Portland avenges playoff ouster, stays perfect
PORTLAND—Despite racing to an early lead, the Portland boys' basketball team never got comfortable Friday evening.
Even with a healthy fourth quarter advantage, the Bulldogs were still wary.
When visiting South Portland cut a 17-point advantage to nine with 2:29 still to play, flashbacks to the Red Riots' Western Class A quarterfinal round comeback of a year ago lingered.
This time, however, Portland had an answer.
In fact, the Bulldogs had an abundance of answers, be it senior Nate Smart, who hit three 3-pointers and scored 12 first quarter points, senior Nick Volger, who put forth a tremendous defensive effort, junior Justin Zukowski, who came to life in the second half, juniors Matt Talbot and Jayvon Pitts-Young, who, while not scoring with their usual aplomb, still made several key plays, or seniors Steve Angelo and Cosmo Donato and sophomore Steve Alex, who gave their team critical minutes off the bench.
This time around, Portland withered the South Portland push and went on to a 63-47 triumph, staying unbeaten in 10 games this winter, while dropping the Red Riots to 8-2.
"It was far from easy," said Bulldogs coach Joe Russo. "We started off nicely. We had a really nice first quarter. We're trying to put together four quarters. I thought tonight we played a good two, maybe two-and-a-half quarters. We sputtered at times and lost our focus a little bit and maybe got a little comfortable."
Both Portland and South Portland have stolen headlines in the first half of the 2012-13 season.
The Bulldogs opened with a 57-39 home win over Marshwood, then won at Sanford (68-48) and Cheverus (73-49). Portland 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) and visiting Kennebunk (68-33)
The Red Riots handled visiting Windham (56-39), host Biddeford (68-43) and visiting Westbrook (54-36) to start, then edged host Thornton Academy (56-54) and downed visiting Kennebunk (69-39) and Massabesic (62-41) to close 2012. In its 2013 opener, South Portland enjoyed a 76-55 win at Scarborough, but last Friday, couldn't hold a late lead and fell at home to defending champion Deering in overtime (58-52). Tuesday, the Red Riots got back in the win column, 56-43, over visiting Sanford.
Portland has dominated the rivalry this century. Dating back to the start of the 2001-02 season, the Bulldogs had won 22 of 26 meetings (please see sidebar), including eight of the past nine, but South Portland had captured the most recent, a 39-37 upset in last year's quarterfinals.
Friday, Portland came out hot and never looked back.
Smart set the tone just 22 seconds in with a 3-ball which put the Bulldogs on top for good.
After the Red Riots got on the board on a free throw from senior Jack Tolan, Smart buried another 3. Tolan made a jump shot and senior Tanner Hyland scored on a reverse layup, but Smart countered with a putback. After making a free throw, Smart canned another 3 with 2:27 showing in the first period, good for a quick 14-5 advantage.
"My teammates got me the ball where I could score," said Smart, who had been slowed by flu symptoms before finding his stride Friday. "I found myself open a couple times and knocked down my shots."
"Smart came out hot," Volger said. "He gave us a boost in the beginning."
"Smart was out with a sickness, but he had a great first quarter," added Russo.
After Hyland answered with a 3, Talbot set up Pitts-Young for a layup, but South Portland sophomore Jaren Muller made a free throw and Hyland hit a jump shot to keep the Red Riots very much within hailing distance, down, 16-11, after one period.
Smart outscored South Portland over the first eight minutes, 12-11.
After Talbot opened the second period with a free throw, the Red Riots drew within four on a leaner from senior Ben Burkey, but Volger banked home a 3, Donato made two free throws and Pitts-Young scored on a leaner to push the lead to double digits, 24-13.
Hyland momentarily ended the surge with a driving layup, but Portland responded again.
Alex made his presence felt with a block at one end before scoring on a layup from Volger at the other. Donato added a putback and the Bulldogs had a 28-15 lead.
South Portland relied on its size to rally as Tolan and Burkey both scored on putbacks and with 45.9 seconds remaining before halftime, Tolan hit a short jumper to make it 28-21.
Portland finished strong, however, as Donato calmly sank a 3 and Zukowski scored on a driving layup to give the hosts a 33-21 advantage at the break.
"Zukowski was out with a bad back, but he played like a son of a gun tonight," said Russo. "He's very assertive. He plays with heart. I want him looking to score. He's talented enough."
South Portland would attempt to rally in the second half, but the Bulldogs continually had answers.
Burkey opened the third quarter with a layup, but Zukowski made two free throws, Talbot sank a 3 and Volger scored on a driving layup with 4:52 to go and suddenly, Portland was in command, 40-23.
To their credit, the Red Riots rallied as Burkey converted an old-fashioned three-point play (layup, foul and free throw), senior Conner MacVane made a free throw and senior Trevor Borelli sank a 3 to cut the deficit to 40-30.
After Pitts-Young set up Donato for a layup to stem the tide, Tolan answered with two free throws, but with time winding down in the stanza, Angelo buried a clutch 3 and the Bulldogs were in firm control, up, 45-32, with eight minutes to play.
Portland had been able to build its lead thanks in large part to tremendous ballhandling under pressure. In the first 24 minutes of the game, the Bulldogs only turned the ball over six times.
Portland would go for the kill early in the fourth quarter, but South Portland refused to go away.
Hyland got the quarter started with a 3. Zukowski got free in the lane for a bank shot, but two Tolan foul shots with 6:33 to go made it a 10-point game again, 47-37.
Zukowski again came up big with a floater, but Muller scored on a leaner and it was 49-39 with 5:43 remaining.
Then, in a 30-second span, after a dubious travelling call on Hyland, Smart re-emerged with a 3, then a layup, to push the lead to 54-39 and essentially ice it.
"I thought a huge turning point was when Tanner came down and jumped up for a basket and (the officials) called a travel," lamented South Portland coach Phil Conley. "Then (Portland) came down and made a 3. That was the game right there. A five-point swing. That could have swung the tide a little bit. That's basketball. You'll get a call here and a call there."
Muller countered with a turnaround jumper, Borelli drained two free throws and with 2:29 to go, Muller made a layup and South Portland was only down nine, 54-45.
Portland simply refused to buckle, however, as Pitts-Young made two free throws, Zukowski converted a floater and Pitts-Young made a bank shot with a minute to play for a 60-45 lead.
In the final minute, MacVane hit a bank shot, but one more contributor off the bench for the Bulldogs, junior Travis Godbout, sank a 3 and Portland went on to the 63-47 win.
"We felt like this was a playoff game," said Smart. "This meant more than any other game so far this season. We've been ready for this since last season. Coach didn't have to say anything. We're a better team this year. We're veterans and we remember last year. We weren't going to back down tonight."
"We kept last year in the back of our minds," Volger said. "We took it to them from the get-go."
Smart led all scorers with 17 points. Portland also got 10 points from Zukowski, eight from Pitts-Young, six apiece from Angelo, Donato and Talbot (who had a team-high seven rebounds and two blocked shots), five from Volger, three from Godbout and two from Alex.
"Our point guard has played two full years and that's huge," Smart said. "He controlled the game. Steve Angelo had two huge 3's, one at the buzzer. Matt got in foul trouble early and Cosmo came in and played huge minutes. Steve Alex is a sophomore. This is probably the biggest game he's played in and he was great."
"One of our keys is our depth," Volger said. "We play at a fast pace so we need fresh legs coming in off the bench."
Russo had plenty of praise to go around.
"Nicky Volger was beat up a little bit, but he finds ways," Russo said. "I didn't want Hyland running around free. I took Nicky off him to give him a break and 30 seconds later he wanted him back, so I put him back. I thought the bench came in and did well. Cosmo was tremendous on the boards. Angelo came in and really helped us with the flow. When Steve learns what we do, he'll be a great attribute. Talbot does his thing out there in an unassuming manner. He got some rebounds and blocks."
The Bulldogs made nine 3's to just three for the Red Riots. Smart canned four on his own.
Perhaps Portland's most impressive stat was its modest eight turnovers. The Bulldogs sank 8-of-13 free throws.
South Portland was paced by a dozen points from Hyland, who was held relatively in check by Volger.
"You won't stop him," said Volger. "You just hope to contain him. I tried to take him out of the play. My guys picked me up and played 4-on-4, battling their bigs."
South Portland also got 11 points from Tolan, nine from Burkey, seven from Muller, five from Borelli and three from MacVane.
The Red Riots had a 30-23 rebounding advantage (MacVane had a game-high eight and Burkey collected six). South Portland only committed 12 turnovers and made 10-of-15 foul shots.
"They came out and shot the ball very well and we dug a hole," Conley said. "They shot the ball well. We didn't execute offensively in the halfcourt in the first half. We had to play catchup. It was uncharacteristic of us on the block tonight. We missed some easy putbacks. I thought we played a much better second half. I thought we handled their pressure. We're 8-2 and we know we can play with the top teams. My kids never gave up. They played as hard as we could. We just came up short. Portland's a very good team. We'll make corrections and hopefully next time, we'll come out on top."
Running the gamut
The road gets no easier for either contender.
The Red Riots (fifth in the Western Class A Heal Points standings) hope to rebound Tuesday when they host Marshwood. Tests at Bonny Eagle (Jan 21), Deering (Jan. 29) and Cheverus (Feb. 8) and home tilts versus Cheverus (Jan. 25) and Portland (Feb. 5) also remain.
South Portland knows it can play with the best teams in the league. Now, the Red Riots just have to finish.
"We have a huge game Tuesday," Conley said. "We have to be ready for Marshwood. We're 8-2, not 2-8."
As for the Bulldogs, they're back in action Wednesday against visiting Cheverus, then go to Thornton Academy Friday. The following week brings home tests with dangerous Westbrook and Deering. Portland's final week includes trips to South Portland and Deering.
The Bulldogs are at the top of the heap for now, but can continue to improve.
"There's still a long way to go," said Volger. "We have to stay hungry and not let what happened last year happen this year."
"We need to complete our game," Smart said. "Some nights we shoot well. Other nights we rebound well. We struggle putting those together the same night."
"I don't necessarily want to go 18-0," Russo added. "We'll go one game at a time. We don't talk about going undefeated. The season's half over, but it doesn't feel like it. We haven't played Deering, Westbrook or TA yet. We're just trying to put quarters together."