PORTLAND—At least the pundits were right about something.
Saturday evening’s Class A boys’ basketball state final at the Cumberland County Civic Center wound up one-sided.
Just not the way that so many thought.
The undefeated Portland Bulldogs met the unblemished, defending state champion Hampden Academy Broncos and by the time the game was eight minutes old, all preconceptions had been rendered misconceptions.
Portland, which heard all week how it had little chance against the Hampden Academy juggernaut, quickly reminded everyone that it was on a mission.
The Bulldogs got the jump just seven seconds in, when senior Matt Talbot knocked down a 3 and the tone was set.
Classmate Jayvon Pitts-Young added a fastbreak layup and even though the Broncos momentarily tied the score, 5-5, Portland was just getting warmed up.
The Bulldogs closed the first period on a jawdropping 17-0 run, as Talbot made another 3, senior Justin Zukowski drained a pair and junior Steve Alex got the job done inside.
By the time Hampden Academy could come up for air, it was pretty much finished.
The Broncos did hang tough in the second quarter and pulled within 12, 30-18, at halftime, but behind a huge third period from Pitts-Young, Portland didn’t allow them to get any closer and in the fourth quarter, a quick 5-0 spurt ended all doubt.
The Bulldogs pulled away from there and capped a memorable, perfect season with an emphatic 54-40 triumph.
Portland got 16 points from Talbot, 12 from Pitts-Young and 11 from Zukowski as the three star seniors set the pace and several other players had key contributions as well as the Bulldogs wound up 22-0, snapped Hampden Academy’s win streak at 43, ended the Broncos’ season at 21-1 and for the first time in a decade, raised the Gold Ball to the heavens.
“As a coach, you never know what to expect,” said longtime Portland coach Joe Russo, who won his third championship with the program. “Nothing’s guaranteed. That first quarter was our best basketball of the year. You always hope to play your best basketball in the biggest game of the year. We didn’t do it all the way through, but it was nice having that start offensively and defensively. I knew the guys were on all cylinders.”
It isn’t often that a team gets to Championship Saturday with an unblemished record and it’s ever more rare when both squads come in without a loss, but that was the case Saturday evening.
After losing to Deering in the 2012 state game (their most recent setback), the Broncos were perfect a year ago and downed South Portland in a close Class A Final, 45-41.
This season, Hampden Academy rarely had to break a sweat, winning its 18 regular season games by nearly 27 points per outing. A nine-point win at Brunswick (in overtime) back on Dec. 13 and an eight-point home victory over Oxford Hills Feb. 1 were the only contests that were decided by less than 10 points.
The Broncos won equally decisively in the Eastern A tournament. As the top seed, they handled No. 8 Lewiston (85-47) in the quarterfinals, fifth-seeded Edward Little (67-49) in the semis and No. 6 Oxford Hills (82-54) in the regional final.
Portland, meanwhile, was equally dazzling down in this part of the state.
A year after dropping a painful decision to South Portland in the semifinals, the Bulldogs accepted the favorite’s role and lived up to billing (see sidebar, below, for previous game stories).
Portland opened by winning at Massabesic (84-31) and Noble (66-54), downed visiting Marshwood (65-40), then triumphed at Gorham (60-40) and South Portland (79-49) and at home over Thornton Academy (73-36) and Cheverus (55-46) to wrap up 2013 with an undefeated mark (although the Bulldogs did lose to Falmouth, 54-51, in a non-countable holiday tournament game Dec. 26).
The new year brought continued success, as Portland’s defeated host Westbrook (66-26), host Marshwood (48-44), visiting Biddeford (58-32), host Bonny Eagle (69-60), in a game played in front of a full house at St. Joseph’s College, host Deering (77-42), visiting Scarborough (81-52), visiting Sanford (74-42), visiting Windham (64-39), host Cheverus (64-53), visiting South Portland (64-42) and finally visiting Deering, 63-46, to go 18-0 for the first time in 15 years.
The Bulldogs came into the Western A tournament as the team to beat, but just barely as second-ranked Falmouth (the defending Class B champion, which moved up this year due to increased enrollment) and always-dangerous No. 3 Bonny Eagle also had their eye on the crown.
After downing No. 8 Noble, 81-52, in the quarterfinals, Portland fought off fourth-ranked Deering’s upset bid in the semifinals, 64-49, before riding a second half surge to a 70-60 win over Bonny Eagle in the regional final.
Portland has played in its share of state finals, dating back to the second-ever tournament, a loss to Bangor way back in 1923 (please see sidebar, below), while Hampden Academy didn’t make a state game appearance until 2005.
While the Broncos were late to the party, Saturday was their fifth appearance in a decade (they were 2-2 coming in).
The Bulldogs had played in 11 prior championship games and had won six and were also credited for winning the 1943 championship when a game versus Waterville was called off due to World War II.
Both teams had excelled this winter on offense and defense, as Portland was first in the Southwestern Maine Activities Association in defense and second to Bonny Eagle in offense in the regular season, while Hampden Academy averaged over 73 points per contest, 27 more than the Broncos surrendered.
Regardless, in the minds of most, the Broncos were a decided favorite.
Yet some viewed that reasoning as flawed for a few reasons.
For starters, Portland was playing at the Civic Center, giving it a decided advantage. No Eastern Maine team had won a state game in Portland since Brunswick downed Deering back in 2002.
While Hampden Academy’s resume was impressive, it didn’t play the type of schedule the Bulldogs had to navigate.
Last, you can’t quantify heart and pride and Portland has an abundance of both.
Mix in an industrial size chip on the Bulldogs’ shoulders and they were ready.
Boy, were they ready.
“That talk (of us not having a chance) definitely motivated us,” Pitts-Young said. “Justin gave us a great (pregame) speech. We knew we’re a great team and we wanted to come out and prove it.”
“We heard all that talk, I won’t lie,” Talbot said. “We knew what the predictions were. We used it as motivation and turned it around.”
Talbot won the opening tip to Alex and Alex got the ball back to Talbot, who buried a 3-pointer just seven seconds into the game for a quick 3-0 lead and a big dose of confidence.
“The tale of my whole career is if I get hot early, I’m hot the rest of the game and if not, I’m not,” Talbot said. “I knocked down that first 3 and I had a good feeling.”
“Tonight, we intentionally went to Matt at the start to get him in the game,” Russo said.
With 6:46 to go in the first period, Zukowski, on a drive, fed Pitts-Young for a layup to make it 5-0.
Hampden Academy then responded behind the Gilpin brothers.
First, sophomore Nick Gilpin got the Broncos on the board with a coast-to-coast layup after a rebound.
Then, senior standout Zach Gilpin, the three-time Eastern A tournament MVP, Kennebec Valley Athletic Conference MVP and a Mr. Basketball semifinalist, took a pass from senior Isaiah Bess and buried a 3 from the right corner to tie the score, 5-5.
That’s as good as it would get for Hampden Academy.
With 5:19 to play in the opening quarter, Zukowski passed to Talbot in the lane and Talbot knocked down an elbow jumper to put Portland ahead for good.
Alex, who’s had a tremendous tournament, then made his presence felt with consecutive putbacks to push the lead to 11-5.
Then, the 3-balls started raining down.
First, it was Zukowski knocking home a deep shot from just inside the NBA 3-point line.
Next it was Talbot, taking a pass from Zukowski in transition, before hitting his second 3.
Then, with 42.5 seconds to go in the first, Zukowski, assisted by senior Travis Godbout, hit another deep 3-point bomb and just like that, a tie game had mushroomed into a 20-5 advantage.
If that wasn’t enough, sophomore reserve Amir Moss would punctuate the quarter to remember by scoring on a leaner in the lane after a steal just before the horn and the Bulldogs had a shockingly commanding 22-5 lead after just eight minutes.
“All that talk about them beating us fired us up even more and we came out and we did it,’ Godbout said. “We came out and just punched them in the mouth right away. Our defense was the key to everything. The defense played great and we came out and shot well too.”
“We were going to prove everybody wrong right from the start,” Zukowski said. “We were confident. The last two playoff games, against Deering and Bonny Eagle, we came out flat. We wanted to come out and show these guys. Sometimes, we just click. Everybody was scoring.”
“When we started knocking down those shots, I knew in my gut we had this game,” said Pitts-Young. “Hampden’s a great team, but we came out on fire, ready to play. I don’t think they were ready for us. We came out and knew what we were going to do.”
“We talked about how good (Hampden was) and they’re very, very good, but I told the kids that hey, we’re not too bad, going 21-0 in the SMAA,” Russo added. “I told them we were going to do what we’ve done all year. We weren’t going to change. We did multiple press defenses, pushed the ball, spread the ball.”
In the first quarter, the team on a 43-game win streak that appeared to be an overwhelming favorite, made two shots, committed seven turnovers and went the final 5 minutes, 38 seconds without a point, while being outscored, 17-0, in that span. Both Talbot (eight points) and Zukowski (six) had more points than Hampden Academy at that juncture.
The Bulldogs also enjoyed a big edge on the boards, even though their opponent was bigger.
“Rebounding’s all heart,” said Godbout. “Rebounding knows no size.”
“We rebounded tremendously tonight,” Russo said.
Despite its nearly perfect start, Portland knew it had a long way to go and sure enough, the Broncos cut into the deficit a bit in the second period.
With 6:46 to go before halftime, Zach Gilpin banked home a shot, snapping the Bulldogs’ 17-0 run and a 6:52 scoring drought.
Talbot answered with a difficult angle leaner, but Nick Gilpin drove for a layup, making the score, 24-9.
After Alex scored on a putback, Zukowski made a free throw and Portland had a 27-9 lead.
With 4:37 left in the half, Hampden Academy finally got into double figures as a team when senior Matt Martin made a free throw, but with 3:24 to go, Zukowski set up Talbot for a layup and the Bulldogs’ biggest advantage of the half, 29-10.
The Broncos closed on an 8-1 run, however, to take a little momentum into the break.
After Zach Gilpin got a step on a defender and raced down the baseline for a dunk which awakened the Hampden Academy fans, Alex hit a free throw.
Zach Gilpin was fouled after grabbing an offensive rebound and hit both free throws, Nick Gilpin made a layup while being fouled and added the free throw for the old-fashioned three-point play and with 34.4 seconds to go, Zach Gilpin made a foul shot, pulling the Broncos within a dozen, 30-18.
Even though the first half didn’t end well, Portland, which was scoreless the last 2:39, wasn’t startled.
“Basketball’s a game of runs,” Pitts-Young said. “We didn’t panic and we kept going.”
The Bulldogs came out and produced a strong third period, in large part due to Pitts-Young.
Just 29 seconds into the new half, after a Pitts-Young steal, Alex fed Godbout for a layup.
After Zach Gilpin made a layup, Pitts-Young countered with one of his own to make it 34-20.
Senior Cameron Scott hit a 3 for the Broncos, but Zukowski set up Talbot on the wing for another 3 to stretch the lead back to 37-23.
After Zach Gilpin made a free throw, Pitts-Young hit a jump shot, Godbout buried a pair of free throws and on the fast break, Alex delivered a pretty pass to Pitts-Young for a layup and the lead was back up to 19 points, 43-24.
“We have amazing fans,” Talbot said. “They get us through everything. They gave us motivation to keep the lead and step on the gas.”
Hampden Academy responded with a 3 from sophomore Jake Black and a pretty left-handed reverse layup from Zach Gilpin, but Pitts-Young stemmed the run with a jumper and even after Zach Gilpin made two late free throws, Portland won the quarter, 15-13, and took a 45-31 advantage to the fourth.
Pitts-Young had eight points in the third.
“Jayvon’s an amazing player,” Talbot said. “I’m blessed to have played with him. He’s a hard worker, a great competitor.”
“It looked like the last couple minutes of the second quarter, we played not to lose, so at halftime, we talked about playing like it was 0-0,” Russo said. “We gave Jay the ball and he penetrated, got to the rim, hit some jumpers. He solidified that lead.”
The Broncos never made a serious run down the stretch.
Zukowski set up Moss for a layup 18 seconds into the fourth, Zukowski banked home a leaner, then, with 5:27 to play, Zukowski made a foul shot to make the score 50-31.
Zach Gilpin answered with a 3, then took a pass from his brother and made a layup, but with exactly 2 minutes left, Talbot made a foul shot.
Alex then set up Pitts-Young for the final points of his high school career, a layup, and with 51.7 seconds remaining, Zukowski made a free throw to cap Portland’s offensive output.
In the final half minute, Hampden Academy senior DeShaun Jones made a pair of baskets to account for the 54-40 final score.
When the clock read 8:27 p.m., the Bulldogs had ascended back to the Class A pinnacle and a celebration a decade in the making erupted on the floor.
“It’s indescribable,” Pitts-Young said. “I love every one of these guys. We’ve talked about this all these years and it’s finally here. We were going crazy before the horn. It’s just a great feeling. Doing this as a senior is definitely special. This program and Coach Russo have given me everything. I’m glad we could do this. I can’t wait to get my ring.”
“I don’t think it’s set in yet,” Talbot said. “It’s all so amazing. The brotherhood part of our team came out tonight. We’re a family. We’ve fought together for four years. It came down to tonight and we capitalized.”
“It’s crazy,” Zukowski said. “When I came in freshman year, I expected to have two or three of these in either football or basketball. This is big to win it senior year. We’ve got more heart than any team. Maybe ever. We’ve had guys come in, old alumni players, who told us not to let them come into our neighborhood and to protect our block and we did.”
“It’s amazing,” Godbout said. “Just incredible. It’s actually a dream come true. For me and Matty, it’s been since third grade and for me, Matty, Jayvon and Zuk, it’s been since the sixth grade. We were extremely focused. We all just came together and said we had to keep it going and keep the pressure on. Coming into the season, our goal was to win the state championship. We took it game by game, day by day and we just happened to go undefeated. That wasn’t our plan. We just planned to win.”
“(Championships are) all special,” Russo added. “It never gets old. It’s hard to explain the relationships you build with your players. Two players, Topher Philbrick and Adam Waxman, from my 1999 team came in and spoke this week and Eric Shone from 2004. The stuff they say tickles your heart a little bit.”
After several years of falling agonizingly short, the Bulldogs had returned to the top.
“The seniors have experienced it all,” Talbot said. “We almost upset Cheverus our freshman year. We got upset as the 2 seed sophomore year. Last year was a tough loss. We finally got here and got it done.”
“Our first three years, we would have lost, but we rose above it this year,” Zukowski said.
“We felt last year we were one of the best teams and even the year before,” Russo added. “I’ve had a lot of great teams that could’ve and should’ve. It takes a combination of skill and heart and this team has both. They have heart, skill and desire. This senior class is special. Back in their freshman year, I was on them. It wasn’t easy for them. I demanded a lot from these guys physically and verbally. They accepted their roles. I respect them. Jayvon and Justin gave me 100 percent every second. They never wavered. They played their roles.”
Talbot led Portland with 16 points (including three 3-pointers) and two blocked shots and shared top rebounding honors with Alex with eight boards. He also had a steal.
Pitts-Young, stymied by foul trouble in the regional final win over Bonny Eagle, bowed out with an impressive 12-point, six-rebound, three-steal showing.
“Against Bonny Eagle, I didn’t contribute much, but I gave my teammates motivation,” said Pitts-Young. “Tonight, I wasn’t thinking about my points, I was just playing basketball, helping the team.”
Zukowski, the football Fitzpatrick Trophy finalist and Mr. Maine Basketball semifinalist, once again was the team’s heart and soul, scoring 11 points, dishing out seven assists, grabbing six boards and registering three steals.
“Justin’s wasn’t going to go out with a loss,” Talbot said. “He makes everything so much easier for everyone else.”
Alex had seven points, while Godbout and Moss both added four.
“Travis is a shooter, but tonight, he had to handle the ball and he handled it with confidence,” Russo said. “He got to the rim. He didn’t play tentative. Amir was consistent. Steve was able to handle the ball and spread the floor.”
Portland won the battle of the boards, 33-30, had a dozen steals, forced 16 turnovers (while committing the same number) and overcame another bout of rough foul shooting (7 of 17) to prevail.
For Hampden, Zach Gilpin bowed out with a game-high 22 points and 12 rebounds, but it wasn’t nearly enough, especially with Bess, a standout who won a Class C title at Penquis Valley last winter, not scoring a single point.
“Gilpin was our biggest concern,” Talbot said. “He’s a great player. There’s only so much you can do to slow him down.”
Nick Gilpin had seven points, Jones four, Black and Scott three apiece and Martin one.
The Broncos sank 8 of 11 foul shots, but could never recover from their early deficit.
There’s no sugar coating it, the loss of Godbout, Pitts-Young, Talbot, Zukowski and gritty role player Dan Kane will produce some huge holes to fill.
With that said, Alex and Moss project to lead the way next year, with others (including sophomore Joe Esposito, who saw some meaningful playing time Saturday) eager to step up.
Portland doesn’t expect to have to wait another decade to win another title.
“We have good kids coming back,” Russo said. “There’s light at the end of the tunnel.”
For now, the Bulldogs have a lot of celebrating to do.
Portland junior Steve Alex races up the floor.
Portland senior Travis Godbout launches a long range shot.
Portland senior Jayvon Pitts-Young, who had a big third quarter, shoots over the Hampden Academy defense.
Portland senior Dan Kane fights Hampden Academy senior Cameron Scott for a loose ball.
Portland sophomore Amir Moss is defended by Hampden Academy sophomore Nick Gilpin.
Portland senior Matt Talbot drives on Hampden Academy senior Zach Gilpin.
Portland senior Justin Zukowski is fouled by Hampden Academy senior Isaiah Bess. Zukowski willed the Bulldogs to victory with 11 points.
Longtime Portland coach Joe Russo prowls the sidelines during the victory. Russo won his third title Saturday night.
The final horn sounds and the Bulldogs go wild.
The Portland student section was loud, rowdy and (thanks to junior Margot Andreasen) appropriately dressed as it cheered the Bulldogs on to victory.
More student section reaction.
Portland senior Jayvon Pitts-Young flashes a million dollar smile after cutting down the net.
Portland seniors Matt Talbot (left) and Jayvon Pitts-Young embrace after capping their high school career with a Gold Ball.
The Gold Ball gets raised to the heavens.
Your 2013-14 Class A boys’ basketball state champion.
Portland 77 Lawrence 58
Portland 58 Lawrence 52
Portland 28 Stearns 23
Waterville 42 Portland 35
Waterville 53 Portland 33
Portland named winner (no state final due to WWII)
Portland 27 John Bapst 19
Portland 30 Bangor 15
Presque Isle 31 Portland 30
Bangor 41 Portland 22
Deering 47 Hampden Academy 37
Hampden Academy 59 Deering 49
Portland senior Matt Talbot roars with delight as he waves the net in the postgame celebration after the Bulldogs won the Class A title with surprising ease over defending champion Hampden Academy Saturday night, 54-40. Talbot led Portland with 16 points and the Bulldogs won their first championship in a decade.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.
HA- 5 13 13 9- 40
P- 20 10 15 9- 54
HA- Z. Gilpin 7-6-22, N. Gilpin 3-1-7, Jones 2-0-4, Black 1-0-3, Scott 1-0-3, Martin 0-1-1
P- Talbot 6-1-16, Pitts-Young 6-0-12, Zukowski 3-3-11, Alex 3-1-7, Godbout 1-2-4, Moss 2-0-4
HA (4) Z. Gilpin 2, Black, Scott 1
P (5) Talbot 3, Zukowski 2
HA (30) Z. Gilpin 12, Martin 5, N. Gilpin 4, Black 3, Bess, Scott 2, Jones, McIntyre 1
P (33) Alex, Talbot 8, Pitts-Young, Zukowski 6, Moss 3, Kane 2
HA (6) Z. Gilpin, Scott 2, Bess, Chasse 1
P (12) Pitts-Young, Zukowski 3, Alex, Godbout 2, Moss, Talbot 1
HA (3) Z. Gilpin 2, Black 1
P (3) Talbot 2, Alex 1