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PORTLAND—After going 1-6 to end the regular season, not many people were taking the Portland girls’ basketball team seriously entering the playoffs.
Perhaps it’s time to give the Bulldogs their due.
Wednesday evening, in a Western Class A preliminary round tilt at crosstown rival Cheverus, ninth-ranked Portland reminded everyone of just how potent it can be when clicking on all cylinders.
The Bulldogs set the tone early, as six points apiece from sophomore Kate Johnson and senior Gabby Wagabaza, a former Stag, built a 14-4 lead.
Cheverus, the No. 8 seed, would respond, however, and after Wagabaza had to sit with her third foul early in the second quarter, the hosts drew even at 14-14. Portland never did relinquish the lead, however, and an 8-2 run to cap the period spelled a 32-24 advantage at halftime.
The Stags, who overcame so much this winter, wouldn’t quit, even after falling behind 10, as a driving layup from senior Laura Holman made it 42-39, but a short jumper from Wagabaza and a long 3 from sophomore Taylor Sargent made it an eight-point game with eight minutes to go.
Down the stretch, Cheverus would get close, then Portland would regain a little breathing room and the game would come down to the final seconds.
Two Wagabaza free throws with 3:03 to go made it 63-54 Bulldogs, but the Stags roared back and when Holman hit a 3 with 15 seconds to play, Portland’s lead was down to 65-63, but senior Elizabeth Donato answered with two free throws and the Bulldogs held on, 67-63.
Wagabaza led all scorers with 24 points, Donato and Johnson had 10 points apiece and Sargent and senior Sydney Fredrick both added nine as Portland improved to 9-10, ended Cheverus’ season at 9-10 and advanced to face top-ranked, four-time defending state champion McAuley (17-1) in the quarterfinals Monday at 8:30 p.m., at the Portland Exposition Building.
“Cheverus gave us a great game,” said Bulldogs first-year coach Jay Lowery. “They played well under pressure, but my girls kept their composure. They were patient. The girls understand now they can play with anybody.”
Cheverus and Portland have both been up and down in 2014-15, but each squad has demonstrated it can be dangerous on a given night.
The Bulldogs began with wins at Massabesic (52-23) and Noble (67-27) and at home over Marshwood (52-48). Portland then fell at Gorham, 51-47, at home to South Portland (65-55) and at home against Thornton Academy (61-26). The Bulldogs bounced back with a 66-60 win at Cheverus, then held off visiting Sanford’s rally, 49-46, before falling at Westbrook, 57-40. After beating host Biddeford (48-29) and Bonny Eagle (56-54), Portland dropped five in a row: 58-39 at Deering, 42-33 at home to Scarborough, 60-30 at McAuley, 64-43 at home to Windham and 63-48 at South Portland. After getting back on track with a 44-34 home win over Biddeford, the Bulldogs closed with a hard-fought 53-47 home loss to Deering and wound up ranked ninth in Western A.
The Stags had a late coaching change, as Steve Huntington replaced Richie Ashley just weeks before the start of the season, but they managed to win their first two games: 63-50 at Windham and 66-48 at home over Bonny Eagle. After falling at home to Thornton Academy (50-28), Cheverus won at Massabesic (66-28), then lost at home to Deering (59-43), to nemesis McAuley (57-46, in a game which saw senior standout Jillian Libby suffer a knee injury), and to Portland (66-60). The Stags got back on track with a 67-32 triumph at Noble, then, despite a strong start, lost to visiting Gorham (66-47). After a 45-33 win at Sanford, Cheverus beat visiting Westbrook at the buzzer, 53-52, then lost at South Portland (61-45). The Stags then won three in a row: 80-45 over visiting Biddeford, 60-51 at Marshwood and 55-41 over visiting Scarborough, in the game which saw Libby return to action. Cheverus then dropped its final three against top competition: 58-25 at Deering, 63-55 at home to South Portland and 55-42 at McAuley, in a game which saw the Stags lead at halftime.
Wednesday, Cheverus and Portland’s first playoff meeting produced a memorable affair.
A baseline jumper from Johnson gave the Bulldogs an early lead, but a putback from Stags sophomore Brooke Dawson forged a 2-2 tie.
Portland got the next six points, as Wagabaza scored her first basket on a putback, Johnson drained a jumper and Donato sank two free throws to make it 8-2.
After Cheverus’ freshman combination of Emme Poulin and Deirdre Sanborn combined for a layup (with Sanborn finishing), Wagabaza scored on a bank shot, Wagabaza took a pass from Johnson on the fastbreak and made a layup and Johnson hit a jumper for a 14-4 advantage.
Huntington called timeout and the Stags responded.
First, Holman hit a pullup jumper. Then, as time expired, Libby knocked down a long 3 to cut Portland’s lead to 14-9.
When Wagabaza was whistled for her third foul just 55 seconds into the second period, the hosts had a golden opportunity and took advantage, as sophomore Brooke McElman got an offensive rebound and set up Holman for a 3 and with 6:08 to go in the half, Holman scored on a putback to make it 14-14.
The Stags weren’t able to grab the lead, however, as Bulldogs freshman Shayla Eubanks sank a jumper and Fredrick took a pass from Donato and made a layup while being fouled and added the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play, making it 19-14.
After Libby hit two foul shots, Donato set up Fredrick for a layup. Poulin made a layup and Sanborn sank a foul shot, but Sargent countered with her first 3. Poulin converted a three-point play, but Donato set up Fredrick for a layup. Dawson drove for a layup, cutting the deficit to two, but Sargent made a long 3, which bounced off the rim and in, and junior Gianna Gaudet converted a three-point play to make it 32-24 Portland at halftime.
Fredrick had seven points, while Jordan, Sargent and Wagabaza all had six in the first half. Holman had seven points and Libby and Poulin each added five for Cheverus.
The contest ebbed and flowed in the third quarter.
After a Fredrick steal, Donato made a layup to start the second half scoring, but Dawson countered with a 3 and a layup to make it 34-29.
A Wagabaza putback and a Wagabaza jumper restored a nine-point lead, but Dawson answered with a 3. Wagabaza made a layup, but Sanborn hit a baseline jumper. After a Fredrick layup after a steal, Holman sank a 3 and with 1:08 left in the third, Holman drove the baseline for a layup, cutting the Bulldogs’ lead to 42-39.
Portland regained momentum, however, as Wagabaza hit a short jumper and at the horn, Sargent buried an NBA-range 3 to put Portland up, 47-39.
“I didn’t expect that go in,” Sargent said. “I just shot it and it did. I was feeling it tonight. I tried to be ready when I got the ball and I let it fly. Once I hit the first one, I knew I could keep it going.”
“Taylor’s 3-pointers were clutch,” Wagabaza said. “That one gave us a boost of confidence going into the fourth.”
“Taylor’s an awesome point guard now and she can shoot it,” Lowery added.
When Wagabaza made two free throws 31 seconds into the fourth period, it looked like the Bulldogs might be on the verge of pulling away, but Cheverus refused to buckle.
Holman countered with a 3, but Johnson made a jumper. Stags junior Anne Veroneau then made a 3 and after being fouled while grabbing an offensive rebound, senior Casey Simpson made two foul shots to pull the hosts within four, 51-47.
Donato countered with a driving layup, Wagabaza scored on a putback and with 5:14 to play, Johnson made a short bank shot after a steal to push the lead back to 10, 57-47.
After Holman made a leaner, Donato fed Wagabaza for a layup, but Poulin sank a 3 and Sanborn hit a jumper to make it 59-54 with 3:47 remaining.
Wagabaza answered with two free throws and the next time down, she sank two more.
Undaunted, Cheverus got a third-effort putback from Libby, another third-effort putback from Libby and with 1:17 to go, a layup from Poulin after a Simpson steal, making it a one-possession game, 63-60.
Seventeen seconds later, Wagabaza fouled out and the Stags had a golden opportunity to steal a victory, but Cheverus turned the ball over.
The hosts got another chance when Johnson missed the front end of a one-and-one. Holman was fouled on the rebound, but she also missed the front end of a one-and-one.
With 21.8 seconds left, Donato went to the line and she was true on both of her shots, pushing the lead to 65-60.
At the other end, with 15.2 seconds showing, Holman pulled up and drained a 3, but out of a timeout, the ball came to Donato, who dribbled more than seven seconds off the clock before being fouled.
With 7.8 seconds to go, Donato faced two more critical free throws, but again she wouldn’t be denied, sinking them both.
“I just blocked everything out,” Donato said. “It isn’t easy, but in practice, I work on staying focused. That’s what I remembered. I just made shots.”
“She hits them in practice so I had complete faith in her,” said Wagabaza.
That proved to be the final straw and Portland held on, 67-63.
“It means a lot,” Donato said. “As a senior, it’s a big win for me and for us. We’ve had to fight through a lot this year. “
“It was great to finish a game here with a win,” Wagabaza said. “It feels extra special. It was an important game. It could have been our last game. I knew I had to play for my team. I knew if we pulled it together, we could come out with a win.”
“It was very nervewracking,” Sargent said. “I knew we had to be smart with the ball, push it up the floor and let them foul us.”
“We showed we can shoot and rebound,” Lowery added. “It’s taken all season for the girls to comply with the program. Tonight, we went inside-out. Other coaches will have to understand that we can shoot. We wanted to spread the floor. You can see the development of the players.”
Wagabaza led Portland with 24 points. She also had 12 rebounds, two blocks and a steal before fouling out.
“The fouls made me a little tentative,” Wagabaza said. “I had to keep my hands to myself. It was really emotional after I fouled out. It was in everyone else’s hands. I could only watch. It was rough. I knew my whole basketball career could be over.”
“Gabby goes out there and we ask a lot of her,” Lowery said. “She has to play a lot of minutes.”
Donato had 10 points, but more importantly, she finished with 10 assists, three steals and a block.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the team,” Donato said. “We all do the work. It wasn’t my job to score today. It was my job to get the ball to my teammates to score.”
“Elizabeth is dangerous in the open court,” Lowery said. “We wanted her going to the basket. She makes good decisions on the court. She understands what we’re trying to do. She’s a true captain. I can’t say enough about her. She’s just a wonderful kid.”
Johnson had 10 points.
“Kate Johnson played well tonight,” Lowery said. “She’s been struggling. She had a sprained ankle. She’s coming back around. Her shots were going down tonight.”
Fredrick added nine points (to go with a game-high 13 rebounds, five assists and two steals), Sargent had nine, Gaudet three and Eubanks two.
Portland overcame 27 turnovers by making a clutch 14 of 17 free throws.
Cheverus got 20 points (seven rebounds and three steals) from Holman in her swan song.
“Laura’s very versatile,” Huntington said. “She can play any position on the floor, 1 through 5. She’s shot the ball well. She’s a heck of a rebounder. She does a little of everything. She’s a very good player.”
Dawson finished with 12 points (six rebounds, two steals, a block and an assist) and Poulin was also in double figures with 10 points (she also had four assists).
Libby bowed out with nine points, nine boards, two steals, an assist and a blocked shot.
“(Jill) showed flashes tonight of what she can do off the dribble,” Huntington said. “Her timing was there. She came back from what I thought was a season-ending injury.”
Sanborn added seven points, Veroneau finished with three (to go with four boards and two steals) and Simpson had two (to go with three rebounds and three steals).
“Casey didn’t get a lot of minutes,” Huntington said. “She was away on a trip and was ill, but for her to come out and give everything she has on a night like this, she was scrappy and helped us out.”
McElman didn’t score, but had four rebounds and three blocks.
Cheverus had a slight 36-35 rebounding advantage, turned the ball over 15 times and made 6 of 8 foul shots.
Considering where this program was in the fall, getting back to the playoffs and setting a solid foundation for future success is worth hailing.
“It was a tough loss, but the girls were resilient,” Huntington said. “They never gave up. After everything they’ve been through, they’ve had a lot of chances to cash it in, but they battle back off the court and they battle back on the court. We kept cutting (the deficit). We played the pace we wanted and got good looks, but Gabby was way too much. Laura did everything she could. They have a good mix. Donato and Sargent and the rest of them can put the ball on the floor and create pressure. They were too much inside.
“This was a good experience. I feel like we accomplished a lot even though I didn’t have the summer with them. We didn’t have all the offenses and defenses put in. They had to learn my style and I had to learn their personalities. We didn’t have the time together we needed and the snow cancelled practice. It was an uphill battle all year, but I’m excited about next year. We played one junior, three sophomores and six freshmen. They logged a lot of minutes. Things are looking up.”
Now the Bulldogs have the daunting task of trying to be the first team to beat McAuley in the tournament since Deering pulled the trick in the 2010 semifinals.
Monday, Portland will face McAuley for the second straight postseason (the Lions won, 70-38, in last year’s semifinals). All-time, McAuley has won five of seven meetings.
The Bulldogs will enter the game thinking, “Why not us?”
“Defense is the biggest factor Monday,” said Donato, who had to leave last year’s game after suffering a scary injury.
“Last year, I don’t think we were as prepared, but this year I know we can do it,” Sargent said. “We have confidence.”
“This is a confidence booster,” Wagabaza said. “Last year, we had a more successful regular season, but we’re a completely different team. We lost 10 girls and we have a new coach. We know when we get it going, we can do anything that we want to. I feel like we’re in the perfect position. We have to get out of our own heads and give them our best play. If we give them our best play, we can do anything. We want to play with them and make them feel some pressure.”
“I think even though we got blown out by McAuley the first time, I think they’re beatable,” Lowery added. “Deering almost beat McAuley twice. Cheverus almost beat them. Gorham almost beat them. It’s wide open. We have to come up with a different approach after getting blown out the first time. We won’t walk into the gym like we have nothing to lose. Instead, we have everything to gain.”
Portland senior Elizabeth Donato drives to the basket. Donato had 10 points and 10 assists.
Portland junior Gianna Gaudet goes up for a shot.
Cheverus senior Laura Holman drives on Portland senior Elizabeth Donato.
Portland sophomore Kate Johnson and Cheverus freshman Emma Poulin battle for possession.
Portland junior Merritt Ryan looks to shoot.
Cheverus freshman Deirdre Sanborn pulls up on the fastbreak.
Portland sophomore Taylor Sargent, who hit three huge 3-pointers Wednesday, looks to drive on Cheverus sophomore Brooke Dawson.
Portland senior Elizabeth Donato directs traffic.
Cheverus senior Casey Simpson looks to pass.
Portland senior Gabby Wagabaza tries to keep the ball from going out of bounds.
Cheverus’ fan section tries to put a hex on a Portland foul shooter late in the game.
Portland coach Jay Lowery, his assistants and the Bulldogs’ bench players erupt with joy during the final seconds of Wednesday’s 67-63 Western A preliminary round victory at Cheverus. Portland advanced to meet top-ranked McAuley in Monday’s quarterfinals.
Ben McCanna photos.
More photos below.
P- 14 18 15 20- 67
C- 9 15 15 24- 63
P- Wagabaza 9-6-24, Johnson 5-0-10, Donato 2-6-10, Fredrick 4-1-9, Sargent 3-0-9, Gaudet 1-1-3, Eubanks 1-0-2
C- Holman 8-0-20, Dawson 5-0-12, Poulin 4-1-10, Libby 3-2-9, Sanborn 3-1-7, Veroneau 1-0-3, Simpson 0-2-2
P (3) Sargent 3
C (9) Holman 4, Dawson 2, Libby, Poulin, Veroneau 1