Deering girls prevail in battle of unbeatens at SP
SOUTH PORTLAND—With all the focus on seemingly invincible two-time defending state champion McAuley, it's easy to forget that there are several other very good teams in Western Class A girls' basketball this season.
Two of them, undefeated Deering and South Portland, rang out the old year Monday afternoon at Beal Gymnasium.
The Rams continued to demonstrate that they're in it for the long haul with a strong defensive effort and timely offensive production as they led nearly from start to finish before prevailing, 45-37.
Deering got a game-high 14 points from senior Keneisha DiRamio, 10 clutch points off the bench from sophomore Courtney Brett and a stellar defensive job from senior captain Chelsea Saucier, who shut down South Portland senior standout Danica Gleason, as the Rams improved to 7-0, handing the Red Riots their first loss in seven outings.
"I'm ecstatic at 7-0 and I think the kids are too," said Deering coach Mike Murphy.
Something had to give
Deering was upset in last year's quarterfinal round by Windham, 45-33, then graduated standout Ella Ramonas and clutch shooter Emily Cole. As a result, the Rams weren't on the short list of favorites this winter, but in their locker room, the belief was that a great season was in store.
Deering opened with a clutch 38-35 win at Thornton Academy and hasn't looked back, downing visiting Marshwood (34-21), visiting Massabesic (54-35), host Noble (66-31), visiting Sanford (32-19) and host Bonny Eagle (68-39).
South Portland, which was ousted, 50-30, in the preliminary round by Thornton Academy last season, has made the most of its young roster and got off to a sizzling start thanks in large part to the stellar play of Gleason. After opening with a 48-27 win at Windham, the Red Riots handled visiting Biddeford (53-38), host Westbrook (61-42), visiting Thornton Academy (57-37), host Kennebunk (47-27) and host Massabesic (65-28).
That win at Massabesic was also the 200th in the career of Red Riots coach (and one of the finest people in high school sports) Mike Giordano, who was honored prior to the start of Monday's contest for his achievement.
Prior to Monday, dating back to the start of the 2001-02, season, the Rams had won 12 of 17 meetings with the Red Riots, including eight of nine since 2006-07 and the past seven, including a pair last year, 46-32 at home and 49-35 at South Portland. The Red Riots' last win in the series was a 45-35 triumph at Deering Jan. 5, 2008.
Monday, the Rams made it eight in a row over South Portland, but it didn't come without a struggle.
Just nine seconds in, Deering broke the ice when senior Alexis Stephenson scored on a putback.
Fouls quickly escalated up for both squads as Red Riots freshman Meaghan Doyle was whistled for her second foul just 37 seconds in and Rams 6-foot-4 senior Marissa MacMillan received her second 19 seconds later.
Junior Brianne Maloney got the hosts on the board after MacMillan's second foul with a free throw and with 5:18 to go in the opening stanza, a foul shot from sophomore Holly Black tied the score.
South Portland went ahead on a Black free throw with 3:49 remaining, but Deering retook the lead on a jumper from Brett, who made an immediate impact.
"The first three, four minutes where everyone was chucking it up and nothing was happening, we had a possession where we took care of the ball and got screens and got a nice 10 or 12 footer and that settled us down," Murphy said. "After that possession, I thought our kids settled into a great tempo and dictated the game from that point on."
With 3:06 left in the quarter, the Red Riots got an old-fashioned three-point play (putback and free throw) from senior Hope Owen, but 6-4 would be their final lead.
Nineteen seconds later, Gleason, who had been frustrated by Saucier to that point, picked up her second foul.
The Rams tied the score on a Stephenson jumper and went ahead to stay with 1:34 remaining in the first when Saucier knocked down a jumper. Stephenson added a leaner and Maloney hit two foul shots in the final minute to pull South Portland within two, 10-8, heading for the second period.
A putback from Brett, a jumper by junior LeeAnn Downs and a baseline jumper from Saucier (which rattled around the rim and home) got Deering off to a fast start in the new quarter and pushed the lead to eight, 16-8.
An Owen free throw ended the run and Black banked home a long jumper, but Brett answered with a foul shot, hit two more and after Gleason got in the scoring column on a free throw with 1:54 remaining before halftime, DiRamio and junior Christiana Viney both added foul shots to give the Rams a 21-12 advantage at the break.
In the first 16 minutes, South Portland made just two field goals and turned the ball over eight times.
"In the second quarter, we had shots around the basket we have to make," lamented Giordano. "Instead of 21-12 at the half, it should have been 21-20."
The Red Riots came out with fire in the third quarter and cut the deficit to five as freshman Maddie Hasson set up Doyle for a layup and after DiRamio made a foul shot, Gleason hit three of four free throws to make it 22-17.
"I didn't kick the lockers or anything," joked Giordano. "I did tell them it was our worst half all year and we were only down nine. The kids really like each other and root for each other and we tried to come out and get back into it."
Deering calmly responded as MacMillan made two foul shots, DiRamio made a layup after a steal and after being fouled on an offensive rebound, MacMillan sank two more free throws to push the lead to 11, 28-17.
South Portland answered with a Gleason free throw and a jumper by Maloney, but DiRamio stemmed the tide with a bank shot.
After the Red Riots crawled back within seven on a Maloney free throw and an Owen putback, Saucier fed Brett for a layup.
Late in the quarter, Black hit a jump shot for the hosts, but two foul shots apiece from Saucier and DiRamio gave the Rams a 36-25 lead heading for the final stanza.
Deering pushed its lead up to 14, 39-25, when Saucier hit a step-back jumper and Brett made a free throw, but jumpers from Black and Hasson cut the South Portland deficit to 10.
Again, the Rams didn't panic and reasserted control as DiRamio buried a pair of jumpers, the second after a Saucier steal, to make it 43-29.
With 2:18 remaining, Gleason made her first field goal, a leaner. After a missed Deering free throw, Gleason sank two attempts and Gleason fed Doyle for a layup after a steal to cut the deficit to 43-35 with 1:07 left.
DiRamio got a point back at the foul line, but a leaner by Black with 41.3 seconds showing kept hope alive for the Red Riots. Black was fouled on the play, but couldn't convert the three-point play and DiRamio accounted for the 45-37 final score when she made one final free throw.
"We just kept our heads in the game and stayed calm and controlled the tempo," DiRamio said. "We didn't let their defense get to us or turn the ball over. We were pretty confident. At first, I don't know what was going on, but we got in a rhythm and we didn't let their pressure get to us. We have veterans and we told the team to slow down and take a deep breath. I expected us to be how we are right now. A lot of people doubted us, but that just fuels us."
"Once we get the lead, we don't give it up," Saucier said. "If they had a run, we relaxed and calmed down. People can think what we want, but we'll play our hardest and we'll surprise a lot of people. We lost key players, but our role is to pick it up."
"Basketball can be funny," added Murphy. "You have to use your natural instincts. Don't be a robot. Sometimes kids are so worried about plays or whatever. (We) reacted in a positive fashion and it showed in our play. The game is supposed to be played on the floor and reacting. The more we play, the better we'll get."
DiRamio, who has seen her contributions limited in recent seasons by injury, led all scorers with 14 points and also had four rebounds.
"I'm healthy," said DiRamio. "I've been working out a lot, getting ready for the season."
"Having Keniesha back from being hurt helps tremendously," Saucier said. "I've played with her since we were little. She's very aggressive. She gets us baskets. Emily and Ella had a lot of baskets last year. She's helped us score a bunch."
"I thought Keneisha did a great job on the offensive end," Murphy added. "She has a calming effect. She's one of the better athletes in the league. She's explosive with the ball and quick defensively. She's smooth."
Brett was huge off the bench with 10 points, four rebounds and a steal.
"Courtney's physical and aggressive," said Saucier. "She helps the team a lot. I was really impressed."
"Courtney came in and got us points and got us riled up," DiRamio said.
"I thought the Brett kid gave us great hustle minutes and energy on both sides of the floor," Murphy added. "I'm very happy for her."
Saucier had eight points, but that only begins to explain her impact on the game. Saucier also had a pair of steals and most importantly, reinforced the perception that she's one of the conference's best shutdown defenders by holding Gleason in check.
"(Danica's) their go-to player," Saucier said. "My role was to shut her down. She only had a couple buckets. She forced shots. My job was to get her out of her game."
Saucier's effort certainly turned heads.
"(Chelsea's) a four-year varsity player and I think she's one of the best players in our league," said Giordano. "She handles pressure like a pro. Coaches in the league know what she means to them. She's a great player defensively, never gets beat, never gets in foul trouble and controls the tempo on offense."
"Chelsea did awesome (on Danica)," said DiRamio. "She didn't get many shots off. We had to come in and help. Any time she tried to drive, we were there."
"I thought Saucier did a great job on (Gleason)," Murphy added. "She's probably the most explosive player in the league with the ball. You have to make it tough on her. She's a very good player. Chelsea is a thinker. She executed."
Stephenson had six points and eight rebounds (which tied Downs for team high).
"Stephenson hasn't played big minutes, but she did a nice job even though she was in foul trouble," said Murphy.
MacMillan added four points, Downs two and Viney one (to go with four rebounds).
"We got nice minutes off the bench from our subs," Murphy said.
Deering only committed 14 turnovers in a tough road environment and made 17-of-26 free throws.
The Red Riots got 10 points from Black, nine from Gleason, six apiece from Maloney and Owen, four from Doyle and two from Hasson.
South Portland had a 37-31 edge on the glass as Maloney had a game-high 10 rebounds, Black collected seven boards, Owen six and Doyle five. The Red Riots finished with 16 turnovers and made 15-of-26 foul shots.
"I thought the kids played hard all the way to the end against a good team that's handled everyone so far," said Giordano. "We struggled, but that's compliments to (Deering's) defense. It became a halfcourt game, which is what they wanted to do. They controlled the tempo and with that, controlled the game. One senior, two freshmen, a sophomore and a junior is the reason we didn't shoot well. I told Danica that there will be times she has to trust her teammates. They made a good job making sure there were one, two, three people around her when she caught the ball. The other kids have to make shots when teams take Danica away.
"I think we'll be better in the future. It's a learning experience. I won't use the excuse that we're young. The freshmen have played a lot of basketball. It was really the first big game for them."
New year, new challenges
The regular season is nearly half over for the Red Riots and Rams and both have some big tests awaiting.
South Portland (third in the latest Western Class A Heal Points standings) is right back at it Wednesday when it hosts second-ranked and unbeaten Scarborough. The Red Riots then go to Sanford. Two games versus McAuley, another with currently undefeated Cheverus and a rematch at Deering (Feb. 4) also loom.
South Portland feels it can be in the hunt throughout, but will need to continue to grow up quickly.
"We'll learn from (this loss)," said Giordano. "We don't have time to think about it. We practice tomorrow and play undefeated Scarborough Wednesday. I think if we play well, we have a chance to win that game. We have three (tough games) in a row. We had undefeated Deering today. We have undefeated Scarborough Friday and a one-loss team Tuesday in Sanford. It's time to figure out who we are. These next three games will dictate whether we have a chance at a top four (seed), or if we're five, six, seven. We have to play better in the halfcourt. We were a little impatient today. We have to be better when games slow down and against good teams, the game will slow down. We can get better. We'll be more patient offensively."
The Rams (tops in Western A at press time) host Kennebunk Wednesday, then go to McAuley Friday. Deering handed the Lions their most recent loss (in the final game of the 2010-11 regular season) and have matched up as well as anyone with the champs.
"McAuley's Friday," Saucier said. "Say no more. We have to go in relaxed. We need to keep our momentum. It should be an interesting game."
These Rams, who also have two games left against Cheverus and one apiece versus Scarborough and South Portland, expect to remain near the top of the standings.
"We have to keep going hard in practice," said DiRamio. "We have to improve every game."
"I look at Thornton, Sanford and South Portland as good teams we've beaten and we took care of business in the other games we played," Murphy said. "We have to keep doing the little things, limit extra shots, check out, take care of the ball, read what the defense gives us."