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PORTLAND—The Portland boys’ basketball team has done it again.
The defending Class A state champion Bulldogs entered the season facing an abundance of questions, but they have answered them all in the affirmative and Saturday evening, they passed one final test in their quest to get back to the state final.
With the dangerous Falmouth Yachtsmen, led by senior sharpshooter Jack Simonds, standing in the way in the Western Class A Final at Cross Insurance Arena, Portland had to dig deep and turn to household names and unproven talent alike to advance.
Less than 24 hours after surviving Deering in an epic semifinal, the top-ranked Bulldogs got off to a sluggish start, but held Simonds to just four points in a first quarter that ended, 8-6, in favor of the third-seeded Yachtsmen, who were coming off an inspirational semifinal round upset of their own over No. 2 South Portland.
Simonds got things going in the second period, tallying 11 points and helping Falmouth open up a seven-point lead, but Portland junior Amir Moss sparked a rally with a putback and a 3-pointer and when senior Steve Alex made a layup at the horn, the Bulldogs had their first lead, 21-20.
The Yachtsmen would get eight more points from Simonds in the third quarter and briefly went back on top, but Portland would go up by six on a 3 from junior Joey Esposito before consecutive 3-pointers from sophomore Colin Coyne and Simonds forged a 30-30 deadlock.
With 3:57 to play in the third, Esposito made a layup and Portland went ahead to stay. The Bulldogs built a 43-39 lead heading the fourth period, where neither team could score for over four minutes.
Portland then put it away, thanks to the heroics of unsung sophomore Charlie Lyall, who made consecutive layups. The Bulldogs made enough free throws down the stretch to prevent Falmouth from getting within hailing distance and went on to a 57-47 victory, as they repeated as regional champions for the first time since World War II.
Alex and Moss both had 14 points and Lyall added 12 as the Bulldogs limited Simonds to 23 (none in the fourth quarter), improved to 19-2, ended the Yachtsmen’s season at 17-4 and advanced to meet Hampden Academy (19-2) for the second year in a row in the Class A state final next Saturday at 7 p.m., at the Augusta Civic Center.
“(Falmouth’s) too talented to play in the halfcourt,” said longtime Portland coach Joe Russo, who won his fifth regional crown. “They can methodically beat you. We had to go 94 feet and in the second half, that’s what we decided to do. We got the ball moving and tired them out. We have more depth. It was hard work and grit. That seems to pay off.”
Portland, which passed a similar test in last year’s Western A Final, neutralizing Bonny Eagle standout Dustin Cole in the second half en route to victory, wasn’t assured of anything this winter, but won its first 15 games before going 16-2 and earning the number one seed. A 57-50 quarterfinal round victory over No. 8 Windham and a down-to-the-wire 59-57 semifinal triumph over fifth-ranked Deering punched the Bulldogs’ ticket to the regional final.
Falmouth, which plays a Western Maine Conference regular season schedule, then moves up for the playoffs, closed the regular season on an 11-game win streak to finish 15-3 and wound up ranked third. After surviving the upset bid of No. 11 Westbrook in Monday’s quarterfinals (48-47, in overtime), the Yachtsmen eliminated No. 2 South Portland Friday in the semifinals (67-57).
Entering Saturday’s contest, the programs had never before met in a countable game.
The first one would feature plenty of plot twists.
It took over two minutes for a point to be scored and not surprisingly, Simonds did the honors, as he banked home a shot. Alex tied the score with a leaner, but after junior Sam Skop saved the ball from going out of bounds, senior Luke Velas hit a jumper. Simonds added a floater, which took a shooter’s bounce, but Lyall came off the bench and scored on a putback and freshman Terion Moss put back a miss with a reverse layup to tie the score. A pair of late free throws from Colin Coyne made it 8-6 Falmouth after one quarter.
A putback from senior Tanner Foley pulled Portland even 54 seconds into the second period, but Simonds heated up with a leaner from the baseline, then he made a jumper for a 12-8 lead, forcing Russo to call timeout.
Out of the timeout, Alex set up Amir Moss for a layup, but Simonds hit another jumper. Alex drove for a layup, but Simonds got a shooter’s roll on a jumper and the next time down, Simonds was fouled while shooting a 3 and made all three free throws for a 19-12 advantage.
The Bulldogs would close the half on a 9-1 run, however, to take their first lead.
Amir Moss sparked the spurt with a putback with his left hand. He hit a 3 the next time down.
“It feels great to have a bigger role than last year,” Moss said. “The kids on the team look up to me. I have to step up and play well. I had a lot of adrenaline. When I hit that first 3, I felt good.”
After junior Matt Wuhlbrecht made a free throw for the Yachtsmen, Alex scored on a putback and as time expired, Alex’s layup gave Portland a 21-20 advantage.
Play and drama picked up in the third quarter.
Alex started with a putback, but Skop took a pass from Colin Coyne and made a layup and Skop had a putback to put Falmouth back on top, 24-23.
With 6:33 remaining, Amir Moss drove for a layup. Senior Liam Densmore then drove coast to coast for a layup and junior Joe Esposito sank a 3 for a 30-24 advantage, which forced Falmouth coach Dave Halligan to call timeout.
The Yachtsmen responded, as both Colin Coyne and Simonds sank 3s to tie the score, 30-30.
A layup from Esposito gave the Bulldogs the lead back with 3:57 remaining in the third.
Alex then set up Lyall for a layup, but Simonds hit a leaner. A floater from Amir Moss was countered by a driving leaner, foul and free throw three-point play by Simonds, but Amir Moss buried another 3 and with 1:46 left in the third, after an Amir Moss steal, Densmore fed Alex for a layup and a 41-35 lead.
Colin Coyne cut the deficit in half, but Alex made another layup. Skop then made a free throw to make it 43-39 after three quarters.
Neither team would score the first 4:27 of the final quarter before Alex set up Lyall for a layup.
After nearly two more scoreless minutes, as Portland was milking the clock, Esposito had a huge save which led to Alex feeding Lyall for a layup and a 47-39 lead.
After Simonds missed a 3, Lyall went to the line and made his first free throw and banked home his second to push the lead to double digits.
“I’ve just been waiting for my moment all season,” said Lyall, who, as a freshman went to the Class C state final with Waynflete before transferring. “My minutes have been increasing. I did what I could. The transition has gone perfectly and that’s because of Coach Russo and the rest of the staff. The team’s been very accepting of me and welcomed me with open arms. For me, it was Steve and the other players being double teamed and I’d be in the right place at the right time.”
“We started to play a little too tentative and not to lose, so I called timeout and said that we had to get to the rim,” Russo said. “Even though Charlie hasn’t played that much this year, if I want layups around the hoop, I put Charlie in. He got the call and boy, did he answer it. We talk with the kids all the time about working hard because you never know when your number will be called.”
After Skop made a layup, Colin Coyne hit a 3 to cut the deficit to 49-44 with 54.1 seconds to play, but Falmouth would draw no closer.
Densmore stretched the lead with two foul shots. After Skop got a point back, Lyall scored his 11th and 12th points at the line and with 25.3 seconds to go, Densmore hit two more free throws to make it 55-45.
A late driving layup from Falmouth junior Thomas Coyne (his only points) were answered by two free throws from junior Ben Griffin and the Bulldogs had a 57-47 victory and their repeat regional title.
“It wasn’t easy,” Amir Moss said. “All year long we’ve worked hard to get back here. We had to stay composed and battle back. We knew our defense would lead us.”
“It’s so stressful,” Russo said. “It’s emotionally draining, but worth every minute. The way the schedule was this year, we had to wait a whole week, then come right back. We graduated five seniors, three all-state players and we brought back 90 percent of the team that was varsity unproven. It’s a credit to the kids. It’s their grit. That’s the word. Grit in capital letters. They worked hard every day and they stuck together. They’re resilient. This one’s special because we did it with the unknown. We just had our annual league banquet and the top 17 players in the league voted by the coaches, we had one player selected. Go figure. Maybe that’s the way to do it.”
Alex bounced back from a rough game versus Deering to post 14 points. He also had 10 rebounds, three assists and a blocked shot.
“It was very important for me to play well tonight,” Alex said. “I was worried about foul trouble, but I was calm and just played the game.”
Amir Moss also scored 14 points and had seven rebounds and two steals.
Lyall had his finest game yet, scoring 12 points, grabbing five rebounds and blocking two shots.
“Charlie works hard in practice and has stepped up big,” Amir Moss said. “He knows what to do when he gets the ball around the basket.”
Densmore finished with six points (and five rebounds), Esposito had five (to go with five rebounds, three assists and a block), while Foley, Griffin and Terion Moss each added two.
Portland enjoyed a 39-22 rebounding advantage, only turned the ball over seven times and made a superb 10 of 12 free throw attempts.
The Bulldogs’ defensive effort on Simonds in the fourth quarter was a huge reason they went on to victory.
“We doubled him sometimes and played really tight on him off the ball,” Alex said.
“He came out really strong,” Amir Moss said. “I think it’s because of his length. Then we put Steve on him. Steve’s just as long as him and Steve shut him down.”
“Jack Simonds is tremendous,” Russo added. “We were just trying to cut his production in half. I didn’t want to put Steve on him and have him get in foul trouble. I thought Joey would wear him down. He’s not as quick, but he’s a hard worker.”
Normally, a 23-point performance in a regional final would steal headlines, but Simonds’ 42-point explosion in the semifinals set the bar at a ridiculous height heading into Saturday where he also grabbed 12 rebounds, blocked two shots and had a steal, en route to being named the George Vinall Award winner as the regional tournament’s most valuable player/sportsman.
“It’s a great honor,” Simonds said. “A lot of great players have gotten it, but I would have rather gotten the win.”
“(Jack’s) a special player and we’re going to miss him,” Halligan said. “I don’t know where we’d be without him. He put us on his shoulders and gave us an opportunity to play here.”
Colin Coyne managed to bounce back after hitting the floor hard in the first half to score 11 points, capping his strong season. Skop had eight points, four rebounds and two blocks, while Thomas Coyne (five assists, two steals) was held to two points.
Just the fact that Coyne was on the floor for the Yachtsmen in the tournament was a huge boost, considering he was rehabbing a broken foot.
“When most players hurt a foot like that, they would have said, ‘I’ll wait until next year,’ but (Thomas is) not like that,” Halligan said. “I’m amazed he came back like that.”
Velas also finished with two points and Wuhlbrecht added one.
Falmouth took remarkable care of the ball, only turning it over three times, and made 9 of 15 free throws, but ultimately fell just short, even though it demonstrated over the weekend that it could go toe-to-toe with established Class A powers.
“They just made more plays than us,” Simonds said. “Shots weren’t falling for us and they were for them. They executed their game plan. We both had emotional games (Friday), so we can’t use that as an excuse. In the fourth quarter, I think we were desperate to score, so we didn’t necessarily run our offense. It’s pretty disappointing, but you can’t win them all. They’re a very good team. I’ll be rooting for them in the state championship.”
“We had a chance at it, but we lost to a good team,” Halligan said. “We’ve had a little success with them in the past (beating them in last year’s holiday tournament), but they’re the defending state champs. It was a four-point game with four minutes to go in the fourth and we ran out of gas. My kids did all they could. I couldn’t have asked for anything more from them. Playing back to back games hurt us a little bit. I was hoping we could get back here this year, but I wasn’t sure.”
The loss of Simonds will be huge and Velas and three others also depart, but count on the Yachtsmen being in the hunt next winter, even if we don’t know yet what class they’ll be assigned to.
“I’m looking forward to next year,” Halligan said. “We have good players coming back. We’ll be competitive.”
Saturday, Portland will seek its ninth championship against a Hampden Academy squad which will be making its sixth state game appearance in 11 years.
Last year, the Broncos came to Portland for the state final as a heavy favorite, even though the Bulldogs were undefeated, and Hampden Academy was staggered early as Portland raced to a 20-5 lead after one quarter and never looked back en route to a 54-40 triumph.
The only time the Bulldogs have won repeat titles was in 1942 and 1943 and that comes with an asterisk, as there was no state game played the latter year due to the war and Portland was declared the champion, even though it didn’t earn it on the court.
This year’s team has a golden opportunity and can’t wait.
“With us, it’s just a sense of brotherhood,” Lyall said. “We’re glued together. We love each other. Coach Russo will take care of us getting ready. We’ll be ready for Hampden.”
“It’s the same feeling as last year,” said Alex. “We have to work hard next week. I’m very confident.”
“I think it’s going to be a great game,” Amir Moss said. “I’m sure it will be a better game than last year. It will be a dogfight. It might come down to the last shot, but we’ll work as hard as we can to get a ‘W.’ I want to win another one badly and I’m pretty sure the whole team wants to win it.”
“It’s interesting it’s us and Hampden again,” added Russo, who is seeking his fourth crown. “It’s remarkable they’ve done it four years in a row. They had to go through some tough teams. The revenge factor will be there. We’ll have our work cut out.”
Portland senior Steve Alex leans in for a shot. Alex had 14 points in the win.
Falmouth sophomore Colin Coyne defends Portland junior Amir Moss.
Portland senior Liam Densmore goes one on one with Falmouth junior Sam Skop.
Portland freshman Terion Moss is defended by Falmouth senior John Shaw.
Falmouth senior standout Jack Simonds floats for a shot on the baseline. Simonds had 23 points and was named the regional tournament’s top player/sportsman.
Falmouth junior Thomas Coyne tries to get around a Portland defender.
Portland freshman Terion Moss floats a shot over a Falmouth defender.
Portland’s student section was as fired up as the players Saturday night.
Falmouth’s fan section did all it could to rally the Yachtsmen.
Portland senior Tanner Foley swings the net in celebration following the Bulldogs’ 57-47 win over Falmouth in Saturday’s Western Class A Final. Portland will meet Hampden Academy in the state game for the second year in a row.
Ben McCanna photos.
More photos below.
F- 8 12 19 8- 47
P- 6 15 22 14- 57
F- Simonds 9-4-23, C. Coyne 3-2-11, Skop 3-2-8, T. Coyne 1-0-2, Velas 1-0-2, Wuhlbrecht 0-1-1
P- Alex 7-0-14, A. Moss 6-0-14, Lyall 4-4-12, Densmore 1-4-6, Esposito 2-0-5, Foley 1-0-2, Griffin 0-2-2, T. Moss 1-0-2
F (4) C. Coyne 3, Simonds 1
P (3) A. Moss 2, Esposito 1