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PORTLAND—The team that never loses suddenly found itself in the midst of a two-game skid and responded as you’d expect Thursday evening.
The Portland boys’ basketball squad, the defending Class A state champion and owner of a program-record 37-game win streak, had lost its last two heading into the regular season finale at Deering and the Bulldogs weren’t about to fall again, certainly not to their ancient rival.
After scoring a mere 16 points Tuesday night in an overtime loss at South Portland, Portland awakened after a slow start and erupted for an 18-2 run to grab a healthy 29-17 lead by halftime.
While the Rams looked to answer and create another memorable contest like the teams’ first meeting three weeks ago, the Bulldogs never let it happen, as the steady play of senior standout Steve Alex and strong contributions from senior Liam Densmore, a former Ram, and juniors Joey Esposito and Amir Moss, held the hosts in check.
Portland opened up a 46-30 advantage after three quarters and gradually pulled away in the fourth, going on to a 66-44 victory.
Alex had a game-high 27 points, Moss added 13, Densmore finished with nine and Esposito had eight as the Bulldogs capped their stellar regular season at 16-2, garnered the top seed for the upcoming tournament and ended Deering’s year at 12-6, forcing the fifth-ranked Rams to play in a preliminary round game Tuesday versus Scarborough.
“I know we won by (22), but Deering was tough,” said Portland coach Joe Russo, who earned his 359th victory with the program. “It was an aggressive game, both teams left it on the court. No one gave up. This does a lot for us. This is good for us our confidence. We played well against a good team and a city rival. We didn’t want to forget what we can do.”
Deering and Portland have both produced their share of memorable moments this winter.
Deering held off visiting Bonny Eagle in its opener (64-59), then won at Thornton Academy (63-58) and at home over Noble (67-42). After letting a lead slip away in a 45-34 home loss to Cheverus, the Rams bounced back with a 66-52 win at Westbrook and a 71-49 victory over Gorham, but the next time out, they couldn’t hold a double-digit second half lead and fell at home to South Portland, 64-58. After beating visiting Marshwood, 72-63, Deering lost at Windham, 71-60, but the Rams erupted and doubled up Massabesic, 96-48 and ran roughshod over visiting Gorham, 80-51, before falling at Portland, 65-62. Deering then won at Sanford (67-55) and at home over Scarborough (77-73) and Biddeford (68-50). After a 71-66 loss at South Portland, the Rams held off host Cheverus, 69-64, Tuesday.
Portland opened with victories over visiting Massabesic (72-38), visiting Noble (62-44), host Marshwood (71-63) and visiting Gorham (75-51), then got a dramatic buzzer-beater from Esposito to beat visiting South Portland, 45-43. After capping a perfect 2014 with victories at Thornton Academy (59-51) and Cheverus (57-45), the Bulldogs opened 2015 by beating visiting Westbrook, 61-51, rolled at Biddeford, 67-33, had no trouble with visiting Bonny Eagle, 59-35, then survived visiting Deering, 65-62. After a 52-33 home win over Marshwood, Portland held on to prevail at Scarborough, 78-71, before downing host Sanford (58-43) and Windham (70-55) to make it 37 wins in a row, but losses to visiting Cheverus (55-44) Saturday and at South Portland (20-16, in overtime) Tuesday followed.
Portland entered the game with a 140-78 all-time advantage over Deering.
Friday, the Rams were hoping for their first win over the Bulldogs since since Feb. 7, 2013, but Portland finished strong to make it five in a row over its rival.
The first minute reminded those on hand of the teams’ first meeting, as the squads went back and forth.
Just five seconds in, Deering senior Garang Majok opened the scoring with a leaner. Junior Ben Williams added a putback with 7:17 to go in the first quarter and six seconds later, Moss raced in for a layup.
With 6:29 to go in the first, Alex first made his presence felt, getting the ball from senior reserve Cedric Smith after a steal and racing in for a dunk to tie the score.
The Rams retook the lead on a driving layup from Majok and he added a driving bank shot with 3:17 to play in the frame, but that 8-4 advantage would prove to be Deering’s highwater mark.
Before the period was over, Moss drove for a layup and freshman Terion Moss hit a runner to forge an 8-8 deadlock.
Portland probably would have had the lead were it not for 11 turnovers in the first eight minutes. The Bulldogs only committed one in the second period and as a result, took a healthy lead.
The visitors went on top to stay 54 seconds into the second quarter when Alex made a layup. Alex then stole the ball and raced in for a dunk.
A baseline jumper from sophomore Moses Oreste ended the Rams’ 4 minute, 48 second drought, but it only temporarily slowed the Portland Express, as Esposito drove for a layup, Densmore pulled up and hit a 3, senior Tanner Foley drained a 3 and Esposito made a layup to cap an 18-2 run and make it 22-10 Portland with 4:14 to play in the half.
Deering responded when senior Stephen Ochan dove to tip the ball ahead to Majok for a layup and Majok hit a floater, but Amir Moss answered with a layup to make it 24-14. A leaner from Williams and a Majok free throw pulled the Rams within seven, but Densmore banked home a runner, Moss hit a foul shot and Alex made a layup after a steal for a healthy 29-17 lead at the break.
Majok had 11 points and seven rebounds in the first half, but Deering got little else in the way of offensive production and was hindered by a dozen turnovers.
The Rams hoped to make things interesting in the second half, but the Bulldogs met every challenge.
Alex started the third period where he left off in the first half, hitting a floater, then taking a pass form Esposito after a steal and making a layup for a 33-17 lead. Majok answered with a 3, but Moss made a free throw. After Majok made a pullup jumper, Esposito scored on a putback, Smith did the same, Esposito went coast-to-coast for a layup and Densmore hit a long jumper to push the advantage to 20, 42-22.
Deering sophomore Machar N’Guany countered with a jumper, but Alex drove the baseline for a layup. Williams and junior Malik White made layups for the Rams, their first consecutive baskets since the second quarter, and White added a jumper, but Alex and Moss each made one free throw and Portland had a 46-30 lead heading for the final stanza.
There, the Bulldogs put it away.
Williams opened the fourth quarter scoring by driving for a layup, but Alex hit a leaner and Alex made a layup after a steal while being fouled and added a free throw for the old-fashioned three-point play and a 51-32 advantage.
After Williams converted a three-point play for the hosts, Densmore banked home a shot. Deering senior Max Chabot scored on a putback, but Alex took a pass from Moss and made a layup, then added a free throw. After Williams made a foul shot, Moss scored on a putback, Moss made two free throws, Alex made a layup and Alex scored on a putback to push the lead to 64-38, as Russo pulled his starters.
After White made a 3 for the Rams, Portland sophomore Charlie Lyall made a layup for his team’s final points. A free throw and a putback from N’Guany brought the curtain down on the Bulldogs’ 66-44 victory.
“We just wanted to play our game and bring it every possession,” Alex said. “Tonight was more our game. It was kind of like a track meet. We just came to play. We were ready to play. We just listened to Coach and we came out to play. We’ve been confident all season.”
“We just focused on defense,” said Esposito. “We fed off our defense. We talked about doing our jobs, like the Patriots. We came out hard, with a lot of energy. I don’t think a lot of people thought we’d do what we did (this season). It’s all because of hard work.”
“This tempo is what we like to do,” Russo added. “Of course, teams in our league aren’t going to let us do it if they can help it. We have to play both halfcourt and fullcourt. We were fortunate that everyone contributed tonight. Both teams play in-your-face defense. We talked about controlling the ball before you move. Control the ball, then pass it. That’s what we worked on. We recognized their shooters this time.”
Alex continued to stake his claim as one of the league’s premier talents by going off for 27 points, while adding seven rebounds and six steals.
“Steve played well,” Russo said. “He might be the most versatile player in the league. There are guys who may shoot better or handle the ball, but he’s very versatile. He’s deceiving. He can rebound, play underneath, handle the ball well. His decision making has improved all year.”
Amir Moss finished with 13 points, nine boards and two blocked shots.
“Amir played consistent,” said Russo. “He rebounded and played good D.”
Densmore had nine points, five rebounds and a steal.
“Liam hit some big shots,” Russo said. “He was more relaxed than the first time (we played Deering). Liam and Steve stayed within themselves tonight. They didn’t against Cheverus. They were more selective tonight.”
Esposito had a strong effort, scoring eight points and grabbing 10 rebounds. He also had two assists and a steal.
“I try to keep the team together and go out and get the boards,” Esposito said. “I try to get it to Liam, Steve and Amir and let them do the rest and help out if they need it.”
“I thought Joey controlled the tempo,” Russo said. “He was either rebounding or tipping the rebound.”
Foley added three points.
“Tanner is consistent,” Russo said. “He stays in the paint and helped out.”
Lyall, Terion Moss and Smith (six rebounds) finished with two apiece.
Portland enjoyed a 35-32 rebounding advantage, but committed 25 turnovers and made 8 of 17 free throws.
After graduating standouts Jayvon Pitts-Young, Matt Talbot and Justin Zukowski, as well as key contributor Travis Godbout from last year’s championship team, nothing was guaranteed for the Bulldogs this winter, but they had an excellent regular season.
“The guys went beyond my expectations at the beginning, but I’m not surprised,” Russo said. “I wasn’t surprised when (we lost) either, because you can do that with a young team.”
For Deering, Majok led the way with 16 points, 10 rebounds and a pair of steals.
“Garang is going to be an important player down the stretch,” Rams coach Todd Wing said. “He’s a tough matchup.”
Williams had 12 points, White seven, N’Guany five and Chabot and Oreste two apiece.
The Rams committed 20 turnovers and made just 4 of 12 from the foul stripe.
They also had to play without sophomore Raffael Salamone, who has emerged as a top post presence in the second half of the season. Salamone missed the game due to illness.
“He’s a player who’s established himself as a presence inside, someone you have to box out,” Wing said. “We missed that. He’s had some big games the last half of the year. We hope to get him healthy. He’ll be well rested.”
Deering couldn’t dig out of its hole Thursday, but still produced a solid regular season, especially in light of the many changes in the offseason.
“Sometimes you lose sight of what gets you there, which is good, solid team basketball,” Wing said. “We weren’t patient enough on offense. We wanted to get everything back on one shot. Guys wanted to come through for the team, but in all actuality, you have to stick with what got you there. We’ve had injuries, but new guys have established themselves. There’s a silver lining. We’re 12-6, same record as last year, with five new guys.”
The boys’ basketball postseason tips off Tuesday when Deering hosts No. 12 Scarborough (8-10) in a Western A preliminary round game at 7 p.m. The Rams had to rally to eke out a 77-73 home win over the Red Storm Jan. 23. The teams have never met in the postseason.
“We’re in a better position to make a strong, strong run,” Wing said. “It’s so wide open this year. We are going to have to prepare to beat Scarborough Tuesday. That’s a team that we beat and we were down at the half. We both play up-tempo style. The better prepared team will win. It’s not the position we wanted to be in, but it’s the position we’re in. We’ll embrace that path.”
The Deering-Scarborough winner will meet No. 4 Gorham (13-5) in the quarterfinals Friday at 7 p.m., at the Portland Exposition Building. Deering beat Gorham in both meetings this winter: 71-49 in a Gorham “home game” at the Expo during the holiday tournament and 80-51 at Deering Jan. 13. The teams have no playoff history.
Portland, meanwhile, will be the top seed in Western A for the second year in a row and will play either No. 8 Windham (10-8) or ninth-ranked Thornton Academy (9-9) in Friday’s quarterfinals (9 p.m., at the Expo). The Eagles and Golden Trojans meet in a prelim Tuesday.
The Bulldogs held on for a 59-51 at Thornton Academy Dec. 23 and beat host Windham, 70-55, Jan. 27. Portland has no playoff history with the Eagles. The Bulldogs last faced the Golden Trojans in the 2009 Western A Final (a 49-43 TA victory).
The stage is set for another Portland title run.
“I think we have a really good chance to go all the way again,” said Alex. “We just have to bring it every game. We look forward to it.”
“I think our chances are always good,” Esposito said. “We have to focus in practice and keep working hard. We’re ready to go.”
“It’s more wide open than I’ve seen in a long time, however, there’s only a handful of teams that can consistently win three games in a row and hopefully, we’re one of them,” Russo added. “You can’t take anyone lightly because there are some good teams out there.”
Portland senior Liam Densmore floats in for two points.
Deering senior Max Chabot lines up a shot.
Portland junior Amir Moss converts a layup.
Portland junior Joe Esposito leans in for a shot. Esposito had eight points and 10 rebounds.
Portland senior Cedric Smith grapples for a loose ball.
Deering junior Ben Williams leans in for a shot.
Portland’s fans had plenty to get excited about during the Bulldogs’ win.
Deering’s fan section looks on in dismay during Thursday’s contest.
@ Portland 65 Deering 62
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
Portland senior Steve Alex soars to the basket for two of his game-high 27 points during Thursday’s 66-44 win at rival Deering.
Ben McCanna photos.
More photos below.
P- 8 21 17 20- 66
D- 8 9 13 14- 44
P- Alex 12-3-27, A. Moss 4-5-13, Densmore 4-0-9, Esposito 4-0-8, Foley 1-0-3, Lyall 1-0-2, T. Moss 1-0-2, Smith 1-0-2
D- Majok 7-1-16, Williams 5-2-12, White 3-0-7, N’Guany 2-1-5, Chabot 1-0-2, Oreste 1-0-2
P (2) Densmore, Foley 1
D (2) Majok, White 1