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Basketball tournament opens with abundance of thrills

Sports

Basketball tournament opens with abundance of thrills

(Ed. Note: For the complete Cheverus-Scarborough, Deering-Marshwood and Portland-Noble boys' basketball and Waynflete-Sacopee Valley girls' basketball tournament game stories, please see theforecaster.net)

The opening week of a basketball tournament often features tentative play and a lack of drama, but that certainly wasn't the case this winter.

This year, the thrills have come fast and furious and at press time, every city team remained alive.

Showdown set

A delicious Western A boys' semifinal round contest is on tap for Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., at the new-and-improved Cumberland County Civic Center, between the Rams of Deering, who needed a spirited rally to survive their first playoff game, and the Bulldogs of Portland, who had no trouble in their opener.

Deering has had its share of trouble in the quarterfinals in recent seasons and almost bowed out in that round for the fifth time in seven years, before rallying for a dramatic win over Marshwood Friday at the Portland Exposition Building.

The Rams, ranked fourth after a 12-6 regular season which included a 71-52 win at Marshwood Jan. 4, led the 12th-ranked Hawks by only three points, 17-14, after one quarter and were tied at halftime and again after three periods. Marshwood took a seemingly safe 50-43 lead with 2:18 to go, but Deering truly saved its best for last.

Benedict Williams, who has quietly become one of the league's special young players, sparked the rally with a layup after a steal. A free throw from Liam Densmore, followed by a pair from point guard Chhorda Chhorn made things very interesting and when Williams calmly sank two more foul shots with 42.9 seconds showing, the game was tied, 50-50.

As time expired, Deering had a chance to win it, but Chhorn, who had to watch last year's playoff ouster from the bench while nursing a knee injury, saw his potential game-winning shot go in-and-out at the horn, sending the game to overtime.

After coming that far, the Rams weren't about to settle for anything shy of completion of the storybook rally, getting a layup from Williams to start overtime and they never looked back. Deering did it all on both ends of the floor in the four-minute extra session and went on to a palpitating 60-53 triumph.

Williams had a game-high 21 points, Chhorn added 11.

"We fought until the final second," said Williams. "Coach always says it's not over until the buzzer sounds and we fought to the end tonight."

"It means a lot to me since I missed the whole season last year," said Chhorn. "I've practiced hard and worked hard to get back here."

"A playoff win is a playoff win," added Deering's first-year coach Todd Wing. "Just when people think we're done, we get right back in it. I'm just excited for the guys."

Portland, meanwhile, has had no peer all season and after going 18-0 and earning the top seed, the Bulldogs were able to take care of business with relative ease Friday night when they met No. 8 Noble in the quarterfinals at the Expo..

Portland beat the Knights, who were competing in a Western A quarterfinal for the first time, 66-54, back on Dec. 10.

Early on, the Bulldogs weren't getting their usual offensive production out of their standout senior trio of Jayvon Pitts-Young, Matt Talbot and Justin Zukowski and needed someone else to make the difference.

That someone was Steve Alex, who not only stepped up, but had a career night in the process.

With Pitts-Young sidelined due to early foul trouble, Alex more than picked up the slack, producing 16 points and five steals in the first half as Portland gradually opened up a lead which reached a dozen, 36-24, at halftime.

Then, in the second half, the Bulldogs unleashed their full arsenal and ended all doubt.

Pitts-Young scored five points in the first 34 seconds of the third period, Talbot came to life and put on a show and sophomore Amir Moss, in his first tournament game, also made those on hand turn heads as Portland blew it open to take a 66-35 lead by quarter's end and it went on to an 81-52 triumph.

Alex had a game-high 22 points and was one of five Portland players in double figures. Pitts-Young had 15, Talbot 14, Zukowski 13 and reserve Amir Moss 13.

"I was just looking to get to the basket and if I wasn't open, I'd pass it," Alex said. "I think I just had a nose for the ball the whole game."

"I just try to contribute the best way I can," Moss said. "Whatever the team needs. I just try to bring a spark."

"The first game's the hardest," Pitts-Young said. "We got the butterflies out and did what we had to do to get the 'W.'"

"From your spot, it looked easy, but from my spot it didn't," added longtime Portland coach Joe Russo. "Noble is a quality foe. We were very, very concerned about them. "

Looking ahead to Wednesday night, over the past 50 years, the ancient rivals have only met on three occasions: Rams' wins in the 2005 semifinals (57-54) and 2006 regional final (70-64) and a Bulldogs' victory in the most recent encounter, the 2008 quarterfinals (48-41).

Portland romped in both regular season meetings: 77-42 at Deering and 63-46 at home.

The Rams know they're a decided underdog, but believe anything is possible.

"I'll take the underdog role anytime," Wing added. "We lost to them by 17 last time, but we had 30 turnovers. If we get that one aspect of our game tightened up, we have the horses to make a run."

The Bulldogs can't be overconfident.

"I think there's pressure on these guys," Russo added. "We can only do what we can do and hopefully things can work out. These guys realize we beat Deering twice, but they know Deering can be ready for us. The kids will be ready."

After a 9-9 regular season, seventh-ranked Cheverus had to host No. 10 Scarborough in a preliminary round game last Tuesday. The Stags had beaten the visiting Red Storm, 76-63, on Jan. 28.

While Cheverus was ahead virtually throughout and stretched a three-point lead after one quarter to 28-18 at halftime, Scarborough didn't go down without a fight in the second half and crept within six in the third period, then pulled within three on three separate occasions in the fourth, but never quite was able to catch up.

With the game on the line, it was a Stags' freshman, Austin Boudreau, who hit the biggest shots, a pair of 3s, and Cheverus managed to hold on down the stretch to prevail, 55-50.

Boudreau led all scorers with 27 points and junior Zordan Holman was a force with 11 points and double-digit rebounds.

"I was feeling it early," Boudreau said. "I got into a rhythm. I just had to stay focused and do what I do in practice."

"It was a good team effort," Holman said. "We played hard on defense. We focused hard on transition defense. You have to handle the adversity. We pride ourselves on that."

"It was a barnburner," added second-year Cheverus coach Dan Costigan. "We were fortunate enough to score a couple more buckets. The kids worked really hard. I'm really happy for them."

The Stags, who missed the playoffs last winter for the first time since 1999-2000, were supposed to meet No. 2 Falmouth (17-1), the defending Class B state champion, now playing in Class A due to increased enrollment, Saturday night in the quarterfinals, but a poor weather forecast postponed that game to Monday morning (see theforecaster.net for the game story).

Cheverus expected to have to play close to a perfect game to spring an upset, but went in knowing it had nothing to lose.

"(Falmouth's) a tough team," said Costigan. "We just need to stay focused and stay together. We have our work cut out, but at least we have a shot."

If the Stags managed to pull off an upset, they would face either No. 3 Bonny Eagle (17-1) or No. 6 Sanford (13-6) in the semifinals Wednesday at 6 p.m., at the Civic Center.

In Western C, Waynflete, ranked third after a stellar 15-2 regular season, met No. 6 Monmouth (12-7) in the quarterfinals Monday night in Augusta. Last year, Waynflete beat Monmouth in the quarterfinals, 78-47. 

If the Flyers move on, they'll face either No. 2 Boothbay (16-2) or No. 10 Hall-Dale (10-9) in the semifinals Thursday at 7 p.m. in Augusta. Waynflete beat the Seahawks (who will be undermanned for the balance of the tournament after several players were suspended for violating the school's honor code) in the 2009 preliminary round (54-42) and lost to them in the in last year's regional final (70-52). The Flyers have only faced the Bulldogs once before in the playoffs, a 67-65 overtime loss in the 2008 preliminary round.

Looking ahead, the Western C Final is Saturday at 8:45 p.m., in Augusta, while the Western A Final is the same day at 9 p.m., in Portland. 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.).

Big tests

Cheverus, Deering and Waynflete's girls had to take the floor last week in the preliminary round, while McAuley and Portland were ready to go on Monday.

The Stags, who finished sixth in Western A after a 12-6 regular season, had no trouble with visiting No. 11 Bonny Eagle in its prelim last Wednesday. Cheverus, which handled the host Scots, 68-29, back on Dec. 10, crushed them again in the teams' first playofff meeting. The Stags led, 20-3, after one quarter and 37-9 at halftime and went on to a 74-27 triumph behind 22 points from Jess Willerson, 18 from Jillian Libby and 15 from Laura Holman.

Cheverus advanced to face No. 3 South Portland (15-3) in Monday's quarterfinals (see theforecaster.net for game story). The Red Riots won both regular season meetings, 72-56 in Portland Jan. 17 and 49-46 in South Portland Feb. 4. The Stags let an 18-point lead slip away in that one. The teams had never met in the postseason.

Deering, the No. 8 seed in Western A, hosted No. 9 Scarborough in its prelim. The Rams won the regular season meeting, 49-44 at home Jan. 24.

Deering was down, 6-3, after a sluggish first period, but thanks to another strong effort from freshman sensation Tasia Titherington, broke a 19-19 tie at halftime, went up by as many as eight points in the third quarter and gradually pulled away to prevail, 49-36, and improve to 9-10.

Titherington had a game-high 17 points and the Rams got contributions from several others.

"It feels good," Titherington said. "I'm proud. We're very happy to win this round. We were nervous at the beginning, but we're a good team. I knew we could win."

"We had to depend on our seniors to get us in the game," said freshman Amanda Brett, who had seven points, seven rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot. "We needed their help and they did it. It was our first playoff game, so we were nervous."

"We got some easy buckets in the second half," Deering coach Mike Murphy added. "Four of our seniors were playing JVs last year. They were on the varsity bench. For them to get nine wins, I think that's quite an accomplishment."

The Rams advanced to meet top-ranked McAuley (17-1), the three-time defending state champion in Monday's quarterfinal round (see theforecaster.net for game story).

Deering and McAuley had split six prior playoff meetings with the most recent, a 41-40 overtime triumph for the Lions in the 2011 regional final, the most memorable. While expected by most to be cannon fodder, the Rams had nothing to lose.

"I think we'll have to take care of the basketball and have the mindset that anything can happen and get (McAuley) to think," Murphy said. "We're still alive and anything can happen."

Waynflete, 12-6 and sixth in Western C, hosted No. 11 Sacopee Valley in a prelim last Tuesday and had to fight for its life.

The defending champs got off to a poor start, due to Helen Gray-Bauer's foul trouble and uncharacteristic turnovers. Midway through the second quarter, Waynflete found itself down, 17-13, and getting desperate, coach Brandon Salway reinserted Gray-Bauer, who hit a clutch 3 to spark a run to the end the half, giving the Flyers a 23-21 advantage.

The Hawks hung tough in the third period, but an 8-2 Waynflete surge, capped by a scintillating athletic play by Leigh Fernandez, who made a highlight reel save right to Julianna Harwood for a layup, made it 39-30.

Again, Sacopee Valley responded and got within four, 39-35, with just under four minutes to go, but Harwood converted a three-point play and the Flyers finally pulled away and went on to a 50-38 victory.

Harwood had a superb performance, finishing with 19 points and 14 rebounds, Gray-Bauer added 14 points and Fernandez finished with 12.

"I had to have it tonight," said Harwood, who was limited by injury during last winter's title run. "I really wanted to go to Augusta. I didn't want the season to be over. I love this team."

"We had a really slow start," Fernandez said. "Playoff inexperience maybe. We picked it up with hustle plays. That's what turned the game around."

"Hopefully, lesson learned," Waynflete coach Brandon Salway added. "We're not good enough not to show up 100 percent ready.  I'm proud of (the girls) for digging deep and making plays when we needed to and closing it out."

The Flyers went to Augusta Tuesday to face No. 3 Carrabec (15-4) in the quarterfinals (see theforecaster.net for game story). Waynflete doesn't play the Cobras in the regular season, but Carrabec was the Flyers' preliminary round victim last year, 73-36.

"It does mean a lot to get back to Augusta," Fernandez said. "Everyone's really excited. We like it there."

Last, but not least, fourth-ranked Portland (13-5) had a bye into the quarterfinals where it met No. 5 Gorham (14-5) Monday evening (see theforecaster.net for game story). The Bulldogs downed the visiting Rams, 63-50, eight days before Christmas. The teams had no playoff history.

Looking ahead, the Western C semifinals are Thursday in Augusta, while the Western A semis are Friday at the Civic Center in Portland. The Western C Final is Saturday in Augusta at 7 p.m. The Western A Final is the same day and time in Portland. The Class A state final is Saturday, March 1 at 4:05 p.m., in Portland, while the Class C state game is the same day at 7:05 p.m., in Augusta.

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