Freeport's history makers earn a trip to the Expo
FREEPORT—Falcon Pride is alive and well and about to descend on the biggest stage in Southern Maine high school basketball.
The Freeport girls' basketball team, non contenders for most of its Class B history, culminated it resurgence Wednesday evening in an entertaining preliminary round playoff contest against valiant Maranacook.
The eighth-ranked Falcons were hindered by nerves early and the ninth-seeded Black Bears took advantage, but a timely 3-pointer from junior Ashley Richardson tied the score after one quarter and got Freeport going.
The Falcons, behind the energy, passing and shooting of senior sparkplug point guard Aubrey Pennell and great all-around team play, opened the second period on an 18-2 run to take the lead for good.
Freeport didn't bury Maranacook by halftime, however, and the Black Bears roared back to within seven late in the third period and when their standout sophomore Christine Miller knocked down a 3-ball with 3:21 to play, the Freeport lead was a mere three points, 37-34.
These Falcons weren't about to fall short in a game they've so long awaited, however, and the only three points of the night from senior Leigh Wyman came at the most opportune time and were followed by a layup from junior Nina Davenport, who was hindered by foul trouble much of the game. The Black Bears crawled back to within five, but Davenport made two foul shots, Richardson hit two more and Davenport iced it with two foul shots in the waning seconds to give Freeport its first ever Class B playoff victory and its first at any level in a decade, 48-37.
Davenport led a balanced attack with a dozen points, senior Jocelyn Davee had one of her finest contests, adding 10, while Richardson (nine points), Pennell (seven) and two bench players, senior Hanna Chase and junior Venessa Lee, both had clutch contributions to help the Falcons improve to 13-6, end Maranacook's season at 11-8 and set up a quarterfinal round showdown Tuesday at 8:30 p.m., against top-ranked Lake Region at the Portland Exposition Building, a venue in which Freeport has never appeared.
"I'm proud of the kids," said first-year Falcons coach Jim Seavey. "It was a great team effort. It's a history maker. It will be the first time we play in the Portland Expo. We got it done in a must-win situation and have won seven in a row. (The girls) are resilient. We found a way."
A year to remember
Freeport went 9-10 a year ago, losing to Wells in the preliminary round of the playoffs, and entered 2012-13 full of high hopes. The Falcons returned several key players and added a new coach, one of the finest this state has produced in the past two decades, one who had won Gold Balls in both Class B (Greely in 2004) and Class A (Scarborough, 2010).
It took Freeport awhile to hit its stride this winter, but it eventually happened. The Falcons couldn't have asked for a more auspicious debut, dominating host North Yarmouth Academy, 66-4, in the opener. Freeport was then brought back to earth a bit by losses to visiting Cape Elizabeth (45-33) and host Lake Region (45-27), before getting back in the win column over visiting Wells (52-33). A close 55-52 home loss to York followed, but the Falcons began 2013 with wins at Yarmouth (69-31), at home over Falmouth (39-38) and at Fryeburg (45-42), before losing at Greely (51-41). Freeport then made its biggest statement to date, having its way with visiting Lake Region, the defending Western B champion, 48-32, its first win over the powerhouse Lakers this millennium. Befitting its up-and-down campaign, however, the Falcons then went to Wells and lost, 38-36. Freeport lost the next night too, 52-39, at Gray-New Gloucester, but wouldn't stumble again, closing on a six-game win streak. The victims included visiting Poland (62-35), Yarmouth (60-43), Fryeburg (56-37) and Traip (54-27) and host Poland (41-29) and Old Orchard Beach (51-37), allowing the Falcons to finish 12-6 (their best record since the 2000-01 campaign), earn the No. 8 seed in Western B and secure their first home playoff game since the 2004-05 season.
Maranacook missed the playoffs a year ago with a 7-11 mark, but got in this time around after flip-flopping its record. The Black Bears won five in a row in January to pave the way.
The teams didn't play in the regular season and had no playoff history.
Speaking of history, Freeport was hoping to win its first postseason game since the 2002-03 season, when it downed St. Dom's, 46-38, in the Western C preliminary round. That was also the last time the Falcons played in a quarterfinal, a destination this year's squad was hoping to reach when it took the floor Wednesday evening in front of a large and rabid crowd.
Freeport sent them home happy, although it did take the Falcons a few minutes to get going as they were admittedly nervous.
The Black Bears made an immediate statement as sophomore Christine Miller hinted at a big game to come when she buried a 3 from the top of the key just five seconds in. Senior Jessica Smith added a layup and Maranacook had a quick 5-0 lead.
After four turnovers, a missed layup and a missed 3-pointer, Freeport broke the spell with 4:58 left in the first quarter when Davenport took a pass from Wyman and made a layup. After Pennell and Black Bears freshman Catherine Sanborn traded free throws, the Falcons went on a big run, sparked by the smallest player on the floor.
With 2:50 left to go in the first, after running down a loose ball to retain possession, Richardson, listed in the program at 5 feet, got it back behind the 3-point arc and launched a shot that found nothing but net to forge a 6-6 tie, a score that would remain through the end of the quarter.
"I'm usually more of an assister," Richardson said. "It was wide open. When I made it, I felt great. It tied the game. It gave us momentum. In the beginning, we just had a lot of nerves. We hadn't really gotten into it yet."
"The first quarter was rough," said Pennell. "Everybody had nervous jitters at the beginning. We're a young team even with a lot of seniors. For us to come into a playoff game, at home, for the first time in a long time, we were nervous. Playing as a team pulled us together. We calmed down and played our game."
Pennell then triggered a second quarter flurry.
The senior hit a leaner just 16 seconds in to put Freeport ahead for good. She then found Davenport for a bank shot before taking a pass from Wyman and making a layup to make it 12-6. Pennell then lofted a pretty pass over a defender to Davenport, who made a layup, forcing Maranacook coach Jeannie Paradis to call timeout.
It didn't help as Wyman fed Richardson for a backdoor layup, pushing the lead to 10.
"We went crazy in the second quarter," said Richardson.
The Black Bears finally ended the Falcons' 13-0 run and their 6 minute, 17 second drought when Miller made a bank shot with 4:55 remaining in the half, but Chase took a pass from Richardson and made a layup, Pennell fed Davee for a layup and Lee sank two free throws for Freeport's biggest lead, 24-8.
Smith answered with a layup, but Lee made a free throw. A jumper from Miller in the final minute brought Maranacook back to 25-12 at the break.
Freeport could have essentially salted away the win if it didn't give the ball away nine times in the first quarter and miss 5-of-9 first half free throws, but the good emphatically outweighed the bad in the first 16 minutes, as the Falcons forced 11 turnovers, had a 20-12 rebounding advantage and put six players in the scoring column.
Much of the second quarter was done with Davenport sidelined with foul trouble, but Chase and Lee (along with freshman Kayla Belanger for a short stint) were huge off the bench.
"We were down 5-0 and ended the half, 25-7," Seavey said. "We played and executed very well in the second quarter."
As well as Freeport played in the second quarter, its execution was just the opposite in the third and the Black Bears took advantage.
After Smith opened the half with a foul shot, Davenport was whistled for her third foul with 6:33 still to play in the third quarter. Not missing a beat, Lee filled the void, taking a pass from Davee after a Davee steal and making a layup.
"Nina was in foul trouble, so there was pressure on me," Lee said. "I tried to do what I could do. I had confidence. I tried not to be fazed."
The good times didn't last as Miller drained a long jumper and Black Bears sophomore Elizabeth D'Angelo made her presence felt with a pair of layups to cut the deficit to 27-19.
After Richardson restored a double-digit lead with a layup after a steal, Maranacook kept a possession alive with three offensive rebounds before D'Angelo knocked down a 3 to make it a 29-22 contest. A layup after a steal by Davee gave the Falcons a tenuous 31-22 advantage with eight minutes to go.
"I felt like I was in the right place at the right time," said Davee. "The ball kind of popped in my hands a couple times. With Nina on the bench, we knew we had to step it up."
Freeport hoped to put it way in the fourth and got a quick layup from Davee (assisted by Pennell), but D'Angelo answered with a layup of her own.
With 6:26 remaining, the Falcons got a break as Sanborn, the Black Bears' point guard, had to leave the game after receiving her fifth foul. On the ensuing inbounds pass, Chase fed Richardson for a layup and Freeport was back up by 11, 35-24.
But Maranacook didn't wilt.
First, sophomore Sarah Clough hit a 3-pointer. Miller then made a bank shot to cut the deficit to 35-29.
Davee then came up huge on the defensive end as D'Angelo stole the ball and raced in for what looked like a layup to cut it to four, but Davee got back and pressured the shot which was off target.
With 3:53 to play, Pennell scored on a putback, but Miller made two free throws after being fouled on an offensive rebound and with 3:21 to go, after a Smith steal, Miller was true on a 3-pointer and suddenly, the Black Bears only trailed by three, 37-34.
They would get no closer.
Freeport needed a spark and got it from Wyman, one of the league's most dangerous shooters, who hadn't found her stroke in this game. After a Maranacook timeout, Wyman got the ball in the left corner and launched a rainbow 3 that dropped sweetly into the net for a 40-34 advantage with 2:38 remaining.
After a Black Bears miss, Davenport got the rebound and raced the length of the court for a layup and the Falcons had a little breathing room and a 42-34 lead with just over 2 minutes left.
The visitors had one final push as Miller made a free throw and after a steal, Miller hit two more foul shots to make it 42-37.
Freeport turned the ball over and Maranacook had a chance to make it a one possession game again, but D'Angelo missed a runner and Lee got the biggest rebound of the season and got the ball to Davenport, who was fouled with exactly a minute to play.
To that point, the Falcons had made only 4-of-13 free throws, but Davenport eyed the rim confidently and sank both attempts to make it 44-37.
Davenport then stole the ball back and with 37 seconds left, Richardson made both ends of a one-and-one.
After the Black Bears couldn't convert on three looks at the basket, Richardson was fouled, but this time missed the front end of a one-and-one.
That only delayed the inevitable and with four seconds to go, Davenport hit two free throws to deliver the coup de grace.
When the horn sounded at 8:21 p.m., for the first time since Feb. 11, 2003, back when Joe Heathco roamed the Freeport sidelines, this year's seniors were in the second grade and the Curse of the Bambino was still alive and well, the Falcons had a postseason victory.
Freeport 48 Maranacook 37.
"This means everything to us," said Pennell. "The seniors knew it was now or never. When it came down to it, we played with heart. We got to show we were good enough to go to the Expo. It proved we can come from the bottom and make it far."
"It's huge for us," Davee said. "The end was crazy. Nerves were hard to deal with when they took momentum. We had to find a way to settle down. Coming (into the season), we had hopes we'd at least get farther than last season. It's finally coming together. We're playing as a team. It feels great. Everyone contributes and everyone's excited when we win. It's huge for the program to get to the next level. It was a steady growth. We had a little bit of a rough start. With two-thirds of the season done, we knew it was our time to excel. We decided to step it up."
"We had to keep our composure," Lee said. "We knew it was our game. We wanted to win. I loved the environment. I love when the stands are full and the fans are going crazy. It was fun. It seems like one good thing gets us going and one good thing leads to the next."
"It's been quite the learning curve this year," Richardson said. "We clicked quickly in the summer. We were winning a lot of games against good teams. In the beginning, we had a rough schedule, but we've won seven games in a row now."
Seavey marveled at his team's resiliency and heart.
"A lot of teams would have packed up the tent and gone home the way we played in the third quarter," Seavey said. "We played not to lose instead of playing to win. We called timeout and I said,' We're at home. Keep your composure.' (Maranacook) got it down to three and we responded. Obviously, when their point guard fouled out, it changed the whole complexion of the game because we upped the pressure. We got steals and easy baskets and hit clutch free throws at the end.
"Part of the growing process is winning tight games. This was a must-win game. The girls proved to themselves they can win when Nina is in foul trouble. They can step up and get it done. It's a huge confidence boost for the rest of them. When we execute, we're pretty doggone good. It helps to have good athletes and kids like Davenport, Pennell and Wyman, who know how to compete. We're headed in the right direction."
Seven different players scored for the Falcons, led by Davenport, who had 12 points, six of which came in the final 2:16, seven rebounds and two steals. Davee sparkled with 10 points, six rebounds, three steals and a blocked shot. Richardson added nine points, six boards and two steals as she remains a fan favorite by playing much bigger than her listed height.
"I don't let people intimidate me," Richardson said. "I've always been the shortest. I'm used to it. I think it gets people going when I get rebounds."
"Ashley had another great game," said Seavey. "She's a competitor. That's one thing this team's learned more than anything, is being competitors."
Pennell had seven points, seven assists, three boards and two steals. Lee produced five points, tied Davenport for team honors in rebounds with seven and had three steals off the bench. Wyman finished with three points, three boards, three assists and two blocks. Chase added two points and four rebounds.
Freeport had a 36-32 advantage on the glass, forced 20 turnovers, had 13 steals and overcame 20 turnovers and 10-of-20 foul shooting.
For Maranacook, Miller stole the show with a game-high 19 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks. D'Angelo had nine points (all in the second half). Smith added five points, Clough had three and Sanborn one. The Black Bears shot 7-of-10 from the charity stripe. With just three seniors on the roster, look for Maranacook to be even stronger in 2013-14.
The fun continues
The Falcons now face the daunting task of facing top-ranked Lake Region, a squad they won't be able to sneak up on. That's because the teams split in the regular season. Freeport lost at Naples, 45-27, Dec. 15, but handled the visiting Lakers, 48-32, Jan. 15, the first time this century the Falcons beat the perennial powerhouse.
The teams have no playoff history.
Freeport will be a decided underdog, but overlook this group at your own peril. The Falcons have loved every minute of this run and aren't satisfied yet.
"We know (Lake Region) will be a tough game," Davee said. "We'll go in there and give it our all."
"I can't wait," Lee said. "We've beaten them before. We know we can do it. We know we can beat any team if we play with heart. We knew this was going to be our season."
"We have nothing to lose," said Pennell. "That's the biggest part of beating them. We have the confidence because we beat them once already. We have to put everything we have into that game. It's been a fantastic run so far."
"Now, it's David against Goliath, 1 (seed) against 8," Seavey added. "We have nothing to lose, everything to gain. If we can keep the kids relaxed from the opening tip and not take a quarter to settle in, I think we'll be very competitive Tuesday night."