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(Ed. Note: For the full Cape Elizabeth-Falmouth and South Portland-Cheverus game stories, please visit theforecaster.net)
Three local boys’ basketball teams will journey to the Portland Expo this weekend full of momentum and high hopes.
In Western A, Scarborough will compete in the quarterfinals for the first time in seven years when it battles top-ranked Cheverus.
South Portland, coming off an exhilarating regular season finale win over Cheverus in senior standout Keegan Hyland’s return from injury, will meet Deering.
In Western B, Cape Elizabeth, the two-time defending regional champion, earned the top seed after ending Falmouth’s unbeaten run, and will go up against either Yarmouth or Lake Region.
In each of the past four seasons, Scarborough has lost in the preliminary round, one step shy of the Expo. This year, the Red Storm put it all together down the stretch and were rewarded.
Scarborough was 6-7 after falling 44-38 to visiting Windham on Jan. 23, but hasn’t lost since and truly turned the corner with a first-ever win at Portland (58-45) on Jan. 28 and a crucial 66-63 double-overtime triumph at defending state champion Thornton Academy five days later. Friday, the Red Storm closed with a 58-41 home victory over Kennebunk (senior Conor Sullivan erupted for 30 points) to wind up 11-7. When recent nemesis Biddeford (which beat Scarborough in the preliminary round three of the past four seasons) lost to Thornton Academy, the Red Storm secured the No. 8 spot.
“We were pretty happy when we heard about the TA score,” said second-year coach Joe Johnson. “It’s been a little bit of a roller-coaster season. We went 0-4 after Christmas, but the kids stuck together and have come on strong. We’re playing our best basketball. We’ll have fun Friday.”
Friday at 8:30 p.m., Scarborough has the daunting task of facing powerhouse Cheverus (17-1), a team which led 43-8 at the Red Storm at the half of a 59-44 triumph back on Jan. 9. The Stags aren’t the same team now, after senior standout Indiana Faithfull was declared ineligible, but plenty of talent remains.
“We had an issue with handling their pressure defense,” Johnson said, alluding to the first meeting. “If we can weather the storm, we’ll hang around and make it interesting. We outplayed them in the second half the first time, but they took the pressure off. On a bigger floor at the Expo, hopefully we’ll be able to do better handling the pressure. Beating Portland and TA has given us a ton of confidence. I feel it’s a mentality of the kids believe in themselves. We’re starting to get there.”
The teams have never played in the postseason.
If Scarborough could pull off an epic upset, it would meet either No. 4 Windham (13-5) or No. 5 Thornton Academy (13-5) in the semifinals Wednesday. In addition to the Red Storm’s OT win at the Golden Trojans, they lost 51-38 at home to Thornton Academy on Jan. 7. The loss to the Eagles back on Jan. 23 was the lone regular season meeting.
South Portland was able to persevere for 17 games without Hyland, the Co-SMAA Player of the Year last winter, and win 13 of those contests behind a superb team effort. Friday, the Red Riots took it to another level when they hosted an undefeated Cheverus squad that pummeled them 66-44 back on Jan. 22 in Portland.
With 3:57 to go in the opening quarter, Hyland came off the bench to a thunderous ovation and promptly hit back-to-back layups to extend a 5-3 lead to 9-3. The advantage was 14-7 after one and 29-14 at the half and although the Stags rallied to within 41-37, Hyland and senior Matt Lee made enough key plays down the stretch to allow South Portland to pull away and win 53-43.
“I’ve been waiting so long to get back on the floor,” said Hyland (18 points). “There were a lot of things going through my mind but nothing could be better than tonight. We have the best fans in the state and it was a great feeling to have them honor me on Senior Night, my first game back. But we’re just getting started. We’ll get started at the Expo. We’re dangerous right now.”
“I’m really at a loss for words right now,” said Lee (15 points). “It’s huge having Keegan back. You have to respect the best player in the state or he’s going to do his thing. When they concentrate on him the rest of us can make you pay. It was a great atmosphere tonight. We have the best fans in the league. It’s like having a sixth-man out there. We consider it a big advantage.”
The Red Riots wound up 14-4 for the third year in a row and earned the No. 3 seed in Western A.
“First of all, I’m very happy for the guys,” said South Portland coach Phil Conley. “It was great to see Keegan out there. I know it’s been a tough year for him not being able to play. He’s been eager to get back out there and he was outstanding tonight. I’m proud of the kids to beat a quality team like Cheverus. We got great leadership from our veteran guys and had tremendous support from the community. It was a great atmosphere and a packed gym. South Portland has the best basketball fans in Maine. They’re our sixth-man out there and we just want to thank them.
“I’m proud of how the guys have battled this year. We lost Keegan for 17 games and (junior) Vukasin Vignjevic for the year. Other guys had to pick up the slack on offense. It took awhile to get used to it. Matt Lee and others did it. Every win was a team win. I thought we played our best defense in my three years as head coach.”
With Hyland back and determined to make up for lost time, the Red Riots will look to defeat No. 6 Deering in its first playoff game, Saturday at 7:30 p.m. South Portland beat Deering twice during the regular season, 62-58 on the road Jan. 7 and then again at home, 62-50, Jan. 28. The teams last met in the tournament in the 2004 preliminary round, when the Red Riots rallied to win, 44-42. Since 1963, South Portland has faced the Rams 10 times in the postseason. The Red Riots have won eight of those games.
“The league’s been pretty competitive so teams will have to play well in the tournament,” said Conley. “Deering is playing very well. They’re very athletic. We’ll have to play the way we’ve played all year. We’re looking forward to the challenge.”
If South Portland can advance, it would draw No. 2 Westbrook (17-1) or No. 7 Portland (10-8) in Wednesday’s semifinal round. The Red Riots fell 66-46 at the Blue Blazes Jan. 30 and lost two meetings with the Bulldogs, 56-49 at home Jan. 12 and 49-48 at Portland on Feb. 2.
While the Western B story this winter has been centered around Falmouth, two-time defending regional champion Cape Elizabeth has been biding its time and reminded everyone last Friday that the road to the title will once again go through the Capers.
Falmouth won the first meeting between the rivals this year, 62-55 Jan. 8 at Cape Elizabeth, but this time, despite a record, overflowing, pro-Yachtsmen crowd, the Capers had the answers.
Cape Elizabeth led just 18-17 at the half, but raced to a 42-28 lead with just over 5 minutes to go. To no one’s surprise, Falmouth senior sharpshooter Stefano Mancini heated up and brought the hosts back. When he scored on a finger roll with 9.2 seconds to go, the Capers’ lead had been cut to 46-45, but senior Andrew Dickey calmly hit two foul shots, then a last-second Mancini 3-point prayer hit the back of the iron and Cape Elizabeth held on for a 48-45 victory.
“It was tough to get comfortable on offense the way the game was going, possession by possession,” Capers coach Jim Ray said. “We weren’t very fluid. Their defense gave us a lot of problems. Our defense was good enough to keep us where we needed to be until we were able to get some offense. It allowed us to hold on against the ‘Mancini Show.'”
Cape Elizabeth finished the regular season with a 17-1 mark, its best since the 1993-94 squad finished 18-0.
“The kids have done an amazing job,” Ray said. “I think we’re on everyone’s radar now. I know how hard our kids work. I questioned their desire early on to do what kids in the past have done, but they did a lot. Hopefully they can carry it through. There’s very little margin with this squad. We’re not blessed with a lot of size. Hopefully we can hold up. We do have experience.”
The Capers will meet either No. 8 Yarmouth (11-7) or No. 9 Lake Region (11-7) in the quarterfinals Saturday at 4:45 p.m. The Clippers and Lakers meet in a preliminary round contest Wednesday. Cape Elizabeth swept Yarmouth this winter, winning 64-56 at the Clippers Dec. 17 and 52-51 at home Tuesday. The Capers also swept the Lakers, winning 60-41 at Lake Region on Dec. 12 and 70-53 at home Jan. 16.
Just last winter, Cape Elizabeth held off Yarmouth 66-58 in the quarterfinal round. The Capers last playoff meeting with the Lakers came in the 2004 semifinals (a 84-65 loss in the semis).
“There’s tough matchups this year,” Ray said. “We’ll face a good team we struggled against. We know an 8-seed can beat a 1. It’s a mindset. We have to play good basketball a week from tomorrow and go one game at a time. It should be fun.”
A victory Saturday propels Cape Elizabeth into Thursday’s semifinal round against No. 4 Greely (13-5) or No. 5 Maranacook (14-4). The Capers beat the Rangers twice in the regular season, 66-55 at home on Dec. 19 and 57-46 in Cumberland Jan. 22. Cape Elizabeth doesn’t play the Black Bears in the regular season, but two years ago, when Maranacook was still in Eastern B, the Capers lost the state final to the Black Bears in Bangor, 56-46.
Eric Carson contributed to this story
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Senior Conor Moloney and his Cape Elizabeth teammates hope to win a third straight Western B title.