PORTLAND, Maine — A season marked by transition and tragedy was about to end in abject disappointment for the Deering boys’ basketball team Friday evening at the Portland Exposition Building.
But the Rams simply refused to say goodbye.
Deering, the No. 4 seed in the Western A tournament, learned quickly that Cinderella 12th-ranked Marshwood wasn’t just content to be there, as the Rams led by just three points, 17-14, after one quarter.
The Hawks tied the game by halftime and the score remained deadlocked entering the fourth period, where Marshwood appeared to take control. The Hawks took a seemingly safe 50-43 lead with 2:18 to go, but Deering truly saved its best for last.
On a night where you could quantify the effort of several key players, it might have been the inspiration of someone who was no longer on the sidelines, former freshman coach and varsity assistant Brendan Conway, who spurred the Rams on to one of the most dramatic come-from-behind wins in program history.
Sophomore Benedict Williams, who has quietly become one of the league’s special young players, sparked the rally with a layup after a steal. A free throw from junior Liam Densmore, followed by a pair from senior point Chhorda Chhorn made things very interesting and when Williams calmly sank two more foul sots with 42.9 seconds showing, the game was tied, 50-50.
As time expired, Deering had a chance to win it, but Chhorn, who had to watch last year’s playoff ouster from the bench while nursing a knee injury, saw his potential Patrick Green moment elude him when his shot went in-and-out at the horn, sending the game to overtime.
After coming that far, the Rams weren’t about to settle for anything shy of completion of the storybook rally, getting a layup from Williams to start overtime and they never looked back. Deering did it all on both ends of the floor in the four-minute extra session and went on to a palpitating 60-53 triumph.
Williams had a game-high 21 points, Chhorn added 11 and the Rams improved to 13-6, advanced to meet top-ranked Portland (19-0) in the semifinals next week and ended the Hawks’ memorable run and year at 8-12 in the process.
“A playoff win is a playoff win,” said Deering’s first-year coach Todd Wing. “Just when people think we’re done, we get right back in it. I’m just excited for the guys.”
After seeing its reign as state champion end with a quarterfinal round loss to Thornton Academy last February, the Deering program has faced its share of change and challenge.
Not only did post standouts Labson Abwoch and Thiwat Thiwat graduate, but longtime coach Dan LeGage stepped down, to be replaced by Wing, his assistant.
Then, in November, just weeks before the start of the season, the program was rocked by a tragedy no one should have to endure.
Especially high school kids.
Conway, one of the most beloved members of the Deering community in its century-plus existence, passed away suddenly and shockingly at the far-too-young age of 34.
While the Rams struggled to make sense of Conway’s loss and he was never far from their minds, the players didn’t forget him and weren’t about to let him down.
“We don’t talk about it a lot,” Wing said. “We come out with the ‘Brendan Conway Ball’ every game. We come out of every break saying, ‘Conway!’ I did address it before the game for the first time. I told the guys to go upstairs, breathe in the french fries, look in the stands, absorb it in and live in the moment. I thought about Brendan a lot today.”
Following its regular season-ending loss to Portland last Thursday, Deering was more or less resigned to yet another playoff showdown against Thornton Academy, but Marshwood, which didn’t even qualify for the field until the last possible minute, sprang an upset in Tuesday’s preliminary round, holding on for a 48-47 victory over the host No. 5 Golden Trojans.
The Rams entered the game confident, especially knowing it had already beaten the Hawks, in South Berwick, 71-52, back on Jan. 4.
The teams had met just once prior in the postseason, a 57-32 victory for Deering in the 2006 semifinals, en route to the program’s first state championship.
Friday, in front of a raucous crowd, eager to escape the snow, the Rams avoided the quarterfinal round bugaboos that had bedeviled them so often in recent seasons.
It took nearly two-and-a-half minutes for a point to be scored, but once it came, the offense was fast and furious.
The Hawks opened the scoring as senior Brady Innes banked home a shot, but a putback from senior Ahmed Ali (Deering’s third offensive rebound in the possession) tied the score. Innes hit a leaner, but senior Ahmed Ismail Ahmed knocked down a 3. A baseline drive from sophomore reserve Baili Lontine-Kearson put Marshwood back on top, but Chhorn made a 3 for a 7-6 lead.
Lontine-Kearson gave the Hawks the lead again with a finger roll after a baseline drive, but Ali made another 3 and senior Patrick Lobor scored on a putback to make it 12-8 Rams.
After junior Drew Bartlett made two free throws for the Hawks, Deering pushed its lead to six as Williams scored on a driving layup and after a steal, junior Jason Thach made a layup.
Marshwood countered with two free throws from senior Jack Letellier and a driving layup from sophomore Ryan O’Neil before a foul shot from Williams made it 17-14 Rams after one.
Things remained tight in the second period.
After Innes tied the score with an old-fashioned three-point play (layup, foul and free throw), the Hawks retook the lead on an Innes layup, but Chhorn then made his presence felt, setting up Ali for a layup, then knocking down consecutive jumpers.
Innes countered with a bank shot, but Ali made two free throws.
Marshwood roared back to tie as Innes made a free throw and Lontine-Kearson sank a 3.
Deering retook the lead on junior Jacob Coon’s leaner, but a late putback from Lontine-Kearson fittingly forced a tie at the break, 27-27.
In the third period, Marshwood opened up what seemed to be a healthy lead, but in the blink of an eye, Deering roared back.
Bartlett started heating up just 55 seconds in, sinking a 3. After Lobor made two foul shots for the Rams, Bartlett drove for a layup, then, with 2:28 remaining in the frame, sank a 3 to make it 35-29.
With 1:21 remaining, Letellier was fouled on a drive and made a free throw to push the lead to seven, but with 1:06 left, Williams made two free throws and off the ensuing inbounds, Ali stole the ball and made a layup. Then, Williams did the same and in a pivotal 11-second span, Deering scored six points and pulled back within a point.
After Innes stemmed the run with a foul shot, Williams took a pass from junior Liam Densmore on the fastbreak and made a layup to tie the game after three, 37-37.
Marshwood continued to press matters, however, to start the fourth quarter.
Bartlett started the frame with another 3.
After junior Jacob Coon made a free throw for the Rams, Letellier stepped back and sank a 3.
Chhorn got a point back at the line, but O’Neil drove for a layup. After Williams made a layup after a steal, sophomore Zach Mitchell banked home a shot for a 47-41 lead with 4:29 to go.
After Lobor and Letellier traded free throws, Lobor made another to make it 48-43, but with 2:18 left, O’Neil went to the line for a one-and-one and coolly sank both.
But just when Deering appeared doomed, the Rams roared back.
A layup after a steal from Williams gave Deering hope.
“We were thinking we were still in it,” said Williams. “We didn’t give up. The game was on the line. You play harder when it looks like you’re going to lose.”
Densmore then sank a free throw before Chhorn, fouled after an offensive rebound, made two foul shots with 1:13 to go to cut the deficit to two.
After Hawks junior Noah McDaniel missed the front end of a one-and-one, Deering had a chance to tie or take the lead.
With 42.9 seconds left in regulation, after Lobor missed a layup and Ali was off with a putback, Williams grabbed the loose ball, was fouled and he was spot on with both free throws, making the score, 50-50.
“We knew we’d have that spurt,” Wing said. “Marshwood was doing everything right, but when you rely on pressure, we knew the spurt was coming. We stayed poised down the stretch.”
Marshwood had a chance to win it, but Lontine-Kearson missed and Lobor got the rebound, giving the Rams an opportunity to deliver a buzzer beater.
Deering, which won the Western A title two years ago on an improbable shot at the horn from Patrick Green, almost saw history repeat, but Chhorn’s fadeaway just before the horn went in, then popped out to keep the score deadlocked at 50-50.
Even though the Rams had to play an extra four minutes, they were confident.
“To be honest, (my shot) looked good to me, but we had the momentum,” Chhorn said. “I knew we’d come out in overtime and fight.”
After the teams traded turnovers to start the extra session, Ali blocked a shot at the defensive end and on offense, Williams drove for a layup to finally put Deering ahead for good.
The Hawks then turned the ball over and the Rams capitalized as Williams scored on a leaner for a two-possession advantage.
After Letellier’s shot went in-and-out and Lobor rebounded, Chhorn drove the lane, drew the defense and delivered a gorgeous pass to Williams for a layup and a 56-50 lead with 1:31 remaining.
Marshwood kept its faint hopes alive when Bartlett was fouled on a 3 with 42.4 seconds to go and sank all three free throws, making it a one-possession game, but eight seconds later, Chhorn made two foul shots to push the lead to five.
After Bartlett missed a 3, Deering junior Stephen Ochan didn’t just get the rebound, he set up Densmore for a layup which iced it and the Rams were finally able to celebrate doing all a team really needs to do come February, survive and advance.
Deering 60 Marshwood 53.
“This game was for Coach Conway,” Chhorn said. “We miss him. Everything’s for him. We stole this one. We can play better, but Marshwood gave us a fight.”
“We fought until the final second,” said Williams. “Coach always says it’s not over until the buzzer sounds and we fought to the end tonight. We stuck with what we do. (In overtime) we talked about keeping going and sticking to our plays.”
“Our guys stuck what with I presented them in the summer,” Wing added. “We didn’t come in here and change our game plan. We won by doing what we do well. I have to tip my hat to the guys on the team. They really executed down the stretch.”
While the Rams got many key contributions, the latest edition of the Benedict Williams Show stole the headlines. Williams had 21 points, three rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot.
“I’m very confident,” Williams said. “My coach and teammates trust in me.”
“Ben’s stepped it up for us,” Chhorn said. “He’s young, but he’s only getting better. We love him.”
“There are some fantastic young players in this league, but I’d put Benedict Williams right at the top and he’s coming into his own,” Wing said. “Sophomores have their ups and downs, but he’s peaking at the right time. He’s a tough matchup.”
Chhorn was the harbor in the tempest for his team, scoring 11 points, grabbing six boards and dishing out a couple assists.
“It means a lot to me since I missed the whole season last year,” said Chhorn. “I’ve practiced hard and worked hard to get back here. Coach told me to go out there and fight. Relax and be patient. If we rushed, we’d turn the ball over.”
“Chhorda was fantastic,” Williams said. “He took care of the ball. He didn’t turn it over. He was our senior leader. He was great.”
“Chhorda wasn’t going to let this be his last game,” Wing added. “He was poised down the stretch. I was going to let my senior point guard win it or lose it and I was confident he was going to win it.”
Ahmed and Ali both had eight points, Lobor six (to go with a game-high 12 rebounds and a block), Densmore three, Thach two and Coon one.
Deering committed 16 turnovers (12 coming after halftime) and made just 18 of 30 free throws, but its heart was undeniable and a 37-19 rebounding advantage (with 16 coming on the offensive glass) and nine steals helped the cause.
Marshwood comported itself in a fashion that deserves admiration. After a regular season which many felt the Hawks could pose problems if they got into the tournament, that’s exactly what they did.
Marshwood was paced by Bartlett’s 16 points. Innes had 13 before fouling out. Lontine-Kearson was stellar off the bench with nine points, four rebounds and three blocks. Letellier added seven points, while O’Neil had six and Mitchell two.
The Hawks shot 14-of-21 from the line, but gave the ball away 17 times.
Big hill to climb
There’s no way to sugarcoat it, Deering’s next test is as formidable as they come.
The Rams will have to play close to a perfect game when they square off against the nemesis Bulldogs Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., at the new-and-improved Cumberland County Civic Center.
Portland (which handled No. 8 Noble, 81-52, in its quarterfinal Friday) is now 19-0 and has dominated most of its foes, including Deering in both meetings: 77-42 at Deering and 63-46 at the Expo.
The teams, surprisingly, have a relatively limited playoff history, having met just four previous times, dating to the 1955 semifinals. Over the past 50 years, the ancient rivals have only met on three occasions: Rams’ wins in the 2005 semifinals (57-54) and 2006 regional final (70-64) and a Bulldogs’ victory in the most recent encounter, the 2008 quarterfinals (48-41).
Deering hopes its momentum will carry over and it will believe that anything is possible.
After all, it has the secret weapon/inspiration.
“We have to play with more heart (Wednesday),” Williams said. “That’s it. We have to play our hardest from the start.”
“Portland’s a tough team,” said Chhorn. “We’ll have to bring our ‘A’ game this time. We’ll come out the whole team. Together.”
“I’ll take the underdog role anytime,” Wing added. “We lost to them by 17 last time, but we had 30 turnovers. If we get that one aspect of our game tightened up, we have the horses to make a run.”