leaner in the lane and the lead was back up to 15.
Hampden Academy would get a break in the final minute of the third and was able to stay within hailing distance when McCue knocked down a 3 (his first points since the first quarter) while being fouled and he added the free throw for the rarely seen four-point play and the Broncos trailed, 40-29, with eight minutes left in the season.
While Hampden Academy would look to rally in the fourth period as McCue heated up anew, the Rams met every challenge as Amabile was up for the challenge and his teammates supported him every second of the way.
Twenty-seven seconds into the final period, Abwoch attempted a shot which went around and around and around the rim before falling off, but he was there for the rebound and laid it home to make it 42-29.
After London added a driving layup, Knight made a free throw and McCue hit a pair, but Deering counterpunched as Amabile scored on a driving layup and with 4:15 to play, Amabile fed Thiwat for a layup and a 48-32 advantage.
After senior 6-6 Logan Poirier made a layup and McCue sank two foul shots to pull the Broncos within a dozen with 3:40 remaining, Amabile scored on a driving layup and then, with 2:05 left, Abwoch stole the ball and raced in for a dagger of a resounding slam dunk and the Rams had a 52-36 lead.
Abwoch was called for a technical foul on the dunk (for hanging on the rim). McCue made the two free throws and Poirier took a pass from McCue and made a layup to make it a 52-40 contest, but with 1:10 showing, Amabile knocked down a pair of free throws.
With 1:03 to go, McCue was fouled while shooting a 3 and hit all three ensuing free throws. After Thiwat missed the front end of a one-and-one, McCue buried a 3 with 52.5 seconds left, drawing Hampden Academy within eight, 54-46.
Amabile didn't allow the Broncos to go on a run as he made two pressure packed free throws. After McCue scored on a floater, Abwoch made a foul shot with 26.9 seconds remaining to make it 57-48.
Palmer made two free throws to pull Hampden Academy within seven, but with 18.3 seconds left, Amabile iced the victory with two foul shots.
The final horn sounded at 8:35 p.m. and the Deering Rams were Class A state champions by virtue of their 59-50 triumph.
"It feels unbelievable," said Amabile. "All the hard work since freshman year has paid off. It's wonderful. "We just focused in practice, went over film and figured we needed to box out and control the pace of the game. We took over in the second half. We both came out with lots of intensity. They just had a little more in that first half. Throughout the game, we realized we had to step up and take over and everyone did a good job. Second half, we pushed the ball and boxed out. They couldn't keep up with us. Our conditioning was better. We knew we had all the pieces (this year). We had to make sure everybody wanted it."
"We did it," Green said. "It's what we've worked for four years. It's unbelievable. Last game of my career. It's awesome. I don't think we peaked at the right time. I think we've been good all the way through. Every team gets better as the season goes on and we did."
"I'm so excited right now," said Thiwat. "We played our hearts out. We couldn't ask for anything more. We started playing our game. As long we played our game, we knew we could win it and we did. I was very impressed with how (Hampden Academy) played. I knew they'd play that hard since they have great players on their team, but we came out and played even harder."
LeGage paid tribute to the whole Deering community for its role in the victory.
"It's great for the school," he said. "The administration was great this week. All the faculty was really supportive. They allowed us to do what we needed to do and allowed the players to do what they needed to do. I'm really thankful to them."
Amabile, who in mystifying oversight, wasn't even a Mr. Maine Basketball semifinalist, certainly put on a show on the big stage, finishing with 27 points and four steals.
"It was a storybook ending for Jon Amabile," said LeGage. "That was a punctuation mark, scoring his 1,000th point, having 27 points in the championship game with everybody watching. That was his way of saying, 'I'm one of the best players. Maybe the best scorer in the state.'"
Thiwat, whose improved outside game made him even more dangerous in the tournament, had 15 points, eight rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot.
"I think it's the best game Thiwat's ever played," said Abwoch. "I'm so proud of him."
Abwoch started slowly, but came on big time in the second half and wound up with 10 points (four of which came on memorable dunks).
"They blocked a couple of my shots early so I had to get used to (their size)," Abwoch said. "We adjusted pretty well. We were just a lot more confident on defense in the second half. We knew our offense would take care of itself. We had to focus on defense. They were getting a lot of buckets and we just had to stop them. I think we did a great job. It's the best feeling of my life. It's just great. I honestly feel we were a great team during the summer. Everyone was into it, working hard on those hot, hot summer days. We kept it up the whole time."
Abwoch also had eight boards and four blocked shots. More impressively, he didn't even pick up a foul until the fourth period and was able to stay on the floor for almost the entire game.
"I was being careful,' Abwoch said. "Maybe a little too careful. I just didn't want to foul out in this game."
"We stayed out of foul trouble until the very end," said LeGage. "Labson and Thiwat had to stay on the floor because of (the Broncos') size. I haven't seen across the board size like that in a high school team."
London added five points (along with four rebounds, two steals and a block), while Green had two.
"Pat and Cal are great," Abwoch said. "They just picked us up. It's great to have them."
When Amabile, Green and London were freshmen, LeGage envisioned a title run and it came to fruition Saturday.
"When (the seniors) came in as freshmen, we had a conversation with the three of them," LeGage said. "We knew Thiwat and Labson were in the eighth grade. We saw it coming. We had three special perimeter players. In the tournament, you have to have good guards. Having bigs is huge, but you have to have good guard play. Chhorda Chhorn grew up in a big way in this tournament. It's been a wonderful experience. I couldn't relax until the end. I was still trying to coach to the end."
The Rams were just 12-of-21 from the foul line, but only turned the ball over 13 times. After being outrebounded, 21-8, in the first half, Deering had a 19-11 advantage in the second half. The Rams also had 10 steals and six blocked shots.
"Every game, our rotations got better and the kids got more and more confident," said LeGage. "But as good as we were, we were lucky too. I'm not naive enough to think that luck didn't play a role. I've coached long enough to know that calls have to work out, you have to be lucky and play well."
LeGage said that the second championship was very different from the first.
"It's a different group of kids, different dynamics and relationships," he said. "We work hard to try and build relationships and be there not just for basketball. I'm happy for (these guys) beyond winning. These kids have overcome a lot in their lives. That's why it means so much more to them. They gave everything to basketball. For them to wear a championship ring and be remembered forever, I'm so happy for them. In '06, it was the weight of the world on our shoulders. We had 100 some odd years of not winning. Since that point, we've never stopped being part of the conversation. It's just unbelievable."
For the Broncos, McCue may have convinced the voters that he's Mr. Maine Basketball-worthy with a 28-point showing Saturday. He hit four 3-pointers and also grabbed four rebounds.
Gilpin added seven points, Knight had five (along with seven boards), Palmer (four rebounds) and Poirier (a game-high 12 rebounds and three blocks) finished with four apiece and Fickett two.
Hampden Academy won the battle of the boards, 32-27 and sank 14-of-17 free throw attempts, but turned the ball over 17 times.
"They had a great season," LeGage said, of the Broncos. "They have nothing to hang their heads about. Tonight, we just played better."
Can you say repeat?
The loss of Deering's five seniors, most notably Amabile, Green and London, will be felt, but the Rams return the likes of Abwoch, Thiwat, Chhorn and junior Dominic Lauture and look to make another title run in 2012-13.
Don't bet against them.
"We'll have a great squad coming back next year," said Thiwat. "I'll miss our seniors, but hopefully we can do it again."
"Why not repeat?" said Abwoch. "I'm super excited. Hopefully we'll have a good summer again and it carries on."
"People in Portland can say Deering High is a great basketball school," LeGage added. "We're a great basketball school because of great kids. Hopefully we can keep it rolling."
But that's next year. For now, this championship team has become one for the ages.
"I just told these guys they have been such a joy this year," said LeGage. "They did everything we asked them to do. All the role players accepted their roles. Parents let us define those roles and helped their children accept their roles. The stars played like stars. It's just been an unbelievably enjoyable year. From start to finish."