Cheverus stunned by Windham's second half rally
PORTLAND—Everything seemed to be coming together perfectly for the Cheverus girls' basketball team.
A favorable bracket and improved play had the Stags on the cusp of the regional final, where they would have had nothing to lose against a longtime nemesis, but after a terrific first half against Windham in Friday night's Western Class A semifinal at the Cumberland County Civic Center, it all came crashing down.
Cheverus, behind strong play from senior Cassidy Grover and superb 3-point shooting from sophomore Lodia Ismail, built a 26-15 lead at halftime and appeared to have the upstart, unheralded Eagles on the ropes, but Cinderella wasn't ready to go home.
As it did in Monday's stunning upset of Thornton Academy, Windham saved its best for last and engineered a shocking comeback.
The Eagles started the second half on a 7-0 run to get back in the game, then went ahead, 29-28, late in the third period on a layup from senior Haley Batchelder, but the Stags battled back behind a free throw from Grover and a 3 from junior Jillian Libby to take a 32-29 advantage to the final quarter.
A putback from sophomore Jess Willerson stretched the lead to five early in the fourth, but Cheverus would only muster two points the rest of the way.
A pair of Willerson foul shots with 3:40 to play made it 36-33 Stags, but Windham would close the game on an 8-0 run, taking the lead for good on a driving layup from sophomore Sadie Nelson, getting another layup from Nelson, then two foul shots from senior Sam Frost to prevail, 41-36.
Nelson had a game-high 21 points, the Eagles won the second half by a 26-10 margin and managed to overcome 14 points from Willerson and a dozen from Ismail as they improved to 14-7, ended Cheverus' season at 14-7 and advanced to their first ever regional final to face three-time defending state champion McAuley (19-1) Saturday at 7 p.m., at the Civic Center.
"These girls have a never-quit, always-believe attitude," said Windham coach Brody Artes. "When the game was on the line, they came back and put us in a good position to win. The girls had a goal of not just wanting to show up and play a game at the tournament, but be a dominant team. They were really determined."
"Windham did a great job," said Cheverus coach Richie Ashley. "They were prepared and played to win instead of not to lose. Brody deserves all the credit."
While some pundits thought that Cheverus might find its way to the semifinals, very few outside of Windham (and probably not many there) thought the Eagles would join them.
Windham downed No. 10 Sanford in last week's preliminary round, then stunned second-ranked Thornton Academy Monday, winning on a buzzer beater, 34-32, to make it to the Civic Center.
Cheverus, meanwhile, also had to play a prelim, which it won easily over No. 11 Bonny Eagle, then downed No. 3 South Portland with surprising ease in Monday's quarterfinals, 61-42.
The Stags won the regular season meeting, 46-33, at home, way back on Dec. 6 in the opener. The teams had no playoff history.
Friday featured a battle of two halves, with Cheverus winning the first, but ultimately being doomed by its second.
The first quarter was close as both teams got a feel for the new setting.
A jumper from Grover gave the Stags an early lead, but sophomore Katie Herzig made a foul shot for the Eagles, then took a pass from Frost and made a layup for a 3-2 advantage.
Ismail then first made her presence felt with a 3. After Frost set up senior Haley Batchelder for a layup to tie the score, Ismail made a second 3 and Cheverus would be on top for the rest of the half.
After Herzig countered with a long jumper, a free throw from junior Laura Holman gave the Stags a 9-7 lead after eight minutes.
Cheverus threatened to pull away in the second quarter, as it opened up what seemed to be a healthy lead.
After Grover banked home a shot to end a 4 minute, 16 second drought, junior Luisa Sbardella made a jumper for Windham, ending its stretch of 7:22 without a point. Holman made a foul shot, but senior Lonnie Staten countered with a jumper for the Eagles. After Ismail fed Willerson for a layup, Frost banked home a shot to make it 14-13 Stags with 3;31 left in the half.
Cheverus then closed the half on a 14-2 run, as Ismail hit a 3 and Willerson scored on a putback to get it started. After a layup from Nelson with 2:17 remaining, her first points of the game, Libby set up Ismail for her fourth 3 and a 22-15 advantage. Ismail then set up Willerson for a layup and Willerson scored on a putback in the final minute to send the Stags to the locker room up 11, 26-15.
In the first 16 minutes, Cheverus only turned the ball over four times, forced 14 Eagles' giveaways and was sparked by 12 points from Ismail and eight from Willerson.
With many in the building thinking ahead to a possible Holy War III in the regional final, Windham spoiled the party in the second half.
Just 23 seconds in, the Eagles hinted at their resurgence as Herzig set up Nelson for a layup.
The next time down, Batchelder fed Nelson for a layup. She was fouled on the play and added the free throw for the old-fashioned three-point play, cutting the deficit to six, 26-20.
"We really had to get the ball inside and force them to foul," Nelson said. "We connected better. We took better care of the ball in the second half. My teammates saw me and got me the ball."
With 5:24 to go in the third quarter, a cutting Nelson took a pass from Frost and somehow managed to bank home a shot on the run.
Thirty-three seconds later, the Stags ended their 4:02 drought and the 7-0 Eagles' run when Willerson banked home a shot.
Windham didn't relent, as Sbardella made a free throw, Nelson hit two and after Nelson made a layup after a steal with 2:31 showing, Ashley had to call timeout.
It didn't immediately help, as Frost found Batchelder for a layup and for the first time since the score was 3-2, the Eagles had a lead, 29-28.
"At halftime, the seniors pulled it together," Frost said. "We knew we had to go right away. The TA game helped because we were down in that one. We came out in the second half and it was a total team effort."
"Our Achilles' heel all year has been the third quarter," Ashley said. "I told the girls all week that if the game was in the 30s, they'd have a chance and if the game was in the 60s, we'd win."
Grover tied the game at the line and Libby canned a long 3 to give Cheverus a 32-29 advantage heading to the final stanza.
Early in the fourth, a Willerson putback stretched the lead to five and it appeared the Stags were going to be OK, but Nelson made two free throws and Batchelder set up Sbardella for a long jumper and the Stags' lead was down to one, 34-33.
With 3:40 to play, Willerson grabbed an offensive rebound, was fouled and sank both free throws, but those proved to be Cheverus' final points of the season.
Twenty-two seconds later, Frost was fouled and hit both free throws and with 2:50 to play, after a Stags' turnover, Nelson drove for a layup to put the Eagles ahead to stay, 37-36.
Cheverus hoped to answer, but Libby missed a shot. After senior Sadie Lyons kept possession alive with an offensive rebound, Libby missed again and this time, Nelson got the rebound.
With 2:01 showing, Staten went to the line with a chance to extend the lead, but she missed the front end of a one-and-one and Willerson got the rebound.
The Stags couldn't take advantage, however, as they turned the ball over.
With 1:35 left, Frost hit Nelson for another backdoor layup and Windham had a 39-36 advantage.
Cheverus senior Georgia Ford looked to tie the game with a 3, but her shot was off target. Willerson got the rebound, but Staten stole it away.
The Eagles gave the ball back, but with 39.1 seconds to go, a Libby shot was off target and Staten got the rebound and was fouled.
Again, Staten missed the front end of her one-and-one, but she made a terrific play to get her own rebound and Windham retained possession.
With 25 seconds to play, Frost was fouled and she hit the first free throw before missing the second, but Windham now had a two possession advantage, 40-36.
The Stags turned the ball over again and with 16.2 seconds to go, Frost added another free throw.
"There was pressure and I had also gotten hit in the head, but I knocked down a shot," Frost said.
Cheverus' final shot of the game and the season resulted in a miss by Ismail. Nelson got the rebound, the Eagles ran out the clock and celebrated their 41-36 victory and improbable trip to the regional final.
"It was very scary at the end," Nelson said. "I just knew we had to score and box out. This is our last chance to play with the seniors and the seniors mean a lot to me. To keep playing with them, I knew we had to win and I really wanted to do it for these seniors."
"We stepped it up intensity-wise in the second half and put more pressure on them in the fullcourt," Artes said. "That was important. We needed to take away their offensive flow. We made some baskets down the stretch we didn't make in the first half. It was really, really important that we came out and matched their intensity, if not surpassed it. We had a few jitters at the beginning. We have young kids on the floor. We had to make up for errant passes with doing more rebounding and also having good defensive possessions each time down the court. It's important for us to establish ourselves as a good team, especially defensively."
Nelson had just four points at halftime, but wound up with a game-high 21. She also had three assists.
"We have a lot of confidence in Sadie," Frost said. "She's amazing. She's a really good player."
"(Sadie's) a really good finisher," Artes said. "She has a soft touch. She works on her game. She does a nice job. "
"Nelson's a tough, tough kid," Ashley added. "She played hard and well."
Frost added six points, five assists and three rebounds.
"My role is to guard the best player defensively and to get the ball to people," Frost said. "I'll shoot if I'm open, but I really love passing the ball."
Sbardella had five points, Batchelder four (to go with eight rebounds and four steals), Herzig three and Staten two (to go with nine boards, two blocks and two steals).
Windham only turned the ball over seven times in the second half and wound up with 21 for the game. The Eagles hit 11 of 19 free throws.
On Dec. 30, Windham went to McAuley and was drubbed, 74-29, as Lions' senior standout Allie Clement went over the 1,000 point plateau for her career and the school raised the 2012-13 Class A championship banner.
Clearly, the Eagles entered the Lions' den that night. Windham is a far more confident and talented team at this juncture. It doesn't plan on playing a supporting role in a McAuley coronation and believes it can shock the world.
"I think we have a great chance," Frost said. "We have to stop their bigs and keep up the pressure."
"We have to come in thinking we have nothing to lose and play our hardest," Nelson said. "They have truly amazing players. We hope it's a better showing than last time."
"The game over there wasn't close at all, but we learned a lot from that," Artes added. "We know they'll have five good players on the court at all times. We have to take care of the ball and rebound. We have to shoot quick. We have to make sure we don't make mistakes. We have to play a clean game.
"We have nothing to lose. We've been the underdogs the whole way. It's a magical run. Win or lose, I'm proud of the girls. It's been a good season."
McAuley won the only prior playoff meeting between the schools, 49-33, in the semifinals two years ago.
Tough way to end
Cheverus was paced by Willerson's 14 points and 10 boards. Ismail had 12 points, Grover five (to go with four rebounds, three blocks and a steal), Libby three (to go with four boards, a steal and a block) and Holman two.
Ford didn't score, but had five rebounds and three steals.
The Stags outrebounded the Eagles, 29-26, made 5 of 10 free throws and committed 17 turnovers (13 in the second half).
Ashley credited Windham for doing what it had to do to prevail.
"They did a good job taking away Jess," he said. "We didn't have another alternative other than Lodia in the first half. Without her shooting that way, we would have been down at half. (The Eagles) were loose. That was evident. We were a little tight. We didn't knock down shots. We had open looks. We had turnovers. They did a good job controlling tempo."
While the sting of this loss will linger, Cheverus once again produced a strong season and made a lot of memories. The Stags will keep knocking on the door and eventually will break through.
"I thought we put it together this year," Ashley said. "The girls deserve credit. I feel really bad for the seniors. We have good kids. Basketball's important, but it's not the most important thing. Education of the whole person is more important than just basketball."