By Michael Hoffer
Reinforcing even further the belief that they are the gold standard of Western Class A boys’ basketball, the defending state champion Cheverus Stags knocked off two more contenders in recent action and did so on the road to improve to 12-0 on the year.
Thursday night, the Stags went to Deering and blew open a close game in the second half en route to a 63-35 victory.
Monday, at Westbrook, Cheverus got off to a fast start and cruised to a 60-44 win.
“I haven’t had a better team that is a team,” said Stags’ coach Bob Brown. “They like each other. They play together. They don’t care who scores. They cheer for each other. When you have that, you eliminate big glitches.”
The Stags are always rich with offensive stars, but the key to this team’s consistent dominance is its defense. Brown preaches it and this squad has done his bidding exquisitely. Cheverus has the best defense (and the second-most prolific offense) in the Southern Maine Activities Association.
“They play our defense better than any team I’ve coached,” Brown said. “They talk better. They cover for each other. One of the key reasons is (senior) Dan Foster. He’s a huge key to our defense. He’s always picking up everyone else’s mistakes.”
Cheverus had little trouble with its first seven league foes or any of the four squads it manhandled in the holiday tournament. The Stags finally got a test from rival Portland for three-plus quarters, but ultimately pulled away to a 15-point win. Cheverus then downed Gorham Tuesday setting the stage for a visit to Deering.
The Rams won their first five games, lost to Westbrook and South Portland, then upset Thornton Academy and beat Noble, Bonny Eagle and Kennebunk prior to Cheverus’ arrival.
The Stags had taken the previous four meetings between the city rivals, including a pair of 18-point decisions last winter. Cheverus would win easily Thursday, but for a half, the Rams entertained upset hopes.
Deering led 8-7 after a bank shot from senior Ronald Abwoch, but a 14-4 Stags’ run gave them a 21-12 advantage after one period.
The Rams bounced back and were within five, 28-23, early in the third period, but a 16-0 Stags’ run blew the game open. It began with a putback from senior Peter Foley. Junior Indiana Faithfull then made two free throws, a layup and converted an old-fashioned three-point play for a 37-23 lead. Senior standout Mick DiStasio hit a leaner, converted a three-point play, then Faithfull drained two more foul shots to give Cheverus a commanding 44-23 advantage. Cheverus, which allowed just 14 second-half points, had no trouble controlling the remainder of the game.
“We just realized we needed to stop their penetration and get the ball to our offense,” said Faithfull, who led all scorers. “It all came from our defense. They had 14 points in the second half. We’re definitely a defensive team. We moved the ball better in the second half.”
“I didn’t dislike the first half,” added Brown. “I thought Deering played very well. They drove, they shot, they hit some outside jumpers. They played physical. I didn’t go in at halftime and scream and holler at anybody. We made one adjustment and that was it. We made a defensive adjustment. I can’t tell you what it was. We took away some of their drives. It changed what they did.
“We changed offense too. We weren’t screening enough at the beginning. We started screening more in the second half and got people open. We could start penetrating more and get the ball inside.”
The Stags were paced by Faithfull’s 21 points. He had 16 in the second half.
“He played great,” Brown said, of his star guard. “He played 30 minutes. He handled their pressure. He got other people involved. He shot the ball fairly well. He drove great. He’s a very good player. He’s only getting better. He’s much better right now than he was five games ago. He used to pass the ball. Now he makes plays and passes the ball.”
DiStasio added 15 points. Foley finished with 10.
“Peter played very well,” Brown said. “He made some nice moves. He had strong rebounding. Came up with steals.”
Another strong team effort was par for the course for the Stags.
“We’re all great friends,” Faithfull said. “Everyone wants to help each other out. We all have the same goal. No one cares who scores.”
Sophomore Dennis Ross led Deering with 10 points.
“They’re just better than us,” Rams’ coach Dan LeGage said of Cheverus. “I think that they have a lot of chemistry going on. You can see it in their eyes and how they pass the ball. They’re unselfish. They’re clearly the best team we’ve played.
“We executed a little bit in the first half. Not great. We made some shots. The game was close. Then we went from executing a little bit to not at all. In the second half, they stepped it up a notch. They execute and make very few mistakes. We didn’t execute and made a lot of mistakes. When you play a senior team like that that’s what’s going to happen. It can be over in a heartbeat.”
SUBHEAD-A perfect dozen
Westbrook provided a huge challenge. The Blue Blazes had already defeated Deering and South Portland and feature two of the best juniors (Dominic Borelli and Nick Jobin) in the state.
Monday, the Stags never let Westbrook entertain upset hopes.
Cheverus took the lead for good 13 seconds in on a DiStasio layup and rode a 15-2 run to lead 21-6 after one period.
“We like to get a quick jump on our opponents,” said DiStasio, who had 12 first-quarter points. “When we do that and get momentum, it’s hard to stop us.”
The Blue Blazes got no closer than 10, 25-15, in the second and a layup in the final second from junior Lenny Cummings made it 35-22 Stags at the break. A 12-4 run in the third ended all doubt and Cheverus went on to a decisive 60-44 victory.
“I thought we played pretty well,” Brown said. “I thought we did some good things on the offensive end, but I thought the defensive end was really good. I think if you just win at Westbrook you’ve done a good job. It’s a tough place to play, a good homecourt advantage. We’re a shooting team. It’s important to make some shots early. It’s all team defense. We just did a good job getting some pressure on the ball. We did a good job being ready to help on the inside.”
“We played good defense and got it done,” added DiStasio. “Defense has been huge for us. That’s what we’ve relied on. Everyone likes each other on this team. We all get along well and play together well. It’s helped us defensively and offensively this year.”
DiStasio led all scorers with 30 points. Faithfull added 11. Jobin had 20 to lead Westbrook. Borelli was held to just nine.
SUBHEAD-Heavy lifting ahead
Finishing undefeated is not a major goal for the Stags. They went 18-0 in 2004-05 and were upset by Deering in the regional final. Last year, Cheverus lost three straight in one stretch, but still managed to rebound and win the championship.
Don’t expect a similar slump this winter.
“We’re really motivated to not let that happen again this year,” DiStasio said. “We’re as strong as we’ve been, we’re healthy, knock on wood, and I think we can really be dominant down the stretch.”
“A slump is a lot less likely this year,” Brown added. “Last year, I had one senior. DiStasio’s playing a whole different game now. He’s stronger and more mature. Foley’s playing huge. He’s two or three times what he was last year. They’re not afraid to make plays. That’s possibly the best thing about this team.”
The Stags are off until Friday when they host South Portland. Saturday brings a visit from Massabesic. Cheverus then finishes with games at Thornton Academy, South Portland and Portland before hosting Deering in the regular season finale.
“We’ve got a lot of games against the top teams in the league,” Faithfull said. “It’ll be fun. We’re excited. I think we definitely need to get better. We’re not there yet.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org