PORTLAND—Westbrooker Zac Manoogian piled up 32 points in a jawdropping comeback win over Biddeford in Wednesday night, Feb. 21’s tournament semifinals, held at Cross Insurance Arena. The Blazes fell behind the Tigers 18-0 to start – and yet, they doggedly, improbably persevered, forcing overtime and ultimately securing the victory 52-44.
“We always tell them, ‘Defense, rebounding, free-throws wins,’” Westbrook head coach Dan Legage said. “That’s been sort of our mantra since I started at Westbrook three years ago. If you do that, you can get back in games. And these guys never quit.”
“I’ve been blessed with a lot of really good teams over the years,” Legage said. “And that was one of the most incredible comebacks that I’ve been a part of. In a tournament game, at the Civic Center. I couldn’t be prouder of these guys.”
The Tigers mauled the Blazes through the entirety of the first: Kyle Norton, Jackson Oloya, and then Norton again hit back-to-back-to-back threes for the not-so-endangered-looking species. Westbrook, meanwhile, missed their initial three shots – one each by Jeremiah Alado, Manoogian and Abier Manyiel – and the team couldn’t pull in a single rebound.
“We know they’re a streaky team,” Manoogian said of the Tigers. “If they get hitting their threes, they’ll kill us. When we played them [for the second time this season], they hit six threes in the second quarter, I think, 11 overall. When we played them the first game, at our place, I don’t think they hit three. So we know they’re a three-point-shooting team, and if we take that away, we have a good chance of winning the game.”
Oloya hit a two; Nate Boutin hit a two, following an Alado player-control foul; and DeSean Cromwell turned a steal into a three as Biddeford charged further and further ahead. 15 seconds before the buzzer, the Tigers still completely owned the scoreboard, 18-0.
“I don’t know how they’re making every shot and we’re missing every shot,” Manoogian said, asked what went through his mind when his team fell as far behind as they did. “It’s killing me inside. I know if we battle back, we can at least make it a game – but, at that point, looking up, 18-0, coming back didn’t even cross my mind.”
Legage called two timeouts in that early stint. “The first was just to settle down,” Manoogian said. “To get our composure back. The second one was – we weren’t executing, we didn’t look ourselves. That was nerves, killing us.”
“We knew they’re a jumpshooting team,” Legage said of the Tigers. “We were hoping they wouldn’t come out hot like that and we could get them to miss early. The three-point shot is so important to what they do. So the thought process was to disrupt that, early, but we weren’t rotating out and closing out the shooters, getting a hand up and challenging.”
“When we switched to man-to-man,” Legage said, “we did a better job of challenging the shots, but then they still kept going, kept making, making, making. At that point, when you’re down like that, you have to go back to the basics. One stop at a time, one possession at time. All year long, we’ve talked about, ‘Listen, just compete at the highest level you can for this one possession.’ One at a time…We try to, psychologically, shrink the game in [the boys’] minds.”
Finally Westbrook settled in. They did it on an Alado two, a bucket that would’ve been routine in any other circumstances. It that moment, though, it felt more like the first breath after being underwater for far too long.
In the second, the Blazes continued to heat up, and outpaced Biddeford to the tune of 13-5. Westbrook successfully defended a long Tigers’ possession to begin the push, then immediately converted a pair of Alado-to-Manyiel feeds into a pair of twos.
Cromwell and Oloya incurred Biddeford fouls and the team called timeout. When the sides returned to the court, Manoogian promptly knocked down a three; Cody Saucier responded with a Tigers two. Manyiel grabbed his own rebound and bucketed, Saucier drained a three, Landon Sjoberg reeled in a defensive rebound and fed forward to Manoogian for two more: 23-13.
The Tigers did what they could to waste the remainder of the second, but turned the ball over before they could fire off one last attempt. Clumsily, they also sent Manoogian to the line, where he hashed two frees. A mere eight separated the squads as they trotted off the court for halftime. 23-15.
“Second quarter, we just started playing harder,” Manoogian said. “They weren’t hitting their threes, so if we slowly just chipped away it, I thought it would be a possibility, and it was.”
“I think we just settled down,” Manoogian said. “That was our first game at the Civic Center. I think nerves killed us, first quarter, missing shots we’d usually make. They were hitting every shot they took; I think they started four-for-four or something.”
Westbrook chewed through more of their deficit in the third. Sjoberg kicked off the stretch with a Blazes two; he soon pulled in a defensive rebound that led in turn to Manoogian’s getting fouled beyond the three-point line. He sank the trio of frees.
25-20 now. Manoogian missed on a drive, but Manyiel (literally) punched the rebound outward to Alado, prowling beyond the arc. Alado hit the downtowner: 26-23
Alado kept the Blazes hot on the Tigers’ heels with two from the line for 28-25, and a baseline jumper for 30-27. Kyle Champagne closed the third with a pair of Westbrook frees for 33-29.
“Coach always says ‘There’s no 100-point shot,’” Manoogian said, asked how the Blazes managed to keep their composure, once they regained it. “You take each shot, one shot and one shot, hit a shot, get a stop, hit a shot, get a stop.”
“Maybe the third quarter,” he said of the turning point in the game. “They weren’t hitting every single shot, like the first, and we were getting to the hoop really well, drawing fouls. That was the moment when I realized, ‘Hey, we can do this.’”
“On offense, we just got better movement,” Legage said. “We went to a motion-style offense, a lot of basket cuts, a lot of spacing, and Zac got going, going to the basket, did a great job getting fouled. He did an unbelievable job at the free-throw line.”
Cromwell inched the Tigers out front 35-29 at the start of the fourth, but then Manoogian touched fire to fuse: He hit a two and, following a Biddeford free by Carter Edgerton, another two. He drained yet another on a drive – now Westbrook lagged by just one, 36-35 – and a crowd-pleaser, the lead-stealer, on a jumper.
“Coach says I’ve got to take over sometimes,” Manoogian said. “We’ll have a lull in the offense, and he’ll call me over and say, ‘Zac, get a bucket,’ so I’ve got to kind of take over. That’s what I did right there. The team did a good job setting screens and getting me open, so it was good.”
Norton and Edgerton, with one each from the line, thrust Biddeford back out front; with two each from the line, they then gashed the Blazes deeply. Manoogian responded in kind, stepping to the line for three more tries. Again he nailed all three.
Perhaps a minute and a half remained. Edgerton cranked Biddeford to 44 on two further frees, but then missed on one-and-one; Westbrook grabbed the rebound, leading to a Manoogian strike. 44-42.
53 seconds hung on the clock, and the Blazes took timeout. Jerome Criado missed a pair of Tigers frees when play resumed, and Westbrook grabbed the rebound. Momentarily, Manoogian ended up at the line once more – and tied it. 44-44.
The last possession of regulation belonged to Biddeford. Their three-attempt missed its mark, however, and they failed to rebound and convert. Critically, Westbrook committed no foul in the ensuing tussle. Overtime arrived.
The Blazes’ five starters rarely leave the court – Jake Connolly is the team’s next-man-up, and checks in now and again, but Manoogian, Sjoberg, Alado, Champagne and Manyiel log the huge majority of the team’s minutes. Manoogian sounded off on the five’s chemistry:
“We’re pretty close-knit, us five,” he said. “We know each other pretty well. Actually, the whole team knows each other, but that five, we’ve been playing with each other all year, not many subs, so we know what each other’s going to do before we do it, kind of. It works out.”
Overtime unfurled as – unsurprisingly – foul shots following foul shots, and Westbrook held the advantage. In four minutes, Manoogian cajoled the Tigers into four infractions, and sank seven of his eight attempts. Two of those came straight off the bat. Biddeford then sent him to the line again on their own possession; he went one for one-and-one.
Champagne, Westbrook’s resident inside strongman, soon snatched a defensive rebound, and Manoogian, yup, headed to the line – on Norton’s fifth foul, incidentally. Norton stalked to the bench as Manoogian ushered the Blazes forward, to 49-44.
The Blazes went to 51-44 on two final Manoogian frees, and 52-44 on a Champagne free. The Tigers never hit a basket in OT, and their lone trip to the line – Edgerton took two tries – earned them no additional points.
Manoogian, as highlighted, ended with 32. Alado notched nine, Manyiel six, Sjoberg three and Champagne two.
The Blazes entered the tournament seeded third in A South, at 12-6. After a prelims bye, they offed sixth-ranked Kennebunk in the quarters. That ran them up against the No. 2 Tigers, following which triumph they moved on to Saturday night, Feb. 24’s Region Final vs. Greely.
Adam Birt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @CurrentSportsME.
Jeremiah Alado curls around a Tiger en route to the basket.
Kyle Champagne battles forward vs. the Biddeford defense underneath.
Landon Sjoberg crashes the net.
Abier Manyiel dances with a Biddeford opponent.
Jeremiah Alado, adrenalized as he walks off the court following Westbrook’s comeback W over Biddeford, flashes the camera a that’s-what’s-up.
Landon Sjoberg powers into a two attempt for the Blazes.
Westbrook starter Kyle Champagne embraces head coach Dan Legage after the Blazes completed their improbable comeback against Biddeford.
Zac Manoogian sits down a Biddeford opponent as he ascends into a jumpshot.
Abier Manyiel fires off a shot for the Blazes.
Westbrook head coach Dan Legage looks on as his boys inch toward a comeback W.
Excitement shows on Zac Manoogian’s face after Westbrook wrapped up their astounding comeback win over Biddeford.
Zac Manoogian gets air over a Biddeford opponent.