Cheverus beats Sanford for first quarterfinal win
PORTLAND—It certainly didn't come easily, but the Cheverus girls' basketball team finally scaled the Western Class A quarterfinal mountain Monday afternoon at the Portland Exposition Building.
The third-ranked Stags struggled to get their offense going in the first period against No. 6 Sanford, a team which has broken Cheverus' heart before in the month of February, but a 3-pointer from senior Mikayla Mayberry out of a timeout, just before the halftime horn, put the Stags on top to stay.
The long range acumen continued early in the third period when junior Georgia Ford buried a couple of 3s to stretch the lead, but as expected, the Spartans made things very interesting down the stretch, pulling within 30-26 on 3-pointer with 32.5 seconds to put the game very much in the balance.
With the specter of another heartbreaking late loss on the Expo floor starting it in the face, Cheverus refused to buckle, got a great individual play from senior Brooke Flaherty to force a turnover, then Flaherty made a free throw to put it out of reach as the Stags went on to a 31-26 victory.
Ford led all scorers with nine points, Flaherty, Mayberry and freshman Jess Willerson all had five and Cheverus improved to 17-2, ended Sanford's run at 13-7 and advanced to set up a delicious city showdown with Deering (17-2) in the semifinals Friday at 7:30 p.m., at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
"It didn't come easily, but it means a lot to us," said Flaherty. "We've worked for it for four years. People have called us a choke team. We wanted to prove people wrong today and I think we did that. We were really prepared for this game."
Survive and advance
Cheverus has suffered painful quarterfinal round losses each of the past three seasons on the Expo floor, to Biddeford, Sanford and Scarborough, but the Stags entered 2012-13 not worrying about the past or teams they had yet to beat. Instead, Cheverus wanted to become the best team it could be and certainly turned heads as the winter progressed.
The Stags opened the year by handling host Biddeford (54-19), visiting Gorham (57-34), visiting Portland (42-17), visiting Westbrook (57-31), host Noble (68-15), visiting Marshwood (57-33), host Bonny Eagle (76-48) and visiting Sanford (57-47). The Stags' ninth game was one for the ages, a triple overtime 58-57 win at Scarborough. Cheverus fell from the unbeaten ranks with a 60-56 home loss to Deering, then dropped a 51-30 home decision to McAuley. The Stags returned to form with wins over visiting Windham (60-37), at South Portland (43-33), at Massabesic (83-48), at Kennebunk (67-28) and at home over Thornton Academy (61-44). On the final Wednesday night of the regular season, Cheverus earned a landmark 48-38 win at Deering, the first time the Stags had ever beaten the Rams. Less than 24 hours later, Cheverus capped its 16-2 campaign with a 61-28 home victory over Portland on Senior Night to earn the No. 3 seed in the region.
Sanford, a perennial contender under coach Kristy Parent, didn't make it to the Expo a year ago, falling in the preliminary round, but the newly-named Spartans returned to form this winter, starting 3-0, 5-1 and 9-3 en route to a 12-6 record, which gave them the No. 6 seed for the playoffs. Wednesday, Sanford held off No. 11 Bonny Eagle, 50-31, in the preliminary round.
The teams had met just once previously in the postseason, Sanford's 45-42 victory two years ago in the quarterfinals.
Monday, Cheverus got the jump as Flaherty had it going early, hitting consecutive jumpers to put the Stags ahead.
"It helped me to get shots up early and get to the hoop," Flaherty said. "It calmed me down."
Sanford's first points came on a layup from senior Janelle Cannon. After Cheverus senior Kylie Libby scored on a driving layup, Spartans junior Morgan Fogg hit a short jumper. Stags sophomore Jill Libby then made her presence felt as she took a pass from Mayberry and made a layup and Cheverus had an 8-4 lead after one period.
In the second, Sanford took its first lead as Fogg made a jumper, senior Heather LeBlanc scored on a putback and senior Samantha Adams hit two free thows. A long jumper from freshman Jess Willerson tied the score, 10-10. After LeBlanc and Willerson traded free throws, Spartans junior Shelby Paiement was fouled on an offensive rebound and put her team back on top, 12-11.
With time winding down in the half, Cheverus coach Richie Ashley called timeout and it proved to be a brilliant move as Flaherty fed Mayberry for a 3 from the top of the key with 3 seconds left and the Stags took a 14-12 lead to the break.
"The play was for a man-to-man defense and they were in zone," Mayberry said. "Brooke realized she didn't have anything on her side, kicked it out and I had to shoot it. It was good because we had the lead and it gave us the energy we needed."
"We wanted to run something," Ashley said. "We put in a set and Mikayla knocked down a 3. Brooke made a great play. It was supposed to be for Brooke, but she passed it to our second option."
Ford then gave her team some breathing room at the start of the third.
On the first possession, Ford took a pass from Flaherty and knocked down a 3. After Kylie Libby received her third foul, Ford took a pass from Jill Libby and drained another 3-ball, making it 20-12 and forcing Parent to call timeout.
"We were so pumped up (at the beginning of the game)," Ford said. "We've practiced all week and we were so ready. We got so jacked. It took us a little while (to settle down). It was important to knock down those shots. I got good screens to get those shots. It gave us a big boost and a lot of energy."
"Georgia's been playing very well," Ashley said. "If she's open, she can knock it down and she did. She hit big shots."
Fogg made a jump shot to end the 9-0 run and a 5 minute, 13 second drought, but after blocking a shot at one end of the floor, Willerson took a pass from Mayberry and made a layup at the other to give Cheverus a seemingly safe 22-14 lead heading for the fourth.
Considering their trouble closing out tournament games in recent years, the Stags could have been nervous down the stretch, but instead, punctuated their first quarterfinal round victory with only a few scary moments.
LeBlanc made a free throw to cut the deficit to seven, but after Jill Libby was off-target with a 3, sister Kylie was there to clean up the mess and made a layup to make it 24-15. Sanford got a jumper from senior Taylor Littlefield, but after being fouled on an offensive rebound, Ford made one of two free throws and with 4:12 to play, Ford took a pass from Kylie Libby, stepped back and made a jumper for a 27-17 lead.
Cannon scored on a putback with 3:10 remaining nd Fogg banked home a runner with 1:23 to play to cut the Cheverus advantage to 27-21, but this time, the Stags weren't going to buckle as Ashley stressed to his team to stay poised.
"I told them not to make silly turnovers and to get the ball to our better foul shooter's hands and just calm down," said Ashley.
With exactly a minute to go, Mayberry went to the line for a one-and-one and calmly made both attempts. LeBlanc answered with a layup, but junior Alisha Starbird made a free throw to make it 30-23.
With 32.5 seconds left, Littlefield kept hope alive for the Spartans by banking home a 3 and Flaherty couldn't handle the inbounds pass, losing the ball out of bounds to give Sanford a chance to pull within two or even one.
Flaherty quickly atoned for the turnover, however, tying up LeBlanc and the possession arrow favored the Stags.
"It was all adrenaline on that one," said Flaherty. "I don't even remember what I did."
Mayberry had a chance to ice it at the line with 25.4 seconds to go, but she missed the front end of a one-and-one.
The Spartans' last, best chance came when senior Samantha Adams lined up a 3, but it rimmed out with 16.9 seconds showing and Flaherty got the rebound and was fouled.
Flaherty missed the first free throw and made the second.
After two Sanford 3s were off the target, with the clock showing 3:17 p.m., Cheverus finally had survived the quarterfinal round, 31-26.
"We have 10 upperclassmen, so there's a ton of leadership," Ford said. "No matter what, anyone can be a leader. Games like this, we used to get nervous. This game, we knew the kind of team we are and that we could win a game like this and we finally did."
"I have a few sweat stains," Ashley said. "It was a scrappy game. Sanford's a tough team. They're well coached. They weren't going to hand it to us. We made enough plays at the end to win the game. What it's boiled down for us all year is our seniors making big plays. They did that. Mikayla knocked down two free throws. Brooke knocked down one. So did Alisha. I thought the play of the game was Brooke not hanging her head after the turnover, showing leadership, tying up LeBlanc and that was the game.
"We have a completely different team (this year). This whole year has been the girls taking experiences they've learned. All those heartbreaks teach us lessons. The seniors have been here three times. They weren't going to lose. Brooke's started every game. Kylie and Brooke did a wonderful job inside. Our perimeter players played well."
Ford had two 3-pointers, a two-point hoop and a free throw to lead the way with nine points. Flaherty, Mayberry and Willerson all had five points, Kylie Libby added four points, Jill Libby had two and Starbird one.
Cheverus finished with a 32-28 rebounding advantage, as Mayberry had a game-high eight, Kylie Libby collected six and Ford had five.
Mayberry also had four assists and a steal.
"It's easy to do those things when you have teammates who can finish," Mayberry said.
"Mikayla's the smartest player I've ever coached," Ashley said. "She knows exactly what we need to be in. I trust her. She's an unbelievable leader. She's the engine. She's the brains of the operation."
The Stags finished with 12 turnovers and made just 6-of-13 foul shots, but found a way.
Sanford was paced by eight points from Fogg. LeBlanc had six points (and blocked two shots), Littlefield five, Cannon four, Adams two and Paiement one. Adams had seven of the Spartans' 28 rebounds, Cannon collected six.
Sanford only committed nine turnovers and made 5-of-10 free throws, but fell short.
Cheverus is eager to play on the Civic Center floor for the first time, but Deering will be seeking revenge following the Feb. 6 loss. The teams have never met in the postseason.
After splitting the two regular season meetings, there aren't many secrets between the Stags and Rams. It should spell a memorable showdown.
Cheverus hopes its run continues.
"Going to the Civic Center means a lot to us," Flaherty said. "The six seniors aren't ready to be done yet. The underclassmen really want it bad this year. We're really looking forward to playing there."
"Going to the Civic Center is big" Mayberry said. "Especially for the seniors. I feel confident, but Deering's a really good team. They're well coached."
"We have to keep playing like we've been playing all season," Ford said. "We'll have fun with it."
"I'm happy for the girls to get to the Civic Center," Ashley added. "As a player (at Cheverus), I was blessed enough to get there four times. We'll go in confident. Cautiously though."