Cheverus doesn't let up, upsets SP in quarterfinals
PORTLAND—Two weeks ago, the Cheverus girls' basketball team went to South Portland and let an 18-point lead slip away in what became arguably the most difficult loss of its season.
That's a distant memory now.
Monday afternoon in a Western Class A quarterfinal round tilt at the Portland Exposition Building, the Stags got a chance to earn revenge, seized it and never let it go in reminding everyone that while they might have a low seed, they're as capable as anyone of going on a deep tournament run.
Cheverus, ranked sixth in the region, led the feel-good, third-seeded Red Riots almost from start to finish, taking the lead for good behind an 8-0 run in the first period, keyed by strong play from senior sharpshooter Georgia Ford and sophomore post standout Jess Willerson.
The Stags were up, 14-8, after one period and extended that advantage to 28-14 at halftime, but based on what happened in the teams' last meeting, no one in the building thought it was safe.
But this time, Cheverus never let South Portland make a serious run, extended its lead to as many as 18 points, 37-19, on a driving bank shot from junior Jillian Libby, who was tremendous off the bench.
The Red Riots did make things interesting when they pulled within 39-29 and 41-31 late in the third period, but Ford hit a clutch 3. After South Portland got within 10 one final time at 44-34, the Stags opened the fourth period with four straight points from Willerson and that proved to be too much for the Red Riots to overcome. Cheverus gradually extended its lead from there and went on to a most impressive 61-42 victory.
The Stags were paced by 21 points from Ford, 20 from Willerson, 10 from Libby and got key contributions from several other players as they improved to 14-6, ended South Portland's season at 15-4 and advanced to what could be a favorable matchup in the semifinals, versus surprise No. 7 seed Windham, Friday at 7:30 p.m. at the new and improved Cumberland County Civic Center.
"I thought we handled the pressure pretty well," said Cheverus coach Richie Ashley. "We kept attacking. We were playing to win, not to not lose. We've been learning all year. The whole year was a classroom and this is the final exam."
There are several strong teams in the Western A field this winter and these two kicked off the regional tournament Monday afternoon.
Cheverus was a regional finalist last season and had its moments of looking excellent and others of looking average in the regular season and after going 12-6, had to beat No. 11 Bonny Eagle, 74-27, in the preliminary round Wednesday.
South Portland had delighted its followers and surprised the league this season, beating everyone but Thornton Academy, Portland, McAuley, all top four seeds, and the Red Riots' 15-3 mark gave them their best seed since the 2008 squad was ranked second.
South Portland swept the Stags this year, winning, 72-56, Jan. 17 in Portland and rallying from the aforementioned deficit for a 49-46 home victory on Feb. 4.
South Portland and Cheverus had no playoff history.
They made some Monday, history the Stags will look back upon fondly.
It took 70 seconds for a point to be scored and the Red Riots broke the ice when freshman Lydia Henderson made two free throws.
Willerson first made her presence felt by making a layup, but South Portland, as it did numerous times in the second regular season meeting, scored off an inbounds set, as junior Holly Black finished a feed from senior Mackenzie Bowring for a 4-2 lead.
The Stags then ran off eight straight, as Willerson scored on a hook shot, then made a jumper, Libby hit a runner and Ford scored on a putback.
Two free throws from Red Riots senior Brianne Maloney ended the run, but Cheverus junior Laura Holman scored on a putback to make it 12-6. Maloney added two more foul shots, but with 0.4 seconds left in the first, Stags sophomore Lodia Ismail scored on a putback and it was 14-8 after eight minutes.
Cheverus opened it up in the second quarter.
Ford got it started with a 3 and after an Ismail steal, Ford set up senior Sadie Lyons for a layup. After Bowring made a jumper for South Portland, Ford scored on a putback, reverse layup style, to restore the double digit bulge and force Red Riots coach Lynne Hasson to call timeout.
It worked momentarily, as Maloney scored on a leaner, but Willerson, seconds after returning to the game after sitting with two fouls, made two free throws. Black made a foul shot for the Red Riots, but Ford made a layup after a steal, then, the next time down, Ford sank a 3 and the lead was 15, 28-13.
"I like shooting here," Ford said. "It's awesome playing at the Expo. A fast start was extremely important."
"Georgia the whole year has tried to do everything for everyone else and played out of position," said Ashley. "With (senior Alisha) Starbird back (from injury), we can put her at her normal shooting guard position."
Sophomore Maddie Hasson got a point back at the line, but South Portland still trailed, 28-14, at the break.
This time, Cheverus didn't give the lead back.
The Red Riots started the second half well when Maloney hit a jumper in the lane, but Willerson drove the baseline for a layup.
After Bowring set up Maloney for a nearly impossible angle leaner off the glass off an inbounds set, Willerson made a free throw, Ismail added one and on the fastbreak, Lyons set up Libby for a layup and a 35-18 lead.
Hasson got a point back at the line for South Portland, but Libby scored on a driving bank shot.
After Black made two foul shots, she hit a bank shot, but Libby set up Ford for a fastbreak layup and a 39-23 lead.
Then, the Red Riots closed the period strong.
Henderson made a layup, Bowring hit a baseline jumper and Hasson made a leaner in the lane to cut the deficit to 10.
After Willerson made a hook shot, Maloney made two foul shots. Ford made a 3 with 41.1 seconds to go, but with 10.3 seconds showing, a Henderson 3 cut the deficit to 44-34 and gave South Portland hope entering the fourth period.
There, Cheverus showed its experience, desire and heart and refused to give in.
Eleven seconds in, Willerson made two free throws. Then, after a Lyons steal, Willerson made a layup. After a Black foul shot, Willerson added two more free throws.
Junior Paige Carter pulled the Red Riots within 13 when she took an inbounds pass from Bowring and made a layup, but Willerson answered with a driving layup, her seventh and eighth points in just over two minutes of the fourth period.
Hasson made two free throws to make it 52-39, but South Portland would draw no closer.
Libby countered with a free throw and after sophomore Casey Loring made a foul shot for the Red Riots, Ford sank two free throws and Libby did the same, making it 57-40 with 3:38 to play.
Black scored on a putback, but Libby made a free throw and Ford added two and that was it for the South Portland starters.
Down the stretch, freshman Brooke Dawson made a free throw for Cheverus and that accounted for the 61-42 final score.
"It feels awesome," Ford said. "All of us played so amazing. Even if we missed shots, we got rebounds. We played the entire game as a team. At halftime, we treated it like a new game, 0-0. We didn't worry about the scoreboard. We were extremely composed. We know what to expect out of each other. We didn't really care where we ended up (in the standings), because we knew whoever we played, we'd play our game."
“I think we learned that when adversity hits us, we have to come together as a team," said Libby. "In practice this week, we came together and practiced a lot of game situations. Even though we lost that last game (against South Portland), it gave us confidence."
Cheverus was paced by Ford's 21 points, which included three 3-pointers. Willerson added 20.
"Georgia stepped up," Libby said. "Not only did she score, but she made amazing passes, made amazing steals and played amazing defense for us. Every game, Georgia and Jess read the defense so well. They kick the ball out and we try to get it back in. They're awesome."
Speaking of Libby, she also scored in double figures with 10.
"I was just trying to do whatever I could to help the team," said Libby. "They gave me some awesome passes and I was trying to play defense especially."
"Jill and Alisha would probably start on most teams," said Ashley. "They give us punch off the bench. Jillian does all of it. She plays point, plays bigs, knocks down free throws. She's a nice luxury to have."
Ismail had three points (to go with seven rebounds and two steals), Grover, (eight rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot) Holman and Lyons (six rebounds, three assists, two steals) two points apiece and Dawson one.
Grover and Lyons didn't have gaudy scoring stats, but their contributions were noticed.
"(Cassidy) battled inside and got us rebounds," Ashley said. "She does the dirty work that people don't see in the box score. She's a good leader. She and Sadie are our defensive leaders and bring energy."
The Stags made 18 of 31 free throws, committed a respectable 16 turnovers and dominated on the glass, 37-26.
The win was a team effort (even senior MaryKate Slattery came off the bench at the end and had two rebounds and a blocked shot).
“We knew we had to play good D on their key players," Willerson said. "Sadie played amazing on Hasson. Cass played amazing defense on all their post players. We played really well together. We passed the ball around a lot and we got good looks."
“The seniors really stepped up today, Jillian did a really good job and Jess scored," Ashley said. "We're getting contributions from a lot of different people. That's what a team is."
For South Portland, Maloney capped her solid high school career with 12 points. Black added 10. Henderson had seven, Hasson six (to go with five rebounds and four steals), Bowring four (to go with seven boards, five assists and two steals), Carter two and Loring one.
The Red Riots, who made just 17 of 30 free throws and turned the ball over 15 times, were left heartbroken.
“I think the big difference was that we didn't do a good job on rebounding at either end," said Lynne Hasson. "Hats off to Cheverus. I thought they played great defensively. We struggled all night. I don't have a lot of answers as to why. I think we match up well with Cheverus. I think we were ready. We were confident, but we didn't shoot well at all. We missed a ton of shots. We didn't get a lot of good looks. It was a combination of taking bad shots and having some kids who were nervous and played nervous and weren't looking to score. We really struggled offensively and we weren't boxing out on the defensive end. We gave them second opportunities. Every time we made a run, they answered. There's only so many times you can come back from a big deficit against a good team.
"The kids wanted to make it to the Civic Center. It's a big deal to them. I'm proud of the kids. The disappointment will take a few days to get over. It's hard to say it was a great season after losing in the tournament. It was a great season, but it doesn't make us feel any better right now. The seniors were just great. You want integrity, positive attitudes and hard work from kids and we were really lucky. I've known Bri since the day she was born, since she's a family friend. She wanted to be a South Portland Red Riot win or lose. I've known Mackenzie since she was a little kid. She was one of the best post players and one of the better shooters in the league. She did all the little things and stepped up as a senior. She was an amazing rebounder. They've given their heart and soul. I couldn't ask for any more from those kids. They gave us everything they had. They'll be hard to replace."
Look for even better results from this crew next winter.
"I hope we can go further," said Hasson. "This program needs to get to the quarterfinals. It's been a goal and it will continue to be a goal.”
If Cheverus' run is compelling, and it is, the story of the Windham Eagles is equally so.
Windham went 11-7 in the regular season, earned the No. 7 seed and frankly wasn't given much of a chance in the tournament, but after downing No. 10 Sanford in last week's preliminary round, the Eagles stunned second-ranked Thornton Academy Monday, winning on a buzzer beater, 34-32, to make it to the Civic Center.
The Stags won the regular season meeting, 46-33, at home, way back on Dec. 6 in the opener. The teams have no playoff history.
Cheverus is this close to returning to the regional final, where it could get another crack at nemesis McAuley (which plays Portland in the other semifinal Friday, at 6 p.m.) and believes it has a good thing going.
"I think we're we need to be," Libby said. "I think we're on a roll right now."
"We have to have good practices, bring it every day, get better every day and get better as a team," Willerson said.
"It's not a guarantee to get (to the Civic Center), so I'm very, very happy for the girls," Ashley added. "They really deserve it. Especially the seniors. We're hopefully peaking at the right time. The girls believe in what we're doing. We're playing hard and playing together."