(Ed. Note: This story originally appeared in the March, 17, 2004 edition of The Forecaster)
PORTLAND—In the end, the Team of Destiny was just good enough to overcome ‘Mims’ Magic.’
Saturday night at the Cumberland County Civic Center, the Portland boys’ basketball team, the odds-on favorites from Day One this season, did everything it could to counter Brunswick senior Ralph Mims’ record-setting 46 points (more on Mims’ performance in sidebar, below), fought back from a fourth quarter deficit, forced overtime, then held off the Dragons 69-63 for the school’s first Gold Ball in five years.
For once, the end result lived up to and exceeded the hype and the Bulldogs couldn’t have been happier.
“It’s the greatest feeling in the world,” senior Joe Murphy said. “We’ve had a few glitches throughout the season, but we knew we had the talent to pull through.”
“I’m just so happy for our team,” added senior Eric Shone (who turned 18 Saturday). “We’ve worked so hard all year. It paid off. It’s tremendous. I’m on Cloud Nine right now.”
Portland was expected to be in the state final all along, but it did face a few obstacles on the road to glory, most notably the Bulldogs’ lone hiccup, Feb. 16, when they lost to Cheverus 52-50 in overtime.
In the end, the Bulldogs collectively argued that that defeat was a welcome reality slap and turned them from cocky to cautious.
Easy wins over Sanford, Biddeford and Cheverus put Portland in the state final.
Awaiting the Bulldogs were the 2001-2002 Class A champions, Brunswick, led of course, by Mims. The Dragons would give Portland everything they could possibly have wanted by the time the title game was over.
Portland junior Tyler Emmons raised the curtain on the epic final with a layup from Rocco Toppi just 37 seconds in. Toppi later scored a 3-pointer and Shone scored on a layup, but Brunswick soon seized control thanks to Mims’ 15 points in the quarter.
In the second period, Portland shot to the lead thanks to countless offensive rebounds. Time after time, Toppi and Emmons scored after corralling the ball off the glass and the Bulldogs had a 29-26 lead at halftime.
Portland went up 32-28 early in the third period on a pair of Toppi free throws, but a 10-2 Brunswick run put the Bulldogs in a 38-34 hole. A Toppi 3-pointer got Portland back within one, 38-37, but the Dragons closed the quarter on a 6-0 run and the Bulldogs deficit was seven, 44-37, heading into the final quarter.
“We knew it would be tough to come back, but we did it,” Shone said.
Mims would score all 12 Brunswick fourth quarter points, but Portland slowly chipped away. A 3-point bomb from senior Jake Johnston made it 47-44 Brunswick with 6:38 left. A turnaround jumper by Emmons and a Toppi 3-pointer got the Bulldogs within a point, 50-49, with 4:12 to go. Mims scored four straight points to push the lead back to five, but a Murphy 3-pointer with 3:01 remaining cut the lead back to two, 54-52. Moments later, Shone appeared primed to tie the game on a breakaway layup, but Mims came out of nowhere to swat it away.
After a gorgeous weaving layup by Mims, Toppi hit a jumper and Shone followed with a steal and layup to tie the game at 56-56 with 55 seconds left.
Brunswick junior Kevin Scully had a shot blocked by Toppi, then with 13 seconds left, Brunswick was unable to get the ball inbounds and Portland had a final chance. Murphy got a wide open look from 3-point land on the wing, but his bid was short. Dragons senior Phillip Warren heaved the ball away and it was on to overtime.
“I would never live that down if we had lost,” Murphy said.
“We had a play set up,” Portland coach Joe Russo said. “Murphy missed that shot and came in bummed out, but I told him to remember the shots he made.”
Toppi opened the overtime scoring with an old-fashioned three-point play.
“We knew we had to step it up in the second half,” said Toppi, who led Portland with 28 points and 16 rebounds and got his 1,000th career point in the overtime. “The momentum started to swing our way at the end of regulation. I came out with that three-point play at the beginning of overtime and I knew we had it.”
Not so fast.
Brunswick tied the score when Scully converted his own three-point play.
With 2:08 left in OT, Portland sophomore Eric Nelson made one free throw to put the Bulldogs ahead for good.
With 1:11 left, Toppi tipped in a missed shot for a 62-59 lead. With 39 ticks left, Shone (13 points on the night) made one of two free throws to seemingly ice the win, but the next trip down, Mims drained a long, long-range 3-pointer to cut the Portland lead to 63-62. With 27 seconds left, Shone made two free throws to restore the lead to three, 65-62.
Everyone on hand knew that Mims would take the potential game-tying shot, but he lost the ball out of bounds with 19 seconds to play. Shone and Toppi added a pair of free throws and Portland at last, could exult.
“It feels awesome,” said Emmons (who scored 12 points and dominated the boards). “We had the will to win. We got a team effort. It wasn’t easy.”
“It’s a great feeling, coming away with the Gold Ball and getting 1,000 points in the same game,” Toppi said. “There’s no better feeling.”
“We knew if we played our game, we’d be tough to beat,” Russo added. “Brunswick came in with a great game plan. Ralph did everything he could. I thought Eric’s steal was the key. Rocco played solid all night. His biggest asset tonight was when I went small with three guards, I asked him to step it up on the rebounding and he did. His foul line jumpers against their zone were also a key. These guys are so special because they’re just wonderful kids. They’re so darn coachable. It will be hard watching them go.”
Being season-long favorites had taken its toll.
“We were expected to win the Gold Ball,” Shone said. “This feels like a weight has been lifted off all of our shoulders.”
“It’s a relief to finally get the Gold Ball after all the expectations coming into the season,” Toppi added.
Portland says goodbye to 10 talented seniors, but should still be a factor next winter (the Bulldogs would be upset by Deering in the 2005 semifinals)
“We’ve got the personnel to make a deep run again next year,” Emmons said.
“Next year, if these guys have a great summer, we won’t have to rebuild from the ground up,” Russo added.
The 2003-2004 Bulldogs won’t soon be forgotten.
Nor will this title game.
Congratulations to the champions!
By the time the Cumberland County Civic Center emptied itself of fans Saturday evening, the buzz surrounding Brunswick senior star Ralph Mims still overshadowed the fact that the Portland Bulldogs had, as expected, won the boys’ Class A state championship.
Mims scored 46 points to lead his Dragons to the brink of an upset and the Gold Ball, but Portland’s heart and collective talent were too strong down the stretch as the Bulldogs were able to escape with a scintillating championship.
“It was an amazing game in an amazing atmosphere, watching an amazing player in Ralph Mims,” Portland coach Joe Russo said.
“I’ve played against Ralph numerous times, but tonight he was just incredible,” added Portland’s senior point guard Eric Shone. “You can’t say anything but great things about him and his talent.”
Many pundits previewed the championship game by suggesting that it was going to be the Portland team against Mims. Even though Brunswick rallied for a regional semifinal win over Cony after Mims had fouled out, the star had reminded everyone of his individual brilliance by scoring 31 straight points and 41 of 43 in the Dragons Eastern A win over Bangor.
Virtually from the get-go Saturday, it was clear that the state final would be Mims’ show.
After an inauspicious beginning (an airball on the game’s opening shot), Mims drained a long 3-pointer to give the Dragons their first lead. Moments later, he converted on a driving layup to tie the score at 5-5.
Mims was simply warming up.
Before the first quarter was complete, Mims had 15 points (adding another long 3, a pull-up bank shot, an old-fashioned three-point play and a transition jumper) and Brunswick led 17-11.
While Portland had originally tried senior Riko Bol on Mims, they soon switched to a box-and-one, then to junior Jared Brownlee. Mims only scored five points in the second quarter and the Bulldogs took a 29-26 lead into the break. Mims did provide one final first half highlight when his no-look pass to teammate Kevin Scully resulted in the final points of the stanza.
Any delusions Portland had that they had solved Mims’ brilliance ended in the third quarter. Mims scored 11 of Brunswick’s 18 points and the Dragons reasserted control.
With 3:53 to play in the period, Mims hit a jumper in the lane to put Brunswick back on top, 36-34. A leaner followed by a foul shot, then a pull-up jumper with six seconds left in the quarter put the Dragons up 44-37 after three and put the Bulldogs on the ropes.
Mims would score all 12 of Brunswick’s fourth quarter points and almost single-handedly ended Portland’s season a win shy of their goal.
The ultimate Mims moment came with 1:24 remaining in regulation. With Brunswick clinging to a 54-52 lead, Mims made like Curly Neal of Harlem Globetrotters fame, weaving through every single Portland defender en route to a layup and a 56-52 lead. The Bulldogs would rally to tie the score (although Mims’ block on an apparent easy Shone layup delayed matters) and send the game to overtime.
In the final four-minute session, Mims finally appeared mortal.
“We worked on slowing him down all week,” Russo said. “It looked like whatever we did didn’t do a thing, but we knew if worse came to worse, he’d tire out. It looked like maybe it happened at the end of regulation and in overtime.”
Ten seconds into OT, Mims traveled. Scully scored the Dragons’ first three points of the extra session, but with all seeming lost and Brunswick trailing 63-59 with under a minute to play, Mims nailed a 3-pointer from well beyond the NBA mark to make it 63-62. With one last chance, trailing 65-62, Mims (now being triple teamed) cut to the baseline but lost the ball out of bounds with 19 seconds left. The Bulldogs hit their free throws and at last celebrated (and breathed a sigh of relief).
“Give my guys credit,” Russo said. “When you try that many things against a great player and it doesn’t work, there’s a tendency to get down and frustrated. I just told them to keep it up.”
Portland’s highly-touted stars marveled at the show they had witnessed.
“He was just amazing,” said Portland senior Rocco Toppi, who along with Mims is a candidate for the Mr. Maine Basketball award. “We knew coming in that he’d have his points, but 46? We could have never prepared for that. We threw everything we had at him. He was just amazing.”
“We had some trouble containing Mims, but we just pulled through in the end,” senior Joe Murphy said.
The team had survived the nonpareil individual.
“They have a good player, but we have four of five good players on the court at all times,” junior Tyler Emmons said. “He lived up to expectations and wanted to win, but we got it done and lived up to our expectations. We’re veterans. We knew what to do down the stretch.”
What a player!
What a game!
Portland senior Eric Shone tries to defend Brunswick senior standout Ralph Mims during the teams’ epic Class A state final Saturday night. While Mims had a memorable 46-point night, it was Shone (on his 18th birthday) and the Bulldogs prevailing in overtime, 69-63.