Short-handed, valiant Cheverus ousted by Oxford Hills in OT thriller

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Oxford Hills’ Atreyu Keniston and Cheverus’ Owen Burke fight for a rebound during the Vikings’ stirring 53-50 overtime win Thursday evening in a Class AA North quarterfinal.

Brewster Burns photos. 

More photos below.

AUGUSTA—Cheverus’ boys’ basketball team has accomplished many meaningful and memorable things in victories over the years.

Thursday evening at the Augusta Civic Center, the Stags may have produced their finest moment in defeat.

Taking the floor for its Class AA North quarterfinal as a decided underdog, fourth-ranked Cheverus had to battle No. 5 Oxford Hills without three critical players, but nearly came away with an improbable win nonetheless.

Not only were the Stags missing senior Noah Johnson and sophomore Patrick Foster due to injury, they were also without the services of junior Jesse Matthews, one of the league’s most talented players, who picked up a pair of technical fouls in the regular season finale and by rule, had to sit out the ensuing game.

Despite the obstacles, Cheverus gave the Vikings all they could handle for 32 minutes anyway and when the dust settled, it took 36 minutes to determine a winner.

The Stags avoided an early knockout blow and senior standout Jack Casale heated up late in the first period, helping Cheverus take an 11-10 lead after eight minutes.

The lead changed hands an amazing dozen times in the first half and by virtue of scoring the final four points, Oxford Hills clung to a 23-20 advantage at the break.

Little changed in the second half, as neither team could open up a lead of more than three points until late in the third quarter, when the Vikings closed on an 8-0 run to take a seemingly secure 39-32 lead.

But the Stags weren’t about to bow out quietly and in a matter of 2 minutes, 15 seconds, a personal 7-0 run by Casale re-tied the game.

Three more times Cheverus would rally to tie, at 41-41 on a floater from sophomore Matt Duchaine, 43-43 on a pair of free throws from sophomore Owen Burke, who had a breakout game on the big stage, and 45-45 when junior Will Shibles got a runner to rattle home with 1:08 to play.

When Oxford Hills got a free throw from sophomore Colton Carson with 10 seconds left, it looked like that might be it, but Casale drew a foul with 3 seconds remaining and after missing the first attempt, he willed the second into the basket to force overtime.

There, the Vikings finally did just enough to escape, survive and advance.

A leaner from Casale forged a 48-48 tie and two Casale free throws made it 50-50 midway through OT, but the Stags wouldn’t score again.

With 27.1 seconds remaining, Oxford Hills got a pair of foul shots from senior captain Cole Verrier and after a Cheverus turnover, sophomore Andrew Fleming added a free throw.

The Stags had one final look and a 35-foot prayer from Shibles was almost answered, but it was barely off-target, leaving Cheverus three points short as the Vikings were able to celebrate a palpitating 53-50 victory.

The Stags got 25 points from Casale in his swan song, but it wasn’t enough, as their season ended at 11-8 and Oxford Hills improved to 13-6 and advanced to meet top-ranked, defending state champion Portland (16-2) in the AA North semifinals Tuesday at 9:30 p.m. in Augusta.

“I’m extremely proud of how we battled and left it all on the floor,” said Cheverus coach Ryan Soucie. “We shouldn’t be ashamed of our effort. We’ll leave with our heads held high. The odds were stacked against us and I knew the guys would respond and they did. I’m proud to be their coach. It’s just a tough way to go out.” 

Uphill challenge

Cheverus was very competitive this season (see sidebar, below, for links to previous stories). The Stags began 6-1, 8-2 and 10-3 and enjoyed a signature victory at defending Class AA South champion South Portland, but they dropped four of their final five contests to wind up fourth in the region.

Oxford Hills, which almost got to the regional final last winter, letting a late lead slip away against Deering in the semifinals, posted a 12-6 mark, despite dropping three of its final four, to finish fifth in Class AA North.

Cheverus beat visiting Oxford Hills, 54-44, back on Dec. 22 behind 28 points from Casale.

The teams had played three previous times in the tournament with the Stags winning two of them (see sidebar, below). 

Thursday, the Vikings did just enough to advance.

Oxford Hills got the first points on a reverse layup from junior Atreyu Keniston, who dominated down low all night, but a running bank shot from Duchaine put Cheverus on the board.

After Fleming banked home a shot, a 3-pointer from junior Tobias Ephron gave the Stags the lead and Casale added a fadeaway jumper.

Keniston put the Vikings back on top by twice putting home misses, but Casale got a fadeaway to rattle in.

After Fleming’s leaner appeared to give Oxford Hills the lead after the first quarter, Casale was fouled shooting a desperation 3 with 0.2 seconds showing and he made two shots for an 11-10 advantage.

In the second period, the teams continued to go back and forth.

A driving left-handed bank shot from Carson started the frame and Verrier hit a bank shot for a 14-11 lead. 

Back came Cheverus behind an unlike source, as Burke scored on consecutive putbacks for a 15-14 advantage.

After Carson made a putback for Oxford Hills, Duchaine’s 3 from the corner made it 18-16 Stags.

Verrier answered back with a 3 of his own, but another Burke putback gave the Stags their final lead of the half, 20-19.

With 1:11 to go, sophomore Janek Lukska drove for a layup and Verrier added a bank shot and after Casale missed the front end of a one-and-one with 6.4 seconds remaining, the Vikings took a 23-20 advantage to halftime.

In the first half, the lead changed hands a dozen times.

Burke and Casale had six points apiece for Cheverus, while Oxford Hills was paced by Verrier with seven points and Keniston with six (as well as seven rebounds).

In the third period, the Vikings finally put a little space between them and the Stags.

A free throw from Carson started the second half, but Casale set up Burke for a layup and Ephron drove for a layup to tie it, 24-24.

Keniston made a layup to give Oxford Hills a two-point lead, but Casale knocked down a 3 for Cheverus’ first advantage of the half and Burke added a foul shot.

After Carson set up Keniston for a layup to tie it, Casale made two free throws for a 30-28 lead with 3:37 remaining in the quarter.

A long, arcing 3-pointer from junior Christopher St. Pierre gave the Vikings the lead, but with 2:31 left, Casale made two foul shots to make it 32-31 Stags.

Oxford Hills then closed the frame on an 8-0 run.

A Keniston layup got it started. Fleming made a jumper, Verrier hit a leaner and Fleming did the same for a 39-32 advantage heading to the fourth period.

There, the Stags roared right back.

Casale singlehandedly rallied his team early in the frame, scoring on a leaner to end the 8-0 run, driving for a layup, then, with 5:45 showing, scoring on a leaner while being fouled and hitting the free throw for the three-point play which tied it, 39-39.

Cheverus couldn’t grab the lead, however.

After Fleming put Oxford Hills back on top with a leaner, Duchaine’s floater with 4:44 remaining tied it, 41-41.

Thirteen seconds later, the Vikings retook the lead when Verrier drove for a layup, but with 2:34 remaining, Burke was fouled and made both attempts to make it 43-43.

After Verrier missed at the other end and Casale got the rebound, the Stags had a chance to take the lead, but Ephron’s shot was off.

After Fleming missed a 3, Carson got the rebound, but he also missed.

Fortunately for Oxford Hills, Keniston got the rebound and was fouled and with 1:25 to go, he made two shots for a 45-43 lead.

Again, Cheverus answered, as Shibles got a runner to bounce in with 1:08 showing, tying the score, 45-45.

After running the clock down, the Vikings got Fleming a look, but his shot was off.

Carson snared the rebound, however, and with 10.2 seconds to go, went to the line. His first attempt rimmed out, but the second was true.

The Stags then got their final chance and not surprisingly, the ball came to Casale, who was fouled on a drive with 3.0 seconds remaining.

Casale back rimmed the first attempt and after a timeout, he hit the rim with the second, but it bounced around twice, then fell through to tie the game for the eighth time.

“There’s no one else I’d want on the line,” Soucie said. “It was a big pressure moment for an 18-year-old. They tried to ice him, but he made that second one.”

The Vikings needed a prayer to win it and almost got it, as St. Pierre’s 30-footer just before the horn hit the backboard just to the left of the rim and the game would go to overtime.

In Maine high school basketball, a four-minute overtime period is used to determine a winner.

Oxford Hills would emerge victorious, but not until the very last shot rolled off as the horn sounded.

Twenty-one seconds into the OT, Fleming got a step (an extra step in Cheverus’ opinion) before making a short hook shot.

At the other end, Casale’s leaner off the glass tied the game, 48-48.

With 2:38 remaining, Keniston made a layup and when St. Pierre came up with a steal, the Vikings had a chance to add to their lead, but Carson missed and Casale got the rebound. 

With 2:07 to go, Casale was fouled and this time, he wasn’t about to miss, draining both attempts to tie the game for the last time, 50-50.

Those would prove to be the Stags’ final points, however.

After Keniston missed a shot at the other end, Carson kept possession, but Fleming missed and Casale’s rebound gave Cheverus a chance to go on top.

The Stags never managed a shot, however, as they were called for a three-second violation and with 27.1 seconds to go, Verrier was fouled and made both free throws for a 52-50 lead.

Casale tried to answer on a drive, but was called for a charge and with 6.1 seconds remaining, Fleming went to the line with a chance to ice it.

Fleming made his first shot, but the second was off and Casale got the rebound, giving Cheverus one final chance.

Out of a timeout, Shibles inbounded the ball to Ephron, got it back, raced across halfcourt and near the 3-point line before launching an off-balance shot.

The ball ricocheted hard off the backboard, hit the rim and for a tantalizing second, hung on the rim before falling off as the horn sounded and Oxford Hills was able to hold off the valiant Stags, 53-50.

“It had a chance,” Soucie said, of the final shot. “From where I was, I thought it was going in. I knew they’d take Jack away, so that was the backup plan. It was a well-executed play. It just didn’t go in. We executed all night long, but Oxford Hills won it. They made plays. It was a good game.”

Oxford Hills was paced by 16 points and 10 rebounds from Keniston. Fleming and Verrier each added 13. Carson finished with six points and 11 boards and St. Pierre had three points (and three steals) and Lukska two. 

The Vikings enjoyed a 32-25 advantage on the glass, only turned the ball over 15 times in 36 minutes and sank 7 of 10 free throws.

Oxford Hills now has to go up against a team which has been in the state final three years and running, but it will take its chances.

Portland will take the floor Tuesday having not played a countable game in 13 days.

Portland handled visiting Oxford Hills, 73-52, back on Dec. 15. The teams haven’t played in the postseason since the 1994 Western A preliminary round (a 66-50 Vikings’ triumph).

Unforgettable

Casale, who had as fine a season as anyone in the area, bowed out with a double-double of 25 points and 11 rebounds.

“Jack was Jack,” Soucie said. “He did all he could to carry us. He has ice in his veins. Jack’s had a huge impact on our program. He got us back to the level Cheverus should be at. When we win again, it’s for him.”

Burke came from nowhere to also finish in double figures with 11 points. He also grabbed three offensive rebounds and had a pair of steals.

“Owen came in and played with guts and courage and made plays,” Soucie said.

Duchaine added seven points, Ephron five (to go with four rebounds and a blocked shot) and Shibles (two steals, two blocks) two.

“Will, Tobias and Matt all contributed,” said Soucie.

Junior Perrin Conant and sophomore Akera Oryem also gave the Stags key contributions.

“Akera hasn’t played a lot, JV mostly, but he gave us minutes tonight,” Soucie said.

Cheverus didn’t get as far as it hoped, but the way it performed with valor Thursday evening is why this squad will ultimately be remembered fondly.

“I’m happy with our season,” Soucie said. “We had a great start. We started with an overtime game and we ended with one. We had ups-and-downs in-between. We faced adversity, but I’m proud of how the guys came to work every single day.”

The loss of Casale to graduation will be seismic, but the majority of this squad returns. The Stags will keep climbing the ladder and it’s safe to say that a return to the glory days isn’t far off.

“I told the underclassmen to remember how this (loss) feels,” Soucie said. “We’ll get to work in the summer and get better. We play in an extremely tough league.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

Cheverus’ junior Will Shibles tries to keep up with Oxford Hills’ Cole Verrier.

Cheverus’ Will Shibles, left, and Owen Burke try to steal the ball from Oxford Hills’ Colton Carson.

Previous Cheverus stories

Season Preview

Cheverus 57 Scarborough 51

Cheverus 54 Oxford Hills 44

Deering 67 Cheverus 48

Cheverus 51 Bonny Eagle 43

Cheverus 60 South Portland 55

Portland 69 Cheverus 46

Previous Cheverus-Oxford Hills playoff results

2001 Western A second round
Oxford Hills 53 Cheverus 52

1991 Western A preliminary round
Cheverus 71 Oxford Hills 48

1989 Western A quarterfinals
Cheverus 61 Oxford Hills 50 

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Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.