THE PLAYOFFS Twice as nice
Deering girls win second straight Western A championship
By Eric Carson
PORTLAND- Winning the Class A state championship is tough.
Doing it two years in a row is a monster task.
Each foe hopes to dethrone the defending champs. Every night feels like a mini-playoff game.
That's pretty much how it was for the Deering girls' basketball team this year, which returned starters from last year's championship team and added new coach Mike Murphy to magnify the pressure.
But on Saturday night, as they have done all season, the Rams took a giant step towards their ultimate goal.
Fueled by senior captain Diana Manduca's game-high 18 points, the top-ranked and undefeated Rams jumped out to a 16-point halftime lead and never looked back, downing the third-ranked Biddeford Tigers 56-33 at the Cumberland County Civic Center to capture a second straight regional championship.
And speaking of repeats, Manduca was awarded her second straight Edward "Red" McMann Award. Since 1977 the award has been to the tournament's outstanding sportsperson/player.
Manduca joined Westbrook's Lisa Blais (1978-79) and Brianna Fecteau (1995-96) as repeat winners. Sarah Marshall, a former McAuley and Boston College star, is the only three-time winner of the award (2001-03).
"It's great to win the award again, and it's even more special being a senior," said Manduca. "But this was a complete team win. We had a lot of pressure on us to repeat. I'm so happy for this team. I love this tournament. I just love the whole thing."
With the win, the Rams earned a date with the Messalonskee Eagles (19-2) for all the marbles on Saturday at 7 p.m. at the Augusta Civic Center.
Manduca was the catalyst , but she was hardly the only star. Junior Claire Ramonas was a force under the basket, dropping 14 points on a variety of post moves and dribble drives from the foul line in the Rams' high-low offense.
And though her biggest contribution will never show up in the box score, senior guard Jess Ruhlin was instrumental in the Rams' second-straight regional final win. She scored seven points, but that's only half the story. The captain dogged Biddeford's lightning-quick senior guard Aimee Mortensen from start to finish, holding one of the league's most prolific scorers to seven points. Mortensen had one basket, one free throw and one 3-pointer in the first half, but hit just one free throw the rest of the way.
Nursing a sore hamstring and ankle, sophomore forward Kayla Burchill scored eight points against the Tigers, including the first basket of the game on a nice touch pass from Ramonas.
Biddeford sophomore Keila Grigware (14 points) answered with a basket down low, triggering a see-saw first quarter that featured five lead changes until Deering strung together six straight baskets to take a 16-11 advantage into the second.
Trailing 11-10, Murphy called for a timeout. The game was never the same.
After the break, Ruhlin lost her defender with a crossover dribble back to the baseline and hit a short jumper for the lead. Manduca took it from there, leaning in to hit a jumper at the foul line, before stripping a Biddeford guard trying to stall for the last shot and dribbling the length of the floor for an easy layup as time expired.
The Rams never trailed again, opening the second quarter with a pivotal 8-3 run to open a 10-point lead at 24-14 with 4:21 left in the half.
Ramonas, the Rams' talented 5-foot-11 center, sprung to life, scoring six points in the quarter, including a back-breaking put-back as time expired before the half to extend the lead to 31-19 at intermission.
"We didn't want this to be our last game," said Ramonas. "We have seven seniors on this team and we wanted to win this game for them. We did a great job of containing their guards and that was the key for us. We talked about having quick feet and trying to win this game inside. We thought it was a mismatch for them down low. But we have great guards, too. Pick your poison, I guess. We have great balance and no one wants to steal the show on this team."
Deering won the third quarter 11-9 to stretch the lead to 42-28.
Burchill had a bucket, Manduca hit a 3 and scored a layup, and Ramonas added four points in the third quarter.
Leading 36-23 midway through the third after a layup by Biddeford junior guard Lauren Rousseau, Ramonas hit a jumper from the foul line and was fouled in the process. Her foul shot opened up a 16-point lead for the Rams and dealt a major blow to the Tigers' hopes of a comeback.
Deering quickly ran off 7-straight points over a four-minute span to take a commanding 49-28 lead in the fourth.
Ramonas scored on a nice lob following an out-of-bounds play from the side. Burchill hit a free throw, Manduca picked up another steal and scored, and Ramonas capped the run with a dribble-drive from the high post to take a 21-point lead, the largest of the game for the Rams.
Biddeford was not quite ready to give in just yet, as Rousseau (seven points) scored a bucket, and Grigware hit a pair of foul shots after Deering senior captain Casey Everest snapped the net with a jumper from the baseline.
But on the Rams' next possession, Manduca was fouled and went to the line for two shots. After the first make, Biddeford coach Ron Cote emptied his bench as Manduca pumped her fist and mouthed "we got it" to her teammates lining the paint.
She was right. Manduca hit both and Murphy followed suit, as all five Deering starters left the game leading 53-32 with over three minutes left to play.
"These kids are so tough, mentally and physically," said Murphy. "The goal was to take it one game at a time. We never looked past any team. Biddeford is a great opponent. More than deserving to be here, but our kids are so tough. Everyone knew the pressure was on us. This team was a prisoner of its own success. But we said all year that we can't win 18 games in one night. We can't score 100 points on one possession. Work hard, play tough and have fun. We brought it down to simple terms and just played. We still have one game to go. We'll see what happens."
Deering will play in its third state final as it seeks its third Gold Ball Saturday. The Rams previously defeated Cony 50-41 to win the 2004 championship and Oxford Hills 55-43 a year ago. Deering and Messalonskee have no prior history.