By Michael Hoffer
SOUTH PORTLAND — Undefeated and largely unchallenged this winter, the Cheverus boys’ basketball team found itself in a donnybrook Friday night at Beal Gymnasium against an undermanned, inexperienced, but plucky South Portland squad.
The Red Riots went toe-to-toe with the Stags from the get-go, leading the defending Class A champions by two late in the third quarter. But Cheverus did what it does like no other: Turned up the defensive intensity, got contributions from everyone on the floor and rode the individual poise and brilliance of junior Indiana Faithfull on a 13-0 run that led to an eventual 52-39 triumph.
Faithfull had six points in the final 2:11 of the third period, punctuated by a circus, falling-out-of-bounds shot at the horn that sucked the life out of the hosts. Cheverus then scored the first five points of the fourth period and South Portland never got closer than eight down the stretch.
The Stags improved to 16-0 with their 21st successive win dating over two seasons.
“I felt we showed who we were down the stretch,” said Cheverus coach Bob Brown, who once led South Portland to glory as the Red Riots’ head man. “We made shots and made big plays.”
SUBHEAD-More of the same
The teams met for the second time in a week. On Jan. 23, visiting South Portland hung tough for a quarter, but the Stags eventually pulled away with a 60-41 win behind 23 points from senior Mick DiStasio.
Cheverus has run roughshod over all comers this winter. The Stags entered the game averaging a 26-point margin of victory in 15 straight league games. Last Tuesday’s 57-48 triumph at Thornton Academy was the first and only time Cheverus won by fewer than 10 points.
South Portland, meanwhile, is enjoying another solid season, entering the game 13-2. A year ago the Stags needed overtime to win at Beal. This time the hosts would again make things interesting, but ultimately Cheverus simply had too much.
After a slow start, the visitors took the lead on a pair of foul shots from senior Peter Foley. DiStasio followed with a 3-pointer and Foley hit a jumper as the Stags threatened to run away and hide. With 4:20 to go in the first, Red Riots’ junior standout Keegan Hyland hit a 3 to get his team on the board. Senior Dan Foster and Faithfull answered with layups, however, and Cheverus had an 11-3 advantage.
The Red Riots quickly responded and pulled within a point at 11-10, but with time winding down in the first, DiStasio made a 3-pointer to give the Stags a 14-10 lead after one.
South Portland pulled even at 14-14 early in the second before DiStasio put Cheverus back on top with a 3-pointer. Trailing 19-16, Hyland hit two foul shots and junior Jon DiBiase made a layup with 3:48 to play in the first half to put South Portland up for the first time, 20-19.
The Red Riots wouldn’t score again in the half, however, and with 52.2 seconds to go, DiStasio converted a three-point play for a 22-20 Stags’ lead at the break.
Hyland opened the third with a 3-pointer to put South Portland back on top, 23-22, but Foley converted a three-point play and junior Lenny Cummings made a jump shot. The Red Riots answered as Hyland hit a 3, junior Connor Hasson made a free throw and junior Spencer Bowring took a pass from Hyland and made a layup for a 29-27 lead with 3:12 to go in the period.
That would prove to be South Portland’s high-water mark.
The Red Riots had a couple chances to extend their lead, but couldn’t convert. Then, with 2:11 left in the third, Faithfull scored on a layup after a steal. Forty-nine seconds later, Faithfull hit two foul shots to put the Stags ahead to stay. After sophomore Peter Gwilym came in off the bench to hit a jumper, Faithfull delivered a cruel blow to South Portland’s hopes.
With time winding down, DiStasio’s long shot bounced off the rim and appeared to be heading out of play on the right wing, but Faithfull chased the ball down and launched a prayer at the horn, falling out of bounds in the process. The rainbow found nothing but net and Cheverus had a 35-29 advantage heading for the fourth.
“It was just lucky,” Faithfull said. “It bounced to me and I just threw it up. I’m not sure it will ever happen again, but it was nice.”
“He’s always going to remember that shot,” Brown added. “I’ll remember the fact that he was a real athlete who with a second left didn’t stop playing.”
The Red Riots were still very much in the game, but after Gwilym made a layup and DiStasio hit a 3, the hosts went down 40-29 with 7:15 to play.
“I thought Peter Gwilym was monumental,” Brown said. “He’s playing only three or four minutes a game. He’s an athlete. He was going to make a play. His shooting’s been great. I have confidence in him. He’s only a sophomore. I didn’t know how he’d react to the crowd, but he thrived on it.”
“They scored a couple baskets at the end of the third and they made a couple at the start of the fourth we didn’t counter,” said South Portland coach Phil Conley. “That was the difference in the game. Cheverus is a very good team. They’re number one in our conference for a reason.”
A Bowring foul shot with 6:45 left ended the 13-0 run and a drought spanning 4:27, but Foley answered with a jump shot to push the lead to 12. After Bowring hit two free throws and Hyland made a jumper to get the hosts back within eight, 42-34, with 3:38 to go, DiStasio made a layup. South Portland got within eight one final time on a pair of Hyland free throws that gave him a game-high 20 points. But Gwilym made a layup and Faithfull hit six straight foul shots to put it away. A three-point play from sophomore Mike Kennedy with 36.2 seconds to go accounted for the 52-39 final score.
“I think South Portland played good defense and I felt we played poor offense until midway through the third period,” Brown said. “Then we started to play well. Truthfully, I thought they ran good offense in the first half and it bothered us.”
DiStasio led the Stags with 17 points. Faithfull added 16. Foley finished with nine, Gwilym added six.
“(South Portland) played really well,” said Faithfull. “They played hard the whole game. That’s what we expected. They’re a good team.”
Both Brown and Faithfull loved the tournament environment and the fact that their team was pushed for most of the game.
“This was great for us,” Brown said. “We’ve had one game under 10 points. We have to be able to play down the stretch. It was meaningful for me to come in here. This is what we used to play in. Phil deserves all the credit for taking this team two years ago to a packed house tonight.”
“It was fun,” added Faithfull. “We’re the targets. Everyone looks to knock us out. It was good to have a close game. Especially going into the playoffs. We’ll try to keep getting better from here.”
Cheverus, first in Western A, has a chance to go unbeaten for the first time since 2004-05, the same season the Stags were upset by Deering in the regional final. After visiting Portland Tuesday (too late for this edition), Cheverus closes at home versus Deering Friday.
While going 18-0 is not the ultimate goal, the squad is aware of the opportunity.
“It would be nice, but we’re just looking to get better,” Faithfull said.
“Being undefeated always means something to the ego,” Brown added. “In reality, I want to be pushed to the limit. I think we were the pushed to the absolute limit tonight. If Keegan hit a couple shots, it’s a closer ballgame and maybe we don’t pull it out.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com