Portland holds on for dear life, earns another huge road win at TA

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Portland senior John Williams floats in a shot over Thornton Academy senior Ben Lambert during the Bulldogs’ 61-59 win Monday afternoon. Williams had 11 points off the bench as Portland improved to 11-1.

Chris Lambert photos.

More photos below.


Portland 61 Thornton Academy 59

P- 10 11 24 16- 61
TA- 13 14 16 16- 59

P-  Foley 7-0-15, Williams 4-3-11, T. Moss 4-2-10, A. Moss 3-3-9, Esposito 3-0-7, Lyall 2-3-7, Yugu 1-0-2

TA- Tilley 9-0-22, Hart 7-2-19, Lambert 2-0-5, Pura 2-1-5, Fogg 2-0-4, Keohan 2-0-4

P (2) Esposito, Foley 1
TA (8) Tilley 4, Hart 3, Lambert 1

P- 15
TA- 15

Free throws
P: 11-17
TA: 3-6

SACO—Coming off an emotional win at its biggest rival in front of a tournament atmosphere, it was understandable that Portland’s boys’ basketball team got off to a slow start in front of a much smaller gathering Monday afternoon at Linnell Gymnasium.

But as far as the Bulldogs are concerned, it’s not about how you start, it’s how you finish, and once again, Portland, against another top contender, Thornton Academy, saved its best for last and posted yet another pivotal victory.

The Bulldogs, who were possibly sluggish after their big win at Deering Thursday, were far from their explosive selves in the first half, going nearly seven minutes without a point in the first quarter, and they trailed the Golden Trojans, 27-21, at halftime, but to no one’s surprise, they were a vastly different team when the second half commenced.

Spurred on by the defense of senior Joe Esposito, Portland opened on a 7-0 run and the battle was joined. The teams would exchange the lead seven times in eight minutes and the Bulldogs took a 45-43 advantage to the final stanza.

There, Thornton Academy went up, 52-47, thanks to the heroics of senior Corey Hart, but Portland, with the game on the line and its back to the wall, got successive hoops from sophomore Griffin Foley to retake the lead once and for all and erupted for 12 straight points, to seemingly put the game away.

The Golden Trojans refused to give in and when senior Ben Lambert made a 3 with 28.8 seconds to go, the Bulldogs’ lead was only two, 61-59. Thornton Academy got the ball back and had a chance to tie or win, but as time expired, a shot from sophomore David Keohan was swatted away by Portland junior Charlie Lyall and the Bulldogs held on to prevail, 61-59.

Foley had  team-high 15 points, senior John Williams added 11 points off the bench and Portland improved to 11-1, dropping the Golden Trojans to 10-2 in the process.

“It’s nice to know that when it comes down the stretch and we’re down, we still have something in our tank,” said Bulldogs coach Joe Russo. “These types of games are good for us. This win was very important because we only play them once and they’re a solid team.”

State final preview?

Portland and Thornton Academy have been two of the finest teams in the newly created Class AA this winter and it’s possible that come late February, for the first time, the Bulldogs and Golden Trojans could meet in the state final.

That’s because both squads have passed almost every test this season.

Portland started by downing visiting South Portland (75-56), then defeated host Bonny Eagle (75-49), Oxford Hills (74-57) and Lewiston (85-39), visiting Edward Little (82-64), Noble (100-33) and Bangor (68-39) and host Scarborough (73-38), before finally meeting its match in a 58-55 home loss to Gorham. The Bulldogs got back on track with a 72-42 home win over Sanford, then enjoyed a 61-51 victory at then-undefeated Deering. 

Thornton Academy won its first nine games, downing visiting Marshwood (70-63), host Scarborough (64-36), host Bonny Eagle (63-59), visiting Biddeford (77-42) and Sanford (79-53), host Noble (64-32), visiting Scarborough (57-44), visiting Gorham (71-66) and host Bangor (58-46). After a 58-54 home loss to Deering, the Golden Trojans got back on track with a narrow 63-61 home win over Massabesic.

Last year, Portland won in Saco, 59-51.

Monday, Thornton Academy looked to beat the Bulldogs for the first time since Jan. 18, 2013 (64-52), but Portland made it three in a row in the series.

But it took all of the game’s 1,920 seconds.

Portland got off to a fast start, getting a fastbreak layup from Foley (set up by senior Amir Moss) 17 seconds in and a jumper from Lyall. After the Golden Trojans got on the board on a baseline jumper from junior Rome Pura, Foley knocked down a jump shot with 6:33 to go in the first period, but the Bulldogs wouldn’t score again for nearly seven minutes, by which time they found themselves down by seven, thanks to an 11-0 Thornton Academy run.

After Pura made a free throw, the hosts tied the score on a 3 from senior Jack Tilley. Hart then sank a 3 to give the Golden Trojans their first lead, Hart made a jumper and Tilley pulled up and buried a jumper for a 13-6 advantage.

With 42.5 seconds to go in the frame, Williams made his presence felt off the bench, driving for a layup to end a 6:51 dry spell.

“I just try to play my best when Russo gives me the opportunity to,” Williams said. “I try to provide energy for the team and do whatever I can to help us win. Whenever I make a basket in the first quarter, it jump starts my approach for the whole game.”

With 16.1 seconds left, sophomore Terion Moss stole the ball and fed his brother, Amir Moss, for a layup to pull Portland within three, 13-10, after eight minutes.

Thornton Academy remained on top throughout the second quarter.

After Tilley made a layup after a steal, a floater from sophomore Manny Yugu and a pair of Williams free throws pulled the Bulldogs within a point, but Hart countered with a 3 in transition.

After Amir Moss made a free throw and Moss scored on an offensive rebound to again make it a one-point game, 18-17, the Golden Trojans got a 3 from Tilley.

Two Lyall foul shots pulled Portland within 21-19, but junior John Fogg scored on a putback and Hart drained two free throws. Esposito fed Lyall for a layup with just over a minute left in the half, but with 3.7 seconds showing, a jumper from Keohan gave Thornton Academy a 27-21 halftime lead.

Hart and Tilley had 10 points each in the first half and 10 Bulldogs’ turnovers helped produce the deficit.

It took less than two minutes for Portland to flip the switch in the second half and regain the lead.

Esposito’s energy on the defensive end set the tone, as he stole the ball and fed Terion Moss for a layup to start the third quarter scoring. Moss then registered a steal and passed to Amir Moss for a layup. Next, it was Esposito’s turn and his steal led to a corner 3 from Foley and just like that, with 6:03 to go in the frame, the Bulldogs had a 28-27 advantage.

“We’ve slumped in the first half lately and we have to work through it,” said Lyall. “We changed things up and we got the spark we needed.”

“We were our own worst enemy at the start,” Russo said. “We got six quick points and we stopped competing. I said I’d rather lose by 20 and take some shots, then lose by one and not take shots. We had to get our movement down.”

The Golden Trojans regained the lead when Tilley hit a 3, but at the other end, Esposito made a 3 of his own. A short jumper from Tilley put Thornton Academy ahead, but Esposito drove for a layup and a 33-32 lead.

After Lyall made a foul shot, Hart drove for a pretty left-handed layup after a steal to tie it. Terion Moss then made a short hook shot, but Tilley set up Fogg for a layup to forge another tie, 36-36.

A old-fashioned three-point play (floater, foul, free throw) from Williams put Portland back ahead, but Tilley made a jumper and a driving layup from Hart gave the hosts a 40-39 advantage.

The Bulldogs then rattled off six straight points, as Terion Moss made two free throws, Williams converted a layup after a steal and after a Terion Moss steal, Williams finished for a five-point lead, but as time expired in the third, Tilley made a long 3 to make it 45-43 Portland with eight minutes to go.

A driving layup from Lambert tied the game again 28 seconds into the fourth quarter and a bank shot from Pura capped a 7-0 run and put Thornton Academy up, 47-45 28 seconds later, but Esposito put home his own miss to forge the game’s fifth and final tie. 

Hart put the Golden Trojans on his shoulders by making a 3 and scoring on a driving, reverse layup for a 52-47 lead with 5:40 to play, but the Bulldogs seized control with a 12-0 run.

Terion Moss got it started with a driving layup. Amir Moss then set up Foley for a layup and with 4:14 remaining, after an Amir Moss steal, Foley made a jumper to put Portland on top to stay, 53-52.

Terion Moss added a runner, Amir Moss hit two free throws and with 2:11 to go, Terion Moss set up Foley for a fastbreak layup and the Bulldogs were seemingly in control, up, 59-52.

Thornton Academy refused to buckle, however, as Keohan made a layup after a steal, snapping a 4:03 drought, and with 1:17 left, Tilley’s leaner made it a one-possession game, 59-56.

Seventeen seconds later, a Foley bank shot gave Portland’s its final points and from there, the Bulldogs had to hold on.

With 28.8 seconds showing, Pura set up Lambert for a 3, which cut the deficit to two.

Lyall then missed the front end of a one-and-one and the Golden Trojans had a chance to force overtime or win.

The Bulldogs had fouls to give and took a pair and after Esposito deflected the ball out of bounds, Thornton Academy inbounded from under its basket with 2.3 seconds remaining.

The ball came to Keohan, who appeared to have room, but Lyall closed fast and just before the horn, Lyall sent Keohan’s shot back where it came and Portland survived, 61-59.

“Coach told us to man up,” Lyall said. “We were told to foul if someone got the ball. They got the ball in. We practice blocking every day with the baseline hand. I stepped to it and blocked it and got all ball. No foul.”

“Charlie gets more rebounds and blocks,” Esposito said. “He’s a big post presence. We picked up our intensity in the second half. We came back and held on at the end. We took control of the situation.”

“There wasn’t a lot of energy like there was last game,” Williams said. “We didn’t really have any student section at all, but we never give up. We had a different approach in the second half and stayed within ourselves. It was tough.”

“Down here, they come back and make shots,” Russo added. “Just when I thought we had the game, typical TA, they didn’t give up and made things happen at the end. We bent but we didn’t break. TA’s versatility impressed me. They can play several different ways. They’re better than I thought.”

Foley led the Bulldogs with 15 points. 

Williams made the most of his limited time, scoring 11 points and grabbing four rebounds.

“John played a good game for us,” Russo said. “That allowed us to give Charlie a rest. He likes to shoot. He can get shots off. Sometimes, I don’t like his shots, but he was valuable tonight creating offense. He’ll help us down the stretch.” 

Terion Moss had 10 points (and five rebounds), Amir Moss added nine points (and had 11 rebounds, three assists and three steals), Esposito (nine boards, five steals, three assists and a blocked shot) and Lyall (10 rebounds, a steal and a huge block) both had seven points and Yugu wound up with two.

Portland overcame 15 turnovers by forcing 15. The Bulldogs had a 38-26 rebounding advantage and hit 11 of 17 free throws.

Thornton Academy was paced by 22 points (and four assists) from Tilley and 19 (and five rebounds) from Hart.

Lambert and Pura (nine rebounds, two steals) each had five points and Fogg and Keohan had four points apiece.

The Golden Trojans made 3 of 6 free throws.

Finishing strong

While both teams would welcome the top spot in their respective region, they each believe they could make a title run regardless of ranking.

Thornton Academy (third behind Gorham and Massabesic in the Class AA South Heal Points standings) will be back in action Friday at Gorham.

Portland’s tough stretch continues, as the Bulldogs (still second to Deering in Class AA North) host Cheverus in a makeup game Wednesday, go to Windham Friday, then host Massabesic and Deering next week before closing with games at South Portland and Cheverus.

“Every year is different,” Esposito said. “Everything is there to bring us to where we want to be. We can still improve.”

“We’re resilient and I think we’ve shown we have what it takes to win,” Lyall said.

“I think we’re capable of doing big things,” Williams said. “We have more team chemistry and we’re bonding more than we did last year. I think we can do something special like we did the last two years.”

“We have Cheverus Wednesday, then we play Friday,” Russo added. “We get no rest.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

Portland senior Amir Moss drives on Thornton Academy senior Corey Hart.

Portland sophomore Griffin Foley knocks down a 3-point shot.

Portland junior Charlie Lyall fights Thornton Academy junior John Fogg for the ball.

Thornton Academy senior Jack Tilley drives on Portland senior Joe Esposito. Tilley had a game-high 22 points.

Thornton Academy senior Corey Hart goes up with the left hand as Portland junior Charlie Lyall defends.

Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.