CUMBERLAND—The history boys from Yarmouth made a momumental statement Friday night.
Playing on a court where they had never won, the Clippers put forth a tremendous 32-minute effort which resulted in a palpitating 53-51 victory over the host Greely Rangers, continuing the program’s ascendance with a flourish.
Yarmouth’s defense was stellar throughout and after a slow offensive start, the 3-point acumen of senior Matt Murphy and unrivaled tenacity and clutch foul shooting of senior Luke Pierce proved to be the difference.
The Clippers extended their win streak to eight games, improved to 13-3 and have to be considered as a legitimate threat to play into March. The Rangers’ eight-game win streak was snapped and they fell to 14-2 on the season.
“Winning this game makes us that much closer and we all did it together and it was awesome,” said Murphy, who led all scorers with 19 points, including five 3-pointers.
“It’s the first time we’ve won here,” added Yarmouth coach Adam Smith. “It’s hard for a 16-, 17-, 18-year-old boy to appreciate that, but I know I do and I know the town of Yarmouth does. We had a great crowd here tonight. It was a tremendous atmosphere. It’s as close to a tournament game as you’ll get in the regular season. The guys enjoyed every second of the 32 minutes tonight.”
Greely has dominated Yarmouth over the years. The teams have met regularly since 1998 and the Rangers had captured 19 of the 21 previous meetings during the 24-year reign of coach Ken Marks. Greely hadn’t lost at home to the Clippers at all and only fell at Yarmouth in 2005 (61-59) and 2008 (49-46).
The Rangers won both meetings in 2009-10 (57-49 at home and 56-38 on the road) and won at Yarmouth on Dec. 13 (61-53) of this season. In that one, the Clippers played well, but 13-of-33 free throw shooting did them in.
In truth, this is new Golden Era of Yarmouth basketball, the best stretch the Clippers have had since the early 1970s. Smith had a 1-17 team in 2005-06, his second season, but the next year, resurgent Yarmouth posted a winning record and got to the quarterfinals. The Clippers have made the tournament four years running and have produced four straight winning marks for the first time since 1972-75.
Yarmouth has been better than expected this year, losing only to Greely, at York and at home to Gray-New Gloucester. The Clippers turned heads with a 84-61 victory at Cape Elizabeth four days before Christmas and had won seven in a row (capped by a 77-16 home win over Freeport Tuesday) prior to Friday.
The Rangers entered the season as the regional favorite after three straight semifinal round ousters at the hands of Cape Elizabeth. Greely won its first six games with varying degrees of ease, but on Jan. 4, at home, the Rangers were beaten by the nemesis Capers yet again, 55-41. Greely has hit its stride since and avenged the lone loss Jan. 25 with a 68-50 triumph at Cape Elizabeth. Thursday, the Rangers were 58-36 winners at Fryeburg.
Yarmouth came to Cumberland Friday night bearing the weight of history, but the Clippers showed their championship heart and found a way to steal the show.
In the game’s early moments, Yarmouth’s defense was superb, but the Clippers couldn’t buy a basket. Greely turned the ball over on each of its first five possessions, but Pierce and junior sharpshooter Josh Britten (who had a game-high 21 points in the first meeting) couldn’t convert.
“It was really frustrating,” Pierce said. “We knew we had opportunities. I myself was a large part of that.”
“It was more frustrating for the boys than it was me,” Smith said. “I knew the lid would come off. I felt for them. I told them to keep shooting and I knew we’d get some offensive rebounds. We struggled against (Greely’s) height. They clean the glass well. That’s their game. We ended up hitting shots and getting back in it. We didn’t get down and kept putting it up.”
Finally, with 4:07 to play in the eight-minute first quarter, the hosts broke the scoring ice when junior Liam Maker’s inbounds pass led to an easy layup by senior Tanner Storey. After senior standout Sam Johnston made a jumper, freshman Mike McDevitt scored on a putback and Johnston did the same, the Rangers were up 8-0 with 2:16 to play in the period.
Yarmouth finally got on the board with 1:24 to go when Britten knocked down a 3-ball. Britten followed with a pullup jumper (his final points of the first half) to get the Clippers within three, 8-5, after one.
“It was a crazy first quarter,” Marks said. “We gave the ball back the first five possessions we had. We talked about possession basketball and it didn’t work.”
The second period remained tight.
A layup after a steal by Yarmouth junior Chris Knaub pulled the visitors within a point. After McDevitt made a free throw, senior Aidan Sullivan (who provided key minutes off the bench, despite foul trouble) fed Murphy for a layup for his first points to tie the score. Knaub followed with a layup for the Clippers’ first lead, but Greely rattled off nine straight points to seemingly take control.
A pair of Storey free throws tied the game, Maker followed with a pair, then Maker hit a 3 ball. When senior Caleb King made a layup with 1:48 left in the half, the Rangers appeared in control, but Murphy answered by draining back-to-back 3s to pull the Clippers within a point. A pair of Johnston free throws pushed Greely’s lead back to three, 20-17, at the break.
Twelve turnovers hindered the Rangers in the first half. They would take better care of the ball in the second half, but ultimately, Yarmouth’s heart and will proved to be just enough.
A Murphy 3-pointer started the second half scoring and pulled the Clippers even at 20-20, but Storey made a free throw and Maker made a layup after a steal. After Pierce finally got on the board with two foul shots, McDevitt hit a short baseline jumper and Storey made a layup after two offensive boards to make it 27-22. Pierce got a point back at the charity stripe, but a putback from McDevitt and a dunk by Storey (after a feed from Johnston) made it 31-23 Rangers with 3:30 to play in the third quarter.
With his team on the ropes, Smith called timeout and Yarmouth responded.
Britten scored his first points of the half on a jumper and seconds later, McDevitt was issued a technical foul. Britten made the second of two free throws, but Storey answered with a putback. Undaunted, Knaub drew a foul on a 3-point attempt and sank two free throws. After Johnston hit a jumper, Pierce made a layup, then drained two foul shots to pull the Clippers within a possession, 35-32, heading for the final quarter.
“There’s times teams go on a run and it seems like a nail in the coffin,” Smith said. “We didn’t scoreboard watch all game. We didn’t know if we were ahead or how much we were behind at any time. These guys treated every single trip like it was their last trip of the game. They were looking for stops and they were looking to get scores at the other end. None of it came easily. We just battled and that kept us in the game. Our focus was what we were doing.”
Greely extended its lead to five when Johnston scored on a reverse layup 21 seconds into the fourth, but Knaub made a free throw and Murphy scored on a putback to make it 37-35 with 7:10 to play. Johnston hit a free throw, but with 6:37 remaining, Murphy was dead on with a 3-ball and the score was tied, 38-38.
After Johnston missed the front end of a one-and-one, Murphy made his fifth and final 3-pointer of the night with 6:13 showing and Yarmouth had its first lead of the second half. McDevitt answered with a jumper, but with 5:12 to go, Pierce made a layup to make it 43-40.
The Rangers got the next five points to retake the lead. After a tip-in from Storey and a free throw from junior Nick Clark after an offensive board, Storey stole a pass, raced in and emphatically slammed the ball home to make it 45-43 Greely.
Against Yarmouth responded with a 3, this one from Britten with 3:16 to go, which put the visitors on top to stay. With 2:27 left, Pierce somehow fought through the defense and managed to scoop home a tough-angle shot for a 48-45 advantage. Five seconds later, Johnston made two foul shots, but Knaub answered with one of two.
With 1:44 to go, McDevitt was fouled, missed the first attempt, but made the second and Greely was again within a point, 49-48. With 1:13 left, Pierce went back to the line. He made the first try, missed the second and the Clippers clung to a 50-48 lead. Knaub had a chance to extend the lead, but missed two tries from the line. After a Rangers turnover, Britten was called for a controversial charge, giving Greely an opportunity to tie or take the lead.
The hosts would do neither as Johnston missed a 3 and after Maker kept possession alive by throwing a loose ball out of bounds off Murphy, Storey went to the line, but only made his second attempt, pulling the Rangers to within 50-49 with 18.8 seconds left.
Pierce was immediately fouled and missed his first attempt, but made the second and the lead was back to two. Greely would come down seeking to break Yarmouth’s heart one more time, but with 5.7 seconds remaining, Maker was called for an offensive foul and the ball went back to the visitors.
After a timeout, Knaub threw a touchdown pass to Pierce who ran a couple seconds off the clock before being fouled and with 3.4 ticks left, Pierce went to the line.
The Clippers’ foul shooting woes have been well documented this winter and it’s possible their 20 misses cost them the first meeting between the teams, but this time, Pierce’s aim was true. His first attempt was good and so was the second, essentially icing the victory.
“I felt confident,” Pierce said. “I’ve struggled with free throws, but we’re all supportive of each other.”
“We made enough (free throws) to win,” Smith said. “That’s what we’ve done all year. We haven’t talked about foul shooting. When you hit them in crunch time it means a lot more than shooting 70 percent in regular time.”
Johnston would make a jumper as time expired, but Yarmouth, for the first time, had won at Greely, 53-51.
“It was close at halftime and that gave us confidence,” Murphy said. “We didn’t let the score bother us and focused on the end result. It’s a great accomplishment for team unity.”
“All year, as a team, collaboratively, we’ve picked each other up and never given up,” said Pierce. “We’ve battled through adversity. It’s all about playing together. When you play together, good things will happen. Give it Greely, they’re very athletic. It’s tough. You have to bear down. This is greatest atmosphere for basketball I’ve played in. It was all about all five defenders stepping up and we did.
“Give a lot of credit to coach. Smith does an awesome job. There’s not a team that has tougher practices than we do. We work our (backsides) off in practice. Off the court, we hang out. A lot of close friendships. We have high ambition and confidence in ourselves.”
“It was a great win,” Smith added. “The boys really enjoyed it. I haven’t seen us enjoy a victory like that. We had a great practice leading up to this. I felt we’ve come together. This was a huge test in this gym.”
Only four players scored for the Clippers, Murphy led the way with 19 points and added four rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots.
“We kept trying and eventually it fell for all us,” Murphy said. “We worked it to the open man. They covered Josh tightly tonight so it worked out for me.”
“Matt’s been playing really well down the stretch,” Smith said. “He gets very little fanfare with Josh and Luke on the floor, but he’s stepped up and hit big 3s the past few games.”
Pierce finished with 15 points, five rebounds, four steals and a blocked shot and reminded everyone once again why he’s one of the most unique and special athletes to come our way in a long time.
“Pierce wills us to work hard every single night,” Smith said. “He wills us to victory. He wills himself to the foul line to hit big foul shots. He wills himself on the boards, defensively and offensively. It just permeates our team.”
Britten had 11 points (two steals and two rebounds) and Knaub eight (along with three boards), but Sullivan (two steals), senior Connor Ertz (two boards) and junior Sam Torres (three rebounds and steady point guard play) also gave the victors clutch minutes. Yarmouth had 15 turnovers and wound up 14 of 29 from the line.
“I’m so pleased with the young kids and tell them they’re fortunate they get to see Luke and Josh,” Smith said. “It’s an unbelievable victory here. We just have to take it like that. It can’t be bigger than a very good regular season win over the team that will probably be No. 1 in the tournament. We’re looking forward to seeing them again because it will probably be in the tournament. I hope it’s not until the finals, if we’re so fortunate. This means more to the program than it does the individual guys. They love to beat Greely, don’t get me wrong, but it means more for where we’ve come from and what we’ve done.”
Greely was paced by 16 points (along with 15 rebounds and three blocks) from Storey. Johnston wound up with a quiet 15 points (along with four steals), McDevitt added 10 (10 rebounds and two blocks), Maker seven, King two and Clark one. The Rangers finished with 20 giveaways.
“I give (Yarmouth) a ton of credit,” Marks said. “They came to play. Their pressure was incredible. I thought we changed it up in the second half and the pressure didn’t bother us as much. We just couldn’t execute at the end. We didn’t take care of the ball, but I thought our inside game was outstanding tonight. I have a bunch of rebounds for two guys, one’s a freshman and one’s a senior.
“We had a nice run. It’s a not bad thing to lose. It’s bad to lose and not look at ourselves as players and coaches. That was a great game for us. I’m sure Adam feels the same way. That’s the most intense game we’ve been in since the tournament. They’re a very good team. I thought we did a great job on Britten, which was our goal, but when you have a guy who’s 6-5 sticking five 3s, that’s a killer.”
One week to go
Greely (still first in the latest Western Class B Heal Points standings) has its final home game Tuesday against Gray-New Gloucester, then finishes at Lake Region Feb. 11.
“I need to know what kind of team I have,” Marks said. “I’m still not sure.”
Yarmouth (fourth but poised to move up in the Heals) has another big test Tuesday when it hosts Cape Elizabeth. The Clippers close the regular season at Gray-New Gloucester Feb. 11.
“We have to keep playing together and not be selfish,” Murphy said. “If we do, we’ll be fine.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org