Portland caps stellar week with emphatic win at Deering
PORTLAND—Coming off a key win over Bonny Eagle on a big stage Tuesday night, it would have been understandable if the Portland boys' basketball team struggled a bit Friday night when it traveled across town to take on rival Deering, but the Bulldogs weren't about to stumble.
Instead, they dazzled.
Portland set the tone just seconds in, when senior standout Matt Talbot blocked a shot and at the other end, classmate Jayvon Pitts-Young converted a 3-point play to put the Bulldogs on top to stay. Portland's defense smothered the Rams and by the end of the first period, it was up by 15 points, 20-5.
The Bulldogs stretched their advantage to 39-17 at halftime and any Deering comeback hopes were immediately dashed in the third period when Talbot scored 15 points. Portland easily cruised home from there to a 77-42 victory and delivered yet another powerful statement that it's the team to beat in Western Class A this winter.
Talbot had a game-high 20 points, senior Justin Zukowski made the Bulldogs' engine go and had 14 points, junior Steve Alex added 12 points and senior Travis Godbout pitched in 11 as Portland improved to 12-0 and dropped the Rams to 8-4 in the process.
"This was a big win for multiple reasons," said Bulldogs coach Joe Russo. "One, it's a rivalry. Two, it's two good teams in a week. Three, we have to play them again. It's big for confidence. If it was a close game, next time we would have been on eggshells."
Deering and Portland have been keeping an eye on each other from afar this winter as they've had varying degrees of success.
The Rams, under new coach Todd Wing, debuted with a 67-58 loss at Bonny Eagle, then defeated visiting Thornton Academy (77-55) and host Noble (64-54) before a 47-46 loss at Cheverus. The Rams then rattled off six wins in a row, downing visiting Westbrook (53-47), visiting Gorham (77-51), host South Portland (81-71), host Marshwood (71-52), visiting Windham (78-37) and visiting Massabesic (65-58) before falling Tuesday at Gorham, 59-52.
The Bulldogs, meanwhile, have known nothing but triumph, at least in countable games. Portland opened by winning at Massabesic (84-31) and Noble (66-54), downed visiting Marshwood (65-40), then triumphed at Gorham (60-40) and South Portland (79-49) and at home over Thornton Academy (73-36) and Cheverus (55-46) to wrap up 2013 with an undefeated mark (although the Bulldogs did lose to Falmouth, 54-51, in a non-countable holiday tournament game Dec. 26). The new year brought continued success, as Portland's defeated host Westbrook (66-26), host Marshwood (48-44), visiting Biddeford (58-32) and Tuesday, in a possible regional final preview, host Bonny Eagle (69-60), in a game played in front of a full house at St. Joseph's College.
Portland entered the game with a 136-78 all-time edge over Deering. The Bulldogs had won 16 of the past 23 meetings over the last decade (please see sidebar), but last February, the Rams snapped a four-game skid against their rival with a 37-30 home win (Portland won last year at the Expo, 44-37).
Friday, in front of a typically raucous Deering-Portland crowd, the Bulldogs kept the good times rolling.
The Rams won the opening tip and senior Ahmed Ismail Ahmed appeared primed for a layup that could have given his team early momentum, but Talbot, trailing the play, soared at the right time, blocked the shot and not only stemmed Deering's scoring chance, but sent Portland the other way where senior Jayvon Pitts-Young took a pass from Alex, made a layup while being fouled and hit the ensuing free throw for an old-fashioned three-point to send the Bulldogs on their way.
"It was just reaction," Talbot said. "Rotations we work on every day in practice. We don't have many big guys on the team, but I like to do what I can."
"Matt's played within himself," Russo said. "We lost the tap and I thought they'd have their layup, but from nowhere he had the block."
Deering's first points came at the other end, where senior point guard Chhorda Chhorn lofted the ball toward the basket and senior Kyle Richards tipped it home.
Before the Rams could blink, however, they were down nine.
Zukowski, who doesn't always assert himself on the offensive end, scored on back-to-back driving layups, the first with his right hand and the second with his left, then set up Alex for a layup.
"The first time I got the ball, I just went straight to the rim," said Zukowski. "That's something I've needed to do. It got me off to a good start."
With 4:24 to go in the first period, sophomore reserve Amir Moss, just after he entered the game, made a layup after a steal and the lead was 11-2.
Ahmed got a point back at the free throw line, but Zukowski threaded the needle to senior Dan Kane for a layup, Alex hit a floater and Zukowski made a layup after a steal for a quick and commanding 17-3 advantage.
After Deering sophomore Benedict Williams made a layup. Godbout took a pass from Moss off an inbounds set and sank a 3 for a 20-5 lead after eight minutes.
"I don't know a better coach than Coach Russo," said Talbot. "He gets us ready and prepared. We're unselfish. We play well together."
"They jumped on us right from the get-go and it didn't stop," Wing said. "We didn't respond well. We came in expecting pressure, but we didn't want it to hurry us and it did. As a coaching staff, we need to fix that."
If the Rams hadn't been staggered enough already, things would only get worse in the second quarter.
Chhorn got the first two points of the stanza at the line, but Zukowski set up Alex for a layup. After Richards hit a baseline jumper and Williams made a layup, Deering was only down, 11, but Portland flipped the switch again and opened it up even further.
A 15-2 run began with a Godbout 3. Talbot then took a pass from Alex in transition, made a layup while being fouled and added a free throw. After junior Jason Thach made a layup for Deering, Godbout sank a 3, Pitts-Young went coast-to-coast for a layup, Zukowski made two free throws and Pitts-Young scored on a putback to make it 37-13.
The Rams got two free throws from junior Liam Densmore and a jumper from Ahmed, but with 32.7 seconds showing, Zukowski made two foul shots and Portland took a 39-17 lead to the break.
In the first 16 minutes, the Bulldogs got 10 points from Zukowski, nine from Godbout and seven from Pitts-Young.
The most glaring stat in the first half was Deering's 17 turnovers, which matched its point total.
The Rams entered the second half hoping to chip away and perhaps make a run, but instead, Talbot singlehandedly slammed the door.
Just 14 seconds in to the third period, Alex fed Talbot for a 3. Talbot then stole the ball and made a layup while being fouled. Even though he missed the free throw, the lead was up to 44-17.
"We wanted to play in four minute segments, try to make a quick run and not try to get it back all at once, but Talbot hit a 3 and we couldn't get momentum going," Wing said. "He's a multi-dimensional player. He goes inside-out. He's athletic. He played with energy. That was a big key for them. Energy was important."
Deering senior Ahmed Ali, generally a top scorer, registered his first point 36 seconds into the second half at the free throw line, but Talbot stole the ball and made a dunk and seconds later, sank two free throws to stretch the lead to 30
After Ali made three free throws and sank a jumper, Talbot made two free throws to give him all 11 of Portland's points in the half so far. Zukowski ended the Talbot run with a layup after a steal before Talbot hit a baseline jumper, then scored on a putback. After a Pitts-Young steal, Zukowski made a layup and the lead was a shocking 35, 58-23.
After Williams got two points back at the free throw line, Godbout sank a baseline jumper. Williams scored on a putback, but sophomore Joe Esposito made a layup.
With 1:40 left in the third, Ahmed fouled out, making life even more difficult for Deering.
A layup from Ali pulled the hosts within 62-29 heading for the fourth.
There, Alex hit a couple free throws, then took a pass from Zukowski and made a layup to make it 66-29.
After Densmore made two foul shots, Alex hit a bank shot. Ali countered with a 3, but with 6 minutes to go, Talbot punctuated his and his fellow starters' night with another resounding dunk.
"That felt great," said Talbot. "We've been hearing from (Deering's fans) all week."
Down the stretch, with reserves all over the floor, the Rams finished strong.
After Williams and Moss traded two free throws, Williams made a layup, but junior Tanner Foley hit a 3 for Portland to make it 75-38. Williams made a driving layup, but with 1:55 left, Esposito made a layup to end the Bulldogs' scoring. As time wound down, junior Jessy Augustino scored on a putback for the Rams and that accounted for the 77-42 final score.
"It's huge to beat two good teams," said Talbot. "It feels great."
"We talked about staying away from a game of runs," said Russo. "Tonight, one of our goals was to come out and play our style and keep doing it. I like how we played together. We played unselfish and we played hard.
"Deering played hard. It was a playoff back-to-back type atmosphere. We had to play strong. We're not big, but overall we're long. We've talked about playing good teams, starting off pretty good and not letting them back in. I looked at their size and didn't want to get in a slowdown game with them. Our gameplan wasn't to press right off, but they started three big guys tonight. It's nice to have these guys step up and play the way they can."
Talbot was transcendent, scoring 20 points, grabbing four rebounds, registering four steals and blocking two shots.
"I love playing with Matt," said Zukowski. "He makes everyone's job easier."
Zukowski had 14 points and a team-high seven rebounds, six assists and five steals.
"Justin's working all the time on our press," said Talbot. "He doesn't get a lot of credit. He might be the best player on the team. He's a good leader."
"This is the second game in a row that Justin's taken the team and run the show," said Russo. "He did a great job on defense and controlling the tempo on offense."
Alex had 12 points, Godbout 11, Pitts-Young seven, Esposito and Moss four each, Foley three and Kane two.
Portland wound up with a 30-25 rebounding advantage, had 23 steals (Pitts-Young had a team-high four), turned the ball over only 13 times and sank 14 of 16 free throws.
Deering was paced by 14 points from Williams, who also had a game-high eight rebounds. Ali had 11 points and five boards, Densmore and Richards had four points each. Ahmed added three and Augustino, Chhorn and Thach all had two.
The Rams hit 15 of 24 foul shots, but were doomed by 33 turnovers.
"It was hard to keep track of our turnovers," Wing said. "You have to value possessions. Their press obviously did its job, but we're capable of doing better."
"The fullcourt zone can frustrate teams," Zukowski said. "We stuck to that all game."
Four weeks to tourney time
With less than a month until the tournament begins, both schools have work to do to finish as high as possible.
Deering (fourth in the Western Class A Heal Points standings) is back in action Tuesday at home versus Sanford. The Rams then go to Scarborough and Biddeford, host South Portland and Cheverus, then close Feb. 6, at Portland.
"We're facing a little adversity and it will tell us a lot about who we are," Wing said. "Will we solidify a top spot or accept going middle of the pack? I'm confident we'll respond and bounce back well."
The Bulldogs (third in the region) host Scarborough Tuesday and Sanford Thursday. Portland then welcomes Windham, goes to Cheverus and hosts South Portland and Deering to wrap up the campaign.
"I think we're at a better point than we were last year," Talbot said. "Going through last year helps a lot. We know what to do. They're all tough games. We have to keep working on things."
"(Tonight was) confidence building, but we look forward," said Zukowski. "We're obviously happy, but last year we were 10-0 and we were satisfied. I feel like that's in the back of our minds and we're staying away from that. We have a lot of work to do. We have to finish teams. We did a good job today. Finally."
"I think it's important to be first (in the Heals)," Russo added. "It doesn't guarantee anything, but it's an opportunity. This makes me feel like we're for real. "
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.
Recent Deering-Portland results
Portland 39 @ Deering 35
@ Portland 46 Deering 22
@ Portland 56 Deering 45
@ Deering 49 Portland 48
Portland 60 @ Deering 57
@ Portland 71 Deering 47
@ Deering 59 Portland 50
@ Portland 53 Deering 47
Western A quarterfinals
Portland 48 Deering 41
@ Portland 63 Deering 55
Portland 64 @ Deering 49
Portland 63 @ Deering 58
Deering 61 @ Portland 58
Western A Final
Deering 70 Portland 64
@ Portland 54 Deering 46
Portland 55 @ Deering 52
Western A semifinals
Deering 57 Portland 54
Portland 85 @ Deering 46
@ Portland 65 Deering 38