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Cheverus slays its nemesis, moves on to regional final

Sport: Basketball (Boys)

Posted: February 21st, 2008 by Tom Nolette

Cheverus slays its nemesis, moves on to regional final
By Michael Hoffer
Special to MBR
02/21/08

PORTLAND- The Cheverus Stags weren't only facing a powerful foe Wednesday night when they took the Cumberland County Civic Center court for a Western Class A boys' semifinal.

The Stags were also facing history, unpleasant history, as that powerful foe, the Portland Bulldogs, had knocked them out of the playoffs in three of the past four years.

This time, however, Cheverus was ready and the Stags more or less dominated from the get go and went on a surprisingly easy and emphatic 63-49 victory, ending Portland's season at 14-6 and setting up a regional final showdown with Thornton Academy Saturday night.

"We got to them right off and forced them to up tempo their pace," Stags' coach Bob Brown said. "Everybody played very, very well."

Cheverus and Portland were pegged as the teams to beat at the start of the year. The Stags appeared to have the top seed for the playoffs all sewn up when they won their first 14 contests, but Cheverus then dropped three straight, to Thornton Academy, South Portland and Portland. A win at Deering in the regular season finale gave the Stags a 15-3 record and allowed them to leapfrog Thornton Academy for the top seed.

Portland, meanwhile, took an opposite road. The Bulldogs started 3-3, then won nine of 10, before finishing 13-5, good for the No. 4 seed.

Portland rallied past Deering in its quarterfinal Friday night, while Cheverus cruised to a big lead, then held off Windham in its first playoff test.

Cheverusand Portland split during the regular year (a 68-62 win for the Stags at Cheverus on Dec. 21 and a 37-31 triumph for Portland at the Expo Feb. 5).

The Bulldogs eliminated Cheverus from the playoffs in 2004 (68-52 in the regional final), 2006 (55-44 in the semifinals), and last winter (62-44 in the regional final).

This time, the Stags were determined to come out and make a statement.

Junior Mick DiStasio (who struggled mightily on the same floor against Portland in last year's loss) hinted at a huge night to come when he made a scoop shot layup just 22 seconds in to put the Stags on top. Junior Peter Foley followed with a layup for a 4-0 lead. Portland got on the board when senior Jake Longstaff made a little left-handed shot in the lane, but the Stags then erupted for eight straight. DiStasio got it started with a layup after a steal. Sophomore Indiana Faithfull then converted a three-point play. After DiStasio made one of two free throws, Foley scored on a tip in for a 12-2 lead. Longstaff finally ended the run with a 3-pointer, but Cheverus junior Ian Barwise countered with a 3-ball of his own for a 15-5 advantage with 1:57 to go in the first.

The Stags wouldn't score again until midway through the second quarter.

The Bulldogs began to crawl back into it when senior Mike Harmon made a leaner, then took a pass from senior Anthony Passmore and made a layup to cut the deficit to six, 15-9, after one.

Harmon began the second with a 3-pointer, Longstaff followed with another left-handed shot and with 4:30 to play in the half, two free throws from junior Ed Bogdanovich gave Portland its first lead, 16-15.

Ten seconds later, Faithfull answered with a short jumper, ending a 5 minute, 37 second drought, but a Bogdanovich jump shot put the Bulldogs back on top, 18-17. Faithfull answered with another jumper, but two free throws from sophomore Wally Stover gave Portland its final lead, 20-19.

Cheverus then erupted for 10 in a row.

Barwise tied it with a free throw, then put the Stags ahead to stay with a layup. DiStasio then made back-to-back hoops for a 26-20 lead, then capped the surge with a 3-ball. With time winding down in the half, however, the Bulldogs gained a little momentum back when sophomore Koang Thok made two free throws and Harmon added two more, making it a 29-24 game.

Entering the third, it was a question of which team would come out an impose its will. Many expected Portland to rally, but instead, Cheverus answered the bell and seized control.

After Bogdanovich opened the second half scoring with two free throws, Faithfull made a floater, senior Doug Alston hit a layup and Faithfull buried a long jump shot for a 35-26 lead. Harmon answered with a floater, but Barwise made a long jump shot and Foley scored on a layup to make it 39-28. Bogdanovich scored on a rebound layup at the other end, but with 2:31 to play in the third, DiStasio canned a 3-ball for a 42-30 advantage.

Portland wouldn't go away, however. After senior Dewayne Albertie made a layup, sophomore Joe Zukowski ended the period with a 3-pointer and it was still a close contest, 42-35, entering the fourth.

When Alston and DiStasio opened the final stanza with consecutive 3-pointers for a 48-35 lead, all hope looked lost for the Bulldogs, but Passmore answered with a 3 and a foul was called on the Stags, so Portland retained possession and wound up with another three points when Zukowski hit a bomb, making it 48-41.

That's as close as the Bulldogs would get.

DiStasio made a 3 with 4:38 to play. After Zukowski scored on a runner, Faithfull took a pass from DiStasio and made a layup, DiStasio hit a free throw, Foley made two foul shots, then hit a layup, senior Chris Hendrix canned two free throws and senior Keelan Donovan capped the decisive 11-0 run with a layup for a 62-43 advantage with 1:35 to go.

Portland got a jumper from Stover and two free throws apiece from Zukowski and junior Joe Violette down the stretch and Hendrix added one more free throw for Cheverus to account for the 63-49 final score.

"I can't explain how good this feels," said Alston. "The last two years they knocked us out, but we finally got it done. Everyone played as hard as we could."

"We played as a team," added DiStasio. "In the past games when we struggled, we didn't share the ball. Tonight, we passed it around. When we're unselfish, we can be scary. We played well tonight.

"Portland got us the last two years and we knew we needed to get them. This is big. Hopefully we'll keep this momentum going through."

Coach Brown was pleased to beat the Bulldogs in the tournament for a change.

"(Portland coach Joe Russo) and I go back and forth," he said. "He's put a hurting on us and on me in the past. That team might have been the hottest team coming in. They're very good. I'm very pleased. We found out in losing three straight that this is still a team game. I thought we played tough throughout the game and dictated more of the tempo than anything else."

Portland's season of growth came to an end, but the Bulldogs had much to be proud of and the rest of the league better have enjoyed this winter, because they'll be back with a vengeance in 2008-09.

"All good things must come to an end," Russo said. "I was more concerned about the law of averages. They live and die by the 3 and tonight they lived. They played very well as a team. They had a nice rhythm and flow. We made some nice runs, but turnovers killed us. That limited our shot production. Our defense played well. We knew they'd come out tough. We weren't ready, but we settled down. We never got in a rhythm. We didn't execute.

"We were picked in the preseason to be one of the best teams, but I told the kids tonight we had a remarkable year. They had to deal with stuff you don't normally have to deal with. This wasn't an all-star team. We had newcomers who had to learn the offense. I have three excellent sophomores. I told the boys it's no fun losing. What we accomplished this year was remarkable. They gave me everything I asked. I've got a lot of respect for these kids. I put them through a lot this year and they stuck with me."

Portland was paced by 11 points from Harmon and 10 from Zukowski. Bogdanovich added eight and Longstaff had seven.

Cheverus was led by DiStasio, who led all scorers with 22 points. Faithfull (13 points), Foley (10) and Barwise (eight) also had big scoring games.

The Stags will meet at Thornton Academy squad which barely survived Westbrook in the quarterfinals, then eliminated South Portland in impressive fashion in the semifinals.

Cheverus lost 51-39 at home to the Golden Trojans Jan. 29.

The Stags will be ready and wary as they seek to win their first regional final in four tries and reach the state game for the first time since losing in overtime to Bangor in 2003.

"We're more hungry than you know," Alston said. "We want to go all the way."

"They're a good team," DiStasio said, of Thornton Academy. "Strong guard play and inside presence. They beat us the first time when we weren't playing as a team. Now we are. Hopefully that will carry us through."

"They have an outstanding point guard in (senior Jeff) Winnie," Brown added. "They have one of the best big men running the floor in (senior Kory) Martin. Everyone thinks (junior James) Morse is their best player and I just mentioned two guys that I think are tremendous. They have all-conference guys. All good teams have to have a close call and they had their close call and showed character. They've been well coached. They beat us the first time. Winnie gave us trouble. He created and caused us problems. We'll come to play."