PORTLAND—To be a champion, it’s not always about how you respond when things are going well, but how much heart, character and drive you demonstrate when it appears you’re destined for defeat.
The Portland boys’ basketball team found itself in such a predicament Friday evening at Keegan Gymnasium, when a difficult first half produced a rare deficit.
The host Cheverus Stags, riding an emotional wave on Senior Night and thanks to the inspiration of unheralded senior Kodiak Simpson, who became an instant fan favorite, had the Bulldogs on their heels.
Portland managed to lead, 13-9, after one quarter, thanks in part to strong play from the high-flying slam dunking tandem of senior Matt Talbot and junior Steve Alex, but the Stags produced a nearly flawless second period, closing on a 17-7 run, which was capped by a layup from senior Manny Ismail, and the stunned Bulldogs left the floor down by six, 28-22.
Then, Portland senior Jayvon Pitts-Young came out for the second half and pretty much single-handedly ensured that his team would not register its first loss.
Just eight seconds in, after a steal, Pitts-Young made a foul shot and the rally was on. After a Pitts-Young driving layup, two ridiculously athletic tip-ins by the nonpareil Talbot closed the gap further and a Pitts-Young layup completed the comeback and put the Bulldogs on top for good.
By the end of the third quarter, Portland had pushed its lead to 11, 44-33, thanks to a jawdropping 21-4 run and order had been restored.
Down the stretch, the Bulldogs never took their foot off the gas pedal and gradually opened up a lead of as many as 17 points before settling for a 64-53 triumph.
Talbot continued his unstoppable play of late, scoring a game-high 25 points, grabbing a game-high 12 rebounds and blocking a couple shots for good measure. Pitts-Young added 16 points (14 of which came in the second half) and Portland improved to 16-0, dropping Cheverus to 8-8 in the process.
“We might have the best team, but teams will be prepared for us,” said Bulldogs coach Joe Russo. “This was an awesome game for us because of the way it unfolded. We were down and we responded the way you’d hope seniors would respond.”
As is almost always the case, discussion of Western A contenders this year once again includes the Bulldogs and the Stags.
Portland opened by winning at Massabesic (84-31) and Noble (66-54), downed visiting Marshwood (65-40), then triumphed at Gorham (60-40) and South Portland (79-49) and at home over Thornton Academy (73-36) and Cheverus (55-46) to wrap up 2013 with an undefeated mark (although the Bulldogs did lose to Falmouth, 54-51, in a non-countable holiday tournament game Dec. 26). The new year brought continued success, as Portland’s defeated host Westbrook (66-26), host Marshwood (48-44), visiting Biddeford (58-32), host Bonny Eagle (69-60), in a game played in front of a full house at St. Joseph’s College, host Deering (77-42). visiting Scarborough (81-52), visiting Sanford (74-42) and visiting Windham (64-39).
Cheverus opened by winning a close one at Windham (65-62), then taking visiting preseason favorite Bonny Eagle to the wire before falling, 62-58. The Stags then defeated visiting Thornton Academy (63-44), host Massabesic (71-44) and visiting Deering (47-46) to turn heads, but reality set in and Cheverus hit a rough patch, dropping five in a row: 55-46 at Portland, 49-31 to visiting Gorham, 59-47 at Sanford, 48-39 at Thornton Academy and 56-50 at Noble. Cheverus got back on track by downing visiting Westbrook (57-45) and South Portland (56-41) before losing to visiting Marshwood (54-50). The Stags then won at Biddeford (62-31) and at home over Scarborough (76-63).
Entering Friday’s game, Cheverus clung to an 89-87 all-time edge in the series, but the rivalry has been streaky in recent years. From the 2008 semifinals through the first meeting of the 2011-12 season, Cheverus won nine in a row, but the Bulldogs had taken the past four, including the triumph Dec. 20 at the Expo.
Friday, Portland made it five straight and pulled within a single game of the Stags all-time, but it certainly didn’t come easily.
The partisan crowd was amped up in pregame, in part celebrating the win by the girls over Deering in a game which just ended and in part to honor its seniors.
As tradition dictates, Cheverus coach Dan Costigan started a senior-laden lineup, which meant Simpson, much to the crowd’s delight, was on the floor for the opening tip and quickly made his presence felt.
The Bulldogs did get the jump when senior Travis Godbout found Alex in transition for a quick dunk, but back came the Stags as Simpson scored on a putback to tie the score.
Next, it was the man-child, Talbot, showing his rim-rattling ability, taking a pass from Pitts-Young and throwing down two points, but the hosts again answered as freshman Austin Boudreau knocked down a jumper.
After Alex kept possession alive with an offensive rebound, he fed Talbot for a layup, but senior Noah Stebbins made a layup to tie the score again, 6-6.
Portland got a couple free throws from senior Justin Zukowski and a floater from Alex to begin to open things up, but the sharpshooting Boudreau answered with a 3-ball. Then, with 9.5 seconds left, Talbot sank a 3 and the Bulldogs were on top, 13-9, after one.
Just about everything then went Cheverus’ way in the second period.
Senior Brad Carney got the party started with a reverse layup. After Zukowski countered with a driving layup, Boudreau sank a 3, Ismail made a layup after a steal and junior Derek Hammond scored on a runner to make it 18-15 Stags.
The visitors pulled even with 5:23 to play in the half as Talbot was fouled on a 3-point attempt and sank all three free throws, but Boudreau found Stebbins for a go-ahead layup and senior Mike Sinclair added a layup for a 22-18 advantage.
After Zukowski set up Pitts-Young for a layup off an inbounds set, Ismail sank two free throws and Sinclair scored on a leaner. Zukowski got a point back at the foul line, but Ismail made a layup for the Stags’ biggest lead, 28-21. A late Talbot free throw made it a six-point contest heading to the break and the Bulldogs almost drew closer, but a desperation 3-point heave from Talbot which found the net, was waved off, ruled to have left his hand after the buzzer sounded.
“It would have been fun if it counted,” said Talbot.
As Cheverus made its way to its locker room amid a rousing ovation, Portland found itself tasting a rare dose of adversity.
To the surprise of no one, however, the Bulldogs responded.
The Stags had the ball to start the second half, but Pitts-Young immediately pilfered it and was fouled. Even though he made just one free throw, the tone was set.
“I was really unhappy with how I was playing,” Pitts-Young said. “I thought I wasn’t contributing enough. I felt I had to step up for my team so we could pull the game off. That steal changed the game and we had more fun with it.”
Cheverus junior Zordan Holman was rewarded by back-to-back offensive rebounds by going to the line, but he made just one of two shots. After Portland sophomore Amir Moss made a driving layup, Holman hit two foul shots for a 31-25 advantage, but the rest of the quarter would be all Bulldogs.
First, Talbot somehow managed to tip home a missed shot with his left, or off hand. Moments later, Talbot tipped home another shot while being fouled by Holman and added the free throw for an old-fashioned three-point play and suddenly, Portland was only down a point, 31-30.
Even though the Bulldogs’ efforts were hampered by Alex picking up his fourth foul, with 4:18 showing, Pitts-Young drove to the hole for a layup and gave Portland its first lead since 15-14.
Pitts-Young wasn’t about to let up, making a layup, then sinking two free throws to stretch the lead to five.
With 1:45 remaining in the stanza, the Stags got a momentary reprieve as Boudreau hit a pullup jumper, snapping a 13-2 run, but Pitts-Young got a little operating room, took a deep breath and sank a 3, Moss stole the ball and fed Pitts-Young for a layup and with 17.8 seconds to go, Talbot kept possession alive with an offensive rebound and fed Godbout on the wing, who hit a dagger of a 3 to turn a six-point halftime deficit into a 44-33 advantage after three quarters.
In those eight minutes, Pitts-Young had 12 points and Portland outscored Cheverus, 22-5.
“Jayvon is huge in every victory, whether he scores or not,” Talbot said.
Any Stags’ comeback hopes were quickly dashed in the fourth as Pitts-Young stole the ball and fed Talbot for a layup, foul and free throw.
Carney countered with a free throw, but senior Dan Kane made one for the Bulldogs. After Ismail scored on a driving layup, Talbot converted yet another three-point play to make it 51-36 with 5:37 to go.
Cheverus made one final push as first Stebbins, then Carney hit 3-pointers to cut the deficit to 51-42. Carney had a chance to make it even closer, but he missed a 3 and at the other end, with 4:07 left, Godbout took a pass from Zukowski and drained a backbreaking 3-ball.
Sinclair countered with a bank shot, but all doubt was ended with 3:26 to go, as Talbot took a pass from Zukowski, soared for a dunk while being fouled, then hit the ensuing free throw for a 57-44 advantage.
Simpson made his return to the game a successful one by converting a three-point play, much to the crowd’s glee, but Pitts-Young went coast-to-coast for a layup, Zukowski scored on a putback and added a free throw for a three-point play and with 1;36 remaining, Talbot set up Godbout for a layup, making it 64-47.
In the final minute, Hammond made two foul shots, Ismail did the same and after being fouled on an offensive rebound, Simpson made sure he had one final moment in the limelight, making a pair of free throws to bring the curtain down on Portland’s entertaining 64-53 triumph.
“Coach definitely gave us a pep talk (at halftime),” Pitts-Young said. “We wanted to kick it into gear. We wanted to show how much pride we have. In the first half, coach said we didn’t have a lot of emotion. We’ve been tested a little bit. It’s definitely fun to play in this atmosphere.”
“It’s always fun playing here,” Talbot said. “We came out and played the way we should have played at the beginning. We came in at halftime and regrouped. We realized we were only down six.”
“Cheverus was ready tonight, but then again, you’d expect that out of a rivalry, no matter what the records were,” added Russo. “You’d expect that out of a team like Cheverus and out of a coach like Dan Costigan. We didn’t respond in the first half. We played like we didn’t want to lose. We weren’t assertive. We played into their hands. They had a good gameplan. They reversed the ball against our pressure. At halftime, we talked about not playing to lose.”
Talbot was once again close to unstoppable, scoring a game-high 25 points, adding a game-high 12 rebounds, three assists and two blocked shots.
Pitts-Young proved his mettle with 16 points, four steals, two boards and two assists.
Godbout and Zukowski both had eight points, Alex finished with four, Moss two and Kane one.
“Justin played strong even though he did’t score a lot,” Russo said. “He got great rebounds and stayed strong. How big was Amir Moss off the bench? Danny Kane played big off the bench.”
The Bulldogs enjoyed a 31-23 rebounding advantage, had eight steals, forced 21 turnovers while only committing 14, and sank 16 of 28 free throws.
Cheverus got 10 points apiece from Boudreau and Ismail. Simpson and Stebbins both had seven, while Carney and Sinclair each added six, Hammond had four and Holman three. Holman and Stebbins had a team-high five rebounds.
The Stags finished 13 of 20 from the foul line.
Despite several attempts, Costigan couldn’t be reached for comment.
After missing the playoffs for the first time this century a season ago, Cheverus is back in the middle of the action and has a chance to host a prelim. The Stags (eighth in the Western Class A Heal Points standings) go to Deering Tuesday, then close the regular season Friday at South Portland.
Portland is hoping to hold off Falmouth and Bonny Eagle for the top seed and should be able to do so presuming it handles visiting South Portland Tuesday and visiting Deering Thursday (that game will tip at 4 p.m. at the Expo, due to an open house at Portland High).
“With the experience we have, we’ll be more successful,” said Pitts-Young.
“It’s good to know if we get in tough situations, we can get these victories and head into the tournament on a high note,” Talbot said.
“South Portland’s not going to lay down and Deering’s not going to lay down,” added Russo. “I think we need to win both of our games to get the 1 seed. We still need to get a lot better in our halfcourt offense.”
Portland junior Steve Alex goes up for a dunk early in the game.
Cheverus freshman Austin Boudreau goes up for a shot.
Cheverus senior Brad Carney tries to drive on Portland senior Justin Zukowski.
Portland senior Travis Godbout and Cheverus senior Noah Stebbins fight for possession.
Cheverus senior Manny Ismail looks to pass as Portland sophomore Amir Moss defends.
Portland senior Jayvon Pitts-Young, who sparked the Bulldogs’ second half comeback, reaches for a loose ball.
Cheverus senior Kodiak Simpson earned a rare start on Senior Night and became the Stags’ student section’s favorite player.
Cheverus senior Mike Sinclair goes to the basket.
Cheverus senior Noah Stebbins goes to the basket as Portland senior Matt Talbot defends.
@ Portland 55 Cheverus 46
@ Cheverus 63 Portland 35
Cheverus 58 @ Portland 41
@ Cheverus 59 Portland 44
Cheverus 50 @ Portland 33
@ Cheverus 68 Portland 62
@ Portland 37 Cheverus 31
Western A semifinals
Cheverus 63 Portland 49
Cheverus 65 @ Portland 59
Portland 69 @ Cheverus 63
Western A Final
Portland 62 Cheverus 44
@ Cheverus 60 Portland 53
Cheverus 64 @ Portland 58
Western A semifinals
Portland 55 Cheverus 44
Cheverus 43 @ Portland 41
Cheverus 52 Portland 50 (OT) (@ SMCC)
Western A Final
Portland 68 Cheverus 52
Portland senior standout Matt Talbot goes up for a resounding dunk during the Bulldogs’ 64-53 come-from-behind win at Cheverus Friday night. Talbot led all scorers with 25 points as Portland improved to 16-0.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.
P- 13 9 22 20- 64
C- 9 19 5 20- 53
P- Talbot 8-8-25, Pitts-Young 6-3-16, Godbout 3-0-8, Zukowski 2-4-8, Alex 2-0-4, Moss 1-0-2, Kane 0-1-1
C- Boudreau 4-0-10 Ismail 3-4-10, Simpson 2-3-7, Stebbins 3-0-7, Carney 2-1-6, Sinclair 3-0-6, Hammond 1-2-4, Holman 0-3-3
P (4) Godbout 2, Pitts-Young, Talbot 1
C (4) Boudreau 2, Carney, Stebbins 1
P (31) Talbot 12, Zukowski 6, Kane 5, Godbout 3, Pitts-Young 2, Alex, Esposito, Moss 1
C (23) Holman, Stebbins 5, Carney, Simpson, Sinclair 3, Ismail 2, Boudreau, Hammond 1
P (8) Pitts-Young 4, Moss 2, Godbout, Zukowski 1
C (7) Ismail 3, Barris, Carney, Holman, Simpson 1
P (2) Talbot 2
C (3) Holman, Ismail, Sinclair 1