A magical hoops season was paved in gold-Portland edition

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The 2015-16 basketball season was historic and memorable for many reasons.

For starters, the Maine Principals’ Association ushered in five classes for the first time, which, combined with new North/South instead of East/West designations, made for quite a learning curve during the course of the winter.

Play on the floor made quite an impact as well, as eight of nine city teams qualified for the playoffs.

There, despite most teams having to play in Augusta instead of Portland this year, the tournament produced many highlights.

It all began with Deering rallying to beat Cheverus in the first ever Class AA North quarterfinal. The Rams were then ousted by top-ranked Oxford Hills in the semifinals.

McAuley, despite its proximity to Cheverus and Deering, was part of the Class AA South tournament this winter and while the Lions got a bye into the semifinals, they weren’t able to solve South Portland in a hard-fought overtime affair.

Waynflete kept its postseason string alive, but the Flyers, despite taking Madison to the wire, fell just short in that round.

The most triumph came in the boys’ tournament.

Cheverus let one slip away and suffered a painful loss to Edward Little in the AA North quarterfinals, but the Red Eddies met their match in the semifinals against top-ranked Portland, which was never seriously tested.

Deering, which also earned a bye, sure got a scare in its semifinal against Oxford Hills and its standout Andrew Fleming, but a late 13-0 surge by the Rams allowed them to advance.

That set up a highly-anticipated showdown in the regional final as city of Portland supremacy was decided in front of a half-full Augusta Civic Center. For the third time this winter, Portland beat Deering, this time by a shockingly decisive 31 points and the Bulldogs moved on to the state final for the third year in a row.

Waynflete also reached the state game in Class C. After a superb season, highlighted by late game heroics from senior standout Milo Belleau, the Flyers knocked off formidable regional foes Wiscasset, Dirigo and Winthrop (in overtime) to make it to the state final for the second time in three years.

As was the case in 2014, Waynflete’s title quest fell just short, as the Flyers lost to George Stevens Academy, 59-46.

Portland, meanwhile, wouldn’t be denied, although the Bulldogs’ coronation came with a much greater degree of difficulty than anyone could have imagined. Facing a South Portland squad Portland twice dominated in the regular season, the Bulldogs couldn’t shake the Red Riots, who surged in the fourth period and forced overtime. One four-minute OT wasn’t enough to determine a champion, so one more was needed and there, finally, Portland held on, 52-50, and earned another Gold Ball.

If that wasn’t enough, McAuley senior Jess Willerson was named a semifinalist for the Miss Maine Basketball award and Portland senior Amir Moss was named a semifinalist for the Mr. Maine Basketball award.

The 2016-17 season can’t get here quickly enough, but in the meantime, here’s one last look back at the most memorable moments from a winter we’ll never forget.

Michael’s top five stories

5) Rams rally past Stags in front of intimate gathering

The Cheverus and Deering girls’ teams kicked off the 2016 tournament Feb. 10 and produced an exciting game. Too bad there was nearly no one there to witness it. Due to the baffling decision to send Portland schools to Augusta to play tournament games, only around 200 people saw the game live. The Stags shot to leads of 16-2 and 27-12, but the Rams roared back and behind 16 points from Tasia Titherington, 13 from Delaney Haines and 10 from Abi Ramirez, prevailed, 50-43. Deering’s run ended with a semifinal round loss to top-ranked Oxford Hills.

4) McAuley falls in OT thriller

It wasn’t a typically dominant season for McAuley, but the Lions still managed to go 16-2 and earn the No. 2 seed in Class AA South. After a quarterfinal round bye, McAuley had a chance to avenge one of its losses when it met third-ranked South Portland in the semifinals at Cross Insurance Arena and despite falling behind early, the Lions had their chances to win down the stretch. After missing two shots in the final seconds of regulation, McAuley had to go to overtime and there, the Lions had no answer for Red Riots standout Maddie Hasson and lost, 39-36, to finish 16-3, missing the regional final for the first time since 2010.

3) Deering boys handle every foe but one

If it wasn’t for the Portland Bulldogs, Deering’s boys would have enjoyed a perfect season this winter. The Rams won their first 10 games, then lost at home to the Bulldogs,  61-51. After four more victories, Deering fell again at Portland, 74-62. The Rams were the No. 2 seed in Class AA North after finishing 16-2 and after a quarterfinal round bye, they rallied to edge No. 3 Oxford Hills in a semifinal round thriller, earning one more shot at the Bulldogs. The third time was far from the charm, however. In fact, it was utterly lopsided, as Portland ran away with a 70-39 decision to end Deering’s fine season at 18-3.

2) Belleau’s buzzer-beaters carry Waynflete to state final

Waynflete’s boys went 16-2 against a brutal schedule this winter. The Flyers got contributions from several sources, but senior Milo Belleau came up big time and again to will his team to excellence. Belleau’s most memorable shot came Jan. 15 when he banked in an improbable 3-pointer at the buzzer to shock eventual Class A champion Falmouth. Last in the regular season, Belleau’s 4-point play with time winding down in overtime beat Traip Academy. Waynflete was only ranked fourth in Class C South, but the Flyers clicked on all cylinders in beating Wiscasset in the quarterfinals and avenging last year’s playoff loss with a victory over top-ranked Dirigo in the semifinals. Waynflete almost let a sure win slip away in the regional final, but held off Winthrop in overtime, thanks in large part to a Belleau blocked shot at the horn, to make it to states for the second time in three years. While the Flyers lost to Houlton in overtime in 2014, this time around, the loss wasn’t quite as agonizing, as they couldn’t catch up to talented George Stevens Academy, which gradually pulled away late to win, 59-46, ending Waynflete excellent campaign at 18-3.

1) Portland wins title game for the ages

Portland won the 2014 Class A state title and lost to Hampden Academy in the state game in 2015. This season, the Bulldogs were bound and determined to become the first ever Class AA champion and with one exception, they were unstoppable. Portland won its first eight contests, stumbled at home against Gorham, then rattled off nine more victories (almost all of them in emphatic fashion) to go 17-1. As the top seed in AA North, the Bulldogs had a bye into the semifinals, where they easily dispatched No. 4 Edward Little. Portland figured to get a battle from rival and No. 2 seed Deering in the regional final, but the Bulldogs played close to a perfect game and romped, 70-39. The challenge actually came in the state game, from an unlikely source, South Portland, which was a mere .500 team in the regular season and lost twice to Portland by an average of 24 points. The Bulldogs couldn’t deliver their accustomed early knockout blow and as the game got late, it was clear the Red Riots were in it to win it. South Portland would force overtime and after each team only mustered two points in four minutes, it was on to a second OT, where Portland senior standout Amir Moss refused to let his team lose, spinning for a go-ahead basket. Classmate Joe Esposito continued his nonpareil senior year with two free throws and the Bulldogs dodged one final bullet in the final second and outlasted the valiant Red Riots, 52-50. It was a perfect ending to an unforgettable season.

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

Sidebar Elements

It wasn’t easy, but Portland’s boys’ basketball team earned the Gold Ball.

Cheverus and Deering’s girls’ teams did battle in an entertaining quarterfinal round playoff game. The Rams rallied to win.

Waynflete senior Milo Belleau hit several big shots this winter, helping the Flyers reach the Class C state final.

Senior Brooke Howard had a breakout season, helping McAuley reach the AA South girls’ semifinals.

Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.