Rams pull away in second half to beat Messalonskee 49-34 for Class A crown
By Michael Hoffer
AUGUSTA — Living up to and exceeding the hype, the favorite from Day 1 became the last team standing.
For the second year in a row, Deering can call itself Class A girls’ basketball state champions.
During Saturday night’s state final at the Augusta Civic Center, the Deering Rams overcame a dreadful first period, came to life in the second half and rode a stellar defensive effort, a balanced offensive attack and secured their date with destiny with a 49-34 victory over the Messalonskee Eagles.
“It’s a priceless feeling,” said Deering senior Diana Manduca, who led all scorers with 14 points. “It’s even better this time being a senior. The seniors are an amazing group. We’re really close. It’s been a great season. Coming in, we knew they’d give us a great game. They’re a great team, but we pulled it out.”
Second to none
Deering won its second Gold Ball last winter, but on the eve of this season, saw coach Mike D’Andrea step down in the wake of a baseball team drinking scandal. D’Andrea was replaced by former Scarborough and Westbrook coach Mike Murphy.
If that wasn’t challenging enough, the Rams were the overwhelming preseason favorites, but they passed every test (please see accompanying story).
Deering went 18-0 in the regular season, with its smallest margin of victory 10 points in a win at Scarborough Jan. 8. The Rams’ average victory margin was over 27 points. Then, after fighting off a stern test from No. 8 McAuley in the quarterfinals, Deering had little trouble against No. 4 Noble in the semifinals and No. 3 Biddeford in the regional final.
Messalonskee went 16-2 this season, earned the No. 3 seed, then downed No. 11 Leavitt, No. 2 Edward Little and No. 1 Skowhegan to take the regional crown.
Saturday was Rams’ third Class A Final. They won it all in 2004 (50-41 over Cony) and last year (55-43 over Oxford Hills). The Eagles had never played in the Class A state game, but had won the Class B championship in 1987.
The teams had never met in a countable game, although Deering did beat Messalonskee 58-47 in the championship game of a holiday tournament in late-December.
“It helped being on this court at the Christmas tournament,” said Deering junior post standout Claire Ramonas. “It was a good experience.”
Neither team was capable of much offense in the first half.
Messalonskee opened the scoring on a layup by senior Jessica Bridges. Manduca answered with a layup after a steal and Ramonas made a foul shot, but junior Ariana Perry made a layup for the Eagles, junior Kaitlyn Deering hit a jumper and junior Holly Oliver made a foul shot to put Messalonskee up 7-3 after one quarter.
Deering was 1-of-16 from the field in the first eight minutes.
Rams senior Jordan Cuddy hit a bank shot to start the second period. After a Bridges foul shot made it 8-5 Eagles, Manduca made a driving layup, then drained two foul shots for a 9-8 Deering lead.
With 6:25 to go in the half, a bizarre sequence occurred as the Rams tried to make a substitution, but didn’t get a player off the court in time, leading to a technical foul.
Messalonskee Junior Hannah Dexter made one of two free throws to tie the game. Oliver followed with two foul shots and Kaitlyn Deering hit another for a 12-9 advantage.
But Deering responded, getting a bank shot from sophomore Kayla Burchill and a layup from Burchill to take a 13-12 lead into the half.
“We went into halftime and as bad as it was, we were up a point,” Murphy said. “We got caught up in the frenzy of the crowd and the scene. Actually, the last couple minutes of the second quarter, we made them play defense. We made them work against us. I thought Jordan gave us great minutes in the first half when Claire got two fouls. I told them to settle down and get the ball in the post.”
Deering turned it up in the second half, utilizing its size, quickness and interior passing to open up the game.
Senior Maria Apon got it started, taking a pass from Manduca and converting a layup. The Eagles tied the game on a 3 from Dexter, then went up 17-15 on a long jumper from Perry. But that was the Eagles’ high-water mark.
With 6:35 to go in the third, Burchill hit a long jumper to tie it up. Then, with 5:43 to play, Manduca hit two foul shots to put the Rams ahead for good.
Ramonas added a jumper and Manduca hit a runner to make it 23-17. After Perry hit a jumper, Burchill took a pass from Ramonas and made a layup. Manduca then fed Ramonas for a backdoor layup and sophomore Britni Mikulanecz fed Ramonas for another layup and a 29-19 lead.
“I think the first half they were off a little bit on their shooting,” said Messalonskee coach Brenda Beckwith. “We did a good job defensing what they were doing. I think Mike went in and lit a fire under them. They pass the ball so well. They spread you out. They set a couple back screens and we didn’t read them well and you could see the machine crank up for them. They did a tremendous job.”
After Kaitlyn Deering stemmed the run with a putback, Ramonas fed Burchill for a layup. Deering made a foul shot to pull Messalonskee within, 31-22, but with time winding down, senior Jess Ruhlin drove for a layup to make it 33-22 after three.
“We came in the locker room at halftime and Diana said we were beating ourselves,” Ramonas said. “We took that as motivation.”
“We came out with intensity in the second half and we played well,” Burchill said. “We tried to drive to the basket more and not rely on outside shooting since obviously those shots weren’t falling today.”
The Rams kept the pressure on to start the fourth when Manduca made a runner and Burchill made a layup to stretch the lead to 37-22. After Perry made two foul shots, Burchill answered with one and Manduca made a layup for a 40-24 lead with 4:50 remaining.
Perry (a team-high 11 points) kept the Eagles’ scant hopes alive with a 3-pointer, but Ruhlin hit two foul shots and Ramonas added two more. After Messalonskee drew within 44-31 on two free throws from Dexter and two more from Oliver, Ramonas and Apon made one foul shot each.
Dexter (nine points) got one back for the Eagles, making it 46-32, but Apon made two free throws with 1:18 to play. Messalonskee (19-3) got its final points of the season with 45.3 seconds remaining, courtesy of two foul shots from Dexter, before a free throw from junior Maria Salamone brought the curtain down on Deering’s 49-34 victory, the Rams’ 36th in succession over the past two years.
“We slowed ourselves down in the second half,” Ruhlin said. “We played at our pace. We forced things in the first half, but slowed down and did better in the second half. All week we worked on help defense and pressuring the ball. That’s all we did for four days the first half-hour of practice. I think the best part is going out with a bang in my last year. I couldn’t ask for anything better.”
While Manduca led Deering with 14 points, she had company. Burchill (13 points) and Ramonas (10) also scored in double figures. Apon added five points, Ruhlin had four, Cuddy two and Salamone one.
Back for more
Manduca, who is Colby College-bound, Ruhlin, Apon and four other seniors have played their final game for the Rams.
“I had one year with them, I wish I could have three more,” Murphy said. “Great kids, great leaders. I wanted them to have fun. They had great leadership. Jess was absolutely fantastic. Diana gave us great minutes. Maria Apon was terrific and played her role. Casey Everest was in and out, but did a great job of being a captain accepting her role. I didn’t know Jordan Cuddy existed, but she was a great kid who worked hard in practice. They stepped up for each other. It’s a bittersweet thing for them.”
With that said, Deering returns the likes of Burchill, Mikulanecz and Ramonas and will be right in the hunt for a three-peat next winter.
“Claire has been through it now three years,” Murphy said. “Kayla and Britni for two. That’s a great start. I have kids who had great JV seasons who were with us every day. I hope they’ll put in the time and effort and we’ll play again next year at a high level.”
“It’s going to be sad without the seniors, but we’ll come back next year and try to do our best,” Burchill said.
“We’ve been with the seniors since we’ve been here and we’ll never be with players as good as them,” Ramonas added. “They made us better players. It’s sad, but it’s part of the game. It looks really good for us. We lose a lot, but so does the rest of the league and we have some good young girls. We like our chances.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com
Deering senior Diana Manduca drove around a Messalonskee defender Saturday during the Class A state final. Manduca led all scorers with 14 points and led the Rams to a second successive championship. (Brian Beard photo)
Sophomore Britni Mikulanecz didn’t allow Messalonskee junior Ariana Perry much breathing room during Deering’s state championship win. The Rams held the Eagles to just 34 points. (Brian Beard photo).