Portland’s boys’ basketball team has had no peer over 18 countable games and now, will set its sights upon an even bigger prize.
Thursday, in a rare matinee at the Portland Exposition Building, the Bulldogs hosted rival Deering and once again demonstrated what’s made them so special.
Portland forced the Rams to turn the ball over 13 times in the first quarter and 20 times in the first half, but only led by 13 at halftime. Then, senior standout Matt Talbot took over, scoring 13 points in the third period and the Bulldogs opened things up and went on to a 63-46 triumph.
Talbot let all scorers with 18 points, senior Justin Zukowski added 16, Portland forced 31 turnovers and the Bulldogs finished undefeated (18-0) in the regular season for the first time in 15 years and dropped Deering to 12-6 in the process.
“I give the kids all the accolades to go 18-0,” said longtime Portland coach Joe Russo, who played on an Bulldogs unbeaten squad four decades ago and has now coached two Portland teams to perfect regular seasons. “I told them it’s no easy feat. We’ve beaten a lot of good teams. There are only a couple teams in the state who went 18-0. I want them to enjoy it no matter what happens. They deserve it. They’re entitled to 18-0. They’re entitled to a conference title. Now it’s up to them to move on.”
Thursday’s game time was moved up to accommodate an Open House at Portland High. As a result, attendance was sparse at the outset.
“It’s a rivalry game, so (the early start) was too bad,” Russo said. “I don’t think it was fair to the kids, the fans, or the alumni to play at 4-o’clock, but it’s out of our hands, so we just played. We did talk before the game that there weren’t going to be many people in the stands. We talked about having to create energy.”
The contest brought an early conclusion to the regular season for two longtime rivals who have serious postseason aspirations.
Deering, which won Class A as recently as two years ago, has been up (mostly) and down (occasionally) in Todd Wing’s first season as coach. The Rams opened with a 67-58 loss at powerhouse 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, in overtime), host Marshwood (71-52), visiting Windham (78-37) and visiting Massabesic (65-58) before falling at Gorham, 59-52, at home to Portland (77-42) and surprisingly at home to Sanford (52-45). Deering turned things around with an 88-72 victory at Scarborough, then downed host Biddeford (55-51), visiting South Portland (63-53) and visiting Cheverus (66-56).
Portland, which has been regularly frustrated in the late rounds of the tournament since winning its last title a decade ago, feels that this is its year and the Bulldogs have certainly demonstrated their transcendence from the get-go. 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), host Bonny Eagle (69-60), in a game played in front of a full house at St. Joseph’s College, host Deering (77-42), visiting Scarborough (81-52), visiting Sanford (74-42), visiting Windham (64-39), host Cheverus (64-53) and visiting South Portland (64-42).
Portland entered the game with a 137-78 all-time edge over Deering. The Bulldogs had won 17 of the past 24 meetings over the last decade (please see sidebar), including the romp at Deering Jan. 17.
Thursday, Portland did it again, managing to finish the regular season with an 18-0 mark for the first time since the undefeated championship year of 1998-99.
The Bulldogs scored first, as senior Jayvon Pitts-Young leaned it and banked home a shot, but the Rams pulled even on a bank shot from junior Liam Densmore.
Portland then went ahead for good, as junior Steve Alex was fouled on a 3-point attempt and made two free throws. Alex then made a floater and Zukowski set up senior Travis Godbout for a 3 and a 9-2 lead.
Making matters worse for the visitors, they couldn’t hold on to the ball and midway through the first period, Wing got frustrated and replaced his starters en masse with reserves.
“Our emphasis following the first Portland game was cleaning up the turnovers,” said Wing. “To beat very good teams, you have to do that and Portland’s a very good team. I had to try a group that’s known for their energy.”
While the second group didn’t do much better when it came to turnovers, they did stay within hailing distance.
After Deering sophomore Benedict Williams made a layup to stem the Bulldogs’ 7-0 run, Portland sophomore Amir Moss made two foul shots and Zukowski banked home a shot. Sophomore Max Chabot then somehow got a corner 3 to bounce off the rim and the backboard before kissing the net as time wound down to pull the Rams within 13-7 after eight minutes.
Deering turned the ball over 13 times in the first eight minutes, but the Bulldogs didn’t deliver the knockout blow like they did in the first meeting.
“I could see what (Wing) was doing,” Russo said. “He put his second team in and they proved that they could play D. We couldn’t score. Sometimes when you’re a coach, you have to find a way to motivate players.”
Talbot didn’t score in the first period, but he opened the second with a layup after a steal, was fouled on the shot and added the free throw for an old-fashioned three-point play. After senior Ahmed Ismail Ahmed made a free throw, then took a pass from Densmore and made a layup to cut the deficit to 16-10, Portland went on a 10-0 run to open it up.
First, Godbout set up Zukowski for a 3. Alex then made a layup after a steal. After Zukowski made a jumper, Pitts-Young stole the ball and set up Zukowski for a layup and with 3:47 remaining in the half, Pitts-Young added a foul shot for a 26-10 advantage.
A layup from junior Jacob Coon allowed the Rams to end the run and senior Chhorda Chhorn added a jumper, but Pitts-Young made a layup after a steal and Zukowski did the same to make it 30-14.
“It was mostly Jayvon and Matt getting doubled, so it opened up for me,” Zukowski said.
After Williams scored on a runner, Pitts-Young made a layup. A Williams layup and a three-point play from Chabot pulled Deering within 10, 31-21, with just seconds remaining before the half, but with 2.2 seconds showing, Alex got free behind the defense, made a layup while being fouled and added a free throw to make it 34-21 Bulldogs at the break.
“You look at little things,” Wing said. “Had we gone in down 10 at the half, maybe the energy would have been in our favor and we could have made a run in the second half, but it didn’t work out that way.”
Portland forced 20 first half turnovers.
“It was hard work,” Zukowski said. “We’re in shape because we’ve done this pressure all year.”
After scoring just three points in the first half, Talbot put on a show in the third quarter as Portland essentially put the win on ice.
After Coon set up junior Stephen Ochan for a layup to open the second half, Talbot took a pass from Zukowski and made a layup, then hit a 3. Pitts-Young added a free throw and Talbot hit two. Then, Talbot made a 3, giving him 10 points in under three minutes and the lead was up to 22, 45-23.
“We came down to the locker room and regrouped and came together,” Talbot said. “Coach gets us ready.”
“Matt’s really matured this year,” Zukowski said. “I think he’s been at his best all year.”
“I told (Matt) to do other things,” Russo said. “Rebound, play great defense. I told him tonight to stay in the paint, then he hit some shots. I wanted him to play all facets of the game, which he can do.”
After senior Patrick Lobor scored on a putback for the Rams, Zukowski answered with a 3. Ahmed scored on a jumper, but Zukowski hit a jump shot. After Williams made a layup, Talbot closed his prodigious quarter with a layup, then added a free throw to make it 53-29 with eight minutes to play.
Down the stretch, Deering played hard, but never made a serious run.
After Rams senior Ahmed Ali scored his only points on a reverse layup, Alex made a layup and Pitts-Young did the same after a steal. Ochan countered with a layup, but Talbot made two foul shots for his final points. After Chhorn set up Ochan for a layup, Densmore hit a 3. Junior Joe Porcaro made a foul shot for the hosts, but Ahmed sank a pair, then made two more to make it 60-42.
Sophomore Joe Esposito made a free throw for Portland, but junior Isahak Muse banked home a shot. The Bulldogs’ final points came on a leaner from senior Dan Kane. The Rams then got a leaner from Williams right before the horn, making the final score, 63-46.
“Going undefeated is cool, but playing my last regular season game with Jayvon and Justin and Travis was exciting,” said Talbot. “There have been some great Portland teams who haven’t gone 18-0.”
“We weren’t looking to break any records,” said Zukowski. “It’s an accomplishment, but it isn’t our main goal. We’re looking for a Gold Ball.”
Talbot had a game-high 18 points (15 of which came after halftime) and added five steals, four rebounds and three blocked shots. Zukowski had 16 points, four boards and four assists. Alex finished with 11 points and three steals. Pitts-Young added nine points, four rebounds and a game-high six steals, Godbout had three points, Kane (who had a team-high five boards) and Moss had two points apiece and Esposito and Porcaro both wound up with one.
The Bulldogs only turned the ball over 13 times and made 16 of 30 foul shots.
Deering was paced by Williams, who has emerged as a star as the season has progressed. He had 10 points, two steals, two blocks and a game-high seven rebounds.
“Ben’s a sophomore coming into his own,” Wing said. “Early in the year, I had to learn to trust guys coming off the bench. Ben was patient, but every time I put him on the floor, he produced. That’s what he does. He plays hard. He mixes it up in the paint. He finishes around the rim. He plays good defense. He’s really flourished.”
“Ben is a tough matchup,” said Talbot. “He’s fun to play against. He works really hard. I respect him as a player.”
Ahmed had nine points, while Chabot and Ochan both added six.
“Ochan gives a great effort on defense and on the boards,” Wing said. “He’s embraced his role. He’s more known for soccer, but he’s an athlete. He talks. He has a calming presence.”
Densmore had five points and Ali, Chhorn, Coon, Lobor and Muse all finished with two.
The Rams had a 25-20 rebounding advantage and made 6 of 7 free throws, but their 31 turnovers were fatal.
While Deering hasn’t been able to solve Portland this year, Wing stressed that it was a positive season nonetheless.
“I think there have been a lot more ups than there have been downs,” he said. “Going into the season, I think people thought we’d finish down a little bit further. We finished as high as people thought we could have gone. The number four seed is a fantastic seed. It’s an accomplishment for the guys. We’ve had some adversity, but we’ve battled through. We’ve played good basketball. We look forward to the playoffs.”
Speaking of which, Deering and Portland will now turn their attention to the crucible of the tournament, as they seek postseason glory.
The Rams could get a chance to avenge last year’s playoff loss to Thornton Academy, but that isn’t written in stone. Sanford is also a potential quarterfinal round foe. Deering will be in the tournament’s opening game next Friday at 7 p.m., at the Expo.
“It’s like Groundhog Day,” Wing said. “We play TA every year at the Expo. I told the guys, the next time we play here, we’ll take our uniforms off. We’ll either be leaving them, or getting ready to go the Civic Center (for the semifinals). Playoff basketball’s different. You win or go home. You prepare all week for one opponent only. We start four seniors who have waited their turn and we will be ready.”
The Bulldogs will be first and will play the late game next Friday, against either the No. 8 or No. 9 seed (Noble, Gorham or Cheverus are among the likely foes).
“We have to stay focused and stay serious-minded,” said Zukowski.
“Even if we were 16-2 or 17-1, we’d be ready,” Talbot said. “It’s always a contest. There are a lot of good teams playing good basketball who will gear up for the playoffs. You never know. Basketball’s goofy. It’s a different game on a different night. We have to play the same way we’ve played all year and keep pushing.”
“We have to stay healthy and have a little bit of luck,” Russo added. “We can’t have someone come down sick or get hurt. In close games, things can go either way. That’s what it comes down to. There’s a big gap (between the top three teams and the rest of the field), but you still have to play the game. Teams have nothing to lose. It’s all matchups. Some teams just match up better against each other. Certain teams we play well against. Some teams would rather play a man team, or a zone team.
“We’ll be prepared. I like this group a lot. They’ve been with me so long, I know them. They understand their roles. When push comes to shove, they support each other. They’ve given me everything I’ve asked. The respect is there from me.”
Portland senior Matt Talbot goes to the hole for two of his game-high 18 points. Talbot put on a clinic in the third period with 13 points.
Portland junior Steve Alex defends Deering senior Chhorda Chhorn.
Deering senior Ahmed Ali goes to the basket as Portland senior Matt Talbot arrives too late to affect the shot.
Deering senior Chhorda Chhorn fires a shot.
Portland senior Dan Kane knocks the ball away from Deering junior Jacob Coon.
Deering junior Isahak Muse drives on Portland senior Dan Kane.
Portland senior Jayvon Pitts-Young leans in for a shot.
Deering sophomore Benedict Williams sails into the lane for a shot.
Portland 77 @ Deering 42
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
Perfect form and a perfect team.
Portland junior Justin Zukowski goes up for two of his 16 points during Thursday’s 63-46 home win over Deering. The Bulldogs finished the regular season 18-0.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.
D- 7 14 8 17- 46
P- 13 21 19 10- 63
D- Williams 5-0-10, Ahmed 2-5-9, Chabot 2-1-6, Ochan 3-0-6, Densmore 2-0-5, Ali 1-0-2, Chhorn 1-0-2, Coon 1-0-2, Lobor 1-0-2, Muse 1-0-2
P- Talbot 5-6-18, Zukowski 7-0-16, Alex 4-3-11, Pitts-Young 3-3-9, Godbout 1-0-3, Kane 1-0-2, Moss 0-2-2, Esposito 0-1-1, Porcaro 0-1-1
D (2) Chabot, Densmore 1
P (5) Talbot, Zukowski 2, Godbout 1
D (25) Williams 7, Lobor 5, Ali 4, Ahmed, Chhorn, Ochan 2, Coon, Densmore, Muse 1
P (20) Kane 5, Pitts-Young, Talbot, Zukowski 4, Esposito, Godbout, Porcaro 1
D (8) Densmore, Williams 2, Augustino, Chhorn, Coon, Ochan 1
P (21) Pitts-Young 6, Talbot 5, Moss 4, Alex 3, Godbout, Kane, Zukowski 1
D (5) Ochan, Williams 2, Coon 1
P (3) Talbot 3