By Eric Carson
PORTLAND — Just about every close basketball game ever played has been decided one way or another at the foul line.
On Saturday night, the defending Class A state champion Cheverus Stags boys’ basketball team used the stripe to fight off a plucky Portland High team and remain undefeated with a 59-44 victory in a pivotal Southern Maine Activities Association game at a jam-packed Keegan Gymnasium.
The Stags (8-0) shot a remarkable 15-for-17 (88 percent) from the line, including a perfect 10-for-10 in the decisive fourth quarter in which they outscored the Bulldogs 18-9 to stretch a four-point lead to a perhaps not coincidental 15-point win.
“If we can’t finish and we can’t finish from the line, we won’t win the big ball games,” said Cheverus coach Bob Brown. “We maintained our poise and we made our foul shots.”
Junior center Lenny Cummings went 8-for-8 from the line on the night, converting six straight in the Stags’ flawless fourth quarter. Junior guard Indiana Faithfull went 4-for-4 in the stretch.
And while the foul line proved pivotal, so did the smothering defensive pressure applied by Cheverus. Led by Faithfull (10 points) and senior guard Mick DiStasio out front, the Stags forced 15 Portland turnovers in the first half alone. DiStasio led all scorers on the night with 23 points, taking advantage of Portland miscues to score several uncontested layups.
“Defense is one of our strengths,” says Brown. “We’re a long team. We play good defense and we play good team defense.”
The Bulldogs didn’t exactly lay down on the job, trimming a 31-19 halftime deficit to a manageable six points at 41-35 after three quarters. Portland coach Joe Russo inserted freshman guard Will Defanti in the game to play the point and his steady play helped Portland (7-2) take better care of the basketball and stay within reach of the Stags.
“We shifted things around a little bit,” said Russo. “We brought in Will and he had a great game. Every time we made a run he had a hand in it. (Junior Koang) Thok had a great second half. (Senior Ed) Bogdanovich made very few mistakes tonight.”
To start the fourth quarter, Portland sophomore James Ek sunk a 3-pointer to cut the lead down to four, but that would be as close as Portland would get in a physical, borderline testy contest with playoff implications.
Again it would be the Cheverus defense to the rescue in the decisive fourth quarter. Faithfull picked off a pair of passes and fed senior Dan Foster (six points) and Cummings for easy lay-ins. A Cummings rejection led to a DiStasio breakaway, and then a bizarre turn of events helped Cheverus back to a comfortable 53-39 advantage with 3:23 left in the game.
With possession, Cheverus called for a timeout, and when the Bulldogs didn’t return to the floor in time the Stags quickly inbounded the ball to DiStasio for an uncontested layup that helped seal the win.
“Defense is what this team is all about,” said DiStasio. “We wanted to play pressure defense and try to take away as many inside looks as we could. They hit some nice shots from the outside but we were able to limit them inside. Last night (a 73-33 win at Sanford) we shot 25 percent from the line and tonight we did a much better job. We shot foul shots the way we know we are capable of.”
Cheverus opened the game with an 8-0 run on the strength of three DiStasio baskets, but as was the case for most of the night, the Bulldogs fought off a potential blowout with a senior Joe Violette basket on a designed out-of-bounds play, and a three-point play by Ek to make it 9-5.
Cheverus answered with a Foley-to-Cummings hoop on the press break, but a rebound and put-back by Bogdanovich (eight points) and a sweet drive and layup at the buzzer by Defanti (four points) cut the lead to 11-9 after the first quarter.
To start the second, Thok (10 points) turned a Cheverus turnover into an easy layup at the other end to tie the score 11-11, but the Stags put together another big run and ripped off 13-straight points to take a 24-11 lead.
After the Stags’ 13-2 run, Thok hit another 3 to cut the lead back to 10 points, but the Stags would answer with six straight points on a pair of hoops by DiStasio and long 3-pointer from the corner by Foster to take a 31-14 lead.
Portland answered with five-straight of their own on a jumper from the elbow by Bogdanovich and a 3-pointer from Ek (six points) to make it 31-19 at the half.
The third quarter was the Bulldogs best frame of the night, as they opened with an 8-2 run to close the gap to 33-27.
Senior Wally Stover (eight points) drilled a 3 from the deep corner. Cummings sank two free throws for the Stags, but Violette answered with a bucket in the lane and Thok connected once again on a jumper out front.
Cheverus answered with a three-point play from Foley and a pair of foul shots to move back ahead by 11, but a Thok turnaround in the lane and a jumper from Defanti helped the Bulldogs stay close at 38-31 with 3:19 left in the third.
DiStasio added three more points to close out the quarter on a foul shot and jumper, but Portland junior Joe Zukowski (four points) hit a spinner off the glass in the lane and ended the third with a rebound and put-back in traffic to close the gap to six at 41-35.
To start the fourth, the Bulldogs finally found a way to get the ball inside to the 6-foot-6-inch Bogdanovich, and a pair of his easy layups pulled the Bulldogs within four points with just under seven minutes left at 43-39, but the turnover issue resurfaced and the Bulldogs were forced to foul down in the final minutes of the game.
Cummings and Faithful combined for a perfect 10-for-10 from the line down the stretch to keep the Stags undefeated.
“Portland is a good team,” says Brown. “When you talk about teams that could win the West they’re in every conversation. Bogdanovich is one of the best players in the league. If you let him beat you he will. He had some big offensive rebounds that hurt us at times tonight.”
Cheverus (fifth in the latest Western Class A Heal Points standings) played at home Tuesday night against Gorham (too late for this edition), visits Deering Thursday, and returns home Saturday to host the Scarborough Red Storm. Looming even larger in the Stags’ near future is a showdown at Westbrook Monday. Cheverus fans please note, that game begins at 4 p.m.
Portland (sixth in Western A) hosted Sanford Tuesday (too late for this edition), travels to Gorham Thursday as they face former star player and assistant coach Josh Longstaff (now the Rams’ head man) for the first time, and play at Deering Saturday (with a 1 p.m. tip). The Bulldogs also have a game left with Westbrook, the Cheverus rematch at the Expo (Feb. 3), and a series with South Portland on tap.