PORTLAND—When you’re the top seed, there are no style points.
All you want to do is survive and advance.
And often, the first test is the hardest.
Friday evening at the Portland Exposition Building, the top-ranked Portland boys’ basketball team, the defending Class A state champion and favorite to repeat, not surprisingly got pushed by No. 8 Windham, but when it mattered most, the Bulldogs played like champions.
Early on, it looked like it would be easy for Portland, as the Bulldogs scored the game’s first six points and behind a 3-pointer from senior Tanner Foley, went up, 13-5, after one period, but the Eagles, who turned the ball over 10 times in the first quarter, hung tough and only trailed, 23-18, at halftime.
When senior Jack Giampino converted a three-point play 52 seconds into the second half, Windham only trailed by two, but showing its explosiveness, Portland erupted for six points in 38 seconds to gain some breathing room and by third quarter’s end, had a comfortable 47-30 advantage.
The Eagles had no answers from there and even though their senior, Andrew Tanguay, brought the house down in the waning seconds with a 3, it wasn’t enough as the Bulldogs moved on, 57-50.
Senior Steve Alex and junior Amir Moss both had 16 points as Portland improved to 17-2, ended Windham’s season at 11-9 and advanced to face No. 5 Deering (14-6) in the semifinals Friday at 7 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Arena (formerly known as the Cumberland County Civic Center).
“I always find the first game’s the toughest game because you have nothing to gain and everything to lose,” said longtime Portland coach Joe Russo. “A loss is such a devastating thing and when you do lose, you get the big headlines. Kids get nervous, but we were able to keep our patience tonight.”
Portland didn’t just build on last year’s championship, it made history (something not easy to do in arguably the state’s most storied program) by winning its first 15 games to produce a new program-record 37-game win streak (see sidebar for specific game stories). The Bulldogs lost back-to-back games to Cheverus and South Portland, but closed with an impressive win at Deering as they garnered the top seed in Western A for the second year in a row.
Windham went 10-8 in the regular season, earned the No. 8 seed in Western A, then held off visiting No. 9 Thornton Academy in Tuesday’s preliminary round, 43-38, to advance.
Portland handled the host Eagles (70-55) Jan. 27. The teams had no playoff history.
Friday, the Bulldogs persevered and prevailed.
Portland got the jump just 19 seconds in, as Windham turned the ball over and Alex made a layup. After another steal, Moss was fouled and hit both free throws and with 7:03 to go in the opening stanza, Foley made two foul shots.
The Eagles got on the board courtesy a layup from senior Greg Gledhill, but Alex countered with a layup. After Windham senior standout Kevin Weisser made a 3, Alex scored on a putback and Foley knocked down a 3 to make it 13-5 Bulldogs after one quarter.
Windham turned the ball over 10 times in the first eight minutes.
Early in the second period, senior Troy Davis made a jumper for the Eagles and Weisser set up Gledhill for a layup. After Alex made a layup, Davis knocked down a 3 to pull Windham within three, 15-12.
Senior Cedric Smith and Moss both made free throws and sophomore Charlie Lyall scored on a putback, but Weisser answered with a leaner. After a layup from Moss, Davis hit a baseline jumper and senior Ryan Gorman made a layup after a steal. A late putback by Moss gave Portland a 23-18 advantage at the half.
The Bulldogs finally shook the Eagles in the second half.
Windham made things very interesting when Giampino took an inbounds pass from Davis made a layup and after being fouled, hit the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play 52 seconds into the third quarter, but the Bulldogs finally came to life.
In a 38-second span, sophomore Joey Esposito, senior Liam Densmore (after a steal) and Alex all made layups to stretch the lead to eight.
“When Steve picks it up, we all play better,” Moss said. “He really picked it up in the second half. Everyone else started feeding off of him.”
After Gorman made a layup, Alex drove for a layup, Alex made two foul shots and Smith hit a layup for a 35-23 lead.
“When I go in, I feel like I need to set the bar for the rest of the team,” said Smith. “If I get going, the rest of the team will get going. We started building a lead.”
Gledhill made a layup, but Moss made a free throw. After a leaner from Davis, Moss scored on a layup in transition and Moss made another fastbreak layup (from Alex). Freshman Mike Gilman knocked down a 3 for Windham, but the Bulldogs closed on a 7-0 surge, as Esposito made a free throw, Alex set up Esposito for a reverse layup in transition, Moss made a layup after a steal and Moss scored on a putback to give Portland a little breathing room, 47-30, heading for the fourth period.
There, the Bulldogs salted it away.
After Gledhill scored on a putback, Densmore knocked down a 3 and Alex drove for a layup. Davis hit a 3 for the Eagles, but Foley answered with one of his own for a 55-35 advantage.
Windham would finish strong, but even though the final score was close, Portland’s victory was never in jeopardy.
After Gledhill converted a three-point play, Gledhill made a layup to cut the deficit to 55-40, even though the basket was never recorded on the scoreboard and confused those on hand the rest of the game.
After Davis scored on a leaner, sophomore Christopher Brown knocked down a 3 to make it 55-45, but only 1:36 remained.
Lyall scored the Bulldogs’ final points on a putback with 1:04 to go. Junior Zachary Lacombe answered with a layup.
Then, Windham coach Kevin Millington inserted Tanguay, a special needs student, who quickly became a fan favorite. Tanguay missed his first 3-point attempt, but he got the ball back and with 16.7 seconds to go, buried a 3 from the left side, bringing down the house and accounting for the 57-50 final score.
“There’s lots of pressure on us and we knew they’d be out for us,” Moss said. “We knew we had a lot to lose, but we kept our composure. We brought up our intensity on defense. We knew if we did that and ran the floor on offense, we’d get the victory.”
“We started off like we were going to run away with it,” Russo said. “Coach Millington called a timeout and we didn’t regroup with our energy until the second half. When we have that energy, kids run the floor, get to the rim. I thought we ran the floor tonight better than we have most of the year.”
Alex quietly had another solid game, producing 16 points, nine rebounds, three assists and two steals.
“I hadn’t really called Steve’s number, but he showed me tonight why he’s one of, if not the best player in the league.” Russo said. “I called his number and he responded. I was really pleased with him tonight.”
Moss also had 16 points and added six steals and five boards.
Foley had eight points (as well as six rebounds), Densmore five, Esposito five, Lyall four (as well as five rebounds) and Smith three (to go with a game-high 13 rebounds, which helped the Bulldogs enjoy a 47-28 advantage in that critical category).
“I always box out,” Smith said. “I’m always in the right place at the right time. You can be 5-foot-2 rebounding against 6-4, but as long as you box out, you’re all set. I was excited to play Windham. It’s always exciting to play a game. It doesn’t matter who we play.”
“The key to this win was rebounding,” Russo said. “Cedric’s a rebounder. He brings energy.”
Portland forced 20 turnovers while committing just 12, and made 10 of 22 foul shots.
Windham was led by 14 points from Davis and 13 from Gledhill, who also had five rebounds. Weisser was held to only five points in his swan song, but he grabbed five rebounds, blocked four shots and dished out four assists.
“We wanted to hold Weisser and cut his points (average) in half,” Russo said. “Amir did a great job to hold one of the best players in the league to five points.”
Gorman had four points, Brown, Giampino (six rebounds), Gilman and Tanguay three apiece and Lacombe two.
The Eagles hit 2 of 4 free throws.
The Bulldogs have plenty of time to prepare for a trip to the bigger stage next week.
Portland swept Deering in the regular season, holding on to win a thrilling 65-62 contest Jan. 15 at the Expo, then rolling at Deering in the regular season finale Feb. 5, 66-44.
The Bulldogs have won three of the previous five playoff meetings, including a 64-49 win in last year’s semifinals en route to the championship.
“We have to do the same thing we did to them last Thursday, play hard for 32 minutes, bring energy and stay in their face,” Moss said. “We all focus at game time. We want the ‘W,’ we want the Gold Ball, just like last year.”
“We have to push the ball and do what we always do,” Smith said. “Play hard and play fast. We’re very confident.”
“(The Rams) have plenty to lose,” Russo added. “They haven’t beaten us and they don’t want that trend to continue. We’ll enjoy the opportunity next week, but there’s a lot of pressure on these young kids with the number one seed.”
Nothing these champion Bulldogs can’t handle, however.
Portland senior Steve Alex shoots over a Windham defender. Alex had 16 points.
Portland senior Liam Densmore soars to the basket.
Portland senior Tanner Foley is fouled on a drive to the basket.
Portland junior Amir Moss goes strong to the hoop.
Portland junior Amir Moss floats home a shot for two of his 16 points during Friday’s 57-50 win over Windham in the Western A quarterfinals.
Jason Veilleux photos.
More photos below.
W- 5 13 12 20- 50
P- 13 10 24 10- 57
W- Davis 6-0-14, Gledhill 6-1-13, Weisser 2-0-5, Gorman 2-0-4, Brown 1-0-3, Giampino 1-1-3, Gilman 1-0-3, Tanguay 1-0-3, Lacombe 1-0-2
P- Alex 7-2-16, A. Moss 6-4-16, Foley 2-2-8, Densmore 2-0-5, Esposito 2-1-5, Lyall 2-0-4, Smith 1-1-3
W (6) Davis 2, Brown, Gilman, Tanguay, Weisser 1
P (3) Foley 2, Densmore 1