SACO—Rarely does such intrigue accompany any boys’ basketball game. Particularly the first one of the season.
Seldom do they end in such dramatic fashion.
Filled with more subplots and twists than a supermarket mystery novel, the Portland Bulldogs and Thornton Academy Trojans kicked off the season on Friday with a pulsating hardcourt duel resolved in the frenetic final moments by one shot with harsh absoluteness for the boys dressed blue.
In a thrilling rematch of last season’s Western A regional championship, six lead changes and one tie over the final 1:21 of crazed action ended in heartache for the Bulldogs when Thornton Academy junior Corbett Smith swished a three-point dagger as time expired to deliver a 61-58 victory for the defending state champions in front of a clamorous student body at William Linnell Gymnasium.
The Trojans won the school’s first state title last year after ousting the Bulldogs in the regional final, 49-43.
Just seconds before Smith’s game-winner, Portland senior Koang Thok buried a long three-pointer from the left side to even the score at 58-58 with only 12 seconds remaining.
Somewhat surprisingly, Trojans coach Bob Davies elected not to call his final timeout, setting off a wild scramble as both teams rushed to get set.
Thornton Academy got the ball to the right player on the inbounds play, 6-foot-6 junior Andrew Shaw, the game’s top scorer with 22 points already in the books.
Shaw raced into the frontcourt, but was surrounded by a pair of defenders and forced to pick up his dribble. With precious seconds ticking away, Shaw needed to find an open teammate in a hurry and there was Smith standing all alone at the top of the key. Smith, who had not scored all game, had just enough time to square up and shoot as time expired on a regular season game most likely with playoff implications.
“When you don’t play defense and you take bad shots that’s what happens,” said Portland coach Joe Russo. “All we did was come down and throw up 3-pointers. We want to come down and spread the floor, take good shots. We didn’t do that. This is the type of game that can make or break you. We could never recover. We could use this as an extreme character builder. It’s up to the kids.”
The highly anticipated rematch was amplified by the decision of junior guard James Ek to transfer from Portland to Thornton Academy after an up-and-down sophomore year for the Bulldogs.
Ek, known for his precision shooting, had only two foul shots in his column at halftime and didn’t score his first bucket until late in the third quarter. But that didn’t stop him from playing a major role in the outcome. Ek found his range midway through the fourth quarter when he ripped off 11 points, drilling a pair of 3-pointers to finish with 15 points on the night.
Portland, led by the explosive Thok, took a 13-11 lead after the first quarter when he poured in seven of his team-high 21 points. Thok hit the first three baskets of the game as the Bulldogs built a 13-8 lead only to watch Shaw sink a long three-pointer at the buzzer.
Thok and Shaw put on a show in the second quarter, trading buckets in a fast-paced stretch that saw the Trojans outscore the Bulldogs 20-15 to earn a 31-28 lead at intermission.
Thok scored on a nifty bounce pass from Portland senior Wally Stover when he used the rim as a defender and spun in a left-handed layup that broke a 17-17 tie midway through the second. He added a 3-pointer and netted a jumper from the baseline to match his first quarter total and finish the half with 14.
Shaw added a pair of 3-pointers to a thunderous two-handed jam while piling up 12 of his 17 first-half points. Shaw helped the Trojans to a three-point lead at the half when he sank two of his team’s six consecutive free throws in the late stages of the second quarter.
Portland regrouped at the half and put together an 11-0 run to open the third quarter, highlighted by a two-handed dunk in the halfcourt set by senior Jake Alexander on a crisp feed from Thok through a maze of defenders.
Thok started the stretch with a smooth jumper in the lane over Ek, then picked his man on defense and found sophomore point guard Will DeFanti (two points) on the break for two more. Stover hit from downtown for three of his 14 points. Alexander dunked in traffic and senior Joe Zukowski, battling foul trouble all game, hit a jumper as the Bulldogs erased a three-point deficit to take an eight-point lead at 39-31 with 4:27 to go in the third.
“We started to get things together in the third quarter,” said Alexander. “But we fell apart down the stretch. That was a tough one for us. They got us last year and James (Ek) transferring and all that. But we got great chemistry. We’ll keep working hard and see who comes out on top in the end.”
Thornton Academy (1-0) managed only five points in the third quarter as the Bulldogs held Shaw scoreless, but finished with a 5-2 mini-run with Thok on the bench after picking up his fourth foul. The Trojans’ surge closed with Ek’s first hoop and kept them within striking distance at 41-36 after three complete.
In an explosive fourth quarter, Portland (0-1) began with Thok still on the bench but managed to extend its lead to nine points with four-minutes left in one rematch that lived up to its billing.
Portland sophomore Mike Herrick (nine points) opened the fourth with a short jumper, and Alexander added a rebound and putback for a 45-36 lead.
Senior Tomas Littlefield, the Trojans steady forward interrupted with a basket, but Stover sandwiched a pair of hoops around Ek’s first 3-pointer of the night.
Ek added one foul shot, but Thok checked back in and scored to restore a nine-point lead for Portland at 51-42 with 4:33 left on the clock.
All of this woke up Shaw, who stuck a 3 in the corner that was followed by another Ek bomb to ignite a 10-0 run. Just like that, Thornton Academy regained the lead for the first time since the opening moments of the second half, 52-51 with 1:21 remaining.
Stover took the lead back for Portland with a wild bank shot in the lane, but Ek answered with a sweet layup on the break for a 54-53 advantage for the Trojans.
On Portland’s next possession, Thok stepped up and calmly sank a pair of foul shots to retake the lead with 45 seconds left.
But Ek wasn’t finished with his old mates yet, sending a perfect pass to Littlefield for a bucket that was followed by a Portland miss and two free throws from Shaw, as the Trojans appeared in control leading 58-55 with only 30 more ticks to go.
But to the dismay of the home crowd all dressed in white, Thok rose up and rattled home a deep 3 just a few feet from Russo pacing in front of the bench to tie things up at 58-58, leaving the Trojans only 12 seconds to respond.
They needed every last one of them to deny Portland what could have been a Heal Point-rich win on the road as Smith buttoned up a fantastic night of basketball with a clutch shot as time expired.
Portland will take on Noble (0-1) at home on Tuesday and host Marshwood (0-1) on Friday. Both games start at 7 p.m. and the refurbished Portland Expo.