PORTLAND—If the upcoming boys’ basketball tournament produces a game half as exciting as the Deering-Portland regular season finale Thursday night, everyone will go home happy.
In a contest that featured a halfcourt prayer being answered, big plays from unexpected sources, as well as top stars, and a stunning late rally, the Rams snapped a five-game losing streak to the Bulldogs when they went on a game-ending 18-6 run, capped by a jawdropping 3-pointer from sophomore Jon Amabile with 7 seconds left to win, 49-48.
Deering improved to 11-7 and looks as if it will go into the tournament with the No. 6 seed, while Portland fell to 10-8 and dropped to anywhere from seventh to perhaps the outside looking in depending on what happens in Friday’s Scarborough-Kennebunk and Biddeford-Thornton Academy contests.
“(The kids) showed guts tonight,” said Rams coach Dan LeGage. “We had to get stops and be aggressive going to the hole. That seemed to do it. We haven’t had a win like this in awhile.”
Deering and Portland appeared heading in different directions prior to the contest. The Rams began the season 5-0, but four losses in their previous six contests had them reeling. The Bulldogs, meanwhile, appeared to once again be peaking at the right time, as Tuesday night’s dramatic 49-48 come-from-behind home win over South Portland gave them momentum.
Back on Jan. 22 at the Portland Expo, Portland cruised to a 56-45 victory over Deering. The Rams hadn’t beaten the Bulldogs since a 59-50 home triumph on Jan. 19, 2008 and that skid didn’t appear to be coming to an end for most of Thursday night’s affair.
Portland grabbed a quick 3-0 lead on a 3-pointer from sophomore Will DeFanti, but Amabile hinted at his dominance to come by draining back-to-back 3s for a 6-3 advantage. Senior Eddie Tirabassi followed with a free throw, but the hosts then went cold and the Bulldogs went on top on a jumper from senior Wally Stover, a layup from Stover and an old-fashioned three-point play from Stover for a 10-7 advantage after one quarter.
Deering turned the ball over eight times in the first eight minutes and didn’t score the final four minutes.
A pair of foul shots from Portland’s Lenny Cummings opened the second quarter and made it 12-7. Then, with 7:03 to go in the half, Rams sophomore Nick DiBiase banked home a 3-pointer to end the 9-0 run and 4 minute, 57 second drought. Cummings answered with a baseline jumper, but Amabile converted a three-point play, making a circus shot while falling down after being fouled, then sinking the free throw. A leaner from Stover made it 16-13, but junior John Hughes hit two foul shots to pull the hosts back within one.
After Portland senior Joe Zukowski hit a 3-ball, Hughes made two more free throws, but Bulldogs senior standout Koang Thok finally got into the scoring column with two free throws. In the final minute, Deering junior Dennis Ross made a layup. Then, after a Thok layup was waved off with 2.5 seconds to go due to a charging foul, Ross took the inbounds pass, dribbled to halfcourt, then launched a bomb that kissed off the backboard into the net to give the Rams a sudden and stunning 22-21 lead at the break.
“Dennis played great in the first half,” LeGage said. “That shot gave us a little juice.”
There were three lead changes and a pair of ties in the first 16 minutes and the second half would produce more drama even after it appeared as if the Bulldogs would pull away.
Portland retook the lead, 24-23, on a pair of Cummings free throws in the first minute of the third quarter, but Amabile answered with another 3. After Thok tied the game with a layup, Amabile drained yet another 3 and followed with a layup for Deering’s biggest lead, 30-25, with 5:17 to go in the period.
The Bulldogs then erupted and closed the third on a 12-2 run.
A jumper from Stover got the rally started. Seconds later, Stover buried a 3 to tie the score. With 2:39 to go, Zukowski hit a 3-ball and after Rams junior Nick Colucci answered with a jump shot, Zukowski hit a jumper and Thok made a bank shot to make it 37-32 Portland with eight minutes to go.
When Zukowski hit back-to-back 3s early in the fourth to give the Bulldogs a seemingly commanding 43-32 advantage, all appeared lost for the hosts, but Deering dug deep and got right back into the game.
First, Amabile hit a fifth 3. After Stover made two free throws, Rams sophomore Patrick Green made a jumper in the lane, junior Jamie Ross made the first of two free throws, then, after he missed the second, Tirabassi grabbed the rebound and put it home to make it a 45-40 contest with 4:46 to play.
A layup (that went around and around and around and finally down) and a free throw from Cummings with 4:21 remaining seemingly restored order, but Portland wouldn’t score again. When Colucci sank a 3 and with 2:39 to go, Jamie Ross made a layup, was fouled and hit the free throw, it pulled Deering within two, 48-46.
That score would stay intact until the final seconds.
With 2:33 left, DeFanti had a chance to extend Portland’s lead, but missed two free throws. After the teams traded turnovers, Colucci had a chance to pull the Rams even with 54.2 seconds left, but his shot was off. The teams traded turnovers again and with 21.9 seconds left, a traveling violation gave the ball back to Deering.
To no one’s surprise, the ball came to Amabile. He dribbled against DeFanti, looking for an opening, then made a quick move to his left, popped up and launched a 3. With 7.0 seconds showing, the ball found nothing but net.
Rams 49 Bulldogs 48.
“The intensity was up and I knew it was coming to me at the end and I knew I had to hit it,” said Amabile. “I knew I had to wait for an open shot and that I couldn’t force it. I knew it was going in.”
“Jon’s the real deal,” LeGage said. “We wanted the ball in his hands. Our thought was to run our stretch offense and get in that setup, but I saw him catch the ball and go to the center of the floor and I called the guys off. He’s arguably one of the best sophomores I’ve had in my tenure. He showed it tonight. That shot took a lot of guts. They were hounding him, faceguarding, checking, bumping and holding him, but he scored 23 points against a big, physical team like Portland. That’s as good a performance as I’ve seen from a sophomore.”
The Bulldogs had a chance to answer and get out of the gym with a victory, but after struggling to get the ball in, DeFanti took a pass and had to race across halfcourt as time wound down. He never had an inch of breathing room and his 25-foot bid with time expiring never had a chance and fell short and to the right.
Deering’s student section rushed the court, the Rams exulted and treasured their 49-48 victory.
“This boosts our confidence up a lot,” Amabile said. “It’s a great win. It feels great. Once they went up by 11, we didn’t feel good, but we hit a couple shots and it got our intensity up.”
“I think this game was kind of a mirror of our season,” said LeGage. “Parts of the season we played great and it looked like we turned the corner, then we played like a young team again. Tonight was a mirror. This is the first time I looked in their eyes and said if we don’t get this one, there might not be a tomorrow. For our program, that’s a big deal. We’ve only missed the playoffs once in my tenure. They didn’t want that to happen.”
Portland was left shellshocked.
“Nobody wanted to step up the plate,” lamented longtime Bulldogs coach Joe Russo. “It was a scrappy game. It was a perfect tennis match. We had the advantage, but we didn’t have the victory. It was our game to lose and we lost it. We allowed the other team’s best player to get the ball. The way we played at times, I didn’t think we’d lose it. At the end, I didn’t think we’d lose it, but Deering was scrappy and came back. We kept giving them chances. We let them fight and fight and fight and they went for the 3. I didn’t have any timeouts left. We couldn’t get a nice shot at the end. It’s disappointing. We had the victory in our grasp. It was one of the better officiated games I’ve seen all year. They listened and called it both ways. They did a good job. The loss isn’t so disappointing, it’s that we had the game in our grasp. Instead of attacking, we retreated. It’s exactly what we deserved.”
The Bulldogs got 16 points from Stover, 14 from Zukowski, nine from Cummings, six from Thok and three from DeFanti.
“Joey’s been our most consistent player,” Russo said. “He got us that lead. He was consistent shooting the ball and rebounded. Lenny gave us good minutes. Little Willy has to do too much. It’s not his fault. He has to play 64 minutes a game, running the show and playing defense.”
Deering got 23 points from Amabile, but he was just a part of the victorious story. Several Rams, including a group that hasn’t seen much playing time this winter, helped make the difference.
Colucci and Dennis Ross finished with five points each, Hughes and Jamie Ross each had four, DiBiase and Tirabassi had three points apiece and Green finished with two. Senior Sam Coyne and juniors Riko Augustino and Jackson Frey didn’t score, but played pivotal roles nonetheless.
“I knew going in if we could at least slow Koang down and keep them under 50 points, we’d have a chance,” LeGage said. “Guys came in tonight who haven’t played in awhile and gave us really good minutes. John Hughes, Nick DiBiase, Sam Coyne, Jackson Frey. They haven’t gotten a lot of minutes, but they stayed focused. John hit four clutch free throws. Pat Green’s been sidelined all season long and he came in the fourth quarter of a Portland game and gave us an edge that steadied the ship. We turned it over a lot in the first half. I was trying different combinations. He seemed to steady the ship, so I stuck with him. Jackson didn’t play a lot, but he played the most important minutes of the game. Nick stretched their defense. Jamie was a monster in the second half.”
The final tournament seeds won’t be decided until after Friday’s action, but we likely haven’t heard the last from Deering or Portland.
The Bulldogs went into the 2009 Western A tournament as the No. 6 seed, promptly put it all together, caught fire and weren’t stopped until the regional final game. This year’s team has been painfully inconsistent, but features enough weapons to make a run.
“I’m not sure what team will show up,” Russo said. “It depends on how badly these guys want it.”
Deering always competes in February. A year ago, the Rams almost upset eventual state champion Thornton Academy in a heartbreaking quarterfinal round loss. If Deering winds up with the No. 6 seed, it could face South Portland in a compelling matchup this time around.
LeGage feels as if his squad is putting it together at the optimal time.
“I have a ton of respect for Joe,” he said. “He runs a great program and always seems to get his teams to peak at the right time. He’s known for pulling his kids together. For us to beat them when he has them together says a lot for us. I’m very proud. We got beat at Cheverus (a 63-53 loss Tuesday) and I know a lot of people think the game wasn’t really close, but what I took away was that we scored 43 points in the second half. We lost, but in the second half, I really thought we began to turn the corner. That’s the silver lining. We only had one day to get ready for Portland. I told them we put up 43 points in a half against a team that doesn’t give up 43 points in an entire game. If we can hold teams to 50, I know we can score. We’re second in the league in offense. Our offensive approach is correct for our personnel.
“I like the length of the floor at the Expo. That will change things for some teams. It’s a nicer environment now. (If we finished seventh) Westbrook would have been a tough draw for us. Their strength is our weakness. We struggle with size. We’ll let the chips fall where they may. We’ll work hard and try to give the best effort we can. If the kids do that, I’ll be happy.”
Thursday night’s hero had the final word.
“If we play like we did tonight, we can beat anyone,” Amabile said.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com