SOUTH PORTLAND—While the defending Western Class A champion South Portland boys’ basketball team sports an almost completely different roster this winter, the Portland Bulldogs came to Beal Gymnasium Friday night hungry for revenge nonetheless.
That’s because the Red Riots knocked Portland out of last year’s playoffs, ruining what many Bulldogs and their supporters felt was supposed to be their run to a title.
Portland wasted no time making its statement in the first of two meetings between the ancient rivals this winter, jumping out to an 8-0 lead just 89 seconds into the game and stretching it 17-3 when emerging senior star Travis Godbout converted a rarely seen four-point play.
To its credit, South Portland didn’t quit and behind the wizardry of its lone returner, junior standout Jaren Muller, it crawled back within six points, 24-18, and was very much in the game, down just 40-30 after sophomore Jordin Jackson converted an old-fashioned three-point play 10 seconds into the second half.
Then, the Bulldogs ended all doubt, forcing 13 turnovers in the third quarter which sparked a 21-1 run and Portland went on to a 79-49 victory.
Godbout led all scorers with 21 points, senior Jayvon Pitts-Young added 18 and senior Matt Talbot also finished in double figures with 10 as the Bulldogs improved to 5-0 and dropped the Red Riots to 2-3 in the process.
“(Last year’s) something we remember every day,” Talbot said. “It still hurts, but it’s a new season. I love this group. We’ve been in contention and I’m grateful to have another shot.”
Portland and South Portland have met six times over the past two seasons, including each postseason, with each squad winning three times.
Last year, the Bulldogs won at home (63-47), the Red Riots did the same (52-42), then South Portland ousted Portland in the Western A semifinals (49-41). That victory cut the Bulldogs’ dominance since the start of the 2001-02 season to 23 wins in 29 outings (please see sidebar, below).
While Portland entered the 2013-14 campaign viewed as one of the title favorites, South Portland graduated almost everything from its state runner-up and was expected to struggle.
The Red Riots fell to visiting Noble in the opener, 69-51, then downed host Sanford (57-45) and visiting Westbrook (61-53) before losing Wednesday at Thornton Academy, 65-49.
The Bulldogs have lived to billing, winning at Massabesic (84-31) and Noble (66-54), downing visiting Marshwood (65-40), then triumphing at Gorham (60-40).
Friday, Portland earned its revenge.
It took all of nine seconds for Godbout to put his team ahead to stay with a 3-ball. Junior Steve Alex then scored on a reverse layup, forcing South Portland coach Phil Conley to call a quick timeout, which didn’t have its desired result.
Out of the break, senior Justin Zukowski stole the ball, raced in for a layup while being fouled and added a free throw for a three-point play and an 8-0 lead.
The Red Riots got on the board with 6:19 to go in the first period thanks to a layup from Jackson, but Zukowski knocked down a 3 and Godbout set up Talbot for a layup and a 13-2 lead.
“We like to base our game off our start,” Talbot said. “If we come out and we get a big lead, it’s a lot easier to play.”
After Muller made a free throw for the hosts, Godbout took a pass from sophomore Amir Moss, threw up a long-range 3 while being fouled and the ball dropped through the net. Godbout then went to the line and completed the rare four-point play for a commanding 17-3 advantage.
“I just hit the shot and the kid happened to hit me,” Godbout said. “I just knocked down the free throw. We always try to get going early and put them away early.”
“We’re seeing a lot of zone this year, so it’s nice when we can swing the ball, use both sides of the court and hit the open man,” said Portland coach Joe Russo. “Travis works on getting open. He moves without the ball. It’s nice to see him make shots because he’s been working at it. It’s well deserved.”
South Portland momentarily stemmed the tide as Jackson hit a jumper and junior Kam Harper made a layup after a steal, but Pitts-Young scored on a putback, then hit a jump shot. After Harper converted a three-point play, Godbout put a fitting punctuation mark on the first period with a 3-pointer for his eighth, ninth and 10th points of the frame, putting Portland on top, 24-10.
To their credit, the Red Riots roared back in the second quarter.
Muller got it started with a bank shot after a dazzling spin move. Muller then hit a leaner and sophomore Jack Fiorini, who gave his team strong play off the bench, scored on a putback to make it 24-16. When Muller managed to beat Talbot for a contested layup with 4:46 to go in the half, South Portland was within six.
“I thought in the first half when we got down big, we still battled back to make it a game,” said Conley. “That’s a sign my kids aren’t giving up and they’re working as hard as they can. I’m proud of my kids for that.”
Pitts-Young, who had missed several minutes due to foul trouble, returned and immediately made his presence felt with a 3-ball and a layup to make it 29-18.
Fiorini got a point back at the foul stripe and Harper knocked down a 3 to cut the deficit to 29-22, but Talbot scored on a tip-in and Godbout sank two free throws.
Again, the Red Riots rallied, as Miller made a layup after another nice spin move and senior Patrick Conley knocked down a 3-ball to make it 33-27, but South Portland would draw no closer.
The Bulldogs closed the half on a 7-0 run, as Godbout made another 3, Alex made a layup after a steal and Moss hit two foul shots for a 40-27 advantage at the break.
“We had a nice rhythm going, then we got into foul trouble and it broke our rhythm,” said Russo. “I wasn’t worried so much about losing, more about losing our flow.”
Godbout had 15 first half points, while the Red Riots were hindered by 15 turnovers.
Despite the slow start and trouble holding on to the ball, South Portland was very much in the game when Jackson converted a three-point play 10 seconds into the third period, cutting Portland’s lead to 40-30.
Then, the Bulldogs put on a dizzying display of dominance at both ends of the floor to salt the win away.
A Godbout 3 (not surprisingly) got the run started. Alex fed Pitts-Young for a layup and after Muller made a free throw, Talbot tipped home a missed shot, Moss took a pass from Pitts-Young and sank a 3 , Moss made two free throws, Talbot made a layup after a Pitts-Young steal, Zukowski made a 3, Pitts-Young scored on a driving leaner and with 28 seconds left in the stanza, Zukowski fed Pitts-Young for a layup and a 61-31 lead, capping a 21-1 surge.
“We started getting out on the break in the second half and running,” said Godbout. “We passed the ball well and we knocked down shots.”
“We like to split the game in two,” Talbot said. “You get the same feeling coming out of halftime you do at the beginning, the same energy. We want to win the first spurt of the game and coming out of halftime if we do, we usually win.”
“We have to a better job of taking care of the ball,” Phil Conley lamented. “That was the difference. We had five or six possessions in a row where we turned it over and it went from a 13-point game up to a 25-point game. Portland’s one of the best teams in the SMAA for a reason. They’re a veteran team. Loaded with seniors. “
Two free throws from Jackson with 9.4 seconds showing ended a 4:31 drought for the hosts, but Portland was firmly in command heading for the fourth period, 61-33.
Talbot opened the final frame with a leaner. after Muller scored on a putback, Pitts-Young and Godbout both made 3s to end the starters’ time on the floor with the score 69-35.
Both team’s reserves then put on a show.
Sophomore Joe Esposito made a layup after a steal, but Red Riots junior Matt Beecher countered with a 3. After senior Dan Kane made a layup for the Bulldogs, junior Silas Zechman hit a jumper for the hosts.
Kane made a driving layup, but Zechman made two free throws. Kane then set up junior Jordan Talbot for a layup, but senior David Gravel made a driving layup and junior Saad Zacharia hit a 3 and a driving layup for South Portland’s final points. With 23.7 seconds to go, Jordan Talbot scored on a putback and that accounted for the 79-49 final score.
“We wanted to get back at them (for last year),” said Godbout. “It feels really good to be able to do that.”
“Prior to two years ago, we beat (South Portland) all the time,” Russo said. “The kids were fired up tonight and that’s part of why we got that lead. A win’s always good. Even if it wasn’t always pretty. An ugly win is definitely better than a pretty loss.”
Godbout had another terrific game, scoring 21 points, which included six of his team’s 3-pointers. Pitts-Young had 18 points and a game-high four steals. Matt Talbot had 10 points and a game-high eight rebounds. Zukowski finished with nine points, Moss had seven, Alex, Kane and Jordan Talbot four apiece and Esposito two.
The Bulldogs had a 34-20 rebounding advantage, pilfered the ball on 18 occasions and forced 28 turnovers.
“We work on our ball pressure and it has a lot to do with teamwork and rotation,” said Russo. “It’s more organized than it looks. We’re doing a good job, not a great job yet. We’re not far from doing a great job.”
Portland did give the ball away 21 times itself and made just eight of 13 free throws.
Russo was most impressed with the effort of Moss off the bench.
“We have three excellent returning players, but we need bench help,” Russo said. “I thought Amir played really well. He rebounded, penetrated, dished the ball, had a couple hoops. He really gave us that lift when we started to slow down and they got within single digits.”
South Portland got 12 points and a team-high seven rebounds from Muller. While he was certainly a concern of the Bulldogs coming in, he was relatively held in check.
“I think Muller is the best post player in the league,” said Russo. “He has the best footwork. He does good things with the ball. He can score pretty much anytime he touches the ball.”
“We didn’t treat Muller differently,” Matt Talbot said. “We think our players are as good as anyone.”
Jackson had nine points, Harper eight, Zacharia five, Zechman four, Beecher, Patrick Conley and Fiorini three apiece and Gravel two. Fiorini also had five rebounds and four blocked shots.
The Red Riots made nine of 14 free throws.
“We knew it would be a tough task,” Phil Conley said. “If I can take a positive out of getting beaten by 30, it’s that none of my kids gave us. They all gave me everything they had. We just ran into a very, very good team.”
South Portland’s slate gets no easier.
The Red Riots face the other regional favorite, Bonny Eagle, in a regional final rematch Monday at South Portland, then welcome dangerous Deering Dec. 30. In between, the Red Riots will also take part in the Red Claws Christmas tournament at the Expo, playing Susan Wagner, N.Y., Friday at 4 p.m.
“We’re in a tough stretch, but we’re coming along as a group,” said Conley. “It’s a process when you only have one player with varsity experience. We’re getting kids experience in game situations. We’re getting better as a group. I have confidence in this group. They’re a good group. I think we’ll keep getting better.”
Portland is home against Thornton Academy Monday, plays defending Class B state champion Falmouth (Thursday at 8:30 p.m.) and a team from Zagreb, Croatia (Friday at 7 p.m.) in the holiday tournament (those games don’t count in the standings), then closes 2013 with a home game versus resurgent Cheverus Dec. 30.
“We have two tough tests in a row,” said Russo. “TA’s a tough team and Cheverus is tough. TA has big guys. Cheverus has four good guards and a big man. They waxed TA and they beat Deering.”
The Bulldogs have impressed to date, but aren’t satisfied.
“We still have a lot of work to do like keeping guys out of foul trouble,” Godbout said.
“We have to be serious minded,” said Talbot. “It will be all memories soon.”
Portland 61 @ South Portland 57
@ Portland 52 South Portland 48
Western A quarterfinals
South Portland 39 Portland 37
Portland 56 @ South Portland 49
@ Portland 49 South Portland 48
@ South Portland 57 Portland 49
South Portland 56 @ Portland 51
Western A quarterfinals
Portland 72 South Portland 49
@ Portland 65 South Portland 50
@ South Portland 67 Portland 57
Portland 79 @ South Portland 76
@ Portland 53 South Portland 51
Portland 75 @ South Portland 63
@ Portland 87 Portland 60
@ Portland 71 South Portland 53
Portland 78 @ South Portland 58
Western A quarterfinals
Portland 58 South Portland 51
Portland 98 @ South Portland 44
@ Portland 66 South Portland 29
Portland 62 @ South Portland 36
@ Portland 59 South Portland 40
@ Portland 65 South Portland 61
Portland 67 @ South Portland 52
P- 24 16 21 18- 79
SP- 10 17 6 16- 49
P- Godbout 6-3-21, Pitts-Young 8-0-18, M. Talbot 5-0-10, Zukowski 3-1-9, Moss 1-4-7, Alex 2-0-4, Kane 2-0-4, J. Talbot 2-0-4 Esposito 1-0-2
SP- Muller 5-2-12, Jackson 3-3-9, Harper 3-1-8, Zacharia 2-0-5, Zechman 1-2-4, Beecher 1-0-3, Conley 1-0-3, Fiorini 1-1-3, Gravel 1-0-2
P (11) Godbout 6, Pitts-Young, Zukowski 2, Moss 1
SP (4) Beecher, Conley, Harper, Zacharia 1
P (34) M. Talbot 8, Pitts-Young, Zukowski 5, Kane, Moss 4, Godbout, J. Talbot 3, Foley, Griffin 1
SP (20) Muller 7, Fiorini 5, Conley 3, Jackson 2, Graff, Zacharia, Zechman 1
P (18) Pitts-Young, M. Talbot 4, Alex 3, Esposito, Moss, Zukowski 2, Godbout 1
SP (7) Brown, Harper 3, Graff 1
P (1) Moss 1
SP (5) Fiorini 4, Jackson 1