Portland handles Deering again
PORTLAND—The Deering Rams might be the defending Class A boys' basketball champions, but the Portland Bulldogs continue to own city bragging rights.
Thursday evening at the Portland Exposition Building, in the first of two scheduled meetings this winter, the Bulldogs made it four straight wins over their rivals thanks to a staunch defensive effort and some clutch play down the stretch.
Coming off surprising, successive losses in the past week at Thornton Academy and at home to Westbrook, in which it blew fourth quarter leads, Portland was once again in jeopardy of letting a victory slip away when an 11-point advantage with just over a minute to go was cut to five in the waning seconds, but Deering wasn't able to take advantage of an opportunity that could have made it a one possession contest and after a steal, Bulldogs junior Matt Talbot capped his stellar evening with a layup that brought the curtain down on a 44-37 victory.
Talbot had a team-high 11 points, Portland forced 21 turnovers, led virtually the whole way and got back on the right track as it improved to 11-2 on the season, dropping the Rams to 12-2.
"(Letting a win slip away) almost happened again, but we closed better," said Talbot. "It's going to be easier to sleep tonight. Our intensity helped tonight. It means a little more when it's a crosstown rival. We don't really talk about it, but this was one we really wanted."
Deering ended up atop the Class A world last winter, but one thing the Rams couldn't do was beat Portland. The Bulldogs eked out a 39-35 decision at Deering and romped, 46-22, at the Expo.
Entering Thursday, since the 2003-04 season, Portland had taken 15 of 21 meetings (please see sidebar). The Bulldogs had an all-time record of 135-77 against the Rams.
Both teams have lived up to billing this winter, although they've taken divergent paths of late.
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) Friday and at home to Westbrook Tuesday (46-45).
Deering opened with wins over visiting Thornton Academy (77-28), host Marshwood (51-39), host Massabesic (80-40), visiting Noble (67-44) and host Sanford (47-39), then dropped an agonizing 45-44 home decision to Bonny Eagle. The Rams bounced back to defeat host Kennebunk (70-37), rallied for a palpitating 58-52 overtime win at South Portland, then defeated host Biddeford (69-51), visiting Cheverus (71-63), visiting Scarborough (54-50), host Westbrook (49-41) and visiting Windham (69-34).
Thursday, Deering sought its first win over Portland at the Expo since its 2005-06 championship season, but once again, the Bulldogs had the last laugh.
The first half was almost devoid of offense.
It took 100 seconds for Portland to break the ice as junior Justin Zukowski made two free throws. After Deering senior Labson Abwoch tied it with a jumper, Zukowski knocked down a 3. Rams senior Thiwat Thiwat answered with a layup and classmate Dominic Lauture tied the score with a free throw, but a layup by sophomore Steve Alex (from Zukowski) gave the Bulldogs the lead back. In the final minute, the Rams got a free throw from junior Ahmed Ismail Ahmed and as time expired, Ahmed took a difficult crosscourt pass from Lauture and buried a 3 to give Deering its first (and only) lead, 9-7.
A free throw from Talbot and a Pitts-Young 3 put Portland back on top, 11-9. After Abwoch had a shot blocked by Portland senior Nate Smart, but put home the rebound, the Bulldogs grabbed a 14-11 advantage on a 3 from Zukowski (assisted by Smart). The visitors again pulled even as senior Medhane Haleform made a free throw and Thiwat scored on a putback, but with 3:13 left before halftime, a runner from Talbot gave Portland the lead for good. Senior Cosmo Donato added a putback and Alex hit two free throws with no time left on the clock for a 20-14 lead at the break.
The Bulldogs took further control in the third quarter.
Smart got things started by taking a pass from Pitts-Young and canning a 3. The next time down the floor, Smart somehow got a shot off while being guarded by two defenders and it found its target to push the lead to 25-14.
"The scary thing is we've had several big games this year and those were Nate Smart's better games," said Portland coach Joe Russo. "I hate to say we go by the way he plays, but if you look at what we're doing, he has to knock down shots."
With 6:07 to go in the third, after a 5 minute, 44 second drought, Deering got a layup after a steal from Ahmed to end the 11-0 Portland run, but Talbot (from senior Nick Volger) hit a 3 to push the advantage to 12. Abwoch countered with a layup, but Talbot made a jumper and after a steal, Volger was fouled and sank both attempts. An Abwoch jumper with time winding down pulled the Rams back to within a dozen, 32-20.
In the fourth, Deering's offense finally came to life, nearly matching its output of the first three quarters, but it wasn't enough.
A 3 from junior Ahmed Ali pulled the Rams within nine, but Zukowski fed Smart for a layup (ending a 5:07 drought) and Volger made a layup after a steal to push the lead back to 13, 36-23, with just 3:43 to go.
Abwoch made a driving layup, but a Talbot foul shot with 2:45 remaining made it 37-25.
Ali sank another 3 nine seconds later, but with 1:32 to go, Pitts-Young was fouled and made both ends of a one-and-one to make it 39-28 and seemingly put the game away.
Not so fast.
Lauture came to life, scoring six points in just four seconds, sinking a 3, then stealing the ball, making a layup while being fouled and adding the free throw to suddenly make it just a five-point game, 39-34, with 1:03 still to play.
After Zukowski missed the front end of a one-and-one, Smart batted the ball up top and Portland retained possession. With 53.5 seconds left, Pitts-Young missed the front end of a one-and-one, but Deering was called for a lane violation and Pitts-Young took advantage, making two free throws for a 41-34 lead.
"I don't mind being at the line at all," Pitts-Young said. "I'm pretty calm."
After Lauture missed a 3, Pitts-Young was fouled again and with 41.9 seconds showing, he made one of two shots to push the lead to eight, but with 31.2 seconds remaining, Abwoch scored on a putback, was fouled and made the free throw and the Rams still had life, down, 42-37.
Lauture then came up with another steal and drove for a layup, but Zukowski tied him up and the possession arrow favored the Bulldogs.
Portland then turned the ball over, but Talbot stole it back and was fouled. He missed his free throws, but as time wound down, Talbot got the ball back, courtesy Smart, and made a layup to make it official.
Bulldogs 44 Rams 37.
"I wasn't getting too nervous," said Pitts-Young. "The last few games, we haven't scored in the fourth quarter. I think we did a lot better today. We finished the game tonight. We came ready to play. The game plan was to go out and play. We went out and competed."
"A win's a win," said Russo. "When you lose two in a row, you need a win. It doesn't matter who it's against, however, it's a lot to ask of a team that's sliding to beat the best team in the league. We went from the frying pan to the fire. We responded. It's a great way to hopefully come out of the slide, to do it against a quality team. This hopefully gives the guys some confidence.
"The kids played great defense. Our man-to-man defense is what we tried to be best at. We tried multiple defenses the past few games and wanted to go back to basics. We've still got to figure out how to finish stronger. The difference tonight was we managed a few points. If we didn't score, we'd have been in trouble. We got a few layups and some free throws."
Talbot's 11 points came courtesy a 3, three two-point field goals and a pair of free throws.
"Matt Talbot had another very good game tonight," Russo said. "He's been our leading rebounder and leading scorer for many games. He has blocks. I'm hard on him because as much as he's helping us, I see so much more from him. I get irritated when he misses an easy shot or throws a lazy pass. I want him to improve on his focus and decision making."
Pitts-Young had eight points despite battling foul trouble much of the game.
"Jayvon's sick, but he said he was OK," Russo said. "He's a good defensive player when he doesn't foul. He can intimidate with his physicality."
Zukowski also had eight points, Smart seven, Alex and Volger four apiece and Donato two.
Talbot also led Portland in rebounds with six. He said that he enjoyed his battle down low with the likes of Abwoch and Thiwat.
"They're big and they're physical," Talbot said. "They've done it for four years on the varsity level. It was a challenge, but it's a challenge we liked. There's no reason Nate and I can't bang with anyone in the league."
Alex and Smart each had four rebounds.
Talbot had five of the Bulldogs' 15 steals, while Smart came up with three.
Portland only had seven turnovers through three quarters, but wound up with 14. The Bulldogs made 13-of-19 free throws.
The victory was truly a team effort.
"The bench is the biggest part of our team," Talbot said. "I always hear our starting five is the best, but we wouldn't be anywhere without our bench guys."
"What was nice tonight was that the subs came in and played good defense," Russo said. "Cosmo came in and did some nice things. Steve Alex did some great things. (Senior) Steve Angelo also played great defense."
For Deering, Abwoch led all scorers with 13 points and also had a game-high nine boards. Lauture had seven points, Ahmed and Ali six each, Thiwat four and Haleform one.
The Rams finished with a 26-25 edge on the glass and made 5-of-8 free throws, but couldn't overcome their 21 turnovers.
"We turned the ball over more than we have," Deering coach Dan LeGage said. "Some of them were uncharacteristic. (Portland will) turn you over because they're up on you and they're physical, but we had some unforced errors too.
"We really didn't get into a good flow until very late. We put them on the foul line 20 times and we only went eight. We have to do a better job of running our offense. Tonight wasn't a good job of that. We can get better at that. With four minutes to go, we started playing with some passion and energy and started making some shots. Hopefully we can build on that. Instead of four minutes of that, we need 32 minutes.
"(Portland) played hard. They're the preseason favorites for a reason. Most of their guys are back. They're a veteran team. In this environment, you have to execute. It's Portland-Deering. It doesn't matter what the situation is or what the records are. It's always emotionally charged. It's been that way for the past decade."
See you soon
Deering has four games remaining, while Portland still has five as the teams jockey for top positioning.
The Rams (now second in the Western A Heal Points standings) are back in action Tuesday at home against dangerous South Portland. Deering also hosts Gorham and goes to Cheverus before closing at home against Portland Feb. 8.
The Rams will look to bounce back quickly.
"For us, it's a good learning experience," said LeGage. "(Portland) exposed things we need to work on. Us coaches need to see what we need to work on and help the kids get better. I've always said it's about putting good segments of play together. Tonight, we didn't do that. We'll look at the film and see what caused that. We happen to be in a pod where three of the top four teams are. It's a real grind."
The top-ranked Bulldogs go to Noble Tuesday, host Cheverus in a makeup game Wednesday (that game will be played at Portland High School), play their home finale versus Massabesic Feb. 1, then close at South Portland (Feb. 5) and Deering.
With the tournament appearing wide open this winter, the Bulldogs want to be at their best when the games matter most.
"(This win) increases our confidence," Pitts-Young said. "We have to keep working hard in practice."
"This brings our confidence up after two losses, but this is behind us now," said Talbot. "We have to play every game like this from here on out. Nothing's ever perfect. It's constant work every day."
"We can't take anybody lightly," Russo added. "Cheverus is desperate. Noble beat Westbrook. We have three games next week. We need to focus on defense and how to finish a game."