Thursday, February 27, 2014

Windham High girls' basketball team wins in final seconds to go for the gold ball - By Jim Beers

Just before stepping onto the Cumberland County Civic Center court to face Cheverus in the Western Maine Class A semifinal Friday night, the Windham High School Lady Eagles basketball team looked very relaxed and focused. On a Cinderella-type roll through this tournament, Windham looked to keep the momentum going against a tall Lady Stags team. Fresh from beating Sanford to get into the tournament, the Eagles knocked off second ranked Thornton Academy Tuesday to advance to face 14-6 Cheverus in front of a packed arena. 

Windham coach Brody Artes, still all smiles from the Thornton win, said before the game, "We're looking to run the same plan, let our defense set the tone for our offense, control the glass, but we have to be more aggressive tonight. (Jess) Willerson and (Georgia) Ford combined to score 40 points last game, we have to find a way to slow them down."

After a slow first quarter, with both teams feeling each other out, Cheverus held the early lead 9-7. Lodia Ismail connected on two 3-pointers in the first for Cheverus, but Windham's defense was causing turnovers and the Lady Eagles were limiting the Stags to one shot per trip down the floor with some great rebounding. In the second quarter, Windham turned the ball over five times in one 4-minute stretch and got outscored 17-8 in the quarter. Ismail hit two more threes and Cheverus had a commanding 26-15 lead heading into halftime. 

Sophomore Sadie Nelson exploded in the second half for 17 of her game-high 22 points. Scoring the first seven points of the third quarter, Nelson, along with Windham's defense, erased the 11-point deficit and got the Eagles to within one, 28-27, with 2:31 to play in the third. Forcing another turnover, Windham found Haley Batchelder for two more in the paint to give the Eagles the lead, 29-28 with 1:25 remaining.
Cheverus was looking to go inside as much as possible and with a minute left, the Stags' Cassidy Grover got fouled and made one of two free throws to tie the game at 29. After a Windham miss, Cheverus' Jill Libby came down and nailed a deep three to give the Lady Stags the lead, 32-29, heading into the fourth. The Eagles' Sam Frost was once again given the tough assignment to guard Ford all night long and held the Cheverus co-captain to a very quiet game. 

Willerson's started the fourth with two to give Cheverus a 34-29 lead, while Windham searched urgently on the offensive end. The two teams traded turnovers before Nelson earned another trip to the free throw line and swished both to make it 34-31 with 4:40 to go in the game. The Eagles, who had been full court pressing since coming out of halftime, forced yet another Cheverus turnover, one of 13 Stag turnovers in the second half. Luisa Sbardella then immediately hit a deep 2-point bucket to pull Windham within one, 34-33. Frost committed a blocking foul on Willerson, who hit both free throws to give Cheverus a 36-33 lead, with 3:38 on the clock. 

Windham had been controlling the defensive glass all night long. A Cheverus over the back foul on a great box out by Windham's Frost, sends her to the line for a 1-and-1 opportunity. She made both, bringing the Eagles back once again to within one, 36-35 with 3:18 left. Another Cheverus turnover led to another bucket by Nelson, this time off the backboard to give Windham a 37-36 lead and throwing the Windham crowd into a frenzy with 2:40 still to play.

After Windham's Lonnie Staten missed the front end of a 1-and-1 at the 2:00 mark, the Eagle defense went to work again. Forcing Cheverus into a back court violation, Windham got the ball back and into Nelson's hands. Cutting across the lane once again, Nelson receives the assist from Frost and converts the running layup, giving Windham a 3-point lead, 39-36, forcing Cheverus to call time, with 1:23 to go. 

Out of that timeout, Ford misses a contested three from the top of the arc. Windham rebounds and with 1:02 remaining, coach Artes calls time to get everyone on the same page for the last 60 seconds. The Eagles inbound to Frost, who is immediately surrounded on the sideline, forcing her to burn another Windham timeout at the 58 second mark. After a wild sequence, Windham loses the ball out of bounds with 48 seconds left in the game. Carefully moving the ball around for a good shot, the Stags find Willerson down low but she misses the 7-footer in the lane and Staten comes up with the huge rebound for Windham. 
Staten is fouled right away, giving her a 1-and-1 opportunity, with 39.1 seconds to play. Missing the first, 
Staten tracks down her own rebound and in another wild scramble, finds Frost who gets fouled by Grover, putting Windham in the double bonus, shooting two. With 25 seconds left, Frost makes the first, making it 40-36, but misses the second and Cheverus rebounds. The Lady Eagles were all over the court tracking the ball and forced Cheverus into their 13th turnover of the half, this time a traveling violation. Quickly inbounding, Windham's Frost is fouled again and she headed back to the line for two, with 16 seconds left in the game. After missing the first attempt, Frost swishes the second and Windham had a 5-point lead, 41-36. Cheverus missed again from inside as Staten secured the rebound and fed Sbardella who dribbled out the clock, giving Windham another upset win in these 2014 Western Maine playoffs. 

"Again our defense and rebounding were the key tonight," said coach Artes. "We were able to bring a lot more defensive pressure in the second half, and we made more shots offensively which helped our confidence. These girls always believe, they never quit and they play their game...and tomorrow night, we play McAuley for the gold ball, we can’t wait!"

For Cheverus, Jess Willerson led the way with 14 points. Guard Lodia Ismail hit four three pointers for 12 points. The Stags finish at 14-7. 

Windham was led by Nelson's 22 points, and the 5'10'' sophomore spoke after the game, "Amazing, an amazing win, so awesome to beat Cheverus, this was a total team effort. Our defense allowed us to set the tone early." 

Windham outscored Cheverus 26-10 in the second half, propelling them to their first ever regional final.

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