PORTLAND—Once again, the Deering girls’ basketball team dug itself a hole.

And once again, the Rams found a way to get out and win a game with its season on the line.

Now, Deering is just one victory away from a third trip to the Class A state final in four seasons, but standing in its way is a daunting foe that the Rams know all too well.

Saturday night at the Cumberland County Civic Center, top-ranked Deering was down 11-2 to upset-minded No. 5 Sanford midway though the first period, but the Rams, thanks again to the infusion of some players off the bench, rallied. The game was deadlocked at the half, but after senior standout Kayla Burchill carried the offensive load the first 16 minutes, her teammates stepped to the fore and helped put it away.

Senior Aarika Viola’s jump shot with 4:41 to go in the third gave Deering the lead for good and thanks in large part to eight second half points from sophomore Marissa MacMillan, the Rams held on for a 51-45 victory to improve to 19-1 on the season, end Sanford’s fine year at 15-5 and set up a delicious regional final showdown versus No. 2 McAuley (18-2) Monday at 6 p.m., at the Civic Center.

“I was pleased with our kids holding their composure and not panicking,” Deering coach Mike Murphy said. “They got back in the game.”

Team effort

Deering, the 2008 and 2009 Class A champion, which lost a heartbreaker to Scarborough in last year’s regional final, joined Cheverus and McAuley as a preseason favorite, but quickly emerged as a power behind Burchill. The Rams stumbled just once, losing at home, in overtime, to McAuley on Feb. 3, 47-43. Deering grabbed the top seed for the tournament when it rallied from 14 down at the Lions eight days later to win, 38-35. In the quarterfinals Monday, the Rams struggled mightily, but finally outlasted upset-minded No. 9 Bonny Eagle (37-30).

Sanford, a consistent power under coach Kristy Parent and the 2006 Class A champion, posted its usual solid mark (14-4), then eked out a thrilling 45-42 win over No. 4 Cheverus in Monday’s quarterfinal round.

Deering beat the visiting Redskins, 47-30, way back on Dec. 14.

The teams met previously in the postseason in the 1989 semifinals (Rams, 67-66, in double overtime), the 2003 quarterfinals (Deering, 44-33), 2005 quarterfinals (Sanford, 52-41) and 2006 semis (Redskins, 42-30).

The game was delayed 24 hours by snow and the Rams entered the contest with heavy hearts due to the loss of Murphy’s mother earlier in the week.

Once the game got underway, Deering started slowly, but was able to recover.

A layup from Sanford senior Taylor Flood opened the scoring. Senior Lindsay Nolette, hero of the Cheverus win, added a bank shot and Nolette fed senior Shae Riley for a layup and a 6-0 lead just 2 minutes, 30 seconds in.

The Rams broke the ice on two foul shots from junior Ella Ramonas, but Riley hit a 3 and Flood added a pair of foul shots for an 11-2 lead.

Deering, thanks to a spark from junior Emily Cole and sophomore Keneisha DiRamio off the bench, finally came to life and wound up leading by period’s end, 12-11, as Burchill got on the board with a layup, Cole made a 3, Burchill canned a 3-ball and Ramonas made a driving layup.

“I really wasn’t phased,” said Burchill. “We’ve been down before and showed we could come back. We have a lot of young girls. The jitters were with us at the beginning.”

“The personality of this team is not an aggressive one,” Murphy said. “I’m concerned about the slow starts. We’ve talked about it on and on and on that you have to come out with a fire in your belly.”

A jumper from senior Aarika Viola nine seconds into the second quarter gave the Rams a 14-11 advantage, but again Sanford responded as sophomore Taylor Littlefield made a jump shot, Flood sank two foul shots and Riley made a leaner, was fouled and sank the free throw for an 18-14 lead. During that stretch, Ramonas picked up her second foul and was forced to the bench for the rest of the half.

The Rams rallied to tie as Burchill made successive layups before Littlefield made two free throws to put the Redskins up, 20-18, with 3:41 to go in the half.

An old-fashioned three-point play from Burchill 13 seconds later put Deering back on top, but Riley made a 3 to give Sanford the lead again. With 21.1 seconds remaining, two Burchill foul shots tied the score and that’s how it stood at the break.

“We went seven minutes in that second quarter without one of our leaders out there in Ella and we did a good job to be tied at halftime,” Murphy said. “That was a good sign for us.”

Burchill kept her team in it in the first half, scoring 14 of Deering’s 23 points.

She’d get plenty of help in the second half.

A free throw after an offensive rebound from Ramonas was answered by a pullup jumper from Flood, but MacMillan put Deering back on top with a leaner. With 6 minutes to go, Nolette knocked down a 3 for Sanford’s last lead, 28-26.

Ramonas tied the score with a layup after a baseline drive and with 4:41 left in the stanza, Viola hit a long jumper to give the Rams the lead for good, 30-28.

Burchill then fed Ramonas for a layup and sophomore Chelsea Saucier scored on a putback to complete an 8-0 run. After a layup from Flood, MacMillan converted a left-handed leaner and Saucier made a baseline jumper for a 38-30 advantage. A layup by Flood after a Riley steal pulled Sanford back within six heading for the fourth.

There, Deering did enough to move on.

Burchill got things started with an old-fashioned three-point play (leaner, foul and free throw) for a 41-32 lead. A Riley 3 brought the Redskins back to six. After a free throw from MacMillan, LeBlanc made a bank shot while being fouled, but she couldn’t add the free throw. After MacMillan made another foul shot, Flood converted a three-point play with 3:32 remaining to suddenly made it 43-40.

The Rams stayed composed and went back up by five on two Burchill free throws with 3:04 to play. After Flood missed a shot and Nolette was off on a 3, Ramonas went to the line with 2:24 left, but she missed the front end of a one-and-one.

With 1:52 to play, LeBlanc scored on a putback while being fouled, but again, the free throw was no good, keeping it a three-point game, 45-42. Viola added a free throw before LeBlanc made things really interesting with a layup with 1:21 to play, cutting Deering’s advantage to a precarious two points, 46-44.

That’s as close as the Redskins would get, however, as the Rams raced down and Burchill found MacMillan for a layup and after a Saucier steal, Burchill made two free throws to give Deering a 50-44 lead with 46.3 seconds left.

After a Sanford turnover, Ramonas hit a foul shot and after another Redskins’ giveaway (their third in a row), Saucier went to the line for two. She missed both, but Riley’s free throw with 5.2 seconds left only brought Sanford within six and the Rams held on for the 51-45 victory.

“It’s been a long week with the death of coach’s mother,” said Burchill. “Before the game, we talked about how we needed to do this for him and ourselves and prove we’re still on top.”

“I thought our 2-3 and 1-2-2 zones shut down their penetration,” Murphy said. “We got lazy in the fourth quarter on the backside of the zone. We played with our hands and didn’t defend with our feet. They seemed to make every possible three-pointer the traditional way. That’s a very good team. Riley, Nolette and Flood are three good guards.”

Burchill led all scorers with 21 points. She also had eight rebounds and a steal.

Ramonas added 10 points and six boards.

“I thought (Ramonas) was the difference in the game, personally,” said Parent.

MacMillan came to life in the second half and finished with eight points, six rebounds and two blocked shots.

“I was told I should step it up and that I should get my head in the game,” said MacMillan. “Everyone was told we needed to focus and work on defense. It wasn’t exactly easier than the first game. We’re getting into playing the harder games and the harder teams.”

“Marissa, especially, stepped up,” said Burchill. “I went to her at halftime and told her that I needed her. She stepped up.”

Viola added five points, Saucier four (along with four boards and a steal) and Cole three. Deering only turned the ball over 10 times (just three times in the second half) and made 15 of 23 free throws.

“These kids don’t get rattled,” Murphy said. “We have more parents who get rattled than players on the floor. We preach about playing within ourselves and our capabilities. We talked at halftime that we needed someone else to step up. I told Marissa she had to be a threat out there. She stepped up and did a nice job scoring, but also by being more of a factor on the defensive end. She showed her athleticism. It helps when she scores for us. That opens it up for the Kaylas and Ella Ramonas’ of the world. The other night we had four starters who were out to lunch. Tonight, every kid who played did a great job. These kids have a lot of pride.”

For Sanford, Flood had 15 points, three rebounds, three steals and a block.

“The Flood kid did a great job, getting in and penetrating,” Murphy said. “She was tough.”

Riley also wound up with 15 points (four boards, a block and a steal). LeBlanc had a solid performance with six points, nine rebounds and a block. Nolette was held to just five in her swan song.

“(Lindsay) wasn’t feeling well overall,” Parent said. “She tried to stay focused and perform. She lives to play basketball. They did a good job on her.”

Littlefield added four points and three boards. The Redskins had 10 turnovers and made 8 of 10 foul shots, but the two missed and-ones in the fourth period loomed large.

“It was a great start in this environment,” Parent said. “It was a game of momentum. At the end, I just wish we’d hit a couple more baskets. It’s great to live up to our potential. Unfortunately, with this group, their expectations were higher than semifinals. The seniors had great leadership on and off the floor. They came together this year and you could see it.”

See you Monday night

Deering’s victory sets up an eagerly anticipated regional final showdown versus No. 2 McAuley Monday at 6 p.m., at the Civic Center. The Lions advanced with a 39-30 semifinal round win over No. 3 Gorham.

The teams have plenty of recent playoff history, squaring off five times since 2001.

McAuley won in the 2001 quarterfinals (58-47) and 2007 semis (46-35), while Deering was victorious in the 2004 regional final (56-46), 2009 quarterfinals (42-27) and last year’s semifinal (45-35).

All eyes will be on this game Monday.

“There is pressure, but you get used to it,” MacMillan said. “You know it’s coming. It should be fun. I’m really looking forward to it. We just have work as a team and play on D and make our shots.”

“Everyone needs to play hard and realize it could be our last game and me and Aarika don’t want to leave like Claire and Maria Salamone had to leave last year (after losing in the regional final to Scarborough), said Burchill. “We have to take it to the hoop and defend (McAuley standout senior Rebecca) Knight.”

“McAuley we have a lot of respect for,” Murphy added. “It’s a very good school, very good players who get after it. We’ll have our hands full.”

The winner advances to meet the champion of Eastern Class A (either Hampden Academy or Messalonskee) in the state final Saturday at 4 p.m., at the Augusta Civic Center.

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @foresports

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