No upset this time...Portland off to semis
PORTLAND—After losing to South Portland on the Portland Expo floor last year in the quarterfinal round and after falling to Westbrook at the venue earlier this season, the fourth-ranked Portland Bulldogs weren't about to suffer another home defeat in the opener of the Western Class A boys' basketball tournament Friday evening.
Standout juniors Jayvon Pitts-Young and Matt Talbot made sure of it.
Talbot dominated both ends of the floor and had 10 points, nine rebounds and a blocked shot in the third quarter alone as the Bulldogs pulled away to beat the fifth-ranked Blue Blazes, 54-32, improving to 15-4 on the season, ending Westbrook's year at 13-6 and advancing to Wednesday's Western A semifinals vs. top-ranked South Portland at 7:30 p.m. at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
Play was sluggish early as the teams had more combined turnovers than points, but the scoring of Pitts-Young and senior Nate Smart made it 22-11 Bulldogs at the break.
Talbot then stole the show in the third as Portland pushed the lead to 37-23. The Bulldogs were never challenged in the fourth and went on to the win.
Talbot had 15 points, 17 rebounds and three blocked shots. Smart added 13 points and Pitts-Young had eight points and four assists.
"I feel like we're taking this year more one step at a time," said Talbot. "Everyone knows what happened last year, we thought we had a free pass to the Civic Center. This year, we have a new approach and hope to go deeper. Coming out of the half, we tried to look at it like a new game. We knew they had no quit in them. We wanted to have energy and play team basketball."
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. Portland struggled to finish however, losing, 52-42, at South Portland and 37-30 at Deering to wind up 14-4 and fourth in Western A.
Westbrook, another perennial contender, went 8-11 a year ago and fell in the preliminary round, but was a very pleasant surprise this winter. The Blue Blazes won their first two, 45-31 at Kennebunk and 63-59 at home over Scarborough. After a 54-36 loss at South Portland, Westbrook handled visiting Cheverus (56-48) and Biddeford (48-28), then was upset by visiting Noble, 43-40. After defeating visiting Windham (61-56), the Blue Blazes won at Marshwood, 62-57, upset visiting Bonny Eagle, 53-50, handled visiting Sanford (58-53) and host Gorham (69-53). The win streak ended with a 49-40 home loss to Deering, then Westbrook really turned heads with a 46-45 come-from-behind win at Portland. Wins followed at Massabesic (66-41) and at home over Thornton Academy (67-46). The Blue Blazes then fell at Windham (52-40) and Bonny Eagle (61-50) before closing with a 56-50 victory over visiting Gorham to wind up 13-5 and fifth in the region.
Entering the game, the teams had played 11 times in the postseason over the past 50 years with the Blue Blazes winning six of them, including the most recent encounter, 65-34, in the 2010 quarterfinals (see sidebar).
Friday, Portland turned to its defense to set the tone as it avenged its regular season loss to Westbrook.
To say offense was lacking in the first five-plus minutes would be an understatement.
It took 2 minutes, 40 seconds for the game's first points to be registered (Blue Blazes senior Keenan Lowe did the honors with a floater). The Bulldogs got on the board on a leaner from Pitts-Young, but neither team scored again until 2:22 remained in the first period when Smart drained a 3. Westbrook senior Alec Hazlewood answered with a jumper and senior Aaron Duncanson drove to the hole for a layup and a 6-5 Blue Blazes lead after one quarter.
Portland then got it going in the second period, thanks in large part to Pitts-Young.
Pitts-Young hit a floater with 6:40 to go before halftime to put the Bulldogs ahead to stay. Pitts-Young then stole the ball and while falling to the court, batted it ahead to sophomore Steve Alex, who made a layup.
"We came out fired up (in the second quarter)," said Pitts-Young. "We put a lot of emotion into it. Nerves are always there. Once you start playing, it comes to you and you go after it. We clicked as a team. We have a lot of chemistry. Everyone likes the feeling of doing something for the team."
"I just said (between quarters), 'Play hard, but relax and stay focused,'" said Portland coach Joe Russo. "We knew it was one-and-done. We were a little tentative at the beginning."
Smart added a free throw for a 10-6 lead.
After senior David Breunig ended the Portland mini-run with a layup, Pitts-Young made two free throws and after a steal from junior Justin Zukowski, Alex made another layup for a 14-8 advantage, forcing Blue Blazes coach Mark Karter to call timeout.
It didn't help as Zukowski drained a 3 to push the lead to nine. Duncanson answered with a 3 for Westbrook, but Smart made two foul shots, Talbot got in the scoring column with a free throw and senior Steve Angelo made a tough angle leaner to give the Bulldogs a healthy 22-11 advantage at halftime.
After giving the ball away just twice in the first quarter, the Blue Blazes turned it over seven times in the second, helping Portland pull away.
The third period was Talbot Time.
After Lowe made a layup to start the second half scoring, Talbot tipped home a missed shot while contorting his body. Duncanson answered with a 3, but Talbot made two foul shots for a 26-16 lead.
Westbrook junior Aquai Alexander kept his team within hailing distance by making a 3 , but Talbot tipped home another miss, then took a pass from Pitts-Young and made a layup for a 30-19 lead. Alexander countered with two free throws, but Pitts-Young sank one and Smart knocked down a 3-ball to stretch the lead to 13 points, 34-21.
Breunig answered with a layup for the Blue Blazes, but Talbot capped his sizzling quarter with a bank shot and Pitts-Young added a free throw to put Portland firmly in control, 37-23, heading for the final period.
In the third quarter alone, Talbot had 10 of his team's 15 points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked a shot, displaying just how dominant he can be when he sets his mind to it.
"When he takes over, he takes over," Pitts-Young said, of his teammate. "No one can compete with him. He can shoot. We like to feed him the ball and get him going."
"Matt Talbot played tonight like everybody knows he can play," Russo said. "I try different ways to get it out of him, but it's up to him. If he wants to do it, he can."
Talbot, ever humble, deflected praise to his teammates.
"It looks like I'm getting all the rebounds, but the team's boxing out and a bunch of guys are crashing the boards, so I just have to get the rebounds," Talbot said.
Westbrook never made a serious run in the fourth and the Bulldogs put the finishing touch on their triumph.
Talbot started the final period the way he finished the third, red-hot, with another basket, this one a floater. After Hazlewood made two free throws, Zukowski drove the lane, was fouled while making a layup, then hit the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play. Senior Zach Bean made a free throw for the Blue Blazes, but Smart countered with a driving layup, Angelo fed senior Nick Volger for a layup, Talbot showed his dexterity by making a left-handed leaner and Smart scored on a putback with 3:47 remaining to completely put the game out of reach, 50-26.
After Lowe made a free throw, Angelo set up senior Cosmo Donato for a layup. Junior Noah Collins made a free throw for Westbrook and sophomore Changkuoth Jany added a jumper, but Portland junior Daniel Kane completed his team's scoring with a putback and Blue Blazes sophomore Blake Fillmore accounted for the 54-32 final score with a leaner.
The Bulldogs had moved on.
"It feels good to play that kind of defense," said Russo. "I knew we'd get our points, but I didn't think we'd get a lot because they keep the tempo down. They went small and I didn't want to go small. I wanted to go big. That took a little of our pressure away. We had a good week of practice. We talked about emotion and playing like a team. We talked about how things are different every year and that it doesn't mean anything until the playoffs."
Talbot stuffed the stat sheet with his 15 points, 17 boards and three blocks, but he had plenty of company from his teammates. Smart had a quiet, but effective 13 points, seven rebounds and three steals, while also playing strong defense on Duncanson. Pitts-Young added eight points, Zukowski had six, Alex four and Angelo, Donato, Kane and Volger two apiece.
Portland, which was bolstered by the presence and support of former standouts Ryan Carmichael and Josh Longstaff, finished with a resounding 37-20 edge on the glass, only turned the ball over 11 times and made 11-of-21 free throws.
For Westbrook, Duncanson had a team-high eight points. Alexander and Lowe (five rebounds) added five points apiece, Breunig (five boards and five steals) and Hazlewood had four each, Fillmore and Jany two apiece and Bean and Collins one each
The Blue Blazes committed 16 turnovers and made 7-of-13 attempts from the charity stripe.
Battle of the Bridge. Again
Portland advances to meet South Portland, the top seed, in the semis. The Red Riots improved to 16-3 Friday by holding off ninth-ranked Sanford, 60-47, in its quarterfinal.
The teams split in the regular season, each winning at home, and the Bulldogs have dominated recent history with the Red Riots (winning nine of the past 11 and 23 of the last 28), yet South Portland won the last encounter Feb. 5 and also took the last playoff meeting, 39-37, a year ago in the quarterfinals.
Portland has taken seven of the 12 playoff showdowns over the past 50 years.
The Bulldogs are eager for another crack at the Red Riots.
"It's exactly what we want," Talbot said. "It will be a great scene at the Civic Center. It's kind of a revenge game."
"South Portland's an awesome team," said Russo. "We have the same personnel, but play different styles. It will be an interesting game with them."