Deering outslugs Portland in regular season finale
PORTLAND—Even though it won the Class A state championship last winter, the Deering boys' basketball team wasn't able to defeat rival Portland.
And it hasn't stopped hearing about it since.
Two weeks ago, the Bulldogs beat the Rams again.
But Thursday evening proved to be a vastly different story.
With big Heal Points and playoff positioning on the line, the defending champions and this year's preseason favorite engaged in a 32-minute dogfight.
Both teams started slowly and Deering, on its Senior Night, was stymied by poor foul shooting in the first half, but the Rams got a huge dose of momentum when senior Medhane Haleform banked home a 3-point prayer from halfcourt at the horn.
Deering never trailed again and found its range from the free throw stripe. Two foul shots from senior Labson Abwoch put the Rams ahead to stay and a superb defensive effort kept them on top. Portland twice drew within a point, but could never get over the hump as Haleform, Abwoch and senior Dominic Lauture came up big time and again and Deering went on to a 37-30 victory, capping its regular season at 15-3, while dropping Portland to 14-4.
"I'm happy for the seniors," said Rams coach Dan LeGage. "They gave us a good contribution. In their last regular season game, they went out with a win over their crosstown rival. The guys are realizing what it takes to beat good teams."
Ahead of schedule
The game was supposed to be played Friday night, but the impending snowstorm forced the schools to scramble and move it up 24 hours.
There was a lot at stake between two squads who have been very successful this winter.
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). 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, 75-50, over Cheverus, 63-29, in a game played at Southern Maine Community College, and at home over Massabesic, 78-38. Tuesday, Portland suffered just its third loss of the year, 52-42, at South Portland, in a game in which it never led.
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). Back-to-back losses followed, 44-37 at Portland and 53-38 to visiting South Portland, but Deering defeated visiting Gorham (66-48) and host Cheverus (64-52) to get back on track.
Portland entered the game with a 136-77 all-time edge over Deering. The Bulldogs had won 16 of the past 22 meetings over the last decade (please see sidebar), including four in a row. On Jan. 24, Portland beat the Rams at the Portland Exposition Building, 44-37, behind 11 points from junior Matt Talbot and a solid defensive effort.
Thursday, Deering had the answers.
Both teams started sluggishly as the first two-plus minutes produced six turnovers and four fouls, but just one point (a free throw from Portland senior Nick Volger).
The Rams got on the board when Haleform made a layup, but Talbot answered with a bank shot.
A scoop shot layup fro Abowch was countered by a leaner off the glass from Portland senior Nate Smart and a floater from junior Jayvon Pitts-Young gave the visitors their biggest lead, 7-4.
After Haleform made a bank shot, Pitts-Young answered with a putback, but Deering closed the first quarter with a 3 from Lauture and a layup after a steal from senior Thiwat Thiwat to lead, 11-9.
Portland went back on top early in the second quarter as senior Steve Angelo took a pass from junior Justin Zukowski and made a backdoor layup and Pitts-Young hit two free throws.
After Lauture made a free throw, Zukowski set up senior Cosmo Donato for a layup and a 15-12 Bulldogs' advantage.
Portland wouldn't have it so good again.
With 1:55 remaining in the first half, Lauture drained a leaner for the Rams' first field goal of the period. Then, after a Volger free throw, as time wound down, Haleform turned the tide when his 3-point prayer from midcourt kissed off the glass and found its mark to put Deering ahead, 17-16.
"(Thiwat) got the ball, threw it to me and it felt good," Haleform said. "That's never happened to me before."
The Rams could have had a healthier lead at the break, but they missed six of seven free throws, a trend that was about to change.
Fifteen seconds into the second half, Thiwat set up Abwoch for a layup, but Volger knocked down a 3-ball to tie the score, 19-19.
Two Lauture free throws put Deering back on top, but Talbot hit a jump shot to make it 21-21.
With 5:36 to go in the third, two Abwoch free throws gave the Rams the lead for good. Thiwat added a foul shot, Abwoch scored on a putback and Lauture hit a free throw to make it 27-21 after three.
The Bulldogs went 0-for-4 from the free throw line in the third.
Portland wouldn't go quietly, however, and countered with a Donato putback (ending a 7 minute, 23 second drought) and Zukowski hit a pullup 3-pointer to make it a 27-26 game with 5:51 remaining.
"Zukowski gives me every ounce of what he's got," said Bulldogs coach Joe Russo.
Abwoch stemmed the tide with a runner and junior Ahmed Ali added a free throw, but with 4:27 to go, Zukowski made a jumper while being fouled and hit the free throw to cap an old-fashioned three-point play and cut the deficit to 30-29.
Talbot, who suffered a leg injury late in the third quarter, but returned to the game, then had a golden opportunity to put the Bulldogs ahead when he stole the ball with just over four minutes to go. He raced in for what appeared to be an easy basket, but his dunk attempt went in-and-out. Portland kept possession and Smart was fouled, but he couldn't give the Bulldogs the lead as he missed both free throw attempts with 3:57 showing.
Two free throws from junior Ahmed Ismail Ahmed stretched Deering's lead back to three and after a Lauture steal, Abwoch was fouled and sank both free throws for a 34-29 lead.
Zukowski made a foul shot to cut the deficit to four with 2:17 left, but Portland wouldn't score again.
Abwoch got to the basket, missed, but got the rebound and put it back in the basket with 1:28 remaining.
After Zukowski and Pitts-Young both missed 3s, Lauture made a foul shot with 16.1 seconds showing and the Rams slammed the door on their 37-30 win.
"It feels very good," Abwoch said. "Everyone played hard together. We stayed focused. Everyone played tough defense. I'm proud we stepped up. It's the last home game for the seniors. It's a big momentum win. (Portland's) our crosstown rival. They always talk. Last year they talked, this year, they talked."
"We knew them and they knew us," said Lauture. "It was who executed better. Defense was the difference. Last time we played them, our defense was awful. This game, we played 32 minutes of great defense. We didn't drop off at all. It was tough to hold on, but we had to execute and not turn the ball over. We knew if we kept pressure on them, they'd mess it up. We knew if we knocked down free throws, we'd win the game. Every year, people say Deering's not that good. Even when we're in first place, but we all know how to win. We take from last year and execute like last year."
"This means everything," Haleform said. "Everyone's said they're better than us. We knew that sometimes we start out weak in the second half. We knew against Portland, that wouldn't work. We had to go all out."
"We struggled (early) because we're the two best defensive teams in the league and the two best defensive teams around," LeGage added. "Joe and I have similar philosophies. Points were at a premium. Everything was contested. There weren't a lot of second chance opportunities. That produced the low score. At the beginning, it was a little choppy. As the second half came on, we didn't give in to their pressure defense or their physicality. We always tell the kids it's defense, rebounding and free throws. That's what helps win championships. We reinforced that. We told them to relax. (The Bulldogs) were struggling too."
Deering got a game-high 14 points from Abwoch. Lauture, who was a steady presence at both ends of the floor, added 10 points, Haleform had seven, Thiwat three, Ahmed two and Ali one.
The Rams had a 35-27 edge on the glass, thanks to 10 rebounds from Abwoch and seven from Thiwat.
"There aren't a lot of teams as big as us," said Abwoch. "Talbot's a tough guy. We had to box him out. Thiwat and I did a pretty good job tonight."
Lauture had four of the team's 10 steals.
"We moved Dominic off the wing," said LeGage. "He handled the ball. He was fantastic tonight. He's a competitor. He rises to the occasion."
"Labson and T own the boards," said Lauture. "Me and Mehane, I'd say we're the best defenders in the league."
Haleform blocked two shots.
Deering turned the ball over and made 12-of-16 second half free throws, giving it a total of 13-of-23 for the game.
After the game, the Rams were greeted by former Deering standout Carlos Strong, who is now playing professionally in Puerto Rico.
"Having (Carlos) come in and talk about his experience of how hard you have to work and how you have to be together as a team is huge," LeGage said. "He's royalty to (the kids). That gave them a boost. Hopefully it helps."
For Portland, Zukowski had seven points, Pitts-Young six, Volger five, Donato and Talbot four apiece and Angelo and Smart two each. Talbot grabbed nine rebounds, blocked two shots and had four steals. The Bulldogs were done in by 23 turnovers and 6-of-18 foul shooting (which included 2-of-12 in the second half).
"That was an old-fashioned slugfest," Russo said. "Just like the old days. It was fun to be involved in. The kids worked their tails off. I would have liked to win, but it was fun basketball. I'd play them 18 times. We had plenty of chances. The foul line was the difference. We shoot free throws all the time. It's all a state of mind."
Next stop, the Expo
And now, the real fun begins.
Final Heal Points standings hadn't been calculated at press time, but Portland missed an opportunity to earn the No. 1 seed and will finish third or possibly even fourth. The Bulldogs will next take the floor for a quarterfinal next weekend against either dangerous Scarborough or Westbrook.
Portland has long been notorious for its ability to improve late in the season. This year's squad isn't peaking, as back-to-back final week losses would attest. Regardless, Russo likes his team's chances.
"We have the same record as last year," Russo said. "The South Portland game. I looked at the tape. If we would have made just a couple shots, we would've won. Tonight, if we made free throws, we would have won the game. Every year we peak and have an early exit. This is a good omen for us."
Deering expects to go into the tournament ranked second. The Rams could meet Thornton Academy, Marshwood, Sanford or Windham in its first playoff test.
In a year devoid of a favorite, Deering might just have what it takes to repeat.
"This win is good for us," Abwoch said. "We have to keep playing as a team. We have to focus every game."
"I think we're good," said Haleform. "We have a good spot. We have to practice and get motivated."
"We have to keep teams under 50 and stay under 10 turnovers," said Lauture. "The best defensive team wins. The playoffs should be fun."
LeGage, who has been through the battles, is always optimistic.
"The guys persevered and won 15 of 18 games," LeGage said. "That's wonderful, but we've worked too hard to get here to not work hard in the playoffs. In the tournament, if you have a hiccup, you're done. We have to have consistency. It's good heading into the playoffs that we're starting to realize our potential.
"Seven of the 12 players are new. We lost Chhorda Chhorn to injury. Steve Alex went to Portland. Labson's been hurt with a bum wrist. Thiwat is coming back from health issues. We have to put a consistent effort together. This is the year of parity. It will be the team that puts the most consistent effort together for four quarters. There's no way you can play badly this year and sneak by. You have to play well. If we can keep on the upward path of effort, focus and execution for 32 minutes, we can do it."