PORTLAND—The Yarmouth boys’ basketball team continues to amaze.
Thursday evening in a Western Class B semifinal round showdown with top-ranked Greely at the Cumberland County Civic Center, the fourth-seeded Clippers made history by doing something that hasn’t been done since Richard Nixon was in the White House and the Miami Dolphins were Super Bowl champions.
Trailing the Rangers by five points late in the third quarter, Yarmouth closed the period in dazzling fashion on a 6-0 run and extended its surge to a stunning 13 in a row in the fourth quarter.
Behind staunch defense, the nonpareil leadership of big-game standout senior Luke Pierce and even lo and behold a strong performance at the foul line, the Clippers fought off every Rangers’ push, went on to a 54-42 victory and ended Greely’s season at 17-3.
That means that Saturday at 3:45 p.m., for the first time since 1974, Yarmouth (16-4) will play in a regional final, squaring off against No. 2 Cape Elizabeth (16-4).
“It means everything,” said Pierce. “It’s something to be proud of. There’s nothing like playoff basketball.”
“We spread the floor in the second half, took it to the rim and got after it,” added Yarmouth’s superb head coach Adam Smith. “These guys are tremendous athletes.”
Greely lost three straight years in the semifinals to Cape Elizabeth, but had been the team to beat this year, winning 16 of 18 contests before putting on a clinic in a 78-56 win over No. 8 Gray-New Gloucester in the quarterfinal round Saturday.
Yarmouth, which didn’t even make it to the quarterfinals a year ago, falling to Lake Region at home in a prelim, was solid this winter, winning 14 of 18 games before pulling away to beat No. 5 Mountain Valley, 77-52, in Saturday’s quarterfinal round.
The teams split in the regular season, each winning on the road. Greely was a 61-53 victor on Dec. 13. The Clippers responded Feb. 4 with their first victory in Cumberland in memory, 50-48.
The Clippers and Rangers have met three prior times in the playoffs. In the 1970 quarterfinals, Greely eked out a 58-57 decision. Yarmouth’s lone win came in the 1973 regional final (50-46). Four years ago, in the quarterfinals, the Rangers rolled, 67-53.
Thursday, both teams started slowly, but action soon heated up.
The Clippers took a 4-0 lead behind a jumper from junior Josh Britten, a foul shot from Pierce and another from senior Connor Ertz.
Yarmouth could have taken an even larger lead as the Rangers struggled to find their way, but failed to do so.
Greely broke the ice with 4:34 to play in the opening quarter when junior Nick Clark hit a foul shot.
Then, the Rangers’ train came into the station.
Freshman Bailey Train, in his first action on the Civic Center floor, hit a 3 on his first shot to tie the score, 4-4. With 2:43 to go, Train struck again with a 3-ball to give Greely its first lead.
After Pierce made a layup, Train made yet another 3, his third in 1 minute, 43 seconds, to make it 10-6. Senior Aidan Sullivan made a putback for the Clippers before senior standout Sam Johnston got going with a jumper to give the Rangers a 12-8 lead after one.
Yarmouth started the second quarter with a 6-0 run to retake the lead, as Pierce made two free throws, Britten hit two and Pierce made two more. Senior Tanner Storey got in the scoring column with a tip-in, but Pierce made a free throw, then hit two more to make it 17-14.
The Clippers had a chance to extend the lead, but turned the ball over on successive possessions. Greely took advantage as Johnston made a layup after a steal and Johnston made two free throws after another steal. Yarmouth went back up, 19-18, on a Sullivan layup (from Pierce), but the Rangers closed with two foul shots from Johnston and a Johnston jumper as time wound down to make it 22-19.
In the first 16 minutes, there were three ties and five lead changes.
In the third period, Greely got a little separation, but the Clippers came roaring back.
A layup from junior Liam Maker (set up by Storey) got it started. Murphy got on the board with a foul shot, but Maker made a driving layup. After a putback from Sullivan, McDevitt made a baby hook for a 28-22 lead.
Yarmouth got a driving layup from Pierce and a layup from Knaub to pull within two, but Johnston sank a 3 for a 31-26 advantage with 1:24 to play in the period.
The Clippers then turned things around in a flash, as Pierce made a layup, Pierce made two free throws and with time about to expire, Ertz got free for a fastbreak layup and a stunning 32-31 lead.
“We made a nice run at the end of the third,” said Pierce. “Everybody believed in each other.”
“It was Pierce,” said Greely coach Ken Marks. “He had a lane to the basket. He shot foul shots well.”
If the Rangers weren’t shellshocked enough by the closing flurry of the third period, Yarmouth kept the pressure on in the fourth and pushed its advantage to 39-31 behind a Britten layup (from Pierce), two Britten free throws, a driving layup by Pierce and after a Greely timeout, a foul shot from Knaub with 4:48 to go.
“We don’t focus on the scoreboard, just what we’re doing,” said Smith. “We had lost a little energy, but picked it up with a couple steals and hit some shots and that changed the whole outlook of the game. I looked Luke in the eyes and said we needed more energy. We started to put some pressure on them.”
The Rangers finally snapped the 13-0 run and a 4 minute, 53 second scoring drought when McDevitt made two free throws with 4:31 to go, but Knaub made a pair of foul shots with 3:47 remaining to push the lead back to eight, 41-33.
“I had to focus and tune everything out,” Knaub said. “Luckily, we had our fans behind our backboard.”
Train made a layup with 3:20 left to cut the deficit to six, but Ertz made a layup and with 1:49 to go, senior Matt Murphy canned two free throws to make it 45-35.
Greely got a layup from Johnston, but Knaub made a free throw. After a foul shot from Johnston, Murphy made one of two free throws to make it a nine point game, 47-38.
With 1:20 left, Britten’s two free throws made it an 11-point lead. Johnston answered with two foul shots and with 48.5 seconds showing, Train made a fadeaway jumper to cut the deficit to 49-42, but Knaub responded with a layup, Britten hit a free throw and as an exclamation point, Britten hit a bank shot in the waning seconds to bring the curtain down on Yarmouth’s 54-42 triumph.
“It’s all about day in, day out, overcoming adversity,” said Pierce. “We knew (Greely would) make a run. It’s all about not giving up. That’s who we are. We play aggressive defense. They’ve been here before, year after year. I brought water to the seniors my freshman year (the last time the Clippers were in the semis). This team is very resilient. We’re not affected about where we play or who. We were confident.”
“We knew beating Greely would be hard,” said Smith. “We don’t look at regional final or semifinal. It was a tough game against a conference opponent. I thought they wore down a little bit. They had some breaks early on.”
“It’s a rough round,” said Marks. “It really is. Especially against a team like that. I thought (Yarmouth) played very well. Everything we had a hard time with this year, we had a hard time with today. Pierce took over. We didn’t have that defensive presence in the middle. We wanted to handle their pressure better than we did. (Storey hurt his leg in the second quarter) and that took away everything we tried to do. We didn’t want to get caught up in their pace, but we had to because we were behind.”
Pierce, who has scored a regional final soccer game winning goal with his head, won a pair of soccer state titles and played in a regional final baseball game, continued his emergence as a basketball star with 18 points, three rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot.
“It’s different from soccer and baseball,” Pierce said. “I can’t rank them since I love them all, but it’s pretty high.”
Britten quietly finished with 13 points, four boards, two steals and a block after struggling most of the evening.
“Josh forced shots and got an offensive foul,” said Smith. “You could see the frustration, so I pulled him for about 30 seconds and talked to him. I told him he doesn’t have to do it himself. It took a little stress off him.”
Knaub had eight points, two rebounds and two steals.
“I call Chris Knaub the glue,” said Smith. “He’s very smart and heady. I need him on the floor for what he does mentally for us. He settles us down.”
Sullivan added six points, four rebounds, three blocks and a steal, Ertz five (along with three rebounds, a block and a steal) and Murphy four (along with 15 rebounds and two blocks).
“It was sheer teamwork and how we believe in each other,” Knaub said. “We know we’ll get help off the bench. Aidan gave us momentum tonight and helped us fight. We practiced for this all year. It felt great. We want to play for each other.”
“Matt does whatever he needs to do,” said Smith. “He had 15 points in the last (Greely) game and we needed it. Tonight, he proved himself on the boards. He didn’t let McDevitt or Storey outboard him tonight. He was unbelievable. He didn’t come out of the game.”
Yarmouth turned the ball over 15 times and was a more than respectable 27 of 42 from the foul stripe.
“You have to make free throws in playoff time,” Pierce said.
“That’s amazing,” added Smith, when told of the stat. “It’s got to be coaching! We don’t harp on that. These guys have confidence. We didn’t make it an issue. The issue is getting up the floor and playing every possession. If we miss free throws, we play defense.
“We came into the season without guys who couldn’t shoot really. They’ve gotten their touch and confidence. We didn’t really jell as a team until after December break.”
Greely got a team-high 18 points from Johnston in his swan song. He also grabbed six rebounds and had a steal. Train had a breakout 13-point performance and had three boards. Maker (two rebounds, two steals and a block) and McDevitt (seven boards and a block) both had four points. Storey (10 rebounds, three blocks) finished with two and Clark had one. Greely turned the ball over 19 times and made 10 of 16 foul shot attempts.
The Rangers again go home again unfulfilled after a fourth straight semifinal round setback.
“The kids played hard,” Marks said. “They had a good year. I feel really bad for them. Yarmouth played very, very well. They’re very aggressive. Those three kids out front are great defensive players. I thought Murphy played well off the boards.
“It has nothing to do with the semifinals. It has to do with Yarmouth is a good team. It’s not a matter of getting over the semifinals for these kids. They don’t have that history. I do.”
Greely should be a factor anew next winter with plenty of talent returning.
Thirty-two minutes to glory
In 1974, Yarmouth, then playing in Class C, defeated Fryeburg (54-52) and Gray-New Gloucester (73-71) before falling to Hall-Dale (77-58), the eventual state champion, in the regional final.
Now, 37 years later, Yarmouth will battle Cape Elizabeth, seeking its first state final berth since falling to Sumner in 1973 (106-63). Yarmouth’s lone championship came in 1968.
The Clippers split with the Capers in the regular season, winning, 84-61, in Cape Elizabeth Dec. 21 and falling at home, 61-39, Feb. 8.
Cape Elizabeth won the two prior playoff meetings, 77-48, in the 2002 preliminary round and 66-58 in the quarterfinals two years ago.
Yarmouth is close enough to taste ending a 37-year regional title drought, but the Clippers know victory Saturday won’t come easily.
“Cape’s a good team,” said Pierce. “We need to play our game. We don’t shift to play against another team. We play our game and that’s how we play.”
“We don’t care about the past,” Knaub said. “We want to win as a team. We won’t be overconfident. We’ll come with our ‘A’ game.”
“What you saw tonight will be similar on Saturday,” Smith added. “It’ll be up and down, sloppy at times, but our effort will be there. It’ll be a difficult task. These guys really wear themselves out in a game. I’m going to make sure we’re healthy.”
The Class B state championship game is Friday, March 4, at the Civic Center. Game time is 8 p.m. The Eastern B championship game features 20-0 Camden Hills versus 20-0 Ellsworth.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @foresports