Basketball tournament opens with abundance of thrills
(Ed. Note: For the complete Falmouth-Cheverus, Greely-York, NYA-Valley and Yarmouth-Cape Elizabeth boys' 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, several local teams were still alive.
A delicious Western Class B semifinal round boys' showdown is set for Thursday at 9 p.m. at the new and improved Cumberland County Civic Center, when two teams who barely survived the quarterfinal round, top-ranked Greely and No. 4 Yarmouth, do battle.
The Rangers, highly acclaimed and as the first round of the tournament played out, seemingly pre-ordained to win it all, almost suffered what would have been near the top of the most painful losses in program annals Saturday in the quarterfinals at the Portland Exposition Building against an eighth-ranked York squad they beat by 30 and 15 points respectively in the regular season.
The Wildcats were only down by a point, 7-6, after one quarter, then scored the final four points of the first half to take a 17-14 lead to the break.
Virtually everyone on hand was expecting Greely to come out and seize control in the second half, but instead, the Rangers' hopes were further compromised when standout Mike McDevitt was whistled for his fourth foul and had to sit.
York stretched its lead to nine at one point and after three periods, Greely trailed, 33-25.
With their backs firmly against the wall, the Rangers finally kicked it into gear, thanks in large part to Connor Hanley, who wouldn't let his team become the first top seed to lose in a Western B quarterfinal since Falmouth was shocked by Cape Elizabeth a decade ago.
Greely finally caught up and went ahead on two Hanley free throws with 3:03 remaining.
After Hanley set up McDevitt, who never picked up his fifth foul, for a layup, the Wildcats cut the Rangers' lead to 39-38 with 2:20 still to play.
Greely would have to suffer some anxious moments down the stretch, but it refused to buckle. Two foul shots from Hanley with 12.7 seconds remaining made it 41-38 and after McDevitt made a terrific athletic play to steal the ball, that essentially sealed it. The Rangers were able to run out the clock and exhale.
Hanley led the way with 16 points, senior Bailey Train had eight and McDevitt and senior Kyle Wood both added seven as Greely improved to 18-1.
"We dodged an enormous bullet, thank God," Hanley said. "It's more relief than jubilation today. We knew how we played all year long and we definitely didn't do that for the first three quarters at least. We had to keep plugging away and we did."
"It's a great win," Rangers coach Travis Seaver said. "But we didn't play great. We can learn from this. We get to play again, which is a fortunate thing. We didn't play well until halfway through the third quarter and we can't get away with that."
As for Yarmouth, it had the daunting task of having to beat rival Cape Elizabeth, ranked fifth, for a third time this year. The Clippers had never beaten the Capers in the playoffs, but finally managed to do so.
Yarmouth threatened to pull away early in the game, when it went up, 12-5, late in the first half, when it took a 24-16 lead, and late in the third period, when it grabbed a 37-30 advantage, but each time, the Capers answered and refused to go away.
In the fourth quarter, Cape Elizabeth completed a 10-2 run and took its first lead since the early moments of the game, 40-39.
The Clippers didn't buckle either and with 3:15 to go, standout David Murphy sank a 3 and Yarmouth was back on top.
The Capers answered again on a 3 with 1:53 remaining, but 46 seconds later, off an inbounds set, Clippers senior Nate Shields-Auble took a pass from classmate Ethan Gage and made a jumper in the lane to put his team ahead for good.
Junior Adam LaBrie added a free throw with 4.6 seconds to go and Yarmouth, which fended off some anxious moments down the stretch, was able to hold on, 45-43.
Murphy led all scorers with 16 points, Gage and LaBrie each had eight and Shields-Auble added seven as the Clippers improved to 15-4.
"Every tournament game is tough," Gage said. "Every team plays like it's do or die, so anytime you can beat a team like Cape it feels good, no matter how it's done."
"We're happy we got the win," LaBrie said. "Cape played an amazing game, but we did what we had to do. We've never beaten Cape three times (in one season) or in the playoffs. We finally did that and it's great."
"Cape's a great team," Murphy said. "We knew they'd come out and play great to the finish. This is huge. We've tried to establish ourselves as a team that's always in the playoffs."
"I knew it would be a very tough game," Clippers coach Adam Smith added. "Cape came prepared. We did not escape. We won the game. We made shots down the stretch and played defense when we had to. The difference might have been our senior leadership. The seniors really made a difference on the floor late in the game for us."
Looking ahead to Thursday, the Rangers swept the Clippers this regular season: 57-49 at Greely and 65-48 at Yarmouth. The teams have played four previous times in the postseason, with each team winning twice. The most recent meeting came in the 2011 semifinals, when the Clippers upset the top-ranked Rangers, 54-42.
Yarmouth knows it will be a tall task to spring the upset and advance.
"We have to make sure we limit the runs they get," Smith said. "I thought the two times we played them in the regular season, I allowed their runs to get too extensive. I have to make sure we play a smarter game. They're a very difficult matchup, but I think we can give ourselves an opportunity hopefully in the fourth quarter to knock on the door."
Greely knows it has to play much better than it did versus York.
"At this point, we're looking to have three or four of the best practices we've had all year so we can come into the Yarmouth game hot and hopefully redeem ourselves from (the York) game," said McDevitt. "We'll focus on Yarmouth, what they'll try to do to beat us. We'll just focus on that game."
In Western A, Falmouth, the defending Class B state champion, which moved up this year due to increased enrollment, earned the No. 2 seed and met No. 7 Cheverus in the quarterfinals. The game was supposed to be played Saturday night, but poor weather moved it to Monday.
In the first ever playoff encounter between the teams, the Yachtsmen took care of business, but they also were pushed until the very end.
Cheverus raced to a quick 5-0 lead and was ahead most of the second quarter, but Falmouth hung tough behind junior Jack Simonds, who had the team's first nine points. Strong inside play from senior Nick Burton helped the Yachtsmen rally to go ahead, but late in the half, a putback gave the Stags a 20-19 lead at the break.
Back and forth the teams went in the third period and as time expired in the frame, Burton scored on a tip-in and Falmouth had the lead for good, 39-38.
The Yachtsmen tried to break it open, but still only led by three, 48-45, with just under three minutes to go.
Falmouth saved its best for last, however, getting two free throws from senior Justin Rogers, a clutch layup from unheralded senior reserve I.V. Stucker and free throws down the stretch from Rogers and sophomore Thomas Coyne as it went on to a 56-48 victory.
Simonds had a team-high 17 points, Coyne finished with 15 and Burton added 14 (to go with 10 rebounds).
"(Cheverus) played a really good game," Simonds said. "They're well-coached. They had a good game plan. We stepped up our defense and our offense flowed from that."
"It took awhile to get going," Burton said. "It was our first tournament game. We might have had some nerves going. Once we settled in and got our rhythm, we were fine."
"It should be just basketball, but there's a lot of pride at stake," added Falmouth coach Dave Halligan. "We wanted to show we belonged here. It was a good high school basketball game. The first (playoff game) is always difficult. Cheverus is an excellent team. knew it would be tough."
Next up for Falmouth is second-ranked Bonny Eagle (18-1), Wednesday at 6 p.m., in the semifinals at the Civic Center. The teams have no history.
"It will be fun," said Burton. "We know what to expect. We're looking forward to it. We hope to find the rhythm early to be successful."
"We know them pretty well and they know us pretty well," said Simonds. "We need to play our game and make them play our game."
"(We beat them in) an exhibition game that doesn't count for anything now," Halligan added. "Now it's the real thing. They have one of the top players in the state (senior Dustin Cole). They're a good team. They have athleticism and senior leadership. They have a chip on their shoulder. We'll try to match their intensity and play smart. Our kids like being here. They want to be here."
In Western D, North Yarmouth Academy made it to the quarterfinals for the first time in six seasons after a strong regular season. Ranked fourth, the Panthers met No. 5 Valley, a perennial powerhouse, Saturday in Augusta.
Before the game was four minutes old, the Panthers found themselves down, 10-0. While NYA would eventually settle down and even get as close as three points, it never could make up for that initial sluggishness.
The Panthers were still very much in the game midway through the third period, down by only eight, 36-28, but Valley erupted and went on a 16-4 run to end the quarter and it never looked back, going on to a 70-47 victory, ending NYA's best season in eight years at 13-6.
The Panthers got 18 points from Chase Gendron and 11 apiece from El Tayeb Dahia and Forrest Chicoine, but it wasn't enough.
"We talked at halftime and throughout the game on being built on hustle and pride and not giving up at any point," said Panthers coach Jason Knight. "We've come back earlier in the year and given ourselves a chance, but unfortunately, there just wasn't enough time on the clock today.
"As hard as this loss is to feel, I'm glad my seniors got to get here. I'm really proud of them. They brought NYA back to the tournament after six years and had our best record in eight years. They've grown a lot individually. There's a lot we accomplished. We got a taste and we want to come back."
The Panthers expect to produce another strong season in 2014-15.
"We're returning some key players," said Knight. "We have some good freshmen. The pieces are there to keep building. I'm excited. We hope to get back here. The first one's always the hardest. Hopefully, we learn from (today)."
Looking ahead, the Western B Final is Saturday at 3:45 p.m., while the Western A Final is the same day at 9 p.m., in Portland. The Class B state game is Friday, Feb. 28 at the Cross Insurance Center in Bangor. The Class A state game is Saturday, March 1 in Portland.
On the girls' side, only Greely remained at press time.
After a 14-4 regular season, the Rangers earned the No. 4 seed and met No. 5 Lincoln Academy Wednesday in the quarterfinals (see theforecaster.net for the game story). The teams don't play in the regular season. The last playoff meeting came in the 2000 quarterfinals (a 52-47 Rangers' win). They also met in the 1983 quarterfinals (a 58-46 Greely win) and the 1985 quarterfinals (a 48-44 victory for the Eagles).
A win likely means a semifinal round showdown with No. 1 Lake Region, which handled the Rangers in the lone regular season meeting, 52-34, Jan. 24 and also eliminated Greely from last year's tournament, 42-27, in the semifinals.
The Western B Final is Saturday at 2 p.m., at the Civic Center. The Class B state final is Friday, Feb. 28 in Bangor.
Falmouth and NYA both bowed out in the preliminary round last week.
The Yachtsmen, who earned the 12th and final seed in Western A, went to No. 5 Gorham and almost sprung an upset. Falmouth had its chances, led much of the way, but couldn't prevail in regulation and ultimately went down to a painful 50-41 defeat, finishing 6-13. Dayna Vasconcelos had a team-high 12 points.
"We were very pleased with how we controlled the game for 30 minutes," said Yachtsmen coach Mari Warner. "We played with confidence, composure and held to our game plan throughout. At the two-minute mark, I believe we played not to lose and Gorham played like everything was on the line and it was. Instead of winning the game in regulation, taking care of the ball became an issue as well as good shots and free throws that didn't fall which forced us into OT. Gorham had a new lease on life and they controlled overtime.
The Panthers, ranked ninth in Western D, went to No. 8 Vinalhaven and also had a close game, but fell, 51-47, to finish 6-13.
"Vinalhaven was a very good matchup for us," said NYA coach Liz Smith. "In spite of the travel to the island, the girls played better than I have seen them play all season and we had a good shot at making it to the quarterfinals. We were leading most of the game, but we got into foul trouble in the fourth quarter and ultimately were unable to adjust to that defensively.
"Making it to playoffs was very exciting for us this year. We had some ups and downs and were able to be successful in spite of not having (injured star Chloe) Leishman for most of the season and (Hannah) Carr missing several games down the stretch. (Charlotte) Esancy had a tremendous season while battling through injuries and we counted on her on both ends of the court. We improved over the course of the season."
The Panthers will be hard hit by graduation, but expect to contend again in 2014-15.
"We graduate four seniors this year and they will be difficult for us to replace," Smith said. "In particular, we'll need to find ballhandling and outside shooting. Carr will return as our second leading scorer for the season and provides a strong inside presence. We'll be strong underneath and if we can find someone a point guard we have a good shot at making playoffs again next year."