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Tourney time is here (and everyone's taking part)

Sports

Tourney time is here (and everyone's taking part)

(Ed. Note: For the complete Deering-Portland boys' and Cheverus-South Portland, Cheverus-McAuley, Deering-McAuley, Deering-Portland and Waynflete-GPCS girls' game stories, please visit theforecaster.net)

Now, the fun truly begins.

If you're a fan of high school basketball in the city of Portland, you'll have nine different teams to keep an eye on, as for the first time in five years, every local squad has qualified for the postseason.

The Portland boys and McAuley girls are favorites to cut down the nets, but everyone liked their chances heading in.

Here's a glimpse:

Top dogs

Portland suffered a frustrating loss to South Portland in last year's semifinal round, but this year, the Bulldogs haven't stumbled. Last week, Portland secured its first 18-0 finish since the title year of 1998-99 with wins over visiting South Portland (64-42) and Deering (63-46). Against the Red Riots, Steve Alex led the way with 16 points. In the victory over the Rams, Matt Talbot had a game-high 18 points, including 13 during a dominant third quarter.

"I give the kids all the accolades to go 18-0," said longtime Portland coach Joe Russo. "I told them it's no easy feat. We've beaten a lot of good teams. There are only a couple teams in the state who went 18-0. I want them to enjoy it no matter what happens. They deserve it. Now it's up to them to move on."

The top-ranked Bulldogs will play on their home floor in the Western Class A quarterfinals Friday at 9 p.m., when they meet either No. 8 Noble (10-8) or No. 9 Gorham (8-10). Way back on Dec. 10, Portland won at the Knights, 66-54. They prevailed at the Rams, 60-40, a week later. The Bulldogs, who have now made the playoffs in 22 straight seasons, have no postseason history with either team.

"We have to stay healthy and have a little bit of luck," Russo said. "There's a big gap (between the top three teams and the rest of the field), but you still have to play the game. Teams have nothing to lose. We'll be prepared. I like this group a lot. When push comes to shove, they support each other. The respect is there from me."

Deering finished fourth in the region with a 12-6 record after beating visiting Cheverus (66-56) and losing at Portland (63-46). In the victory, up-and-coming sophomore Benedict Williams had 11 points and Patrick Lobor 10. In the loss, Williams had 10 points and Ahmed Ismail Ahmed added nine.

"I think there have been a lot more ups than there have been downs," said first-year Rams coach Todd Wing. "Going into the season, I think people thought we'd finish down a little bit further. We finished as high as people thought we could have gone. The number four seed is a fantastic seed. It's an accomplishment for the guys. We've played good basketball. We look forward to the playoffs."

Deering will open the tournament Friday at 7 p.m., at the Expo against No. 5 Thornton Academy (12-6), a team the Rams beat, 77-55, in second game of the season, way back on Dec. 10, in Saco, or No. 12 Marshwood (7-11), a squad Deering downed, 71-52, on the road, Jan. 4. The Rams and Golden Trojans have met plenty in recent postseasons, including last year, when Thornton Academy upset Deering and ended its title reign with a 49-40 overtime decision. The Golden Trojans also beat the Rams in the 2007 and 2009 quarterfinals, while Deering downed Thornton Academy in the 2011 quarterfinal round. The Rams last played the Hawks in the 2006 semifinals (a 57-32 triumph en route to the program's first championship).

"It's like Groundhog Day," Wing said. "We play TA every year at the Expo. I told the guys, the next time we play here, we'll take our uniforms off. We'll either be leaving them, or getting ready to go the Civic Center (for the semifinals). We start four seniors who have waited their turn and we will be ready."

After missing the playoffs last year for the first time since the 1999-2000 season, Cheverus returned this winter, finishing 9-9 and seventh in Western A after closing with a 66-56 loss at Deering (despite 25 points from sharpshooting freshman Austin Boudreau) and a 59-34 victory at South Portland (Zordan Holman and Manny Ismail both had 14 points and Boudreau added 12).

"Last year, we didn't have many kids returning and this year, we returned a bunch of guys who had a bettter idea of what they were doing," said Cheverus coach Dan Costigan. "The guys got better as the year went on and put themselves in a position to host a playoff game."

The Stags hosted No. 10 Scarborough (9-9) in the preliminary round Tuesday (see theforecaster.net for game story). Back on Jan. 28, host Cheverus beat the Red Storm, 76-63, behind 15 points apiece from Ismail, Brad Carney and Noah Stebbins. The teams' lone prior playoff meeting came in the 2010 quarterfinals (a 49-34 Stags' triumph)

"Two 9-9 teams are going to battle it out," Costigan said. "The first game was a crazy game. We shot well and they shot poorly and we went up by 18. The got back within one, but we hit some shots and held on. They like to chuck 3s and can be a handful. We have to get back on defense. We have to keep the game to our tempo."

The winner will battle No. 2 Falmouth (17-1), the defending Class B champion, which moved up to Class A for the postseason due to enrollment, in the semifinals Saturday at 9 p.m., at the Expo. The Stags and Yachtsmen have no history on the hardwood.

In Western C, Waynflete, a regional finalist last year, once again produced a fabulous season, finishing 15-2 and third in the region after closing with wins over visiting Greater Portland Christian School (91-16) and Hyde (70-47). Against the Lions, the Flyers led, 32-2, after one quarter and 41-2 at halftime, then rolled behind 25 points from Serge Nyirikamba, 17 from Joey Schnier and 14 apiece from Milo Belleau and Willy Burdick. In the win over the Phoenix, Nyirikamba capped his career in front of the home folks with 28 points.

Waynflete will face either No. 6 Monmouth (11-7) or No. 11 Madison (7-11) in the quarterfinals, Monday at 2:30 p.m., at the Augusta Civic Center. The Flyers didn't play either team this winter. Last year, Waynflete beat Monmouth in the quarterfinals, 78-47. The Flyers haven't faced Madison previously.

Looking ahead, the Western A semifinals are Wednesday of next week at the new-and-improved Cumberland County Civic Center, while the Western C semis are Thursday in Augusta. The Western A (CCCC) and Western C (Augusta) Finals are Saturday, Feb. 22. The Class A state game is Saturday, March 1, at the Civic Center, ( 7 p.m.) while the Class C state game is the same day in Augusta (8:45 p.m.).

The roar for four

On the girls' side, as it has so often this century, discussion has to begin with the mighty McAuley Lions, the three-time defending Class A champions, who, despite appearing a bit more mortal this winter, are still the heavy favorites.

The Lions closed at 17-1, on a nine-game win streak, after winning at Deering (62-39) and Cheverus (56-35). Against the Rams, Victoria Lux led all scorers with 17 points, Allie Clement added 16 and Olivia Smith finished with 12 points and a game-high 10 boards. Clement had 17 points and Lux 15 in the win over the Stags, McAuley's 21st all-time without a loss against its fierce rival.

"We treated this like a playoff game," said Clement, who is now a ridiculously sensational 81-3 in her high school career. "(Never having lost to them isn't) talked about a lot, but it's something everyone knows. No one here wants to let a (Cheverus win) happen under their watch. This means a lot to us. It's the most important game to us. We all motivated each other, honestly."

The Lions, who were at a crossroads back in early January, after their 56-game win streak was snapped at Thornton Academy, certainly have that championship look again.

"We had a three-game stretch where we got beat up, outplayed, outhustled, so we gave them the weekend off and the girls came back ready to play," McAuley coach Billy Goodman said. "We've worked on little things for a month. It's gotten better. Boxing out, better shot selection. The little things we weren't doing. We're getting there. I give the girls credit for working at it."

The Lions are the top seed in Western A for the third year in a row and will play the winner of a preliminary round game between No. 8 Deering (8-10) and No. 9 Scarborough (7-11), more on that matchup in a moment, in the quarterfinals Monday at 8:30 p.m., at the Expo.

McAuley swept the Rams (also beating them at home, 46-33) and downed the host Red Storm (59-30) in the regular season. McAuley beat Scarborough in each of the past two postseasons (61-43 in the 2012 regional final and 47-38 a year ago, in the semifinals). The Lions and Deering have split six prior playoff meetings, with the most recent being the most memorable, an epic 41-40 overtime triumph for McAuley in the 2011 Western A Final.

Goodman, who is 61-1 with two state titles in his two-plus seasons with McAuley, knows another Gold Ball won't come easily.

"It's tough to win in the playoffs," he said. "It's different this year. We have girls coming off the bench with no experience. There's a lot of good teams. We'll get ready."

Deering wasn't expected to do much this year after returning just one starter, but the Rams managed to go 8-10, wind up eighth and host a preliminary round game. The Stags closed with a 62-39 home loss to McAuley, then upset visiting Portland Friday, (61-48). Freshman Tasia Titherington had 15 points against the Lions and went off for 25 against the Bulldogs.

"It's a great way to end the season," Deering coach Mike Murphy said. "We wanted to get better each day. I think the girls have come a long way. I told them (in the locker room), 'Not bad for a group that won one game this summer.'"

Deering beat visiting Scarborough, 49-44, two weeks ago. The Rams lost the only prior playoff meeting between the schools, a heartbreaking 37-34 decision in the 2010 Western A Final.

"I'm pleased with our record," Murphy added. "A break here or there and we'd be at .500 or then some, but we're in and now anything can happen. You never know."

After missing the playoffs in seven of the past eight postseasons, including last winter, when it wound up 6-12, Portland was this year's feel-good story, going 13-5, its best record in a decade. The Bulldogs closed with a 72-35 win at Biddeford and a 61-48 setback at Deering. Brianna Holdren and Kate Johnson both had 13 points, Elizabeth Donato added 12 and Cierra Burnham finished with 11 in the victory. Against the Rams, Burnham led the way with 12 points.

"It's not how we wanted to end," said Portland coach Jan Veinot. "We came out and weren't prepared. We have to get back to doing what we did the first part of the season that got us here."

The Bulldogs will face either No. 5 Gorham (13-5) or No. 12 Falmouth (6-12) in the quarterfinals Monday at 7 p.m., in its first game in that round since the 2004-05 campaign. Portland didn't face the Yachtsmen in the regular season. In one of its most impressive regular season victories, Portland downed the visiting Rams, 63-50, eight days before Christmas. The Bulldogs have no playoff history with either school.

"We've come a long way," Veinot said. "The kids are so excited about it. We got on a really good run, but they have to continue to do the work. I think they realize that now. They need to know that just because we won those earlier games, we still have to come to play every night. I think we'll bounce back."

Cheveus, which got to the regional final last winter, earned the No. 6 seed after a 12-6 regular season. The Stags had a frustrating final week, losing at South Portland after blowing an 18-point lead (49-46) and falling to McAuley yet again (56-35). Jess Willerson had 17 points and Cassidy Grover 13 against the Red Riots. In the loss to the Lions on Senior Night, Willerson led the way with 12 points.

"We went 12-6 this year after graduating six seniors, including the Player of the Year (Brooke Flaherty) and another player (Kylie Libby) who started for four years," said Cheverus coach Richie Ashley. "I thought these seniors did a good job. I'm proud of them. We had a couple games that could have gone either way. I'm proud of the girls."

The Stags will host No. 11 Bonny Eagle (6-12) in the preliminary round Wednesday at 7 p.m.. Cheverus crushed the host Scots, 68-29, back on Dec. 10. The teams have no playoff history.

"Everyone's 0-0 now," Ashley said. "No matter who you lost to or who you beat. It's one-and-done. I think we can make a run. This group can play. We'll fine tune some things."

In Western C, Waynflete, the defending state champion, saved its best for last, going 12-6 after a five-game win streak to wind up sixth in the region. The Flyers closed with wins over visiting GPCS (73-25) and host Hyde (66-26). Helen Gray-Bauer had 23 points (including 17 in the first quarter alone) against the Lions, on Senior Night. She added 18 and Leigh Fernandez finished with 17 against the Phoenix.

"We've come a long way from the first week of the preseason," said Waynflete coach Brandon Salway. "Some people wondered if we'd win five games. We've improved. The freshmen have developed."

Waynflete hosted No. 11 Sacopee Valley (9-9) in the preliminary round Tuesday (see theforecaster.net for game story). In the regular season, the Flyers won at Sacopee, 51-33, and downed the visiting Hawks, 50-30. The teams have no playoff history.

"The girls want to get back to Augusta," Salway said. "That's really motivating. It's just a matter of making big plays. Last year, honestly we worried about staying healthy and avoiding foul trouble. This year, it's just one step at a time."

Looking ahead, the Western A semifinals are Friday of next week at the Cumberland County Civic Center, while the regional final is the following day, Saturday, Feb. 22 at the same venue. The Western C semis are Thursday in Augusta. The Western C Final is Saturday, Feb. 22, in Augusta. The Class A state game is Saturday, March 1, at the Civic Center, ( 4 p.m.) while the Class C state game is the same day in Augusta (at 7 p.m.).

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.