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Second half surge leads Portland to semifinals
By Eric Carson
PORTLAND — One of the prevailing sports adages says one good team can’t beat another good team three times in a row.
While it’s hardly a mathematical truism, the sixth-seeded Portland Bulldogs boys’ basketball team struck a blow for believers Saturday night against the third-ranked South Portland Red Riots.
Facing Keegan Hyland and a team that edged the Bulldogs twice in 10 days during the final two weeks of the regular season, Portland rode a brilliant third quarter effort from junior guard Wally Stover, shot a remarkable 21-for-23 from the charity stripe in the fourth quarter and ran away with a 72-49 victory in Western Class A quarterfinal action at an electric Portland Expo.
With the win the Bulldogs (14-6) advanced to the semifinal round Wednesday night at the Cumberland Country Civic Center. Portland will take on the second-ranked Westbrook Blue Blazes (17-2) at 6 p.m., a team that handled the Bulldogs 62-48 at the Expo back on Jan. 23 in what coach Joe Russo called Portland’s “worst game of the season, both physically and mentally.”
Trailing 31-26 at the half against the Red Riots (14-5), dropped 13 of his game-high 20 points in the third quarter to give the Bulldogs a 41-39 lead.
Portland junior guard Koang Thok (19 points) scored the first basket of the second half with a beautiful tip-in high at the rim, but that was the only point scored in the third quarter by a Bulldog other than Stover.
Stover flipped in a spinning finger roll in the lane to start his barrage, floated in a soft runner on the baseline, notched a three-point play, hit one foul shot and then tied the game at 39-39 with his lone 3-pointer of the night with 2:18 left in third. His final basket of his run, a short jumper in the lane, gave Portland a lead it would never relinquish.
“I just came out focused and ready to go,” said Stover. “It felt awkward wearing our (away) uniforms, but it was definitely an advantage playing at home. The first time we played (South Portland) they just outplayed us. We could have won the second game. But tonight we came out and proved we’re a better team. We had to cover Hyland for the entire game. That was really it. He’s a great player. We held him to 14 in the first half and then shut him down in the second. That doesn’t happen very often. We switched it up and threw a box-and-one at him and maybe it confused him.”
The Bulldogs scored 31 points in the fourth quarter, more than doubling their output for any of the first three, knocking down 21 points from the free throw line by shooting an impressive 91 percent in the frame.
Portland went 13-for-14 at the line over the final three minutes of the game and was paced by sophomore guard James Ek’s 7-for-8 and Thok’s 4-for-4. Campbell Rico, a senior, added a pair in the closing moments to cap off the Bulldogs’ 26-for-32 effort from the line on the night.
In addition to Stover’s big night and Portland’s performance at the charity stripe, the other major determining factor was foul trouble.
Ed Bogdanovich, Portland’s 6-foot-6 senior center, missed the entire second quarter after picking up two in the first, and continued to miss large gaps of action after picking up his third and fourth fouls in the first minute of the fourth quarter. Bogdanovich, who transferred from South Portland after his sophomore year, still finished with 13 points and pulled down a game-high 12 rebounds.
On the other side, the Red Riots suffered equally from the whistle, losing senior captain Connor Hasson (five points) for the second quarter and eventually for the game after he picked up his fifth foul with five minutes left in the fourth quarter.
South Portland, already thinned by the loss of its second leading scorer, junior guard Matt Lee, played the final seven minutes of the game without junior forward Ryan Curit (five points).
Embattled with Bogdanovich for most of the night, Curit picked up his last two fouls in a 30-second span at the start of the fourth quarter. His fourth infraction was a double-foul as he and Bogdanovich battled for position. His final foul came on the very next play when he hit Bogdanovich as the latter scored to stretch the Bulldogs’ lead to 46-39.
Without Lee, Hasson and Curit, the Bulldogs’ could concentrate on defending Hyland (18 points), the league’s top scorer during the regular season. Hyland pumped in 25 points in the Red Riots’ first win over Portland, and torched the Bulldogs with 39 in the second go-around.
On Saturday night, the Bulldogs double-teamed Hyland without the ball, and often ran three defenders at him when had the ball.
“The biggest difference tonight compared to the other two games was that we contained Hyland and we kept him off the line,” said Russo. “He’s such a good player. The only time I can remember having to focus so much on one player was when Ralph Mims was at Brunswick. We knew he was going to hit his shots, but we wanted to make him earn them. Our guys played aggressive and they played smart. They listened and they were coachable, and they didn’t get down when they were behind. They stuck together.”
The Portland defense (led by senior Ed Bogdanovich on this play) completely stymied South Portland junior standout Keegan Hyland, holding Hyland to just four second half points. (Jason Veilleux photo)
Portland junior Walter Stover went past South Portland junior defender Ryan Curit and up for two of his 13 third quarter points as he helped the Bulldogs rally for a stunning 72-49 win over South Portland in Saturday’s Western Class A quarterfinals. (Jason Veilleux photo).