PORTLAND—For the past nine days, the Portland boys’ basketball team has known the highest of highs and some pretty disappointing lows as well, going from being upset at home by Thornton Academy, to winning at Cheverus on a buzzer beater, to getting shocked at Westbrook.
Friday evening at top-ranked Deering, the Bulldogs bounced back from Tuesday’s surprising loss to the Blue Blazes with a gritty 32-minute effort and left their fierce rival’s homecourt full of joy.
In a typical slugfest between the rivals, Portland came out strong, fended off a Rams’ second period run and with the game on the line in the waning moments, rode the heroics of senior Mike Herrick to victory.
With the game tied, 32-32 and just over three minutes left in regulation, Herrick drained a clutch 3-pointer. With 1:06 to play, Herrick made two free throws and even though Deering had its chances in the final minute, the Bulldogs held on for the 39-35 triumph, improving to 10-4 while dropping the Rams to 12-2.
Portland extended its all-time advantage in the series to 134-77.
“If you guys can figure out the Bulldogs, let me know,” longtime Portland coach Joe Russo said to a group of reporters after the win. “You’ll be doing a better job than I’m doing. We’ve been on a rollercoaster ride, depending on what team shows up. I’m hoping as the season winds down, the right team keeps shows up.”
Deering and Portland have already registered some big wins this season and Friday’s showdown was highly anticipated.
The Rams, who lost to Bonny Eagle in last year’s semifinals, have set the pace in Western A this winner. Deering won its first nine contests, downing host Thornton Academy (62-41), visiting Marshwood (67-64) and Massabesic (82-31), host Noble (78-36), visiting Sanford (63-31), host Bonny Eagle (57-55, in overtime), visiting Kennebunk (73-25), host South Portland (40-29) and visiting Biddeford (61-48). After a 49-40 loss at Cheverus, the Rams bounced back to win at Scarborough (55-44), at home over Westbrook (48-41) and at Windham (41-28).
Portland has been up and down in 2011-12. The Bulldogs, who suffered a 45-41 loss to Cheverus in the semifinals a year ago, captured their opener, 52-43, over visiting Sanford, but lost at Marshwood (65-62) and at home to Cheverus (49-41). Portland then rattled off seven straight, beating Bonny Eagle (66-47), Scarborough (63-60, in OT), Gorham (46-36), Biddeford (61-52), Windham (73-38), Kennebunk (59-20) and South Portland (61-57). After an upset home loss to Thornton Academy, 63-61, the Bulldogs went to Cheverus Monday and eked out a palpitating 40-39 win when junior Nick Volger made a layup with 2.1 seconds remaining. Portland wasn’t able to build on that momentum, however. getting upset at Westbrook Tuesday (42-38).
Deering and Portland have squared off on the hardwood for over a century. Since the 2003-04 season, Portland has taken 13 of 19 meetings. Last winter, both teams won at home. The Rams prevailed, 65-42, while the Bulldogs triumphed, 52-39.
Friday, Portland got its first win on Deering’s floor since the 2008-09 season, but it didn’t come easily.
Off the opening tip, Rams senior Patrick Green passed to classmate Jon Amabile for what appeared to be a tone-setting easy layup, but in a sign that it wasn’t going to be Deering’s night, Amabile’s attempt missed.
Bulldogs senior Peter Donato broke the ice with a putback 36 seconds in. After Amabile made one of two foul shot attempts, Portland junior Nate Smart scored on a driving layup and Donato hit a jumper for a quick 6-1 advantage.
“There might have been some nerves early,” said Deering coach Dan LeGage.”They play tough defense. It’s a city rivalry. Because both teams play well defensively, I didn’t think it would be a game in the 70s.”
Rams junior Thiwat Thiwat scored on a leaner over Smart at the other end, but an athletic one-handed putback from sophomore Jayvon Pitts-Young pushed the Bulldogs’ lead back to five.
After Amabile and Donato traded free throws, Thiwat made a jumper and Deering was down just three, 9-6, after one quarter.
The Rams would seemingly take control in the second period, but Portland answered before the half.
After Donato made a free throw to open the scoring in the stanza, Thiwat made a foul shot, senior Cal London made a layup and with 6:04 to go before halftime, sophomore Chhorda Chhorn sank a 3 to give the hosts their first lead.
Sophomore Justin Zukowski made a free throw for the Bulldogs, but after being fouled on a 3, London, who saw ample time on the night thanks in large part to junior Labson Abwoch’s foul trouble, sank all three attempts. When Amabile made a layup after a steal with 3:21 to go, Deering had its biggest lead, 17-11.
Portland closed the half on a high note, however, getting a layup from Herrick and a 3 from Herrick to make it a 17-16 game at the break.
The Rams could have had a bigger advantage, but made just 6-of-13 free throw attempts in the first 16 minutes.
The game remained tight throughout the second half.
Deering pushed the lead back to five when London fed Amabile for a layup and after a Thiwat steal, Amabile was fouled and hit two free throws. The lead didn’t last as Donato scored on a putback and senior Zach Lane tied the game at 21-21 with a 3-ball.
When Zukowski buried a 3 with 3:48 to go in the third, the Bulldogs reclaimed the lead, 24-21.
That didn’t last either as Amabile made a foul shot and Thiwat scored on a driving back shot. A contested jumper from Herrick put Portland back on top, but an Abwoch free throw and an old-fashioned three-point play from Amabile (layup, foul and free throw) gave the Rams a 28-26 lead.
The Bulldogs again drew even as Pitts-Young hit a leaner off the glass, but a foul shot from senior Garang Ater gave the hosts a slim 29-28 advantage heading for the fourth quarter.
There, Portland saved its best for last and did enough to prevail.
With 6:46 left in regulation, Pitts-Young scored on a layup after a nice baseline drive. An Abwoch foul shot tied the score and with 5:23 to go, Thiwat scored on a putback to give Deering its final lead, 32-30.
Fifteen seconds later, Smart missed, but promising sophomore Matt Talbot was there for the tip, tying the score for the fifth and final time.
After nearly two scoreless minutes, Herrick rose to the occasion, taking a pass from Pitts-Young before nailing a 3 to put the Bulldogs ahead to stay, 35-32.
“That’s a set play for a 3-point shot,” Herrick said. “I knew I had it before it left my hands.”
“The Herrick 3-pointer was the turning point for them,” said LeGage. “He broke free after they were stalling. He hit a great shot on the perimeter.”
After Amabile missed a 3-point attempt to tie the score at the other end, Pitts-Young got the rebound, but Portland turned the ball over. Thiwat then had a leaner that went in-and-out, but junior Dominic Lauture got the rebound to keep possession alive. Deering couldn’t capitalize and turned the ball over. The next time down, Amabile missed a 3 and Herrick got the rebound. The ball came to Zukowski, who hit Herrick for a layup with 1:06 remaining. Herrick was fouled on the play, but couldn’t hit the free throw, keeping the score, 37-32.
After Thiwat missed a 3, the Rams kept possession on a held ball and with 47.1 seconds showing, Amabile was true on a 3, cutting the deficit to 37-35.
The Bulldogs got the ball in to Zukowski, who was pinned in the corner by a pair of defenders for several seconds. Portland finally got the ball across the midcourt stripe (seemingly after 10 seconds had elapsed, which should have been a turnover).
“It looked like it was more than 10 (seconds),” LeGage said. “Referees are human too. It was a big moment, but there was much more than that (that led to the loss).”
Zukowski fed Pitts-Young, who missed a layup. Donato was there for the rebound, however, and was fouled, but missed the front end of a one-and-one.
London grabbed the rebound and was fouled, earning him a trip to the line with a chance to tie the score. It wasn’t to be, as London missed the front end of a one-and-one. Donato rebounded and with 20 seconds left, Volger was fouled hard by Lauture, an intentional foul, as it turned out and even though Volger missed both free throws, the Bulldogs kept possession.
After running the clock down to 10.2 seconds, Zukowski went to the stripe, but also missed the front end of a one-and-one. Amabile rebounded and Deering had a chance to steal the win.
After Amabile raced into the front court, he was fouled from behind by Herrick and went to the line with an opportunity to tie it.
“(Herrick) said the ball was right in front of him and he tried to grab it,” Russo said. “He said it was too tempting.”
It didn’t matter as Amabile missed the front end of his one-and-one and Zukowski grabbed the rebound. He ran the clock down to 1.6 seconds before being fouled and this time, Zukowski hit both free throw attempts to slam the door and give Portland the narrow 39-35 triumph.
“We made sure (Deering’s) still our little brother,” said Herrick. “We talked at halftime about how many points they had and how good defense we were playing, but that we needed to pick it up on offense and not give in to their big men and get it into the interior. We were confident down the stretch. We just don’t know how to blow teams out.”
“It means a lot,” said Pitts-Young. “I’m not sure where this puts us, but we worked hard and finished hard. It was more special beating Deering. I’m so excited. It’s different than just beating anyone. I think we wanted it a lot more. Coach just gave us the key and we just had to pull together.”
Herrick, who didn’t start the game, led Portland with 12 points and eight rebounds as he continues to round back into form while battling a ankle bone chip injury from football.
“The ankle feels a lot better,” Herrick said. “I couldn’t run as fast or jump as high. I hope I’m back to last year’s form.”
“(Mike) has no strength in his left ankle,” Russo said. “The doctor said there’s not much he can do except rest. He’s not the defensive guy he was last year and doesn’t get to the rim, but he got to the rim tonight. He’s tripled his assists from last year. He knows he can’t move, so he leads the team in assists.”
“Herrick hit big shots,” said LeGage. “Twelve points in a game like this is a lot.”
Donato had eight points (and seven boards), Pitts-Young (who had three steals) and Zukowski six each, Lane three and Smart and Talbot (three blocks) two apeice.
“We played with a lot of heart tonight in the second half,” Russo said. “We were unassertive on the offensive end in the first half. A couple plays by Mike Herrick got us going. He was sick yesterday. I was trying to preserve him through the game and have him at the end. I thought Mike and Nate Smart did a nice job rotating on Thiwat. Peter and Matt Talbot did a nice job on Abwoch. The plan was to use four guys. They’re strong rebounders. Nick Volger did a great job on Amabile. He’s crafty and makes big shots. We have to use Jayvon for energy and to get the game moving north and south.
“It was a stalemate in the first half, but the teams loosened up in the second half. We know each other so well. We play all the time and we’ll play again in a week. They’re the most consistent team in the league.”
The Bulldogs made four 3-pointers to the Rams’ two, were even on the glass (30-30), committed 15 turnovers and made just 5-of-12 foul shots, but somehow prevailed, making the Westbrook disappointment a distant memory.
“It’s a combination of the league where anyone can beat anybody on a given night and we’ve been unlucky with two back-to-back games,” said Russo. “If we didn’t have Westbrook the day after Cheverus, when we were still enjoying that game, it might have been different. We didn’t come out flat. We just didn’t shoot well. The foul shooting, we know we have to work on that. The good thing is we got to the line tonight. Some days the rollercoaster goes up. Other days, it goes down. It’s kids. They’re not doing it on purpose to drive me crazy. It’s not a bad ride.”
For Deering, Amabile, despite a frustrating night, led all scorers with 15 points (and grabbed five rebounds). Thiwat added nine (four boards and three steals as well), London five (along with a game-high nine rebounds and a pair of blocked shots), Chorn three, Abwoch two (along with six boards) and Ater one. Green didn’t score, but had three steals.
“Abwoch missed a lot of time,” LeGage said. “When he got in foul trouble, he got off-key mentally. He didn’t have his typical game tonight. It’s a learning experience for him.”
The Rams had 10 steals to four for Portland and only gave the ball away 11 times, but were doomed by 13 misses in 26 free throw attempts.
“I’m not going to disrespect their team by saying it was just free throws,” LeGage said. “Shooting poorly from the free throw line doesn’t help. We’re two very similar teams in terms of personnel. They’re a good team. Joe does a great job. We had our chances. What’s disappointing is that we had an opportunity at the end to win. We had multiple chances. I was proud of the guys that we didn’t quit. We can build on that. We’ll play them again and have tough games ahead of us. We’ll get back to work and keeping working.”
The teams are now tied for first place in the Western Class A Heal Points standings, in a year where parity is more prevalent than ever.
Deering hosts South Portland Tuesday, visits Gorham Friday, then welcomes Cheverus Feb. 7 and finishes at Portland Feb. 10.
“The whole season’s a learning curve,” said LeGage. “You hope every little bit along the way you learn something. I thought defensively we were pretty good tonight. Offensively we weren’t smooth. When you get to the tournament, you only have to beat these guys once. You only have to win three in a row. We’ll work on this tomorrow and try to get better. If the woe is me starts now, we’re in trouble. If you have the attitude the sky’s falling, you won’t go anywhere in the playoffs. Our attitude is to keep getting better. I think any night it all depends on who plays well and comes to play and makes shots.
“I think it’s good to end (with games) like this. If you go into the tournament winning by 40, 50, 60 points, you have a false sense of how great you are. If you play tough teams you know will be there in the end, that really gets you prepared and exposes what you need to fine tune.”
Portland is also back in action Tuesday when it hosts Noble. After a trip to Massabesic next Friday, the Bulldogs close the regular season with home games versus South Portland and Deering.
Portland seemingly always peaks in February, which means this team could be championship-caliber if it continues to evolve.
“We have to limit turnovers, box out and make sure we get key rebounds,” Herrick said. “Most importantly, we need to hit foul shots. That would really help us.”
“I think we have a good chance of going far in the tournament,” Pitts-Young said. “It all depends on how we play. We still don’t come out hard all the time. We have to work hard all the time. Halftime makes us lazy. We need to execute more.”
“We have the makings of a team that can do interesting things,” Russo added. “We don’t have a superstar, but we have a collective group that works together and understands their talents. We have depth. I’m hoping the depth can carry us.”
Deering senior Jon Amabile drives on Portland junior Nick Volger.
Deering junior Labson Abwoch, who was hounded by foul trouble most of the night, goes up for a shot.
Deering senior Jon Amabile goes in amid a sea of Portland hands as he looks to finish a drive.
Deering junior Labson Abwoch goes up for a shot while Portland senior Mike Herrick (32) and sophomore Justin Zukowski look on.
Portland senior Mike Herrick elevates to get a shot off over Deering senior Cal London. Herrick had five clutch points down the stretch to help the Bulldogs to a 37-32 win at the rival Rams Friday night.
More photos below.
P- 9 7 12 11- 39
D- 6 11 12 6- 35
P- Herrick 5-0-12, Donato 3-2-8, Pitts-Young 3-0-6, Zukowski 1-3-6, Lane 1-0-3, Smart 1-0-2, Talbot 1-0-2
D- Amabile 4-6-15, Thiwat 4-1-9, London 1-3-5, Chorn 1-0-3, Abwoch 0-2-2, Ater 0-1-1
P (4) Herrick 2, Lane, Zukowski 1
D (2) Amabile, Chorn
P (30) Herrick 8, Donato 7, Pitts-Young 4, Talbot, Zukowski 3, Smart, Volger 2, Angelo 1
D (30) London 9, Abwoch 6, Amabile 5, Thiwat 4, Chorn, Green 2, Ater, Lauture 1
P (4) Pitts-Young 3, Volger 1
D (10) Green, Thiwat 3, Amabile 2, Abwoch, London 1
P (4) Talbot 3, Donato 1
D (3) London 2, Thiwat 1
@ Deering 65 Portland 42
@ Portland 52 Deering 39
@ 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