Cheverus' magic continues with win over Deering; Stags to face McAuley for Western A title
PORTLAND—Many years from now, after the Cheverus girls' basketball program has won Gold Balls with regularity, people will look back at and credit a special group of Stags who, with their tenacity, love for each other and ability to persevere, created a new identity for the program during a magical run in the month of February, in the year 2013, that put Cheverus on the map once and for all.
Cheverus entered this month with reputation of being a program that was competitive, but unable to win big games against top teams. Especially in the crucible of tournament play.
It's safe to say that label has gone the way of the dodo bird.
Friday evening, 16 days after a breakthrough regular season victory at rival Deering and four days after finally surviving the quarterfinal round, the third-ranked Stags met the second-seeded Rams on the biggest stage of all in southern Maine high school basketball, the Cumberland County Civic Center, in a Western Class A semifinal, with a berth in the regional final at stake.
Once again, Cheverus had an opportunity to let a victory slip away, but those days are over.
The Stags, not surprisingly considering the new venue and the stakes, got off to a slow start, but so did Deering, and Cheverus only trailed by a basket, 9-7, after one period and by four, 18-14, at halftime. The Stags could have faced a much more daunting deficit were it not for a pair of clutch 3-pointers from senior Victoria Nappi.
Then, in the second half, Cheverus ratcheted up its defense and senior Kylie Libby took over, reminding everyone why Division I Binghamton University is interested in her services. Libby controlled play at both ends of the floor during a third quarter run and a ridiculously athletic left-handed leaner off the glass with 3:28 to go in the frame gave the Stags the lead for good.
Cheverus clung to a two-point advantage when the fourth period began and took what seemed (on this night anyway, when offense was at a premium) a safe 27-22 advantage on a third Nappi 3 with 5:04 to go.
Deering is nothing if not proud, however, and as expected, the Rams twice rallied within a point, but the clutch foul shooting of junior Georgia Ford (four free throws in the final two minutes) and two more freebies from senior Brooke Flaherty allowed the Stags to hold on as Deering couldn't get a final shot away before the horn.
Cheverus got nine points from Nappi and seven apiece from Flaherty and Libby as it prevailed, 33-31, improved to a program-best 18-2, ended the Rams' fine season at 17-3 and most importantly, advanced to set up a compelling regional final showdown with top-ranked, two-time defending state champion McAuley Saturday at 7 p.m., at the Civic Center, in what will be the most talked about chapter yet in the rivals' "Holy War."
"We're all just so excited," Libby said. "It's such a great feeling. It's such a milestone for the program. We're so happy to be a part of it. It's been such a great year. We're such a family. There's not a better feeling."
Cheverus and Deering are building a nice little rivalry, but prior to Friday, the schools had never met in a playoff game.
The Rams had a stellar regular season, going 16-2 to earn the No. 2 seed behind McAuley. Monday, in the quarterfinals, Deering struggled against No. 7 Thornton Academy, but came on late to advance, 33-25.
The Stags easily produced the best regular season in program annals, also going 16-2, good for the No. 3 spot. Cheverus continued its list of firsts Monday when it ousted No. 6 Sanford, 31-26, in its quarterfinal.
The teams split in the regular season, with the Rams winning at Cheverus, 60-56, Jan. 11, and the Stags downing host Deering, 48-38, Feb. 6. That victory was Cheverus' first ever against the Rams.
Friday, with points hard to come by, the Stags managed to produce two more than their opponent.
It took nearly two minutes for the game's first points, but fittingly, seeing how the evening developed, Libby did the honors, taking a pass from Nappi and making a layup. Deering tied the score on a layup from senior Alexis Stephenson, but a free throw from senior Mikayla Mayberry put Cheverus back on top and a jumper from Flaherty made it 5-2.
"Coach (Richie Ashley) told us that it was like any other game, that we just had to get our sightlines and focus on the rim," Flaherty said. "Walking in here, we looked around, took it in and treated it like every other court."
The Rams then got consecutive layups from seniors Marissa MacMillan and Chelsea Saucier to take their first lead, 6-5 before sophomore Jill Libby set up junior Cassidy Grover for a layup to put the Stags ahead again.
"I was really impressed with how the underclassmen composed themselves," said Flaherty. "The young kids are doing great things for us."
Late in the first quarter, Stephenson knocked down a 3 and Deering was up, 9-7, after one.
Rams sophomore Courtney Brett made her presence felt off the bench to start the second stanza as she drained a 3 just eight seconds in. Nappi quickly answered, taking a pass from Ford and hitting a shot from behind the arc, not for the last time as it would play out, but Brett made a jump shot and MacMillan took a pass in transition from Saucier and made a layup to give Deering its biggest lead of the night, 16-10.
Cheverus got a free throw from Ford before Nappi made her second 3 to keep the Stags in it.
"Victoria's really good at never getting down on herself and making shots," Flaherty said. "Last game was hard, but she didn't show it. She was really positive. I was happy with how she came out."
With 1:40 left, MacMillan made a turnaround jumper and the Rams were ahead, 18-14, at halftime.
Deering, which didn't get to the foul line once in the first 16 minutes, committed 11 turnovers, or its lead might have been greater. Cheverus, meanwhile, could have been tied, having missed four of six foul shots. The Stags also turned the ball over 11 times.
Something had to give in the second half and as it did in the regular season win, Cheverus made more plays at winning time.
The Stags set the tone just eight seconds into the third quarter when Libby took a pass from Ford and made a layup.
Neither team scored for the next four minutes before a putback from Jill Libby tied the game.
Then, the next time down the floor, Cheverus took a lead it wouldn't relinquish as Kylie Libby made a spin move into the lane, then contorted her body before kissing a shot off the glass with her left hand for a 20-18 advantage.
"Ky does things that people don't recognize," said Flaherty. "She had nice drives and really shot the ball."
Libby added a foul shot before a Saucier jumper with 1:28 left in the period finally ended the Stags' 7-0 run and an 8 minute, 12 second Deering drought.
The Rams (who had seven turnovers in the period) weren't able to build on that, however, as Flaherty made a late free throw that gave Cheverus a 22-20 lead with eight grueling minutes to go.
Content to run time off the clock, the Stags extended their lead to four when Flaherty made two foul shots with 6:23 remaining. After being fouled after an offensive rebound, MacMillan made two free throws to bring Deering back within two, but Nappi had one more long distance trick up her sleeve and her 3 from the left wing on an inbounds play with 5:04 to play, provided a modicum of breathing room.
"I didn't really think about it," Nappi said. "I just wanted to help the team out."
Lost in the excitement of the basket was Flaherty's diligence on the boards. Not once, but twice, Flaherty managed to keep possession for Cheverus courtesy offensive rebounds.
Brett looked to answer, but her 3 went in-and-out. MacMillan went to the line with a chance to draw the Rams closer, but she missed both attempts with 3:46 to go.
Finally, with 3:32 showing, Deering senior Keneisha DiRamio took a pass from junior LeeAnn Downs and rattled home a jumper to cut the deficit to 27-24.
Flaherty had a chance to extend the lead at the line with 2:35 left, but she missed the front end of a one-and-one and Stephenson got the rebound. The Rams raced down and MacMillan was fouled. With 2:21 showing, MacMillan scored the final points of her high school career at the charity stripe and just like that, Cheverus' lead was a mere point, 27-26.
Ford was fouled 20 seconds later and made the front end of her one-and-one, but missed the second. At the other end, MacMillan had a great look to tie the score, but her layup was just off target and Nappi got the biggest rebound of her career to date.
After running the clock down to 1:01, Ford was again fouled and again made one of two attempts to make it 29-26, keeping it a one-possession contest.
DiRamio would eschew the 3 at the other end and drove for a layup to make it 29-28 with 52.2 seconds remaining.
Ford was then fouled again and this time, with 36.1 seconds to go, sank both attempts to restore the three-point advantage, 31-28.
Libby then made the biggest defensive play of the night, coming up with a steal and getting the ball to Flaherty, who was fouled with 13.4 seconds left. Flaherty, a four-year starter, who has come up huge in clutch situations time and again this winter, never left a doubt, sinking both free throws to put Cheverus on the brink of victory.
There's been no quit in Deering this season, however, and DiRamio offered up one final reminder when she took a pass from Saucier and made a 3 with 7.7 seconds still to play.
The Stags had to get the ball in without turning it over and did so as Flaherty was fouled with 4.9 seconds left.
Flaherty had a chance to ice the win, but this time couldn't sink her shots. When the second missed, the Rams had a chance to win the game with a miracle shot, but as Saucier crossed midcourt and neared the 3-point stripe, instead of throwing up a prayer, she passed to Downs, who couldn't get a shot off before the horn sounded.
At 8:57 p.m., for the first time in forever, the Cheverus Stags had won a regional semifinal and did the Stags ever celebrate.
"It's really exciting," Nappi said. "We've been preparing for it all season.It was such a fun experience. At halftime, we came together and really wanted to win and do something we'd never done before."
"We're more of a team this year," Libby said. "The six seniors are best friends outside of basketball. We wanted to teach the underclassmen how to be leaders and give them a good year. I think we had jitters in the beginning. We leaned on each other to get through the valleys. Our talk in the locker room was that we had nothing to lose and that we had to put it all out there. It was a little nervewracking, but I didn't have a doubt in my mind. I looked at Brooke and Georgia and the other girls. They just had looks on our faces that were so comforting. We wanted it. (At the end), we needed to 'choke the 3.' Coach gave the sign. We weren't allowed to give up a 3. We were hyped up and we were so focused."
"It was a battle, but it was a good one," Flaherty said. "We didn't really change much from a defensive standpoint. We just did what we had to do. I feel like we've been holding on a lot lately. We've finally gotten good at it. I just flashed back those years when we couldn't do it. This year's different. We don't want to see it end. We just going to choked the 3 and made sure we didn't foul."
"The girls made the plays at the end of the game," Ashley added. "Georgia made some tough foul shots. Brooke some made some shots and got rebounds. We played good defense at the end. We made the plays when we needed to. We basically copied the same game plan we used when we beat them over at Deering. We wanted to play halfcourt man-to-man and make them work for everything, rebound, not give up second shots and keep Chelsea and DiRamio in check. You have to give credit to Deering. They played good D."
As usual, Cheverus featured a balanced attack as every girl who saw the floor contributed in some manner. Nappi's three 3s allowed her to lead the way with nine points. Flaherty and Kylie Libby had seven points apiece, Ford five, Grover and Jill Libby two each and Mayberry one.
"We have some clutch kids," said Ashley. "Brooke and Georgia wanted the ball at the end. It seems whenever we need a big shot, Nap or Georgia deliver. Mikayla Mayberry showed that points aren't everything. She played one of the best guards in the state tonight and held her in check. Cassidy Grover had some big minutes defending MacMillan inside."
The Stags were paced on the glass by five rebounds apiece from Kylie Libby and Mayberry. Libby also had four of her team's 11 steals, while Ford and senior Danielle Kane had two apiece. Cheverus committed 19 turnovers and made just 12-of-26 foul shots, but found a way to survive and advance.
Another agonizing ending
Since winning the 2009 Class A title, Deering has suffered a series of gutwrenching playoff losses, including three at the Civic Center. In 2010, the Rams couldn't hold a late lead and their hopes for a third straight championship were dashed by Scarborough in the regional final. Two years ago, in one of the epic girls' tournament games, Deering lost to McAuley by a point in overtime. Friday's setback came a round earlier, but still was tough to swallow.
"It's been a grind for us offensively," lamented Rams' coach Mike Murphy. "Sometimes we came out on top. Some games we didn't. We only gave up 33 tonight. I thought we did a good job defensively. I'm just disappointed in the decision-making the last three, four minutes. God Almighty. We had frozen looks on the faces of the kids. I love this group. I really do. It's just disappointing to finish this way."
MacMillan bowed out with 10 points and a game-high nine rebounds. DiRamio had seven points (all in the final 3:32), Brett and Stephenson five each and Saucier four.
The Rams won the rebounding battle, 24-20, but were doomed by 4-of-8 foul shooting and 22 turnovers, 11 in each half.
Not necessarily viewed as a top contender when the season began, Deering managed to win 17 games and made another postseason run.
"(The girls) really have come a long way," Murphy said. "It's a tremendous group who really cares for each other. Basketball-wise we got better. Skill-wise, offensively, we were limited. We had tough games down the stretch and we showed that."
The Rams will be hard hit by graduation, losing DiRamio, MacMillan, Saucier, Stephenson and reserve Sami Mack. Brett and Downs are the top returners. Overlook Deering next winter at your peril.
McAuley mountain looms
Cheverus had almost no time to savor the win, as the regional final was set to tip 22 hours after the final horn sounded Friday night.
Awaiting the Stags will be McAuley, the state's flagship program, which held off No. 4 Scarborough in its semifinal, 47-38, for its 46th straight victory (20 of which have come this season).
The Lions have size, speed, dangerous shooters and also have a big mental edge in having beating Cheverus in all 18 prior meetings.
McAuley will be a prohibitive favorite, but that could help Cheverus. It has nothing to lose and frankly, after the past two-plus weeks, nothing more to prove. If the Stags can stay relaxed and confident, anything is possible.
"No one really ever picks us, so we're used to it, but we pick ourselves," said Flaherty. "It's definitely a mental thing, but I think we're all in the right state of mind and ready to go."
"We're all really, really close," Nappi said. "We're going to play our hardest, that's for sure."
"We've got our confidence," Libby said. "We have nothing to lose at this point. We'll give it our all. I'm looking forward to playing."
Ashley was content to soak in the moment and worry about the Lions when the time came.
"We have a big challenge with McAuley, but we'll deal with McAuley tomorrow," said Ashley. "Right now, I'm happy for the school. I'm happy for the program. All the hard work that not just these girls, but all the girls who played for us have done. It's a lot of fun for a lot of people. You can see how happy the families are. This is a real team. No one cares who gets the glory. That's what made this year special for me. Obviously, McAuley's a big rival, but in the grand scheme of things we share a mission of educating kids in the Catholic tradition. It's a good thing for both schools. We'll come out and play hard."