Cheverus turns up the defense to deny Deering
PORTLAND—The old adage suggests that offense sells tickets and defense wins championships.
Friday evening at Keegan Gymnasium, anyone who bought a ticket had the pleasure of bearing witness to a championship-caliber defense as the host Cheverus girls' basketball team absolutely smothered dangerous Deering from start to finish.
Over 32 minutes, the Stags allowed a mere seven field goals, never trailed and rode yet another strong team performance to an impressive victory.
Cheverus raced to a 16-4 lead after one quarter, thanks in large part to the scoring of sophomore standout Jess Willerson and the pretty passing of junior Jillian Libby, who made an immediate impact off the bench. With the Rams staying within 27-14 at the half and holding on to faint hope, trailing, 34-23, after three periods, the Stags didn't allow a single fourth quarter field goal and went on to a 44-29 victory.
Willerson led all players with 16 points, 11 rebounds and four blocked shots, senior Georgia Ford added 11 points and Libby finished with five assists as the red-hot Stags made it four wins in a row, improved to 12-4 and dropped Deering to 7-9 in the process.
"We played well on defense," said Willerson. "We really locked down. We communicated really well and played like a team. That was our goal. We're definitely peaking at the right time. We're bonding. We know each other's strengths and weaknesses."
Reversal of fortunes
For a decade, Deering could do no wrong when it squared off against Cheverus, beating the Stags 14 straight times (please see sidebar below).
That changed for good last Feb. 6, when Cheverus won on the Rams' home court, 48-38.
Even better for the Stags, they then beat Deering in the Western A semifinals, 33-31.
Back on Dec. 20, Cheverus did it once more, winning at the Rams, 65-42.
That win was part of a strong regular season for the Stags and was part of an up-and-down campaign for new-look Deering.
The Rams opened with a 35-29 home win over Bonny Eagle, then lost at Thornton Academy, 41-27. After beating visiting Noble (52-18), they fell at McAuley (46-33) and at home to Cheverus. Deering then enjoyed a 41-32 victory at Westbrook before closing 2013 with a 50-48 setback at South Portland. After opening 2014 with a 56-48 home win over Marshwood, the Rams fell at Windham (40-22), then won at Massabesic (58-36). Deering then dropped three in a row, all winnable games: at home to Gorham (53-44), at Portland (60-55) and at Sanford (43-37). The Rams turned things around with a 49-44 home win over Scarborough, then prevailed at home over Biddeford Tuesday, 55-35.
Cheverus opened by downing visiting Windham (46-33) and host Bonny Eagle (68-29) before stumbling at Thornton Academy (47-42). After a 75-29 home romp over Massabesic, the Stags won at Deering, then couldn't hold a halftime lead and lost at Portland (62-60) and fell just short despite a valiant effort at McAuley, 47-39. Cheverus then bounced back with a vengeance, winning at Gorham (42-40), at home over Noble (75-38) and Sanford (51-39) and at Westbrook (39-19) before losing at home to South Portland, 72-56. A late rally got the Stags back on track in a 48-41 home win over Marshwood. They then won at Scarborough (50-41) and handled visiting Biddeford (63-22).
Friday, the Stags set the tone early and never looked back.
It took almost two minutes for a point to be scored, but fittingly, it was Willerson who got things started with a free throw. She then hit a baseline jumper for a 3-0 lead.
Deering got on the board with 5:23 to play in the first quarter on a putback from freshman Amanda Brett, who would have a huge first half.
After Cheverus senior Cassidy Grover and Rams freshman Tasia Titherington traded a pair of free throws, the Stags closed the opening stanza on an 11-0 run.
The surge was sparked by the insertion of Libby, who came into the game and immediately found sophomore Lodia Ismail for a 3, then, the next time down, Libby set up Ford for a 3-ball and a 5-4 lead had mushroomed to 11-4.
"Whatever is best for our team, I'm happy to do," said Libby. "I'm trying to just get my teammates involved, get the ball in the post, pass, drive, whatever I can do. We've really come together this year. That's the biggest part. Lodia is playing so well for us."
"Only five can start," said Cheverus coach Richie Ashley. "You have to have a kid like Jillian who understands what team is. Our mantra is that the name on the front means a lot more than the name on the back and she buys into that. She gives us a spark off the bench. She can handle the ball and can knock down shots. We needed that. When we started her, we didn't have enough of a spark off the bench. Lodia's a true point guard, so we need to start her and with (junior) Casey Simpson being injured, Jillian and Georgia will have to fill that hole."
Deering's hole kept getting deeper, as Willerson scored on a putback, junior Laura Holman sank a free throw and Libby set up Willerson for a jump shot and a 16-4 advantage after one quarter.
The Rams hung around in the second period, thanks in large part to Brett, who had all 10 of her team's points.
With 6:54 left before halftime, Brett took a pass from junior Mary Tadsse and made a layup to end the Stags' 11-0 run and a 5 minute, 51 second drought. Two Brett foul shots and a Brett leaner pulled Deering within six, 16-10.
With 4:23 remaining in the half, Willerson made a foul shot to end a 5:36 Cheverus drought. Ford added a pair of free throws, Willerson scored on a putback and on an inbounds set, Libby found Ford for a 3 and a 24-10 lead.
Bertt answered with a leaner, but senior Sadie Lyons made a leaner for the Stags. Brett converted a driving layup just inside the final minute, but with 7.7 seconds to go, Ismail made a free throw and Cheverus took a 27-14 advantage to the half.
In the first 16 minutes, Willerson had 10 points, Ford added eight and the Stags forced 10 turnovers. Only Brett's 12 points kept Deering alive.
The third quarter was one of frustration for the visitors, who had a chance to creep back into the game, but couldn't do so.
After a couple scoreless minutes, Brett started the second half the way she ended the first, scoring two more points on a leaner, but those would be her final points.
Willerson hit a jumper and Ford scored on a putback to make it 31-16.
Rams senior LeeAnn Downs made two foul shots, but Willerson set up Grover for a short jumper. Downs countered with a 3, but Grover made a free throw. Single foul shots from Downs and freshman Tasia Titherington pulled Deering within 11, 34-23, at quarter's end, but if the Rams had made a few more shots, things could have gotten very interesting.
"The game was within reach," said Deering coach Mike Murphy. "A basket here or there could have changed the tempo."
Cheverus then gradually put it away in the fourth.
A Willerson layup, set up beautifully by a Grover feed, and a Grover free throw extended the lead to 37-23.
After Deering junior Kate Howard made two foul shots, Lyons set up Willerson for a layup.
Junior Courtney Brett made two free throws for the Rams, but again, the visitors weren't able to put a run together, as Libby made a driving layup.
With 2:32 left, Titherington made two free throws, but Deering would score no more. A free throw from Ford and two more from Libby brought the curtain down on the 44-29 Stags' triumph.
"I thought we played great defense," Ashley said. "For us, it starts with defense. I thought we rebounded well too. Titherington's been averaging 20 the last few games and we held her to five. Brett hurt us early, but we made a couple adjustments there. I thought Cassidy and Laura did a good job on her. I thought our interior defense was better in the second half. When we come with our mental mindset, we can lock down. Sadie, Lodia, Georgia, Jillian, all did a great job on the perimeter."
Cheverus was once again paced by Willerson, who becomes more of a matchup nightmare by the day. Willerson had 16 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks, two steals and a couple of assists.
Ford added 11 points, while Grover had six, Ismail and Libby four apiece, Lyons two and Holman one.
The Stags enjoyed a 35-26 rebounding advantage (Ford had six, while Grover, Ismail, Libby and Lyons each collected four), had seven steals and forced 19 turnovers, while only committing 11. They made 13 of 22 foul shots.
Deering got 14 points and a team-high nine rebounds from Amanda Brett, but she only managed two points after halftime.
"(Amanda) held her own down on the post," said Murphy. "She's done a great job for us as a freshman. She's fearless."
Downs added six points (to go with six boards), Titherington had five (as well as five rebounds and two steals), while Courtney Brett and Howard had two apiece.
The Rams only made seven field goals and Amanda Brett had six of them.
"It's very indicative of how we've been inconsistent," lamented Murphy. "We had good looks at the basket, but we didn't knock down the shots we needed to keep us in the game. When you don't do that, it's difficult to win. We played hard, but we didn't reward ourselves with hoops. Then, we started pressing mentally. Cheverus is a tough matchup for us with their big kids. They're strong and athletic and overpowered us."
Deering did sink 14 of 16 free throws.
No time left to lose
Deering (now 10th in the Western A Heal Points standings) is hoping to move up a couple spots to be able to host a preliminary round playoff game and the Rams have a couple of big Heal Points-rich games coming up. After hosting McAuley Monday, Deering closes the regular season at home versus Portland Friday.
"We'll use the next two games to prepare us for the tournament," said Murphy. "We're young and I like the way we've responded this year. Going in, I knew it would be rough, but it's been rewarding. I've enjoyed watching our improvement. We've improved dramatically from the start of the year until now. We have seven victories and we could have three more in my eyes, the girls' eyes and the coaches' eyes. We just haven't been able to end games. That's part of a learning curve for a young team."
Cheverus was fifth at press time and would have to play a prelim if it doesn't move up. However, if the Stags win either at South Portland Tuesday or at home versus McAuley in the finale Friday (that game will start at 6 p.m.), they could be in line for an even higher seed.
"We'll have some good practices and we'll bring it Tuesday and Friday," said Willerson. "We'll try our best."
"We all want to do something that Cheverus girls' basketball has never done, win a state championship and beat McAuley," Libby said. "(Friday's) going to be a big, emotional night. Getting used to big crowds and being under pressure will pay off for us."
"We're focused on South Portland," Ashley added. "They're the number three team right now. They've played great. They're really tough. They're a complete team and they're rolling. We'll have to come with our 'A' game because they came with theirs last time."
Regardless of where they wind up, both teams want to be at their best entering the playoffs.
"We've got to get better," Murphy said. "It would be a nice accomplishment for us to get in."
"The most important part is having chemistry at the end, so we can do something big," said Libby.
"We just want to be playing well," Ashley said. "Wherever we end up, we'll end up and we'll play whoever we have to play. We're getting there. It's a process. The girls are buying in. We need to play a certain way. We've found what we do well and we're trying to execute those things and trying to limit what we don't do well."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.
Previous Cheverus-Deering results
Cheverus 65 @ Deering 42
@ Deering 53 Cheverus 37
Deering 48 @ Cheverus 42
Deering 56 @ Cheverus 44
@ Deering 66 Cheverus 34
Deering 50 @ Cheverus 25
@ Deering 57 Cheverus 22
@ Deering 54 Cheverus 27
Deering 74 @ Cheverus 52
Deering 67 @ Cheverus 44
@ Deering 70 Cheverus 38
@ Deering 47 Cheverus 30
Deering 76 @ Cheverus 39
Deering 90 @ Cheverus 35