By Michael Hoffer
PORTLAND — On the brink of an upset loss, the Portland boys’ basketball team erupted for 26 fourth-quarter points and dodged a major bullet in the waning seconds to edge host Deering 60-57 Saturday afternoon.
The Bulldogs got 11 points from junior Koang Thok down the stretch, but nearly blew a late seven-point lead.
Clinging to a 58-57 advantage with time winding down, Portland junior Joe Zukowski missed the front end of a one-and-one and after a scrum, the Rams came down with the ball. A long lead pass to sophomore Dennis Ross appeared to set the stage for an improbable Deering victory, but Ross’ layup attempt was altered just enough by Bulldogs’ sophomore James Ek and Portland senior Ed Bogdanovich got the rebound and was fouled with 1.5 seconds to go. Bogdanovich then iced the victory with two foul shots.
The Bulldogs improved to 10-2. The Rams fell to 8-4.
“You hear it 100 times, better lucky than good,” said Portland coach Joe Russo. “That should be the headline. If you ever want to see what lucky being better than good is, watch this game. I’m happy for the win. The way it unfolded, it was all luck at the end.”
SUBHEAD-Another memorable chapter
Portland had won two in a row and nine of 10 entering the contest. The Bulldogs, who lost decisively to visiting Thornton Academy to start the year, have hit their stride and have only lost to undefeated defending Class A state champion Cheverus in the interim. Following that setback, Portland routed visiting Sanford 69-37 and host Gorham 80-41.
Deering, meanwhile, is young, athletic and promising. The Rams were coming off a lopsided home loss to Cheverus Thursday (please see story, page ?), and were looking to beat Portland for just the second time in six meetings since the 2006 Western Class A final.
After Deering senior Andrea Rogers’ latest rousing rendition of the national anthem, the Bulldogs got off to a hot start, going up 2-0 when Thok scored on a layup off the opening tip. Bogdanovich followed with a jump shot, but Deering senior Khadar Abbas answered with a 3-pointer. After Bogdanovich made another jumper, Rams’ sophomore Jamie Ross hit one of two free throws, but Zukowski responded with a 3 for a 9-4 lead.
Deering got the next seven points to take its first lead. Senior Ronald Abwoch made a layup, junior Ian Nono did the same and Abbas made another 3 for an 11-9 advantage. After Portland drew even on a Bogdanovich layup, Abwoch hit a layup and Dennis Ross scored on a layup after an offensive rebound for a 15-11 lead after one period.
The Bulldogs opened the second period scoring on a layup from junior Walter Stover, but Abwoch answered with a pair of foul shots. After Bogdanovich made two free throws to make it 17-15, Jamie Ross hit one to push the lead back to three. A layup from senior Joe Violette pulled Portland within a point, but Dennis Ross made a layup for a 20-17 lead.
With 3:53 to go in the first half, Bulldogs’ senior Charlie Ho made a 3-pointer to tie the score, but Abwoch answered with a 3-ball of his own and Abbas went back-to-back from behind the stripe to make it 29-20. Late in the half, Dennis Ross made a layup and Abwoch hit a foul shot to give the Rams their biggest lead, 32-20, but with 19 seconds to go, Bogdanovich converted an old-fashioned three-point play to end the 12-0 run and pull Portland back within nine, 32-23, at the break.
The Bulldogs had ample chances to catch up in the third period, but while their defense was putting its clamps on the Rams, the offense wasn’t able to capitalize.
Violette got the second-half scoring started with a layup. Nono then responded with one of his own. After Zukowski made a layup for Portland, Nono hit one of two foul shots and Jamie Ross made a layup to give Deering a 37-27 lead. Thok countered with a turnaround jumper, but Nono scored on a layup after a steal to push the lead back to 10, 39-29. The Bulldogs closed the period on a high note, however, getting a 3-ball from Thok and a layup after a steal from Bogdanovich to pull to within 39-34 heading for the fourth.
For a good chunk of the final period, the Rams fought off Portland’s comeback bid.
Nono took a pass from Abbas and made a layup 24 seconds in for a 41-34 lead. After Bogdanovich hit a jumper for the visitors, Deering sophomore Jackson Frey made a floater to push the lead back to seven, 43-36. Violette made a foul shot, but Nono made a driving layup for a 45-37 advantage with 6:43 to go.
Thok then sparked a 10-2 game-tying run with a 3-ball. After Dennis Ross made two free throws, Ho fed Zukowski for a layup off an inbounds pass, Thok made a layup after a steal, was fouled and hit the free throw, and Bogdanovich made two foul shots with 3:56 remaining to tie the game at 47-47.
Just 16 seconds later, the Bulldogs went ahead for the first time since 9-8 when Bogdanovich scored on a rebound putback. The Rams tied the game one final time on a rebound layup from Abwoch with 3:11 to go, but a Thok layup with 2:48 remaining put Portland ahead to stay, 51-49.
The Bulldogs seemed primed to ice the win, but Deering never said die and almost stole it at the end.
With 1:51 remaining, Thok hit another 3-ball for a 54-49 lead. Zukowski then scored on a rebound follow for Portland’s biggest lead, 56-49, with 1:36 to go. Undaunted, the Rams got a pair of layups from Abwoch to pull within three, 56-53, with 55.5 seconds left, but Bogdanovich appeared to seal it with a dunk with 42.1 seconds to go.
But the game wasn’t over yet. Not even close.
Eleven seconds later, Frey made the second of two free throws to make it 58-54. Deering quickly got the ball back and Abwoch buried a 3 with 22.3 seconds remaining to pull the Rams within one, 58-57.
“I told the guys ‘don’t give up,” said Deering coach Dan LeGage. “I asked them to give me everything they had until the buzzer went off. We turned up the pressure and spread the floor. We got good looks at the basket.”
That set the stage for the memorable ending.
With 15.4 seconds left, Zukowski was fouled, but he missed the front end of his one-and-one. The rebound was batted around like a pinball before Frey finally seized it. Dennis Ross broke free and took the pass, but Ek forced him to alter his layup bid in midair, Ross couldn’t get the shot to roll over the rim and Bogdanovich (the leading rebounder in the league) snared the rebound to save the day.
All of 1.5 seconds were all that remained.
“It came down to a nice play that was nice hustle by James Ek that was just enough to deflect the ball,” Russo said. “If he hadn’t done that, the kid had a wide-open layup. We had a nice comeback. I couldn’t believe they got the ball out of the scrum and they were going to score, but James was able to get on it just enough.”
“I saw Bog come over the top afterwards,” LeGage said. “I thought we’d get a foul on that. I didn’t see Ek. It looked like (Dennis) squeezed it. Bog, to his credit, hustled and got his big body down the floor in a hurry.
“It was just a missed shot. We tried not to make a big deal out of it. We shouldn’t have been in that position to begin with. We had too many turnovers. It should motivate Dennis. I hope it does. He’s a talent. He has two-and-a-half more seasons of taking a lot of shots. I hope this makes the switch go off for him to take his game to the next level.”
Bogdanovich then put his team up three with two free throws.
“I just timed it right,” Bogdanovich said, of the fateful sequence. “There was no way we were going to lose this game. No way. I just took my time and bent my knees like always and focused on the basket.”
Deering had one final shot at a miracle to tie, but Abbas’ prayer from three-quarters court hit the ceiling of the gym and rattled out of bounds allowing Portland to escape with the 60-57 decision.
“This win is huge,” Russo said. “We hadn’t beaten anyone ahead of us. It’s a Saturday afternoon. We had zero energy in the first half. In the second half, we had energy. Why they didn’t come out with energy in the first half, I don’t know.
“In the second half, we woke up. Charlie Ho came in and gave us great energy. Koang, who didn’t practice yesterday because he has an abscessed tooth, played well. Sometimes Ed stands alone. That’s something I worry about. He stood alone in the first half. My guards are athletic. They should be getting rebounds.”
The Bulldogs were led by Bogdanovich, who finished with 23 points. Thok added 18.
Deering got 19 points from Abwoch (nine in the fourth quarter). Abbas finished with 12 points and Nono added 11.
“It was a tough one,” LeGage said. “We played pretty well up until the fourth quarter. We had costly turnovers at the most inopportune time. Portland’s too good for us not to expect them to come back from a 10-point deficit. They have the best center in the state. Koang hit his shots with guys hanging on him.”
The Rams (sixth in the latest Western Class A Heal Points standings) looked to get back in the win column Tuesday when they hosted Massabesic (too late for this edition). Deering (playing without junior Eddie Tirabassi, who missed the Cheverus and Portland games and is out indefinitely with illness) goes to Biddeford Friday and gets another crack at Portland Jan. 30 at the Expo.
“This game was certainly something to build on,” LeGage said. “Hopefully this will motivate the kids for the rest of the season. We can’t take anyone for granted. We need to get a consistent effort.”
The Bulldogs (now fourth in the Heals) are off until Friday when they host Westbrook in another showdown. Portland still has two games versus Keegan Hyland and South Portland as well as rematches with Cheverus and Deering.
“We’re definitely coming together on offense,” Bogdanovich said. “We’ve got six more big games left. They’re all big games. We need to win them all.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com