Portland stays hot with win over Cheverus
SOUTH PORTLAND—It took a couple extra weeks and two venue changes, but the Portland boys' basketball team finally got to "host" rival Cheverus Wednesday at the HUB gymnasium at Southern Maine Community College.
It was certainly worth the wait for the Bulldogs as they seized control early and never looked back.
The Bulldogs trailed for only 26 seconds and raced to an early lead behind the sharpshooting of junior Matt Talbot. By halftime, Portland pushed its lead to 33-15 and an 18-3 third period run put it away. The Bulldogs went on to a 63-29 victory, their 13th in 15 games this season, dropping the Stags to 5-10 in the process, as Talbot had 16 points and senior Cosmo Donato and sophomore Steve Alex were huge contributors off the bench, combining for 23 points.
"Some of the guys went through the motions, but there were streaks where we looked really good," said Portland coach Joe Russo. "This type of game, we just needed to go out and win. We had the game in hand."
Just like the old days
Portland opened with a 57-39 home win over Marshwood, then won at Sanford (68-48) and Cheverus (73-49), held off visiting Bonny Eagle in a thriller, 55-52, before closing the 2012 portion of its schedule with a 63-53 victory at Scarborough and a 73-44 home win over Gorham. The Bulldogs opened 2013 with a 69-40 romp at Biddeford, then defeated host Windham (49-31), visiting Kennebunk (68-33) and visiting South Portland (63-47), avenging last year's quarterfinal round playoff loss in the process. Then, the bottom fell out as Portland lost at Thornton Academy (64-52) and at home to Westbrook (46-45). The Bulldogs returned to form with a 44-37 home win over Deering and rolled at Noble Tuesday, 75-50.
Cheverus has a new look this winter, both with its roster and on the bench as longtime assistant Dan Costigan replaced Hall of Famer Bob Brown as head coach. After opening with wins over visiting Biddeford (57-46) and host Gorham (53-51), the Stags lost at home to Portland (73-49) and at Westbrook (56-48). After a 97-44 home victory over Noble, Cheverus dropped seven in a row: 47-39 at Marshwood, 69-48 to visiting Bonny Eagle, 67-62 at Sanford, 73-51 to visiting Scarborough, 71-63 at Deering, 67-47 at Windham and 67-44 at South Portland. Saturday, the Stags got back on track, 66-43, over visiting Massabesic, and Tuesday, they made it two in a row with a 56-48 home win over Kennebunk.
Cheverus entered the game holding an all-time 89-85 edge over Portland, but the Bulldogs had won the past two meetings, after the Stags had taken the previous nine.
Wednesday, the setting was unusual as Portland crossed the bridge into South Portland to "host" Cheverus, in a gym which the Stags once called home. The game was originally scheduled for Jan. 16 at the Portland Expo, but was postponed due to bad weather. The schools eventually settled on Wednesday as the date for the makeup, but the Expo was unavailable and the game was moved to Portland High. Then, concerns over crowd size and fire exit reconstruction moved the contest to SMCC.
It was the first time the teams had squared off at SMCC since Feb. 16, 2004, when Cheverus (which played its home games there prior to the construction of Keegan Gymnasium for the 2005-06 season) eked out an epic 52-50 overtime win in a battle of unbeatens. Portland wouldn't lose again that season and earned a measure of revenge with a 68-52 victory in the Western A Final en route to its most recent state title.
This time around, there was much less drama and the Bulldogs took another step toward what they hope is their next championship.
Cheverus scored first when junior Brad Carney scored on a leaner 23 seconds in, but that proved to be the Stags' highlight. Junior Jayvon Pitts-Young tied the game with a putback and with 6:06 left in the first quarter, Pitts-Young converted a leaner to put Portland on top for good.
Senior Nick Volger added two free throws, but Cheverus sophomore Zordan Holman made a bank shot. Talbot hit a jumper for his first points, but a bank shot from senior Andrew Clouiter pulled the Stags within two, 8-6.
The Bulldogs then rattled off eight straight points as senior Nate Smart made a bank shot, Talbot blocked a shot at one end and scored on a putback at the other, Talbot took a pass from senior Steve Angelo and made a layup and Alex fed junior Justin Zukowski for a layup. A jumper from junior Emmanuel Ismail in the final seconds pulled Cheverus back to 16-8.
Portland quickly ended all doubt in the second quarter.
First, Zukowski fed Donato for a layup. Talbot then hit a jumper. After Stags senior Michael Flaherty made a free throw, Donato made a pair of foul shots and Alex hit a runner to make it 24-9.
Sophomore Derek Hammond made a layup for the visitors, but Donato took a pass from Zukowski and made a layup to push the lead back to 15. After a free throw from Cheverus junior Noah Stebbins, Talbot knocked down a 3, Smart tipped home a missed shot and Alex made a layup after a steal to push the lead to 21. A bank shot 3 from Ismail at the horn made it a 33-15 game at halftime.
The third period was even better for the Bulldogs.
After Stebbins hit a jumper to open the second half, Smart made a 3, Talbot hit a long jumper, Smart made a jump shot and Pitts-Young scored on a putback to make it 42-17.
After Carney made a free throw, Alex scored on a putback, then knocked down a 3.
"Coach puts me in to score," said Alex. "I just work hard. I like coming in and making a difference. We have great competition in practice. The starters are really good. It's like playing another team. We work hard."
Donato added a bank shot and as time wound down, Donato made a layup after a steal and Portland's advantage was 51-18 heading for the final stanza.
Talbot started the fourth quarter by taking a pass from Volger and making a layup. Zukowski added a free throw before Stebbins made a layup with 6:29 remaining, ending a 9 minute, 20 second field goal drought. Talbot countered with a free throw and Alex made a layup for a 57-20 lead.
After Ismail made a layup after a steal, Alex scored on a putback and freshman Joe Esposito made a jumper to give the Bulldogs a 39-point lead, 61-22.
A jumper from Cheverus senior Spencer Noel was answered by a layup by Portland junior Travis Godbout for the Bulldogs' final points. Stags junior Michael Sinclair hit a free throw Ismail made a layup after a steal and a layup from Noel brought the curtain down on Portland's 63-29 victory.
"We had confidence coming in" Alex said. "We beat them at their house."
"(Cheverus) beat up on us for years, so it's always good to beat them," said Talbot. "(My teammates) ran plays to get me open. We pushed it to a fullcourt defense and that got our energy going. Sometimes it takes us awhile to get going, but we strung a couple fast breaks and got our momentum going."
Talbot had 16 points, five rebounds, two blocked shots and a steal.
"Matt Talbot had a hot start," said Russo. "He does a lot for us. Rebounds and scores points."
Alex finished with 13 points (five boards and three steals) and Donato added 10 points (along with five rebounds).
"(Steve and Cosmo) are amazing," Talbot said. "We wouldn't be the same team at all without them. (Cosmo's) one of the best big men in the league. Steve's one of the most athletic guards in the league."
"I'm really impressed with Steve Alex and Cosmo Donato coming off the bench and giving us a boost," said Russo.
Smart added nine points, Pitts-Young six, Zukowski three and Esposito, Godbout and Volger two apiece.
"I thought Nick, Jayvon and Justin played great, the ball just didn't fall for them," Russo said. "We didn't need their points tonight. They played great defense."
The Bulldogs had a 31-24 rebounding advantage, committed 21 turnovers (most of which came in garbage time) and made 6-of-11 free throws.
Cheverus was led by nine points from Ismail. Stebbins had five points, Noel four, Carney three, Cloutier, Hammond and Holman two apiece and Flaherty and Sinclair one each.
The Stags made 4-of-8 free throws and were done in by poor shooting and 25 turnovers.
"We have to forget it," said Costigan. "We didn't play well. We didn't shoot well. We didn't do a lot well. Portland's very good, so much of that was due to what they were doing. We didn't help ourselves. (The kids) play hard and do what they can do. They're in a spot they've never been. It's hard. Portland's good. They come at you with their style of play. Their style isn't good for how we play. There are some teams we match up well against. Clearly, this isn't one of them."
Cheverus (13th in the Western Class A Heal Points standings) still has work to do if it wants to extend its postseason streak to 13 seasons. The Stags have the stage set for a playoff-ensuring win, but it won't come easily as they finish with games at Thornton Academy Friday and home tilts with Deering (Tuesday) and South Portland (Feb. 8).
This is a team that could be dangerous if it makes the cut.
"We have to get a good night's rest and get ready for Thornton Friday," said Costigan. "We have a brutal stretch here. If we beat one of those teams, we'll get in. We're fortunate in that regard. There are a ton of (Heal Points). We have to forget about today and recover. "
As for Portland (now first in Western A), it hosts Massabesic in its home finale Friday, goes to South Portland Tuesday and closes at Deering Feb. 8. Those latter two games will go a long way in determining who finishes atop the standings.
The Bulldogs came into the season viewed by many as the favorite and with a little more than two weeks to go before the postseason starts, there's still reason to believe Portland could be the team cutting down the nets.
"It doesn't really matter to us if we're number one," Alex said. "We just have to work hard in practice and get better every day. We have confidence."
"There's always room for improvement," Talbot said. "We've been an up-and-down team. It was tough to lose those two games. The losses hurt. We're trying to build back up. Playoffs are coming up. The biggest part of the year. No game will be easy. We wouldn't want it any other way. It'll be a great tournament."
"It's anybody's tournament," added Russo. "More important than placement is getting better. First place would be great, but we have to work on things to get better."