First quarterfinal win in a decade keeps Portland's memorable season alive
PORTLAND—From gold standard to also-ran and now, to Destiny's Darlings, the resurgence of the Portland girls' basketball program became complete Monday evening at the Portland Exposition Building.
The Bulldogs, coming off their best season in a decade, got a 32-minute scare from Gorham in a Western Class A quarterfinal, but they weren't ready for their season to be done.
Certainly not on their homecourt.
Fourth-ranked Portland had early nerves, but still managed to lead the fifth-seeded Rams, 8-5, after one quarter and 18-16 at halftime, as unheralded senior Mariana Angelo led the charge.
Then, in the second half, the Bulldogs began pounding the ball inside to junior Gabby Wagabaza, the lone player on the roster with previous playoff experience, and the offense began to flow as Portland opened up a seven-point lead before taking a 33-28 advantage to the final stanza.
There, Gorham, behind its standout freshman Emily Esposito, refused to go away and with under a minute to go, the Bulldogs clung to a 41-39 lead, but they would save their best for last.
With 55.9 seconds left, Portland's biggest basket of the season and its biggest in years saw gutsy junior Elizabeth Donato, playing valiantly through injury, take an inbounds pass and make a layup before hitting the floor hard.
After Wagabaza blocked a shot at the defensive end, Angelo added a free throw and then, senior Brianna Holdren, this squad's emotional leader who has suffered through so many disappointments over the years, ensured she and her team would live to play another night, as she stole the ball, got fouled, made a free throw, then, after another Wagabaza block, Holdren made a layup and the Bulldogs went on to a 47-42 victory, their first in a quarterfinal in a decade.
Portland got 12 points apiece from Holdren and Wagabaza and 11 from Angelo as it improved to 14-5, ended Gorham's run at 14-6 and advanced to meet the state's present gold standard, 18-1, three-time defending state champion McAuley, in the semifinal round Friday at 6 p.m., at the new and improved Cumberland County Civic Center.
"All I want to do now is cry," said Holdren. "It's more than excitement. I can't even explain it."
Quite a ride
Portland expected to be improved this winter, but no one saw the Bulldogs' 11-1 start coming. While Portland went just 2-4 down the stretch, it certainly made its mark and earned the No. 4 seed, its best ranking in a decade.
Gorham turned a lot of heads early, as it almost upset visiting McAuley, and its exciting, young core produced a strong campaign, even after losing outside shooting ace, junior Abby Hamilton, to a knee injury. The Rams did have to host No. 12 Falmouth in a prelim Wednesday and barely survived, rallying to win in overtime, 50-41.
Portland downed visiting Gorham, 63-50, eight days before Christmas. The teams had no playoff history.
Monday, there was little separation from start to finish.
Not surprisingly, there were a lot of nerves in the early moments and it took almost two minutes for the ice to be broken.
Holdren would do the honors as she unintentionally banked home a 3, but was happy to take the points and the Bulldogs had the early jump.
Angelo added two free throws before the Rams got on the board, courtesy an Esposito free throw with 4:21 to play in the first.
Portland had an opportunity to deliver an early knockout blow, but couldn't do so, as after Wagabaza scored her first point at the line, senior Jessica Rexrode hit a jumper in the lane for Gorham's first field goal and after Angelo delivered a pretty pass to Wagabaza for a layup, Esposito scored on a putback and the Rams were within a possession, down, 8-5, after eight minutes.
Played picked up a bit in the second quarter, but the Bulldogs still weren't able to pull away.
After freshman Kaylea Lundin scored on a leaner, Esposito drove for a layup to give Gorham its first and only lead, 9-8.
Angelo put Portland back on top to stay hitting a runner while being fouled and converting the ensuing free throw for an old-fashioned three-point play.
Rexrode got a point back at the line, but Donato made two free throws, Donato set up sophomore Cierra Burnham for a layup and with 2:19 left before halftime, Wagabaza made a foul shot for the Bulldogs' biggest lead of the first half, 16-10.
Lundin countered with two free throws, but Angelo, after being fouled on an offensive rebound, hit two of her own to make it 18-12.
"Mariana played a great first half," Holdren said. "Without her, I don't know how we would have won."
It would be the Rams who finished the half strong, getting two foul shots from junior Ashley Woodbury and a driving layup from Esposito to cut their deficit to just two, 18-16, entering the break.
In the first half, Angelo and Esposito led their respective teams with seven points. Portland committed a dozen turnovers, while Gorham gave the ball away on 16 occasions. The Rams did have a 22-17 rebounding advantage.
The third quarter saw the Bulldogs try to pull away, but every time they did, Gorham crept back.
Burnham took a pass from Holdren and hit a jumper in the lane to start the second half scoring 10 seconds in. After Esposito hit two foul shots, Wagabaza scored on a putback and Angelo knocked down a 3 for a 25-18 advantage.
Esposito stemmed the tide with a putback, but Donato found Wagabaza in transition for a layup, pushing the lead back to seven.
"We realized we needed to see open players and get to the basket more than we were," Wagabaza said. "We knew we had to get the ball inside."
The Rams quickly got back within three on a baseline jumper from Rexrode and a leaner from Woodbury, but a Wagabaza bank shot and a Holdren turnaround jumper, her first points in 23 minutes, 34 seconds, made it 31-24.
Junior Aliza Jordan made two free throws for Gorham, but Portland freshman Abi Ramirez made two of her own before the Rams made it a five-point game, 33-28, when Woodbury hit a baseline jumper late in the frame.
Nothing came easily in the fourth period either, although the Bulldogs were able to do what it took to survive and advance.
Nineteen seconds into the final stanza, Esposito made a free throw. A minute later, Esposito hit a jumper and Gorham was only down two, 33-31.
Angelo then set up Burnham for a layup and Burnham found Wagabaza for a layup and with 4:28 to play, Portland was back up by six, 37-31.
"Burnham probably looks up the court faster than anybody," said Bulldogs coach Jan Veinot. "I have faith in Cierra that if she has the pass, she'll find somebody."
Freshman Kristen Curley got a point back at the line for the Rams, but with 3:32 left, Holdren scored on a driving bank shot.
"(Bri) had a frustrating first half," said Veinot. "I told her at the start of this year that it's about her brain this year. I told her tonight that if her shot was there to take it. Like we talked about at the beginning of the season."
After senior Emily Deluc hit a leaner for Gorham, Holdren scored on a leaner to make it 41-34 with 2:45 to play and it looked like the Bulldogs were in good shape.
Not so fast.
The Rams had one final run and made things very interesting.
With 2:21 to go, Esposito drove for a layup, was fouled and made the free throw.
After a Portland turnover, Esposito set up Rexrode for a baseline jumper and just like that, it was a two-point game, 41-39.
When the Bulldogs turned the ball over again, they appeared in serious trouble, but Gorham returned the favor.
Then, with 55.9 seconds showing, Portland inbounded the ball under its basket and Burnham spotted Donato underneath and got her the ball. Donato went up and made the shot, but crashed to the floor upon landing and had to be attended to by the training staff.
After several moments, Donato got up and left the floor and just like that, the Bulldogs had a little breathing room.
"Elizabeth's not as aggressive with her knee injury, but she showed tonight she's back to her old self," Holdren said. "Without her, we wouldn't have gotten so far."
"Elizabeth and Mariana were the only ones out there not nervous," Veinot said.
At the other end, Deluc went to the hoop, but Wagabaza blocked the shot and Burnham snared the rebound. The ball came to Angelo, who was fouled with 40.5 seconds remaining. Angelo made the front end of a one-and-one, but missed the second for a 44-39 lead.
Gorham hoped to answer, but Holdren stole the ball, was fouled and made one of two attempts for a six point lead with 24.7 seconds to go.
Another Wagabaza block led to the clincher.
"Defense is something I really love," Wagabaza said. "I love to get a good block like that at the end of the game."
"Gabby played great defense," Veinot said. "She had big blocks."
Angelo grabbed the rebound, got the ball to Holdren and Holdren attacked the basket, made a layup and that iced it.
As time wound down, Woodbury banked home a 3, but it was academic and at 8:32 p.m., 11 days shy of a decade after its last quarterfinal round victory (55-40 over Noble on Feb. 28, 2004), Portland had prevailed, 47-42.
"I was worried, but I knew we'd pull it out as long as we stuck to our game plan and we did," Holdren said.
"We'd been so nervous," Veinot said. "We wanted it so badly for these guys, for the program, for the seniors. I was concerned with this matchup. I knew the second time around they'd be prepared. I knew we'd be nervous without playoff experience, but the benefit was that it's our court. Our court, our game. We've said that all week."
Holdren had just three points in the first half and only five in the first three periods, but her seven in the fourth allowed her to tie for top scoring honors on the squad. She also had a game-high four steals.
"(Assistant coach) Morgan (Brownlee) told me to let the game come to me and I did," Holdren said. "Espo played good defense on me, but I got past her a couple times and had confidence in myself. I felt as a captain I didn't want to let my team down. I felt I had to step up because in the first half I played horrible."
Wagabaza also had 12 points, to go with seven rebounds, three blocked shots and three steals.
"(Previous playoff experience) didn't help as much as you'd think," said Wagabaza, who played at Cheverus her freshman and sophomore years. "I know how the atmosphere feels, but it's different to start in a game and have a lot of pressure, which I didn't have (as a reserve) as a freshman and sophomore. I had a ton of confidence in our team. I knew we'd step up to the occasion."
Angelo added 11 points, four rebounds, two steals, two assists and a block.
"Mariana had big baskets in the first half to keep us in the game," Veinot said.
Burnham had six points (and a team-high 10 boards, two assists and a steal), Donato four (to go along with two blocks, two assists, two steals and two rebounds) and Ramirez two.
Senior Pamela Lobor didn't score, but helped to prevent Esposito from completely taking over the game.
"Pamela played great defense on (Esposito)," Veinot said. "We knew she'd score. We just didn't want her to get 40."
Portland was outrebounded by Gorham, 33-28, and turned the ball over 19 times, but the Bulldogs forced 24 Rams' turnovers and made a very impressive (considering the circumstances) 13 of 17 free throws.
The Rams were led by the dynamic Esposito, who had a game-high 17 points, 12 rebounds and five blocks, as well as a pair of steals.
Woodbury added nine points off the bench, Rexrode had seven (to go with six boards and two steals), Lundin four, Deluc (six rebounds) and Jordan two apiece and Curley one (to go with four rebounds and a block).
Gorham made 13 of 18 free throws.
Champs up next
Portland now has the daunting task of facing a McAuley squad, which hasn't just won the past three Gold Balls, but is 66-1 in its last 67 games after Monday's 52-30 win over No. 8 Deering in its quarterfinal.
The Bulldogs lost handily at home to the Lions, 79-47, back on Jan. 24. The teams have met in the playoffs six previous times, with McAuley holding a 4-2 edge. Portland took the first two encounters: 63-44 in the 1985 quarterfinals and 66-46 in the 1988 quarterfinals. The Lions prevailed in the 2000 quarterfinals (54-37), the 2002 divisional round (62-41), the 2003 semifinals (70-50) and most recently, the 2005 quarterfinals (49-42).
The Bulldogs will be a decided underdog, but it isn't wise to bet against Destiny's Darlings.
"I feel we need to stick to our game plan and realize we need our defense to come through to beat them," Wagabaza said.
"We have to get back in a halfcourt defense," said Holdren. "We played fullcourt last time and they ran past us. If we do, we have a chance. If not, at least we made it to the Civic Center."
"We have to get back on defense and make them play a halfcourt game," Veinot added. "We don't like to get back, but we'll have to. The girls really want to play them again.""