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AUGUSTA—A year ago, Portland’s boys’ basketball team made a powerful early statement en route to a surprisingly easy win over Hampden Academy in the Class A state final.
Saturday, the teams met again with a Gold Ball on the line, but instead of playing in Portland like last year, the contest was held at the Augusta Civic Center and the Broncos simply don’t lose in the capital city.
Hampden Academy, which entered the game having won 13 consecutive postseason games in Augusta, turned the tables on the Bulldogs in the first quarter and built a lead it would never relinquish.
Last year, Portland led, 22-5, after one quarter, but Saturday, the Bulldogs led just once, 4-3, for a total of 15 seconds, and the Broncos’ ability to bury 3-pointers built a quick 16-6 lead. Two 3s apiece from juniors Jack Black and Brendan McIntyre led to an 18-11 advantage, but Portland hung around in the second quarter.
While the Bulldogs did a better job defensively, they couldn’t get their offense to click and while they drew as close as four points on a couple occasions, Hampden Academy extended its lead to 27-21 at halftime.
The Broncos threatened to run away in the third period, building a 14-point lead behind beautiful ball movement and hot shooting, but late baskets from junior Amir Moss and senior Cedric Smith gave Portland a hint of life and cut the deficit to a manageable 10, 46-36, heading for the final stanza.
There, Hampden Academy wouldn’t be denied, as junior standout Nick Gilpin either fed open teammates and finished shots himself and the Broncos gradually pulled away and put the finishing touches on a 70-50 victory.
Hampden Academy finished 20-2, made it two titles in three years and three overall and ended the Bulldogs’ championship reign and their season at 19-3 in the process.
“It was simple,” longtime Portland coach Joe Russo said. “I’m looking at our 50 points as not bad. I’m not disappointed with our offense. It wasn’t their defense. We just couldn’t get a defensive stop to save our life. They were a very good team tonight.”
Entering play Saturday, Portland had won state titles in Bangor and Portland, but not in Augusta. The Bulldogs had won their share of titles over the years, but had never won consecutive tournaments (Portland did win the 1942 title, then was awarded the crown the following year, but there was no tournament in 1943 due to travel restrictions brought about by World War II).
After producing a perfect season in 2013-14, the Bulldogs were expected to be competitive again this winter, but perhaps not championship-caliber.
Portland opened with victories over visiting Massabesic (72-38), visiting Noble (62-44), host Marshwood (71-63) and visiting Gorham (75-51), then got a dramatic buzzer-beater from junior Joe Esposito to beat visiting South Portland, 45-43. After capping a perfect 2014 with victories at Thornton Academy (59-51) and Cheverus (57-45), the Bulldogs opened 2015 by beating visiting Westbrook, 61-51, host Biddeford, 67-33 and visiting Bonny Eagle, 59-35, then survived visiting Deering, 65-62. After a 52-33 home win over Marshwood, Portland held on to prevail at Scarborough, 78-71, before downing host Sanford (58-43) and Windham (70-55) to make it 37 wins in a row, a new program benchmark.
The Bulldogs’ luck ran out with successive losses at visiting Cheverus (55-44) and at South Portland (20-16, in overtime, in a game which featured long stalls). Portland then closed by winning decisively at rival Deering, 66-44, to finish 16-2 and lock up the top seed in Western A for the second year in a row.
The Bulldogs would be pushed in the tournament, but thanks to their championship heart, managed to advance each time. After ousting No. 8 Windham, 57-50, in the quarterfinals, Portland was seconds away from being eliminated by fifth-ranked Deering in the semifinals, but Moss saved the day with an old-fashioned three-point with 1.7 seconds to go and the Bulldogs prevailed, 59-57. Then, in the regional final against No. 3 Falmouth, Portland turned it on in the second half to earn another trophy, 57-47.
Hampden Academy has been as good as any boys’ program over the past decade and the past four years has been a constant in the state final. This winter, the Broncos weren’t perfect, but were plenty good enough.
Hampden Academy lost its opener at Brewer, then rattled off 12 straight victories (although several of those games were close). The run ended with a 69-54 loss at Edward Little, but the Broncos won their final four games to earn the second seed behind the Red Eddies in Eastern A.
Hampden Academy ousted No. 7 Brunswick, 63-46, in the quarterfinals, third-ranked Messalonskee, 58-47, in the semifinals, then rallied to defeated No. 4 Lewiston, 65-57, in the Eastern A Final.
The Broncos first appeared in a state game in 2005 (see sidebar), when they defeated Deering. They lost to Deering the following year, then got back in 2012, where once again, the Rams awaited and dashed their hopes. Two years ago, in Augusta, Hampden Academy took an early lead on South Portland and held on for the championship, but last winter, the Broncos were humbled quickly by Portland.
The Bulldogs have been playing in state finals since the Roaring 20s (1923). They lost that one to Bangor and also were defeated in their next appearance (31-30 by Presque Isle, in 1932, when Herbert Hoover was in the White House, not putting a chicken in every pot), but Portland took home the trophy in 1936 and 1942 and was named the champion the following season (the tournament that wasn’t). After a loss to Waterville in 1945, the Bulldogs downed Stearns in 1950, then had to wait 36 seasons before getting another chance. In 1986, a year when Dave Henderson should have been immortalized and instead Bill Buckner became a goat for the ages, Portland beat Lawrence on the big stage. After capping a perfect season with a state game win over Lawrence in 1999, the Bulldogs had to go to overtime to beat the Ralph Mims-led Brunswick Dragons in one of the most memorable state games ever played five years later. Portland lost to Bangor in Augusta in 2007, but last year, beat Hampden Academy.
Saturday, the Bulldogs discovered that this time around, Hampden Academy was undeniable.
The Broncos started fast as McIntyre hit a 3 from the corner just eight seconds in, but senior star Stephen Alex banked home a shot to get the Bulldogs on the board and a layup from Esposito produced Portland’s first and only lead.
Hampden Academy roared right back behind a jumper from Gilpin, a transition 3 from McIntyre and a pair of Gilpin free throws for a 10-4 lead.
After Portland senior Liam Densmore countered with a leaner, Black buried a corner 3 and after a Bulldogs’ timeout, Black hit another 3 from the corner for a 16-6 advantage.
“Brendan and Jake both hit 3s and defenders had to close out the shooters and that allowed us to get to the hoop easier,” Gilpin said. “I thought we did a lot better job against their press this year. We practiced it all week and that helped us a lot.”
Hampden Academy coach Russ Bartlett said that familiarity with the venue helped his team immensely in its strong start.
“I’m more comfortable playing here,” Bartlett said. “Now that the floor is 94 feet (long), you don’t have to find a place to practice all week. I think that’s really important. It’s a big change going from 85 feet to 94. We’re more comfortable with the background here.”
Moss answered with two free throws and Alex hit a 3, but a layup from junior Nick Chasse gave the Broncos an 18-11 lead after one quarter.
Hampden Academy made four 3-pointers in the first period.
Portland would turn it up defensively in the second period, but couldn’t generate enough offense to dent the lead much.
After Bulldogs senior Tanner Foley started the second quarter with a bank shot, Gilpin set up freshman Ian McIntyre for a layup. Sophomore Charlie Lyall made a free throw for Portland and Moss drove for a layup to cut the deficit to 20-16, but Gilpin set up Chasse for a layup.
After freshman Terion Moss passed to Alex for a layup, Brendan McIntyre knocked down another 3. Terion Moss made a free throw, but after a Gilpin steal and pretty feed, Chasse made a layup. A bank shot from Amir Moss pulled Portland within 27-21 at halftime.
Eight turnovers held the Bulldogs back.
In the third quarter, Hampden Academy again started hot and opened up a bigger lead.
Just 20 seconds in, Gilpin delivered a pretty pass to Brendan McIntyre for a layup. After a Portland miss, Broncos junior Conary Moore drove the baseline for a layup and a 31-21 lead, forcing Russo to call timeout.
Out of the break, Alex hit a floater, but Ian McIntyre answered with a leaner. Alex made two foul shots, but in transition, Black fed Brendan McIntyre for a layup and with 4:51 to go in the third, a driving layup by Gilpin made it 37-25.
Terion Moss countered with a layup, but a Black 3 gave the Broncos their biggest lead to that point. Amir Moss sank two free throws, but Ian McIntyre hit a leaner. After a long 3 from Foley cut the deficit to 10, Brendan McIntyre was fouled while shooting a 3. He only made one attempt, but Gilpin drove for a layup while being fouled and hit the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point for a 46-32 lead.
Amir Moss banked home a leaner and after Esposito blocked a shot at the defensive end, senior Cedric Smith put back a miss. Alex then had a look at a 3 that could have really turned momentum, but his bid at the horn went in and out and the Broncos took a 46-36 lead to the final stanza.
There, they put it away.
Just 11 seconds in, Brendan McIntyre drove for a layup, was fouled and completed the three-point play with a free throw. Terion Moss countered with a layup, but Gilpin drove for a scoop shot, was fouled and also made a free throw for a three-point play and a 52-38 lead with 7:19 to go.
Lyll answered with a bank shot and Alex made a foul shot, but Gilpin fed Ian McIntyre for a layup.
After Densmore banked home a shot, Alex forced a rare Hampden Academy turnover and fed Amir Moss for a layup, pulling the Bulldogs within 54-45 with 4:05 to play, but they could get no closer.
The Broncos would extend their lead at the line, as in a 39-second span, Ian McIntyre, Brendan McIntyre and Gilpin all made both ends of 1-and-1s to push the lead to a safe 60-45.
After Esposito hit a 3 for Portland, Chasse made a reverse layup. Gilpin then fed Brendan McIntyre for a layup which turned into a three-point play and that made it 65-48 with 2:08 remaining, effectively ending the competitive phase of the contest.
With 1:49 left, Alex hit a jumper for not only the final points of his stellar career, but also the final points of the Bulldogs’ season.
Down the stretch, Chasse set up Moore for a layup, Gilpin made a free throw, then hit two more before coming out to a rousing ovation and Hampden Academy ran out the clock on its 70-50 triumph.
“This place has treated us right since I’ve been in high school,” Gilpin said. “I had nightmares about last year. I was ready to get revenge for my brother (Zach) and the seniors who witnessed last year. At halftime, we were kind of concerned only being up six after Brendan and Jake couldn’t miss, but we kept attacking and getting to the basket.”
“We talked about last year a little bit in the pregame,” Bartlett said. “The guys who were part of the program last year wanted a chance to get it back. We just touched on the community supporting us and wanting to get it done. It feels a lot better to win than it does to lose, but I’d rather lose this game than not play in this game. I’m really proud.”
Brendan McIntyre, the Broncos’ second-leading scorer this season, had a game-high 22 points, which included three 3-pointers. He actually posted a double-double, as he had a game-high 12 rebounds as well.
“(Brendan) got to spots where he could get the ball and no one could stop him,” Gilpin said.
Gilpin, the team’s leading scorer, had a double-double of 17 points and 10 assists. He also had five rebounds and two steals.
“This one means more (than 2013), considering how much more of a leader I was on this team,” Gilpin said. “I feel like this one is more mine.”
“(Nick’s) strength is his ability to see the whole floor,” Bartlett said. “When the ball’s in his hands, we get a lot of offense.”
Ian McIntyre added 10 points, Black had nine (on three 3s), Chasse eight and Moore four.
Hampden Academy had a slight 25-24 rebounding edge, forced 11 turnovers while committing only 10, and made 16 of 21 foul shots.
Alex had a team-high 14 points and seven rebounds. He also had two steals.
Amir Moss, who had a terrific tournament, added 12 points and two steals.
Esposito (two blocks), Foley and Terion Moss (four rebounds) all had five points, Densmore added four, Lyall had three and Smith bowed out with two.
“Stephen’s ability to get the ball in the paint concerned us,” Bartlett said. “We faceguarded Liam everywhere. I don’t think he even took a 3. We did a good job containing Amir.”
Portland made just 9 of 17 free throws.
All in all, it was just a frustrating evening.
“Even when we fouled them and they missed a free throw, they’d get the rebound,” Russo lamented. “Our team defense wasn’t very good tonight. We mixed our defenses up, but we just couldn’t do it. We had to try to beat them with offense. Scoring 50 points wasn’t bad, but we just couldn’t get a stop. We played solid man-to-man defense all year, the best in our league. That’s what got us here. What I was most impressed with tonight was that we mixed up our defenses, but they always found our weakest link in every variation. We’d be a half-step behind. They had good ball movement. They’re good at that. They seem to like this gym. It doesn’t look good to me. I lost here in high school too, so I’m 0-for-3.”
Ultimately, this Portland team will be remembered for taking its followers on an amazing journey, one which exceeded the expectations of many.
“This was one of the most pleasing rides because of how the kids did it,” Russo said. “I had zero issues. It was perfect, other than having the Gold Ball.
“I’m super-proud of these guys. We belonged here the way we performed this year. We were the best in the West. I had one player selected in the top 17 players in our league. The other teams we pounded had at last two players. It was a great team effort to get here. All the guys contributed all year. If not, we wouldn’t be here. What Charlie did in the tournament was huge. How those three freshmen played against Deering. All year long they came through.
“The guys were hurting at the end of the game, but I reminded them they should be proud of themselves. Look at the run they had. Their three-year run was tremendous. They accomplished more than most teams can dream of. It hurts because you want to win and they feel like they let the fans down, but I told them, ‘You’ve given them enough entertainment all year long. You didn’t let them down. It’s about how (Hampden) played.’ They’ll learn from it.”
The Bulldogs will miss Alex, Densmore, Foley and Smith, but a strong core will return in 2015-16, led by Esposito, Lyall, Amir Moss and Terion Moss.
Don’t be surprised if Portland’s back in the state game next year and it wouldn’t be particularly shocking if the Bulldogs find Hampden Academy standing in the way once more.
“I told my sophomores that they’ll be back (in Augusta),” Russo said. “The juniors will play at the Civic Center (in Portland) next year, but the sophomores can come back here as seniors.”
Portland junior Amir Moss goes up for two of his 12 points.
Portland senior Steve Alex is defended by Hampden Academy juniors Nick Gilpin (4) and Jake Black. Alex led the Bulldogs with 14 points in his final game.
Portland senior Liam Densmore races past a Hampden Academy defender.
Portland senior Cedric Smith dives in vain to try and save the ball.
Portland’s student section showed up in big numbers and did its best to try to inspire the Bulldogs.
Portland coach Joe Russo consoles sophomore Charlie Lyall following the loss.
Portland senior Steve Alex shoots over Hampden Academy junior Nick Gilpin during Saturday’s Class A state final. The Broncos led almost the whole way and dashed the Bulldogs’ quest for a repeat championship, 70-50.
Ben McCanna photos.
More photos below.
P- 11 10 15 14- 50
HA- 18 9 18 25- 70
P- Alex 5-3-14, A. Moss 4-4-12, Esposito 2-0-5, Foley 2-0-5, T. Moss 2-1-5, Densmore 2-0-4, Lyall 1-1-3, Smith 1-0-2
HA- B. McIntyre 7-5-22, Gilpin 4-9-17, I. McIntyre 4-2-10, Black 3-0-9, Chasse 4-0-8, Moore 2-0-4
P (3) Alex, Esposito, Foley 1
HA (6) Black, B. McIntyre 3
P (24) Alex 7, T. Moss 4, Densmore, Lyall 3, A. Moss, Smith 2, Esposito, Griffin, Williams 1
HA (25) B. McIntyre 12, Gilpin 5, Moore 4, Black, Chasse, LaHaye, I. McIntyre 1
P (5) Alex, T. Moss 2, A. Moss 1
HA (3) Gilpin 2, Black 1
P (5) Esposito 2, Lyall, A. Moss, Smith 1
HA (4) Black, B. McIntyre, I. McIntyre, Moore 1
Portland 77 Lawrence 58
Portland 58 Lawrence 52
Portland 28 Stearns 23
Waterville 42 Portland 35
Waterville 53 Portland 33
Portland named winner (no state final due to WWII)
Portland 27 John Bapst 19
Portland 30 Bangor 15
Presque Isle 31 Portland 30
Bangor 41 Portland 22
Deering 47 Hampden Academy 37
Hampden Academy 59 Deering 49