PORTLAND—Everyone thought it was going to be easy.
Everyone, that is, but the teams involved.
And they were spot-on.
Wednesday evening, the top-ranked, undefeated Portland boys’ basketball team met rival Deering, seeded fourth, in a Western Class A semifinal round contest at the Cumberland County Civic Center and after pounding the Rams in both regular season meetings, the Bulldogs were prohibitive favorites.
But as the cliche goes, that’s why they play the game.
Deering has been through the emotional wringer this year and wasn’t about to go down without a fight, something Portland learned quickly.
The Bulldogs raced to a 10-2 lead behind strong play from senior Jayvon Pitts-Young, but the Rams rallied and trailed just 12-8 after one period.
The second quarter was even better for Deering, which erased a seven-point deficit and tied it on a bank shot from senior Ahmed Ali to make the score a surprising 19-19 at halftime.
Portland looked as if it finally had the game in the bag when it opened the second half on an 11-0 run and took a 41-27 lead to the fourth quarter, but the Rams again refused to give in and twice pulled within six points, 48-42 and 50-44, thanks in large part to the dominance of sophomore Benedict Williams.
Then, Bulldogs senior Justin Zukowski ensured his team would live to see another day, scoring on a driving layup and down the stretch, hitting all eight of his free throw attempts as Portland gradually pulled away to prevail by the misleading final score of 64-49.
The Bulldogs got a game-high 20 points from Zukowski and 15 from Pitts-Young as they improved to 20-0, ended Deering’s campaign at 13-7 and most importantly, advanced to set up a delicious regional final showdown against No. 3 Bonny Eagle Saturday at 9 p.m., back at the Civic Center.
“That was an ugly win, but you’ll always take an ugly win over a beautiful loss,” said longtime Portland coach Joe Russo. “We played ugly for a reason and Deering was the reason. They came out and had a good game plan. They mixed up their defenses. We lost our patience. We lost our focus in playing as a team. Any time you get a close game, the top seed feels it differently emotionally. You have everything to lose.”
Portland couldn’t get past the semifinal round last year, losing to South Portland, but this winter, there’s no obstacle the Bulldogs haven’t been able to hurdle. After an 18-0 regular season, Portland pulled away from No. 8 Noble in Friday’s quarterfinals, 81-52.
Deering’s road to the Civic Center wasn’t as smooth. After a 12-6 regular season, the Rams were down by seven with two minutes left in regulation against No. 12 Marshwood in their quarterfinal, but they dug deep, rallied and prevailed in overtime, 60-53.
The teams had split four prior playoff meetings, with a 48-41 Bulldogs’ victory in the 2008 quarterfinals serving as the most recent.
Wednesday, the Rams impressed with their heart and tenacity, but ultimately the Bulldogs had too much depth and talent.
Portland got off to a quick start when Pitts-Young made two free throws and off an inbounds set, Zukowski set up senior Matt Talbot for a jumper.
Deering’s first points came on a driving layup from junior Liam Densmore, but Bulldogs junior Steve Alex scored on a leaner, Alex stole the ball and set up Zukowski for a layup and Pitts-Young made a layup after a steal for a 10-2 advantage.
“I was really excited,” said Pitts-Young. “I didn’t want to let it slip through our hands again. I wanted to win for myself, my team and the city of Portland.”
In the first two meetings, Deering buckled quickly when faced with an early deficit, but this time, the Rams responded.
After Talbot got his second foul, the Rams awakened and got a 3 from Densmore, a leaner from senior Ahmed Ismail Ahmed and a free throw from junior Stephan Ochan, but a putback from Pitts-Young made the score 12-8 Bullodgs after one.
The Rams refused to go away in the second.
After Pitts-Young stretched the lead to seven with a free throw and fastbreak layup (from Alex), Deering senior Patrick Lobor (from Densmore) made a layup, but Bulldogs sophomore Amir Moss made a layup after a steal for a 17-10 advantage.
Ali canned a 3, but Talbot tipped home a miss.
Deering then closed the half on a 6-0 run, as Ali set up Lobor for a backdoor layup, Lobor drove for a layup and Ali banked home a shot to tie the game, 19-19, at halftime.
The Rams had overcome 10 turnovers in large part because they controlled the tempo.
Portland took control of the game in the third quarter.
It took almost three minutes for anyone to score, but the Rams couldn’t take advantage and the Bulldogs went ahead for good with 5:10 left on a layup from Zukowski (set up by a nice pass from Alex).
Talbot added two foul shots, Zukowski did the same and with 4:08 left, after a Pitts-Young steal, Alex made a layup to make it 27-19, which forced Deering coach Todd Wing to call timeout.
Seconds later, Lobor got his fourth foul and with 3:13 remaining, Zukowski took a pass from Moss and drained a 3 to push the lead to double digits.
“We really weren’t worried (at halftime),” Pitts-Young said. “We were kind of disappointed in how we were playing, but we bounced back. Our team just has so many weapons. We came out with more heart. We let our egos get ahead of us in the second quarter, but we put them aside and worked our butts off.”
With 2:57 left, an Ahmed 3 ended Portland’s 11-0 run and a 5 minute, 55 second scoring drought, but it was only a momentary reprieve, as Moss scored on a putback while being fouled and added the free throw for the old-fashioned three-point play. Talbot added two free throws, Pitts-Young hit two and Alex drove for a layup and just like that, the Bulldogs were up by 17, 39-22.
“Joe came out with a trapping zone and that disrupted us,” said Wing. “That was kind of the decisive factor.”
A layup from junior Jacob Coon and a free throw from Williams was answered by two Pitts-Young free throws and Portland took a 41-27 lead to the final stanza.
Williams started the fourth with a leaner, but Pitts-Young made two free throws. Williams then made a layup, but Talbot, in ridiculously athletic fashion, reverse tipped home a miss to make it 45-31.
Still, the Rams wouldn’t quit, as Williams converted a three-point play, Williams set up Ali for a layup and Williams made a free throw to make it an eight-point game, 45-37, with 5:25 to play.
Zukowski made a foul shot, but Williams scored on a leaner. After Alex made two free throws, Williams converted another three-point play and with 4:02 to go, Deering was within six, 48-42.
Alex pushed the lead to eight with a pair of foul shots, but Chhorn set up Ali for a layup. Zukowski countered with a driving layup, but Chhorn made a free throw.
Zukowski then drove the lane again and fed Moss for a layup. After Ahmed made a layup for the Rams, Zukowski was fouled and hit both attempts for a 56-47 advantage with 2:11 left.
With 1:30 to play, Zukowski made two more free throws and that pretty much iced it.
“We work on free throws every day during lunch,” said Zukowski, who added he eats during class. “I have to give (Coach Russo) credit for that.”
Chhorn hit a long jumper with 1:07 to go, but Bulldogs senior Dan Kane made a free throw and in the final minute, Zukowski went 4-for-4 from the line and Kane added one more foul shot to account for the 64-49 final score.
“I wasn’t surprised how well (Deering) played,” said Pitts-Young. “I was ready. Kudos to them, they had a great season and worked hard. They played well and worked hard against us, but we came out on top.”
“In the second half, we came out with great composure,” Russo said. “I liked the energy off the bench. At the beginning, we were worried about fouls. We weren’t overconfident. They had a good record and they were here for a reason. I didn’t expect it to be a blowout even though I thought we’d have a comfortable lead. It looked too easy on paper and anytime that happens, you get concerned.”
Zukowski simply wouldn’t let his team go home, leading the way with 20 points. He also had four rebounds, two steals and an assist.
“Zukowski was very consistent and had some big plays when we needed it,” Russo said. “He’s been around long enough. He had a refuse to lose attitude.”
Pitts-Young added 15 points, to go with seven boards, four steals, two assists and a blocked shot.
“Jayvon’s energy was relentless and that kept us in the game,” said Russo. “He plays a lot bigger than he is.”
Alex (three assists, three rebounds, two steals) and Talbot (10 boards, two steals and a block) both had 10 points, Moss added seven and Kane finished with two.
Portland enjoyed a 32-18 rebounding advantage, only turned the ball over a dozen times, while forcing 22 giveaways, and shot a tremendous 31 of 39 from the free throw line, which was ultimately the difference.
“It was an ugly win, but my teammates played really well,” said Zukowski. “Matt didn’t score a lot, because he was getting faceguarded, and that opened it up for the rest of us. Jayvon really gave us energy in the first half when we needed it. I was kind of surprised at halftime, but not really, because of the rivalry. They know us and we know them. It will always be a battle. Once they started to press us, we started pushing the ball and that opened lanes.”
Deering’s strong effort was paced by 16 points from super soph Williams.
Ali bowed out with nine points, five rebounds and a steal. Ahmed’s final game produced seven points. Lobor added six points, Densmore had five, Chhorn three, Coon two and Ochan one.
The Rams made 6 of 11 free throws.
“I’m thrilled with the effort,” Wing said. “The guys believed. Nobody thought we could do it, but our goal was to control the tempo, be deliberate in our possessions and have a chance to win it in the fourth quarter and I think we did that. Guys produced. Once again, we threw a lot of defenses at them. I thought we stumped them in the second quarter with a triangle-and-two. In the fourth quarter, we went to our bread and butter, our pressure defense, but it just came up short. The obvious tale of the tape was the free throw line. It’s hard to win a game when the free throws are 39 to 11. I thought going zone, we’d stay out of foul trouble.
“The guys bought into what I was selling them after a coaching change, they worked hard and they got it right. We went up against possibly the eventual state champions and took our swings. I thanked the seniors in the locker room and sent a message to our returning players to let this hurt a little bit and then next season starts tomorrow. We have a fantastic group of young players. I believe we’ll be back here. It’s exciting looking forward.”
Portland is now two wins from its ultimate goal, but getting past the regional final will not be easy.
Bonny Eagle (19-1) has lost in the regional final three years running (to Cheverus, Deering and South Portland) and knows this might be its last, best chance for awhile to win a Gold Ball. The Scots handled No. 6 Sanford in the quarterfinals (66-49), before getting past No. 2 Falmouth in their down-to-the-wire semifinal (62-61).
Back on Jan. 14, Portland held off Bonny Eagle, 69-60, in front of a huge crowd at St. Joseph’s College. The teams last met in the tournament in the 2009 preliminary round, a 56-38 Bulldogs’ victory. The teams also met in the 1998 semifinals (65-50 Portland), 1999 semifinals (60-44 Bulldogs) and the 2007 semifinals (52-47 Portland).
Bonny Eagle, paced by senior standout and (like Pitts-Young and Zukowski) Mr. Maine Basketball semifinalist Dustin Cole, doesn’t want to lose in the regional final for the fourth year in a row, while Portland believes it still has two wins left in its campaign.
“We know their personnel and we know what they’ll do,” said Zukowski. “Coach will make a game plan and hopefully we’ll come out and play well. It should be fun.”
“We know how they’ll play Saturday and we’re looking forward to it,” Pitts-Young said. “Dustin’s done a great job all year. I think we’re ready. We just have to go out there really hungry and go out there and want it.”
“(Bonny Eagle’s) playing well,” Russo added. “They deserve a lot of credit to get back to this point. We’re going to face an emotionally charged team. We have to come out and play well.”
Deering senior Ahmed Ismail Ahmed goes hard to the basket.
Portland junior Steve Alex goes to the hoop over Deering senior Patrick Lobor as Rams senior Chhorda Chhorn looks on.
Deering senior Chhorda Chhorn holds the ball as Portland junior Steve Alex defends.
Deering junior Liam Densmore snares the ball while watched by Portland senior Justin Zukowski.
Deering senior Patrick Lobor shoots over Portland senior Matt Talbot.
Deering junior Stephan Ochan handles the ball.
Portland senior Jayvon Pitts-Young who was huge early, goes to the hoop for two points.
Deering sophomore Benedict Williams runs into a brick wall known as Portland senior Matt Talbot.
Portland senior Justin Zukowski shoots over Deering senior Patrick Lobor. Zukowski had a game-high 20 points, including 11 clutch free throws.
Portland senior Jayvon Pitts-Young exults and celebrates with teammates sophomore Amir Moss (behind) and senior Justin Zukowski after taking a charge during the Bulldogs’ 64-49 win over Deering in Wednesday’s Western Class A semifinal.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.
D- 8 11 8 22- 49
P- 12 7 22 23- 64
D- Williams 6-4-16, Ali 4-0-9, Ahmed 3-0-7, Lobor 3-0-6, Densmore 2-0-5, Chhorn 1-1-3, Coon 1-0-2, Ochan 0-1-1
P- Zukowski 4-11-20, Pitts-Young 3-9-15, Alex 3-4-10, Talbot 3-4-10, Moss 3-1-7, Kane 0-2-2
D (3) Ahmed, Ali, Densmore 1
P (1) Zukowski 1
2008 Western A quarterfinals
Portland 48 Deering 41
2006 Western A Final
Deering 70 Portland 64
2005 Western A semifinals
Deering 57 Portland 54