Cheverus wins second Class A crown in three seasons
PORTLAND—The Cheverus boys' basketball team has been called a lot of things this season, but when the dust settled Saturday evening at the Cumberland County Civic Center, only one moniker was appropriate:
The Stags, behind the wizardry of embattled senior standout Indiana Faithfull, raced to an insurmountable early lead, fended off a rally, then converted down the stretch to defeat Edward Little, 55-50, to reach the pinnacle for the ninth time in program history.
"This one is amazing," said Faithfull, the lone player who was on the 2008 championship team. "It's the best team I've ever played on. It's indescribable."
"I thought the guys played together," added Cheverus' storied coach Bob Brown. "We've been through it. We had enough to hang in there."
After losing to Thornton Academy in last year's semifinals, bringing a perfect season to an agonizing close, Cheverus was viewed as one of the favorites, but not an overwhelming one, entering 2009-10. After squeaking past Westbrook, 50-48, in the second game, way back on Dec. 8, the Stags simply punished the opposition, defeating every foe with ease en route to a 17-0 start.
The season took a turn, however, when Brown discovered that Faithfull had used up his eligibility. Faithfull, an Australian citizen, used three semesters his freshman year before coming to Cheverus, meaning that when the first semester ended in late January, he'd used up his eight consecutive semesters per the Maine Principals' Association rule.
The Stags went 4-1 without Faithfull, finally losing at South Portland in the regular season finale to wind up 17-1, good for the top seed. Just hours before the quarterfinal round game against No. 8 Scarborough, however, a lawsuit brought by the Faithfull family, accusing the MPA of discrimination based on Indiana's country of origin, was upheld and he was allowed to play.
Cheverus downed the Red Storm, 49-34, beat No. 4 Windham, 40-30, then rallied past No. 2 Westbrook, 56-46 to take the regional crown for a 13th time.
Edward Little let a late lead slip away in last year's state game (its first appearance since 1957) and fell to Thornton Academy, 54-52. This season, in a very competitive Eastern Class A, the Red Eddies wound up 16-2 and earned the No. 2 seed. In the tournament, Edward Little defeated No. 7 Mt. Blue (59-44), No. 3 Bangor (60-57, on a last-second 3) and top-ranked Brewer (59-55) to advance.
The Red Eddies and Stags used to meet regularly when Edward Little was in the Southern Maine Activities Association, but the only prior postseason meeting came in 2003 (a 87-55 Cheverus romp).
The Red Eddies came in seeking their first title since 1946, but the Stags, who won previously in 1930, 1940, 1948, 1961, 1981, 1982, 1997 and 2008, were simply too much.
Cheverus got the jump on back-to-back layups from Faithfull and sophomore Louie DiStasio and forced Edward Little to call timeout just 1 minute, 10 seconds in.
The Red Eddies settled down as junior Bowen Leary got them on the board with a putback, then, with 3:53 to go in the first, Leary converted a conventional three-point play to make it 5-4 Edward Little.
That would be the Red Eddies' high-water mark.
With 3:13 left in the quarter, a Faithfull 3-ball put the Stags ahead to stay. Junior Griffen Brady added a 3 and Faithfull buried another before Faithfull drove for a layup and a 15-5 lead. With 45 seconds to go, junior Peter Gwilym got free for a layup and Cheverus' advantage was up to a dozen.
"I think we got off to a fast start," Brown said. "We ran the floor well and stole the ball. That was the key."
With 26.4 seconds remaining, senior James Philbrook ended the 13-0 run when he made the second of two foul shots, but the Stags were in control heading for the second period.
"My biggest worry was that they'd come out and shoot the ball well," said Edward Little coach Mike Adams. "We had to pick our poison with them. We wanted to stop penetration, but they shot well. We didn't do a good job handling their pressure. That was too much for us to overcome in the first quarter."
There, Cheverus kept the pressure on.
After Furness made a leaner and freshman Quinton Leary answered with a putback, Gwilym buried a 3 and DiStasio did the same. Furness then scored on a driving layup and it was 27-8 Stags with 4:36 to go in the half.
To their credit, the Red Eddies turned it up and rallied before the half.
First, Leary made two foul shots to end an 8-0 run. Junior Timothy Mains followed with a leaner to make it 27-12. After senior Kyle Randall hit a jumper for Cheverus, senior Yusef Iman buried a 3 and Mains followed with another at the 2:08 mark and Edward Little was within 11, 29-18.
Brady ended the surge with a putback of a Faithfull miss, but Philbrook made a layup in the final minute and the Stags were up 31-20 at the break.
Cheverus made 13-of-23 shots in the first half and didn't attempt a free throw. The Stags gave the ball away seven times, but hit 5-of-11 3s.
The Red Eddies recovered from a slow start to make 7-of-18 field goals. They also made 4-of-5 foul shots, but turned the ball over on 10 occasions.
In the third, Cheverus let Edward Little crawl right back in, turning the ball over on its first four possessions.
After Bowen Leary made two free throws, he broke in for a layup. Then, with 5:55 left in the period, Iman drained a long 3 and suddenly, it was 31-27, forcing Brown to call timeout.
After another turnover, Furness prevented further damage when he blocked an Iman shot. At the other end, the Stags finally got a shot off as Faithfull missed, but the held-ball rebound gave the ball back to Cheverus. With 5:30 left, Brady had a chance to add to the lead, but he missed two foul shots.
Finally, with 4:55 to play in the third, Gwilym fed a wide open Brady for a layup, ending a 3:56 drought. With 4:22 left, DiStasio lined up a 3 from the left wing and canned it, making it 36-27. Leary answered with a layup and Philbrook hit a leaner and it was 36-31 with 2:25 to go in the period.
"I thought Edward Little played with a lot of heart," Brown said. "They never gave up."
But Faithfull calmly restored order with a deep 3 13 seconds later, making it 39-31, forcing Edward Little to take timeout.
Faithfull then showed why he's one of the most cerebral players to enter our midst in a long time. After three successive Red Eddies misses, the ball was heading out of bounds off Faithfull, but in midair, he had the presence of mind to grab it and throw it off an Edward Little player already standing out of bounds, retaining possession for the Stags.
Faithfull then fed Brady for a 3 and after a Red Eddies turnover, Faithfull canned a 3 for a 45-31 advantage.
With 17 seconds left, Philbrook made a layup and Cheverus took a 12-point lead, 45-33, to the fourth.
Mains started the final stanza with two free throws, then sank a 3 to make it 45-38, but with a chance to draw closer, Edward Little turned the ball over. Brady made them pay with a 3-ball and it was a 10-point contest with 6:10 left.
Leary kept the Red Eddies close with a layup and two foul shots, but with 4:29 to go, Faithfull drove the lane for a layup, was fouled and hit the free throw (Cheverus' first of the night) to make it 51-42.
With 2:22 left, a Philbrook putback cut the deficit to seven, but with 58.3 seconds left, Faithfull went to the line for a one-and-one and made both.
With 48.7 seconds to go, Philbrook hit two foul shots, but five seconds later, Faithfull matched him and it was 55-45. Leary made a layup, but fouled out three seconds later. Iman hit a 3-ball with 6.4 seconds to go, but the Stags ran out the clock from there and celebrated the 55-50 victory and the state championship.
"It feels amazing," Brady said. "It was a lot of work. We just happened to hit shots. It's a great feeling. Early on, we stopped them a lot and we pulled away. We let up a little bit, they climbed back in, but we held on."
"(Edward Little's) a great team," Randall said. "Their big guys were dominant. Our press gave them a little trouble and Griffen and Indy hit some big shots. It's just an amazing experience."
"This is the best thing that's happened to me in my life," Gwilym said. "It's been a lot of excitement. We got Indy back, got a lot of confidence and played great basketball. I think the difference was we just went out there and fought with everything we had. I think Indy played the best two games he's played in his life the past two games. They made some shots, but we were able to lock down on defense and hold on."
Faithfull was spectacular, leading all scorers with 23 points, as his star-crossed high school career came to a conclusion.
Faithfull's teammates and coach couldn't rave enough about his time in a Stags' uniform.
"He's an amazing captain," Brady said. "When he went out it was a downer, but when he came back it was a motivator. We were glad he came back."
"Indy came back and gave us a big lift," Randall said. "He's the most unselfish guy. He'll always find you if you're open and he's a great kid."
"If you're very, very lucky as a coach, you'll have a point guard for three years," Brown added. "If you do, you're going to win. It's like having an ace in baseball or a quarterback in football. He's a great kid. He's coachable. I got after him probably more than anyone on the team, but he can handle it. We won two states and lost five games in three years. You put the ball in the hands and you win. It's nice."
Faithfull returned the kudos.
"Playing with these guys is great," said Faithfull, who wants to play in college, but is still considering his options for next school year. "They're great friends. I feel real lucky. I played on a great team and went to a great school.
"It's amazing for us to do it together. Everything comes from our defense. When we run the floor and play defense, we're tough to beat. Obviously, they're a great team and we knew they'd make a run. We stayed positive.
"At the start of the year, I think we knew we had it. We were young. We needed to stay dedicated and play together and we did. "
Brady added 13 points, DiStasio had eight, Gwilym five, Furness four and Randall two.
"Griffen played out of his skull," Brown said. "He didn't hesitate to shoot 3s. Louie made some key baskets. Furness, I thought was tough on the boards. Peter Gwilym is like Superman reincarnated. He makes every play, then makes another play. He's amazing."
For the game, the Stags made a solid 20-of-42 field goal attempts. They hit a new-Class A state record 10 3s and sank 5-of-10 foul shots. They turned the ball over 16 times.
Long before the controversy of this season, Cheverus had to drag itself off the canvas after last year's run at perfection ended in heartbreak. Some great coaching, Faithfull's leadership and hard work all added up to produce a champion.
"Obviously, there's so much controversy around Indy, but coach Brown does such a great job focusing on basketball," Randall said. "He's just an unbelievable guy. Not just in basketball, but in life. I've learned so much from him. He's the best coach I've ever had. I'm glad we all came together as a team and won. We knew we weren't the favorite after losing four starters from last year, but the young kids stepped up and filled their roles."
"It's been a whirlwind," Brown said. "It's been such a crazy season for us, but the kids hung in there and hung together. I can't say enough for the team. Everyone was a contributor along the way. We came together in the summer. They worked hard all summer long and made a commitment. What you don't see on the scoreboard is how much they like each other. It works. I have six guys who were basically practice players, but they accepted their role and they pushed us.
"I got a fantastic letter from (2009 graduate) Peter Foley telling me how much (last year) meant and how disappointed they were. I made all the kids read it. We responded to the disappointment. Many of these kids weren't here, but we had an understanding of that."
Bowen Leary led the Red Eddies (19-3) with 19 points. Mains and Philbrook had 10 apiece, Iman finished with nine and Quinlan Leary added two.
"(The Stags) are a great team," said Adams. "We had our hands full. We were down 14 in the first quarter. I've played against that team before and seen it go to 30 really quick. Our kids were quick and battled back. We matched their toughness. Cheverus is a lot bigger than people think. I was very proud of my kids and how well they played."
Edward Little made 17-of-40 shots from the floor and finished with five 3s. The Red Eddies turned the ball over 15 times.
Bright and uncertain future
The Stags finished 21-1 and have to be considered early favorites to do it again 2011. While almost everyone returns, Faithfull's loss can't be underestimated, but with that said, Cheverus has the pieces in place to make a run at a first repeat title since 1981-82.
"Repeating is a goal for next year," Brady said.
"I hope to do it again," said Gwilym.
"I would say we'll be a favorite," added Brown. "You've got DiStasio, Olsen and Brady and (freshman Matt) Cimino will be a player. We have a lot of guys back. We have to figure out who can step up and be a point guard."
In addition to filling Faithfull's spot, the other lingering question is will the legendary coach (who will be inducted into the Maine Sports Hall of Fame in June) return for another ride or will he take this championship and sail off into the sunset.
We'll have to wait and see.
"I'm 72 and cruising," Brown said. "I don't know."
Basketball fans will be most fortunate if Brown chooses to return. For now, he and his team are once again the finest in all of the state.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org