PORTLAND—Yes, it was a holiday exhibition and no, it didn’t count (at least not in the Heal Points standings), but Thursday evening’s showdown between two of the state’s premier boys’ basketball powers, defending Class B champion Falmouth and undefeated Portland, sure had a postseason feel.
And we can only hope that the postseason will be so dramatic.
The main event of the first day of the Red Claws holiday tournament at the Portland Exposition Building lived up to billing and then some as the Bulldogs controlled play much of the way and led by as many as a dozen points in the third quarter, but the Yachtsmen proved that they can compete in any class and saved their best for last.
Trailing, 52-49, with just over a minute to play, Falmouth pulled within one on a runner from sophomore Thomas Coyne, then went ahead to stay on two free throws from senior Nick Burton, who had a tremendous evening, with 42.1 seconds to play.
After Portland failed to answer, Coyne extended the lead to three with a pair of foul shots with 12.1 seconds left and after a desperation Bulldogs’ 3 at the horn was off the mark, the Yachtsmen had an inspirational 54-41 triumph.
Coyne led all scorers with 24 points, Burton added 15 and Falmouth, which dropped its most recent countable contest, an overtime loss at Greely Saturday, earned a big dose of confidence in case it should meet Portland again come February, perhaps on the same floor or across town at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
“It’s the kind of game we need,” said Yachtsmen coach Dave Halligan, whose teams have won many key games at the Expo in December and February over the years. “We made a lot of early mistakes, but we built from it. The kids believed they could be successful. We came out with maybe a little hangover from the Greely game, but once we started to play and compete, we came back. It’s a step in the right direction. We learned our lessons. We didn’t dwell on that.”
The Falmouth-Portland showdown was the fifth of five tournament games Thursday and drew the largest crowd. There was advance buzz for two reasons. The first is that Falmouth and Portland are two of the best teams in the state, regardless of class, and also because there’s a very good chance they’ll see each other again in the crucible of the tournament in February.
The Bulldogs came in sizzling, winners of six in a row so far this winter, while the Yachtsmen were coming off their first loss in six outings this season and first in 11 games dating back to January.
Falmouth and Portland have no countable history on the hardwood, but that’s likely to change and if the teams meet in February, based on what we saw Thursday, local fans will be in for a treat.
The first period was a bit sluggish as the teams felt each other out, but play would pick up as the game progressed.
The Bulldogs struck first, 50 seconds in, when senior Justin Zukowski took a pass from classmate Jayvon Pitts-Young and made a layup.
After a Pitts-Young free throw, senior Matt Talbot scored on a driving bank shot for a quick 5-0 advantage before Burton put the Yachtsmen on the board when he finished a feed from Coyne with 4:19 to play in the opening quarter.
“We don’t play here very often and coming out in a game like this against Portland, there might have been nerves,” Burton said. “We were able to get a feel for the ball and made plays.”
After Portland junior Steve Alex made a floater, Burton made two free throws and junior Jack Simonds hit another to cut the Falmouth deficit to two, but Zukowski knocked down a 3 and Pitts-Young added a foul shot for an 11-5 lead after one quarter.
Burton started the second period with a free throw, but Pitts-Young made a leaner to push the lead to 13-6.
After senior Justin Rogers made a layup for the Yachtsmen, senior Travis Godbout hit a bank shot for the Bulldogs. Simonds answered with a leaner, but a 3-ball from Godbout gave Portland an 18-10 advantage.
Back came Falmouth as Coyne made his first 3, but Pitts-Young converted a driving layup to make it 20-13.
After Simonds set up senior Matt Tseng for a layup, sophomore Joe Esposito made a layup for the Bulldogs, making the score, 22-15.
The Yachtsmen crept back within three, as Coyne scored on a driving layup and Tseng set up Burton for a layup, but Talbot countered with a 3 to push the lead to 25-19.
After a long 3 from Coyne pulled Falmouth within three, Alex made a layup after a steal. Tseng sank a free throw, but Talbot hit a short jumper after a steal. After Burton got free for a dunk, Pitts-Young scored on a driving left-handed layup late in the half and Portland took a 31-25 advantage to the locker room.
Pitts-Young’s eight points led a balanced attack, while Burton had nine for Falmouth.
The third period would see the Bulldogs threaten to break the game open, but the Yachtsmen wouldn’t go quietly.
A Pitts-Young layup after a Talbot block and an Alex layup (set up by Zukowski) put Portland up by 10, 35-25, but a Coyne layup, foul and free throw for an old-fashioned three-point play and a Simonds jumper in the lane cut the deficit in half.
After Pitts-Young drove for a layup, Alex was called for a technical foul and Coyne made two foul shots, but Talbot roared to life. scoring on a putback, taking a pass from Godbout and making a layup, then setting up Zukowski for a 3-ball and a 44-32 lead with 2:38 to go in the stanza.
Falmouth had rallied from a 16-point deficit in its overtime loss at Greely Saturday, so being 12 points behind Thursday wasn’t especially daunting.
A 3 from Burton began the comeback. Coyne made a layup after a steal and Simonds, fouled after grabbing an offensive rebound, sank a free throw to make it just a six-point game, 44-38.
After Portland sophomore Amir Moss made a nice reverse layup, Yachtsmen senior I.V. Stucker, who consistently gives his team strong minutes off the bench, made a foul shot, then scored on a putback, and Falmouth went into the fourth period trailing by just five, 46-41.
It took just over a minute for the Yachtsmen to go ahead for the first time.
After Rogers made a 3, Coyne hit one from beyond NBA range and Falmouth was on top, 47-46, with 6:45 remaining.
The Bulldogs retook the lead, 48-47, when Esposito made a layup and Pitts-Young set up Godbout for a layup, but Rogers answered with a floater with 3:50 showing and Portland’s lead was a tenuous point, 50-49.
With 1:43 to play, after both Zukowski and Pitts-Young kept possession alive with offensive rebounds, Godbout scored on a putback and it looked like it might be the Bulldogs’ night, but they wouldn’t score again.
With 1:21 remaining, Coyne scored on a runner to cut the deficit to one.
After a Zukowski miss, Burton got another rebound and the Yachtsmen transitioned back to offense where, with 42.1 seconds to go, Burton was fouled.
He went to the stripe and calmly sank both free throws and just like that, Falmouth had the lead again, 53-52.
“I was just hoping they’d both go in,” Burton said. “I focused on staying in rhythm and knocking them down, not focusing on the crowd.”
Portland would have its opportunity to answer and even after Talbot missed a 3, Pitts-Young had a look a tip-in which didn’t fall. The Bulldogs still weren’t done, as Zukowski somehow saved the ball from going out of bounds and it came to Esposito, but unfortunately for Portland, before it could get off another shot, Esposito traveled.
“When we were down one, we hustled and I was ready to call timeout, but I let them gather themseves and before I knew it, he took a step,” Portland coach Joe Russo lamented.
With 12.1 seconds left, Coyne was fouled and he too sank both attempts, meaning the Bulldogs needed a 3 to force overtime.
After getting the ball upcourt, but not running much of an offense, Russo called timeout with 3.9 seconds showing.
“I wasn’t going to call a timeout, but they weren’t running it right, so I had to call timeout,” Russo said.
Portland would ultimately get the ball to Zukowski in the right corner, but he was well covered and his final attempt was off the mark, giving Falmouth a palpitating 55-52 triumph.
“We had a three point lead, so we needed to make sure we didn’t let them get an open look and stay tough on defense,” Burton said. “This was a statement game. It says we’re tough and we don’t give up. Even if we’re down, we’ll keep pushing. It’s a step in the right direction. The Greely loss was tough on us. We wanted to come back and make our case heard. We’re in the right direction and hopefully we’ll keep up the momentum.”
“Portland’s one of the best teams in the state,” Halligan said. “They’re very athletic. We’re fortunate to play in a situation like this, on a tournament court. There’s no experience like this.”
Coyne led the way with 24 points. Burton was stellar with 15 points, 10 rebounds, a steal and a blocked shot.
“Rebounding is always a focal point,” said Burton. “That and getting up and running up and down the court and getting open looks.”
Rogers had seven points, Simonds added six (along with 12 rebounds and four blocks) and Tseng had three.
Falmouth only turned the ball over nine times and made 14 of 19 free throws.
Portland was paced by 12 points from Pitts-Young (who also had six rebounds, four assists, two steals and a block) and 11 from Talbot (who added seven rebounds and four blocks).
“(Talbot’s) a big time player,” Burton said. “He plays with a lot of energy and enthusiasm. Jack did a good job one-on-one defense and I was there for the help. We tried to contain him.”
Godbout had nine points, Zukowski eight (to go with nine rebounds and a steal), Alex six, Esposito four and Moss two.
The Bulldogs (who had a 37-30 rebounding advantage) committed only 10 turnovers, but shot just 2-of-7 from the free throw line.
“It was a fun game,” said Russo. “It’s more fun to win, but I felt we played hard. We didn’t go to the foul line. We didn’t shoot well, we didn’t take care of the ball well and we still had a lead late in the game. They hit some big 3s on our lack of rotation. We’ve played decent teams, but we’ve been winning by a lot. This is our first adversity.”
Both teams have more holiday action to come.
Friday evening, Portland meets a team from Zagreb, Croatia at 7 p.m., while Falmouth meets another potential playoff rival, high-flying Bonny Eagle, at 8:30 p.m.
The Bulldogs’ next countable game is Monday, when they welcome city rival Cheverus.
The Yachtsmen are back in countable action Jan. 3 at home against rival Cape Elizabeth.
Falmouth junior Jack Simonds attacks the basket and is met by Portland senior Matt Talbot.
Portland senior Justin Zukowski goes to the basket as Falmouth senior Justin Rogers defends.
Falmouth sophomore Thomas Coyne, the game’s leading scorer with 24 points, goes to the hole.
Portland senior Jayvon Pitts-Young floats a shot into the basket. Pitts-Young led the Bulldogs with 12 points.
Portland senior Matt Talbot leans in for a shot.
Falmouth senior Nick Burton sinks the go-ahead free throw in the final minute.
Falmouth senior Nick Burton slams home a dunk during the Yachtsmen’s thrilling 55-52 win over Portland in Thursday’s Red Claws holiday tournament.
Jason Veilleux photos.
More photos below.