AUGUSTA—Not even the “House of Horrors” was a match for the 2015-16 Portland boys’ basketball team.
Tuesday evening at the Augusta Civic Center, the Bulldogs finally broke through in the one venue that has given them fits over the years and as a result, they earned the right to make another trip to the capital city Friday night for an even bigger game.
Portland, the top-ranked seed in Class AA North, made quick work of No. 4 Edward Little in a late-evening semifinal, trailing for all of 24 seconds.
The Bulldogs took the lead for good on a driving layup from sophomore standout Terion Moss with 5:31 to play in the first quarter. Moss had 10 points in that frame and Portland gradually pulled away to lead, 22-9.
The Bulldogs slowly built their lead in the second quarter, taking a 37-21 advantage to halftime. They pushed it to 51-30 after three periods, as sophomore Griffin Foley hit a long 3 at the horn, then ended all doubt early in the fourth, leading by as many as 29 points before going on to a decisive 70-43 victory.
Moss led the way with 18 points, Foley and senior Amir Moss added 14 points apiece and Portland improved to 18-1, ended Edward Little’s season at 11-9 and advanced to meet No. 2 Deering (17-2) in the Class AA North Final Friday at 9 p.m. in Augusta.
“We wanted to play 94 feet,” said longtime Bulldogs coach Joe Russo. “For two reasons. That’s how we play and being up here late at night without a big crowd, we had to create our own energy. A 2-3 zone probably would have been a better choice against EL, but we went end to end. We were running and that kept us engaged.”
While Portland has excelled at all venues in its home city and beyond, the Augusta Civic Center hasn’t been kind to the Bulldogs. Portland lost the Class A Final to Bangor in 2007 and again to Hampden Academy a year ago. Russo’s negative experience with the venue goes back much farther.
“We lost two state games up here and when I played in high school, we were 18-0 in 1974 and we lost here,” Russo said.
The Bulldogs did down Hampden Academy in a non-countable, holiday tournament game in late-December, but entering play Tuesday, they hadn’t come through on this court.
Portland once again produced a fabulous regular season, its third in a row, losing just once, at home to Gorham, while winning 17 times (the Bulldogs are 51-3 over the past three regular seasons) to garner the top seed in the newfangled Class AA North.
Portland had a bye into the semifinal round while Edward Little (which went 10-8 this year) had to rally to survive No. 5 Cheverus in a thrilling quarterfinal last Thursday, 46-43.
Back on Dec. 22, the Red Eddies came to Portland and the Bulldogs rolled, 82-64, behind 29 points from Amir Moss and 25 from Terion Moss (junior Jarod Norcross Plourde led Edward Little with 22 points).
Portland was 6-2 in previous playoff meetings against Edward Little, dating back to 1924. The most recent came in the 2003 Western A semifinals, which the Red Eddies won, 65-60.
This time around, the Bulldogs were never seriously tested and moved on.
Off the opening tip, Portland junior Charlie Lyall got the ball to senior Joe Esposito, who fed Foley for a layup and a 2-0 lead just five seconds in.
“Before the game started, we were on the bench and I said, ‘Espo, look for me on the tip’ and it just worked,” Foley said.
Edward Little tied the score on a jumper from Norcross Plourde and after Terion Moss put the Bulldogs back on top with a one-handed leaner, senior Austin Cox’s corner 3-pointer gave the Red Eddies their lone lead, 5-4.
With 5:31 to play in the first period, Terion Moss drove for a layup and Portland was on top to stay.
Terion Moss added a 3 and after two free throws from Norcross Plourde, Bulldogs sophomore reserve Manny Yugu knocked down a 3 to make it 12-7.
Norcross Plourde hit a jumper, but Terion Moss set up Foley for a fastbreak layup, senior John Williams added a foul shot, Amir Moss made a floater, Terion Moss sank another 3 (giving him 10 points for the quarter) and with 7.2 seconds to go, Amir Moss’ putback put Portland firmly in control, 22-9, after one.
The Bulldogs weren’t able to maintain that pace in the second period, but still added to their lead.
The Moss Brothers combined for a layup (Terion to Amir) to start the frame, but a 3-ball from Edward Little sophomore Darby Shea snapped a 4 minute, 35 second scoring drought and ended Portland’s 12-0 run.
After Lyall and Cox traded putbacks, Bulldogs senior Ben Griffin converted an old-fashioned three-point play (layup, foul, free throw).
Norcross Plourde and Yugu traded free throws before Norcross Plourde made a layup and Cox did the same to pull the Red Eddies within 30-19.
Amir Moss countered with a layup, but Red Eddies junior Samatar Iman made a layup to again cut the deficit to 11.
Portland then got the final five points of the half, as Yugu made two free throws and Foley sank a 3 to make it 37-21 at the break.
In the first half, Terion Moss had 10 points, Amir Moss finished with eight, Foley had seven and Yugu six. Norcross Plourde had nine points for Edward Little, which committed nine turnovers in the first 16 minutes of the game.
The Bulldogs struggled most of the third quarter and Edward Little made things interesting for awhile, before Portland ended all doubt.
The Bulldogs didn’t score for almost five minutes to start the second half, but the Red Eddies only cut six points off the deficit, as junior CJ Gipson hit a 3, Iman sank a free throw and Norcross Plourde scored on a putback.
Finally, with 3:15 left in the third quarter, an Amir Moss putback snapped a 6:27 drought and sparked a 9-0 surge.
Esposito converted a three-point play, Lyall set up Foley for a fastbreak layup and Lyall added a bucket to make it 46-27.
After Norcross Plourde answered with a layup, Terion Moss scored on a floater (his first points since the opening quarter) and after a free throw from Iman, as time wound down, Foley made a desperation 3 to stretch the lead to a commanding 51-30.
Edward Little crept back within 17 early in the final stanza, as Portland didn’t get on the court fast enough after the break and the officials allowed the Red Eddies to inbound the ball, which led to an easy layup by Iman and a subsequent technical foul on Terion Moss for slapping the backboard, which was followed by two free throws from Red Eddies sophomore Tyler Morin.
After Terion Moss fed Foley for a layup, Cox made a layup for Edward Little, but Terion Moss made two free throws, Amir Moss scored on a driving layup, Amir Moss tipped home a missed shot and after an Amir Moss steal, he set up Terion Moss for a layup and a 61-36 advantage with 5:11 to go.
The Red Eddies got two free throws from Jipson and a layup from Cox, but Portland freshman Trey Bellew made a layup, Terion Moss added a layup, Yugu hit a free throw and freshman Simon Chadbourne knocked down a 3 to make it 69-40.
Down the stretch, Edward Little sophomore Alex Merchant sandwiched a free throw and a putback around a foul shot from Bulldogs sophomore Ben Fisher and Portland slammed the door on its 70-43 triumph.
“We know we can step up and play our game when we need to,” Foley said. “We can step up and make big-time shots.”
“As a number one seed, the first game is difficult to play,” Russo said. “It’s a long fall from the top. This game made me more nervous than Friday.”
The Bulldogs got 18 points five rebounds, four assists and a pair of steals from Terion Moss.
“Joey and Amir are the team leaders, but Terion runs the team on the court,” Russo said. “Terion and I had a nice week together making sure we’re on the same wavelength. He only made one mistake.”
Amir Moss added 14 points, to go with five boards, two steals, two assists and a blocked shot.
Foley had 14 points.
Yugu finished with seven points off the bench, Lyall had four (to go with seven boards and two blocks), Chadbourne, Esposito and Griffin three apiece, Bellew two and Fisher and Williams one each.
“It was a team effort,” Russo said. “The bench, (freshman) Pedro (Fonseca) and Manny, were huge. They got to the rim and made good passes. My big men, Charlie and Benny, had their best games. Griffin Foley played really well tonight. Joey and Amir didn’t have great games, but credit EL. They faceguarded and went triangle-and-two against them and took them out of our their games.”
Portland finally has the ACC monkey off its back.
“We hadn’t won a game here, even when Coach played, so we broke the curse and hopefully, we can keep it going,” Foley said.
“It’s our first legitimate, countable win up here,” Russo said. “We came up here at Christmas (to play Hampden Academy in a scrimmage), just to get used to the court.”
Edward Little was paced by 13 points from Norcross Plourde. Cox (11 points) was also in double figures. Iman had six points, Jipson five, Merchant and Shea three apiece and Morin two.
The Red Eddies committed 14 turnovers and shot 10 of 14 from the charity stripe.
Portland is two wins from its second state title in three years, but the obstacle between the Bulldogs and the Gold Ball game is a team they know all too well.
Each of the past two years, Portland’s swept Deering in the regular season, then got a scare from the Rams in the semifinals only to ultimately advance.
The Bulldogs won both regular season games this winter, 61-51 at Deering and 74-62 at home.
The teams have met 13 previous times in the playoffs with the Bulldogs holding an 8-5 edge. The first playoff meeting resulted in a 45-27 Rams’ triumph back in 1930. Deering won the first three postseason showdowns, in fact, before Portland took five in a row between 1942 and 1955. Between 1955-56 and 2003-04, the teams didn’t play at all in the postseason, but Friday will be their sixth encounter in a dozen years. The most recent might have been the most memorable, as Amir Moss’ late three-point play produced a 59-57 victory in last year’s semifinals.
“It’s going to be a challenge,” Foley said. “We know how to play against them. It’s definitely going to be exciting. Having two Portland teams up here is kind of weird, but I hope a lot of people come out. Everyone loves the tournament environment. I’ll have butterflies, but they’ll go away once the game starts.”
“I’m really pleased and the kids should be pleased with their accomplishments,” Russo said. “We’ll be ready for Friday night. It will be a gangbuster game. Deering pulled out a nice win tonight. If the kids want to do it, we can do it. We have the talent and the ability.”