(Ed. Note: This story originally appeared in the Feb. 18, 2004 Portland print edition)
SOUTH PORTLAND—Something had to give Monday evening when undefeated Class A boys’ basketball powers Cheverus and Portland squared off in a long-anticipated battle at Southern Maine Community College.
That something, to the surprise of most, was heretofore perfect Portland, upset 52-50 in an overtime epic by the defending regional champion Stags.
SMCC’s gymnasium was filled to the rafters and hundreds of would-be spectators were turned away at the door. Those who made it in were graced by the high school and college basketball cognoscenti of southern Maine, on hand to see a much-hyped contest that more than lived up to its advance billing.
“This was great for high school basketball,” decreed Bob Brown, Cheverus’ legendary coach.
“It was a tremendous game,” Portland coach Joe Russo concurred.
Both teams came out on fire and made it appear as if a shootout was in store when they combined for 17 points in less than three minutes right out of the chute.
Portland senior Rocco Toppi and talented Cheverus sophomore Joseph Nguany matched baskets and stole the show early on, but Bulldogs senior Joe Murphy’s layup gave the favorites a 13-11 lead after one quarter.
“We made some big plays at the beginning and those big plays convinced us that we could play with them,” Brown said. “Once we were convinced, it was a game.”
Portland stretched its lead to as many as five points, 21-16, in the second period, but Cheverus stormed back and pulled within two, 26-24 at halftime, on senior guard Mackenzie Simpson’s two foul shots, which capped an 11-point period for the sweet shooter.
The Bulldogs hoped to deliver a knockout punch early in the second half, but simply couldn’t shake the Stags. Twice Portland led by four points (a Toppi rebound slam dunk brought the house to its feet and made it 30-28 Bulldogs), but Cheverus would not go away. A layup by Stags senior Michael Schnackenberg gave the Stags a 35-34 lead (their first of the half) with 1:02 to go in the third. Portland answered when senior point guard Eric Shone drained a 3-pointer for a 37-35 lead heading into the final period.
The fourth quarter featured two heavyweights going toe-to-toe, while their respective cheering sections did the same.
A floating layup by Toppi made it 39-35 Portland. A rebound layup by sophomore Sean Costigan and a steal and layup by Simpson tied things up. Portland junior Tyler Emmons then hit two foul shots, but Nguany hit a driving layup and we were deadlocked at 41-41.
With 1:34 to go in regulation, Simpson scored on a layup, but Toppi followed a Shone miss 17 seconds later and we were tied again at 43-43. With 54 seconds left, Costigan hit two free throws, but with just 21 seconds left Shone did the same.
Cheverus had the last chance in regulation, but Nguany failed to get the ball to Simpson in time for a good shot and Simpson’s long-range prayer at the horn was off.
Portland took its lone lead of overtime when Emmons made one of two free throws. Cheverus answered on a foul shot by Costigan, then took a 50-46 lead on a pair of hoops from the unflappable Simpson.
With 1:42 to go in OT, Toppi coolly drained two free throws. After the teams traded turnovers and Cheverus called a timeout, the Stags went ahead 51-48 when senior Andrew Schober made one of two free throws.
Ten seconds later, Shone got a steal and went coast-to-coast for the layup which restored hope to the Bulldogs and made it a 51-50 game. With 15 seconds left in the extra session, Schober was again fouled and again made one of two.
Portland took timeout and devised one final play.
Toppi got the ball and looked to penetrate, but the Cheverus defense didn’t budge. Standing at the 3-point line, he couldn’t get a clear shot either, so he stepped back and threw up a long-range shot that hit the rim, the backboard, then fell harmlessly aside as time expired.
“I just turned around and watched the ball and prayed that it wouldn’t go in,” Simpson said.
“I would have liked to see a better attempt that last possession,” said Russo. “There were a couple of options, but not that.”
“We just kept playing and playing,” Brown said. “I thought the kids did a nice job. The kids’ heart made the difference. They scrambled after balls and got some key rebounds. We got a couple of breaks. We got the ball to scoring areas at the right time.”
“It was fun,” Simpson added. This gives us a boost that we can play with the best team in the state.”
Portland was left to lick its wounds.
“We needed this,” Russo said. “We haven’t had to execute a lot. Cheverus has been in some closer games. It could be a good thing for us. We shot 17 for 58, but still had a chance to win. We’re probably going to go in No. 2 now, which is fine.”
Simpson led all scorers with 21 points. Toppi had 20 for Portland. Shone added 12. Nobody else scored in double figures.
Both teams now turn their attentions to closing the regular season on a positive note. Cheverus hosts Westbrook Thursday, while Portland (which hosted Deering Tuesday) is home against South Portland Thursday.
Then, the postseason begins (look for Cheverus to be seeded No. 1, Portland No. 2) and it is very likely that these two heavyweights will see each other again, Saturday, March 6, with a berth to the state championship game on the line in front of thousands of people at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
They likely won’t see a better game than those lucky few sardines at SMCC Monday night.
Monday night’s Cheverus-Portland boys’ basketball showdown had a little bit of everything, including Stags’ sophomore Joseph Nguany driving past Portland senior Rocco Toppi early on as Cheverus shocked the Bulldogs 52-50 in a battle of unbeatens at Southern Maine Community College