New-look Portland girls hold on for season-opening win at TA

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Portland sophomore Gemima Motema goes up for a shot during the Bulldogs’ 39-30 win at Thornton Academy in Saturday’s regular season opener. Motema finished with 11 points, 18 rebounds, five blocks, four assists and four steals in her first game since coming to Portland from the Congo.

Joe Carpine / 365digitalphotography.com.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

Portland 39 Thornton Academy 30

P- 12 9 7 11- 39
TA- 9 6 7 8- 30

P- Motema 5-1-11, A. Kabantu 3-2-9, Walsh 3-1-7, D. Kabantu 3-0-6, K. Eubanks 2-0-4, S. Eubanks 0-2-2

TA- Hart 3-7-13, Hebert 3-1-7, Labbe 1-1-3, Pettaway 1-0-3, Bogardus 0-2-2, Sanders 1-0-2

3-pointers:
P (1) A. Kabantu 1
TA (1) Pettaway 1

Turnovers:
P- 19
TA- 22

Free throws
P: 6-15
TA: 11-20

SACO—There’s a lot of buzz around the Portland girls’ basketball team this winter and for good reason.

The Bulldogs were expected to be improved, but they catapulted themselves into the discussion of top contenders with the addition of three new, intriguing players and Saturday afternoon at Linnell Gymansium, local fans got their first look at Portland’s 2017-18 edition.

While the Bulldogs still have work to do, they’re clearly promising, athletic and have a huge upside, something that host Thornton Academy found out the hard way in the teams’ mutual opener.

After a slow start, Portland took the lead for good on a 3-pointer from freshman Amanda Kabantu, one of the Bulldogs’ three new players from the Congo. Sophomore Gemima Motema then sparked a 10-3 run by soaring over everyone for a putback and by the end of the first period, Portland held a 12-9 lead.

While the Bulldogs were causing turnovers and absolutely dominating the glass at both ends (the visitors had 23 offensive rebounds alone in the first 16 minutes), they weren’t able to completely put the game away, as the Golden Trojans scored the final four points of the first half to cut the deficit to 21-15 at the break.

Portland went back ahead by 10, 28-18, on a layup after a steal from Motema, but with 2:59 to play, Thornton Academy senior standout Alex Hart made a free throw to cut the deficit to just five, 30-25.

But the Bulldogs weren’t about to let it slip away, as Kabantu made a baseline jumper and after a free throw from Golden Trojans junior Tori Labbe, Motema made a reverse layup, then stole the ball and set up junior Nettie Walsh for a layup that ended all doubt as Portland went on to a 39-30 victory.

Motema had a double-double (11 points, 18 rebounds) in her first Maine high school game, Kabantu added nine points and 10 boards and the Bulldogs won their opener for the first time in three years and snapped an eight-game skid against Thornton Academy in the process.

“We’ve made unbelievable strides in two weeks of practice, but it wasn’t a first game, an away gym, or an environment the girls weren’t used to,” said Portland coach Gerry Corcoran. “This is a nice start.”

Return to glory

Portland lost its first 14 years games a year ago and along the way, Jay Lowery stepped down as coach and was replaced by Corcoran. The Bulldogs closed by winning three of four and with plenty of talent returning, they were looking forward to the new season.

Then, Motema, Kabantu and her freshman sister, Davina Kabantu, found their way to Portland High (the girls came to a basketball showcase in this country, decided to stay and move in with a cousin in Portland) and expectations changed from hoping to contend to being a team that could be a force deep into February.

Thornton Academy, which went 9-10 in 2016-17, losing 42-38, to Scarborough in the Class AA South quarterfinals, is always in contention and expects to be in the hunt again this winter.

Entering play Saturday, the Golden Trojans had won eight straight meetings, but this time around, the Bulldogs registered a win over Thornton Academy for the first time since Dec. 5, 2008 (a 58-46 triumph in Saco).

The Golden Trojans got the first basket 31 seconds in, as sophomore Alexis Sanders made a layup and Corcoran immediately called a timeout.

Portland’s first point of the season came with 6:26 to go in the first quarter, as Amanda Kabantu made one of two free throws. 

After junior Elise Hebert made a foul shot for the hosts, senior Shayla Eubanks countered with one for the Bulldogs and with 4:37 left in the opening stanza, Amanda Kabantu’s 3-point put Portland on top for good.

Motema followed with a runner, but Sanders set up Hebert for a layup. After Walsh made a jumper, Hart hit a free throw to make it 9-6.

With 2:19 remaining in the first, after a missed shot, Motema soared over everyone in the lane for a breathtaking putback. 

After sophomore Amanda Bogardus hit a free throw for the Golden Trojans and Hart followed with a layup, Amanda Kabantu made a foul shot to give the Bulldogs a 12-9 advantage after one period.

Portland then got some breathing room early in the second quarter, but couldn’t deliver a knockout blow.

Kabantu started the period with a jumper, sophomore Kiera Eubanks added a leaner, Motema drove for a layup and with 5:03 to go in the half, Motema set up Eubanks for a layup and a 20-9 advantage.

The Bulldogs could only score one more point the rest of the half, however, despite getting countless second chances.

After being held scoreless for 4 minutes, 37 seconds, Hart snapped a 9-0 Portland run with two free throws. Motema got a point back at the line, but down the stretch, Hart made a layup after a steal, then sank two free throws to make the score 21-15 at halftime.

“The momentum changed and we talked in the locker room about how we should have been up 15,” Corcoran said. “We’re still a young team. Shayla is our only senior.”

In the first half, Kabantu and Motema each scored seven points and the Bulldogs had a 35-17 rebounding advantage, with 23 of them coming on the offensive end. Nine points from Hart kept Thornton Academy within hailing distance.

The back-and-forth continued in the third quarter.

Davina Kabantu made her presence felt to start the second half, when she went coast-to-coast for a layup, but Hart made a free throw and with 5:13 left in the frame, junior Tori Labbe took a pass from Hart and made a layup to cut the deficit to 23-18.

Portland would answer, as Walsh made a free throw, Davina Kabantu made a layup after a steal and with 2:37 on the clock, Motema made a layup after a steal to restore a double-digit lead, 28-18.

It didn’t last, as the Golden Trojans got a bank shot from Hart and a putback from Hebert to pull within six heading for the final period.

There, the Bulldogs did enough to prevail.

While Motema was whistled for her fourth foul 51 seconds into the fourth quarter, she never got her fifth and a Walsh layup gave Portland a 30-22 lead with 6:52 to go.

Thornton Academy had one final push, as Hart fed Hebert for a layup off an inbounds set, then Hart made a foul shot with 2:59 remaining to cut the deficit to five.

Portland needed a basket badly and Amanda Kabantu would produce it, sinking a baseline jumper with 2:15 to play.

Labbe got a point back at the line, but Walsh set up Motema for a reverse layup and with 1:25 on the clock, after a Motema steal, Walsh made a layup which served as the dagger.

Hart got a point back with a free throw, but Shayla Eubanks set up Davina Kabantu for a layup and Eubanks added a foul shot. A late 3-point shot from Golden Trojans senior Alana Pettaway accounted for the 39-30 final score.

“It was fun,” Motema said. “It was a tough game until the end, but we kept going. We were focused and we looked out for (rebounds).”

“This is a better start,” Corcoran said. “(Last year) was a wonderful growing experience and now we got three gifts to add to the equation. It’s one game at a time.” 

Motema had a game to remember, doing literally a little of everything. She scored 11 points and added a game-high 18 rebounds, five blocked shots, four assists and four steals.

Amanda Kabantu added nine points, 10 rebounds and two steals.

Walsh finished with seven points (four rebounds and two assists), Davina Kabantu added six, Kiera Eubanks four and Shayla Eubanks two (to go with 10 boards).

The Bulldogs also got solid minutes from junior captain Grace Stacey and sophomore Callie Watson.

“Our second team could be a good team in this league,” said Corcoran. “We’re so athletic. Sometimes we have to slow down.”

Portland finished with a dozen steals and a 53-37 rebounding advantage (28 coming on offense).

“The wonderful part of what we’re trying to do right now is find the right combinations,” said Corcoran said. “I was impressed with how we hit the boards. We’ve worked on that because we’re so athletic.”

The Bulldogs were able to overcome poor foul shooting (6-of-15) and 19 turnovers.

Thornton Academy was led by 13 points, five rebounds and three assists from Hart. Hebert had seven points (seven boards and two blocks), Labbe and Pettaway three points each and Bogardus (five rebounds) and Sanders (10 rebounds, two blocks) two points apiece.

The Golden Trojans committed 22 turnovers and made 11 of 20 free throws.

Onward and upward

Thornton Academy returns to action Tuesday when Noble pays a visit.

Portland plays its first home game Tuesday when Windham comes to the Portland Exposition Building.

The Bulldogs might develop into a special team, but it will need to take baby steps.

“We can improve on our defense and make more shots,” Motema said.

“We have a lot to clean up,” Corcoran said. “We’ll talk about it in practice Monday.”

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

Portland senior Shayla Eubanks wins the opening tip-off over Thornton Academy junior Elise Hebert.

Portland freshman Davina Kabantu defends Thornton Academy senior Alex Hart.

Portland sophomore Kiera Eubanks goes up for a shot as Thornton Academy seniors Adeline Paradis (10) and Alana Pettaway defend.

Portland freshman Davina Kabantu shoots from way downtown.

Portland freshman Amanda Kabantu lines up a foul shot.

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