Portland makes early statement at Cheverus
PORTLAND—Preseason predictions often aren't worth the paper (or cyberspace) they're written on, but it's safe to say the Portland boys' basketball team is living up to early billing.
The preseason favorite Bulldogs went to rival/nemesis Cheverus Friday evening and only produced two strong quarters of play, but that was more than enough to make an early season emphatic statement.
Portland, which snapped a nine-game losing streak to the Stags a year ago at Keegan Gymnasium, made it two wins in a row over Cheverus by virtue of a second quarter offensive explosion and a third period defensive exhibition.
After eight minutes, the game was tied, 14-14, but Bulldogs junior Matt Talbot then took over, sinking three 3-pointers and scoring 15 points in a second period onslaught as Portland raced to a 17-point lead.
Any Stags' comeback hopes were quickly dashed in the third stanza, when the Bulldogs' defense forced 11 turnovers and the visitors extended their lead to as many as 26 points.
Portland went on to a 73-49 victory, behind 21 points from Talbot, improved to 3-0 and dropped Cheverus to 2-1.
"I thought we played two very good quarters tonight," said longtime Bulldogs' coach Joe Russo. "Our defense kicked in in the second half. "
Both teams suffered disappointing playoffs losses last winter. The Bulldogs were stunned in the quarterfinal round by South Portland, while the Stags couldn't dig out of an early hole in a semifinal round loss to eventual state champion Deering.
Then, in the offseason, legendary Cheverus coach Bob Brown retired and was replaced by longtime assistant and former Stags star player Dan Costigan.
Both teams impressed in their first two outings as Cheverus opened with a 57-46 home win over Biddeford, then eked out a 53-51 victory at Gorham Tuesday on Emmanuel Ismail's buzzer-beater.
Portland, widely viewed as the team to beat this winter, had no trouble in a 57-39 home win over Marshwood, then rolled at Sanford, 68-48.
Last year, the Stags took the first meeting between the ancient rivals, 49-41, at the Expo, but the Bulldogs bounced back at Cheverus to snap a nine-game skid against the Stags with a 40-39 triumph on then-junior Nick Volger's buzzer-beater.
Cheverus had won five of the seven previous meetings at Keegan Gymnasium (please see sidebar), but Friday, Portland simply had too much.
Prior to tip, in a poignant ceremony, a 27-second "moment of silence" was held in memory and honor of the victims of Friday morning's school shooting in Connecticut.
Then, as expected, the Stags came out strong with a ton of energy in front of their vocal (and colorfully dressed) partisan crowd.
After a frenetic early stretch, which produced an abundance of action, but no points, the hosts took the lead, 3-0, on a 3-ball from senior captain Michael Flaherty. Volger promptly answered with a floater and a leaner to put the visitors on top, but Cheverus retook the lead, 6-4, when senior captain Drew Ferrick buried a 3.
The Bulldogs tied the score on two free throws from junior Jayvon Pitts-Young and went on top on a Talbot baseline jumper, but a bank shot from Stags junior Michael Sinclair tied the score, 8-8.
After two free throws from junior Jayvon Pitts-Young gave Portland the lead, Cheverus sophomore Derek Hammond answered with two of his own to force another deadlock.
Portland grabbed a 12-10 advantage on a layup from sophomore Steve Alex, but a layup from sophomore rebounding machine Zordan Holman and a leaner by junior Noah Stebbins gave the hosts their final lead, 14-12.
In the waning seconds, the Bulldogs drew even on a layup after a steal from junior Justin Zukowski and that set the stage for a second period domination by the visitors.
Just 12 seconds into the new quarter, Talbot lined up a 3-ball and drained it to put Portland ahead to stay.
Zukowski added a layup after a steal and after Ferrick got a point back at the charity stripe, Portland senior Steve Angelo sank a 3 to make it 22-15.
Ferrick responded with a layup off an inbounds pass, but Talbot calmly drained another 3 and hit a bank shot the next time down to push the lead to 10, 27-17.
After Flaherty answered with two free throws, Talbot found himself open for another 3-point attempt which found nothing but the bottom of the net and with 4:25 to go before halftime, the advantage was 11, 30-19.
"My teammates found me open shots," said Talbot. "I didn't do anything special. It was all them getting me open. It seemed like I was just standing there. It's good to have Justin, Jayvon and Nick to find me."
"Talbot's a key player," said Pitts-Young. "It's nice to have him. He's so athletic, big and tall. He helps on offense and defense. "
"Matt's a pretty good shooter," added Russo. "We want him stepping out shooting because he can. He's limited to where he can do it. It's a tradeoff. If he doesn't rebound, I don't let him do it."
The hosts looked to get back in the game as junior Brad Carney made a 3 and Stebbins scored on a putback, cutting the deficit to 30-24, but Pitts-Young sank a 3, Alex made a layup after a steal, senior Nate Smart buried a jumper and in the waning seconds, Talbot, fittingly, made two layups, giving him 15 points in the quarter and his team a commanding 41-24 bulge at the break.
"(The Bulldogs) have all kinds of talent," said Costigan. "When we got a little tired, they took advantage. We did get a little tired. (Portland's) explosive and they made that run. Give them credit. They wore us down. They're very good. Down 17 at halftime was too much to overcome."
Cheverus hoped to chip away and get back in the game as the second half commenced, but the Stags would turn the ball over 11 times in the third quarter and Portland made them pay.
Just 29 seconds in, Talbot stole the ball and raced in for a layup. Nine seconds later, Pitts-Young did the same thing and it was a 45-24 contest. After Volger and Flaherty traded foul shots, Volger buried a 3. Holman answered with a layup, but Zukowski sank a jumper and it was 51-27.
Midway through the quarter, senior Spencer Noel sank a 3 for the hosts, but Zukowski responded with a 3-pointer of his own and senior Cosmo Donato made a jump shot for Portland's biggest lead, 56-30.
After a Ferrick putback was answered by an Alex layup, Stebbins made a layup. Angelo sank a free throw for the Bulldogs and as time expired in the third, Holman made a layup for the Stags, but that only cut the deficit to 23, 59-36.
The fourth period was academic although Cheverus did get within 17 on a 3-ball from Stebbins with 5:12 remaining, which made the score, 60-43.
Portland then slammed the door for good behind a leaner from Zukowski and a putback from Talbot. The lead grew to as many as 24, 70-46, on a layup from junior Travis Godbout with 2:43 left and the Bulldogs went on and slammed the door on their impressive 73-49 win.
"We were confident," said Talbot. "Me, Justin and Jayvon have been around for three years and Nick and Nate have been around for four. Our main focus is our defense. We came out of halftime and were a defensive team. "
Ten different Bulldogs scored. The team was paced by 21 points from Talbot. Also scoring in double figures were stalwarts Pitts-Young (11) and Zukowski (10). Alex and Volger had eight points each, Angelo and Smart four apiece, Godbout three and Donato and sophomore Tanner Foley two apiece.
"It's kind of like payback (for previous losses)," said Pitts-Young. "We kind of clicked as a team. That's how we play. We all get along. No one's really selfish. It's nice to have everybody score. It was a lot of fun. The intensity was amazing."
Portland made seven 3-pointers to six for Cheverus. The Bulldogs were outrebounded, 39-34, but got nine boards from Talbot and five apiece from Angelo and Smart. Portland did register 15 steals, paced by five from Pitts-Young and four from Talbot. The Bulldogs turned the ball over 19 times and made just 8-of-15 free throws.
The Stags were paced by Stebbins' 12 points. Ferrick and Holman each had eight, Flaherty finished with seven, Noel five, Carney three and senior Andrew Cloutier, sophomore Derek Hammond and Sinclair two apiece.
Holman was without peer on the glass, snaring 13 rebounds, eight of which came on offense. He also blocked four shots.
"Zordan is as tough as a bag of hammers," Costigan said. "He's very intense. He's a warrior. I think he's averaging close to nine offensive rebounds in our three games. He's relentless. He's a special kid and a special player. We're lucky to have him."
Flaherty added eight boards, while Ferrick had a half dozen.
Cheverus turned the ball over 24 times and might have made more of a game of it had it converted more than 7 of its 17 attempts from the foul stripe.
"We have to get better," said Costigan. "When you play the best team in the state, you learn a lot. It was a good start. I was proud. We never gave up. Most of the kids are in a spot they've never been in. They're working hard."
Each team has a few games remaining in the calendar year.
Cheverus is back in action Tuesday at Westbrook. The Stags host Noble next Friday and finish up the year at Marshwood Dec. 28.
Portland has another huge test Tuesday at home versus Bonny Eagle, a regional finalist two years running.
"(Bonny Eagle junior) Dustin Cole's a phenomenal player," said Pitts-Young. "Last year we did a good job on him. We always have a good game plan on him. He's pretty much the team. We'll figure something out for that."
"(Bonny Eagle's) a great team," Talbot said. "Definitely one of the best in the SMAA. We won't do anything different. We'll just go out and play our game."
"It doesn't get any easier," added Russo. "(Bonny Eagle's) one of the better teams. They've been there a couple years. They have the best player. It will be a tough contest. We have to rebound a lot better. The big guys don't rebound. We have to work on more of an offensive flow."
The Bulldogs then go to Scarborough next Friday and close the 2012 portion of their schedule Dec. 28 at home versus Gorham.
Portland, so far at least, has dealt with the pressure of being highly touted.
"I think we're taking on the pressure well," said Pitts-Young. "Coach keeps us grounded and humble. We go out there and work hard. We have the potential, but we take it one game at a time. "
"Obviously, we all read the newspaper," Talbot said. "We see what's on-line. I'm not going to lie. We don't play like we're the best team. We don't act like it. We act like we're a bottom team. I don't think we're nearly as good as we could be. There's probably more negatives than positives. There's a long way to go."
Cheverus and Portland will meet again Jan. 16, at the Expo.