Portland ousts defending champion EL, advances to semifinals

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Portland’s girls’ basketball team celebrates after downing defending state champion Edward Little, 48-43, in Thursday’s Class AA North quarterfinal.

Brianna Soukup / Portland Press Herald photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

Portland 48 Edward Little 43

EL- 10 17 7 9- 43
P- 18 7 11 12- 48

EL- Perry 6-1-15, Chaput 5-2-12, Fontaine 3-2-10, Ouellette 2-2-6

P- Kabantu 6-8-22, Motema 4-2-10, Stacey 2-1-7, Eubanks 2-0-4, Yugu 1-0-3, Joyce 1-0-2

3-pointers:
EL (4) Fontaine , Perry 2
P (5) Kabantu, Stacey 2, Yugu 1

Turnovers:
EL- 17
P- 14

FTs
EL: 7-15
P: 11-22

PORTLAND—Not much attention has been paid to Portland’s girls’ basketball team entering the tournament, but Thursday evening at the Portland Exposition Building, the Bulldogs suggested that they might just have a special postseason in store.

Hosting defending state champion Edward Little, fourth-ranked Portland got just enough defense and clutch shooting to end the fifth-seeded Red Eddies’ title reign and take its first step on what could be a memorable run.

The Bulldogs got off to a strong start, as nine points from sophomore Amanda Kabantu sparked an 18-10 lead after one quarter.

The Red Eddies roared back, however, and led, 27-25, at halftime, but in a third period which featured five lead changes, it would be Portland that struck last, as after taking a charge on the defensive end, senior Grace Stacey buried a 3-pointer to put the Bulldogs ahead, 36-34.

In the fourth quarter, Edward Little pushed hard, but Portland never relinquished its lead and thanks to smothering defense and some clutch foul shooting from Kabantu, the Bulldogs survived and advanced, 48-43.

Kabantu had a game-high 22 points as Portland improved to 10-9, ended the Red Eddies’ season at 10-9 and advanced to meet top-ranked Oxford Hills (17-2) in the semifinal round Wednesday at 3:30 p.m., at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland.

“It was a great game,” Kabantu said. “They were tough. They wanted to win, we wanted to win, it was a battle. It wasn’t easy.”

Fight to the finish

Portland battled through injuries and tough losses this winter to finish 9-9 and fourth in Class AA North.

Edward Little found its title defense to be challenging and wound up 10-8 and fifth in the region.

On Jan. 4, the host Red Eddies defeated the Bulldogs, 43-35. Senior Grace Fontaine had 20 points and junior Hannah Chaput added 19, while Portland was led by 10 from Kabantu.

The teams had played three previous times in the playoffs. The Bulldogs won the first two,  75-54 in the 1991 Western A Final and 62-57 in the 1992 Western A Final, but last year in the AA North semifinals, Edward Little prevailed, 58-38.

Thursday, 48 hours after the game was originally scheduled to be played, but was postponed by bad weather, Portland returned the favor.

But it sure wasn’t easy.

The Red Eddies got the first hoop, as senior Jade Perry drove for a layup 58 seconds in, and Fontaine followed with a 3-pointer, but the next six points went to Portland, as Stacey drained a 3-pointer, Kabantu scored her first point at the line and after being fouled on an offensive rebound, Kabantu sank two more free throws for a 6-5 Bulldogs’ lead.

Edward Little responded, as Fontaine made a free throw and Perry set up Chaput for a fastbreak layup, but a 3 from Kabantu put the Bulldogs on top and after Kabantu added another 3, sophomore Gemima Motema drove for a layup and a 14-8 lead, which forced Red Eddies coach Chris Ciffelli to call timeout.

It helped, as Perry scored on a left-handed leaner, but after Motema drove for another layup, senior Jill Joyce put home a rebound just before the horn and Portland was up, 18-10, after one period.

Edward Little countered in the second quarter, as Chaput made a free throw, then Chaput took a long pass from junior Chantel Ouellette and made a layup that caused Portland coach Gerry Corcoran to call timeout.

It didn’t help, as Chaput made a floater to cut the deficit to just three.

After a Motema free throw, Kabantu banked home a shot, but Perry made a runner in the lane, then, on a give-and-go, Perry fed Fontaine for a layup to make it a two-point contest, 21-19.

Freshman Elizabeth Yugu countered with a 3-ball for Portland, but after Perry made a free throw, Chaput scored on an off-balance runner, then with 1:40 to play in the half, Perry’s jumper in the lane tied the score.

Kabantu made a foul shot for the Bulldogs, but Fontaine answered with one for the Red Eddies, then with 46.5 seconds to go, Ouellette’s two free throws gave the visitors their first lead since 8-6 and a 27-25 halftime advantage.

In the first half, Kabantu led all scorers with 12 points and also grabbed eight rebounds. Edward Little got nine points apiece from Chaput and Perry and another seven from Fontaine.

The back-and-forth continued in the third period.

After Bulldogs junior Kiera Eubanks tied the score with a jump shot, Motema set up Eubanks for a fastbreak layup and a Kabantu layup after a pretty spin move made it 31-27 Portland.

Back came the Red Eddies, as Perry passed to Ouellette for a layup off an inbounds set and with 4:02 to go in the frame, Fontaine’s 3 made it 32-31 Edward Little.

After Kabantu gave the Bulldogs the lead with a putback, Ouellette scored on one at the other end, but after taking a charge on defense, Stacey hit the biggest 3 of her life to date with 40 seconds to go.

“One of my favorite things is to draw a charge because (it makes everyone angry) and it changes the momentum,” Stacey said. “I knew she was coming in hard, so I set my feet.

“At the other end, I was surprised (the shot) went in. I was pretty far out, but I was happy it went in.”

“I was so happy when (Grace) scored,” said Kabantu. “When I gave her the ball, I was so confident she would make it. I was confident if she didn’t make it, I’d get the rebound.”

“Grace was awesome,” Corcoran added. “We talked all season about who will step up and take a charge. That was a transforming play.”

Portland clung to a 36-34 lead heading to the final stanza and there, it never let Edward Little go back on top.

Just 37 seconds in, Chaput was fouled, but she made just one of two free throws, and after a steal, Motema made a layup.

Kabantu then scored on a putback for a 40-35 lead with 5:44 to play.

Perry countered with a 3-ball from the corner, but Motema drove for a layup and Stacey added a free throw to make it 43-38 with 3:42 on the clock.

Another Perry 3 with 2:46 to go cut the Bulldogs’ lead to two and after a Chaput steal, the defending champs had a chance to tie or take the lead, but Motema stole the ball back.

After a turnover, Fontaine had a look to tie it, but her shot was off target and Motema grabbed the rebound.

With 1:23 remaining, Kabantu went to the line for a one-and-one and she made both attempts to make it a two-possession contest.

“I was just thinking it was like practice,” Kabantu said. “I just didn’t think about it.

With 45.6 seconds left, a layup after a steal by Chaput again made it a two-point game, 45-43, but Kabantu was fouled and hit one free throw and after she missed the second, Portland tied up the rebound and got the possession arrow.

With 33.9 seconds remaining, Motema made one of two foul shots for a 47-43 advantage.

“I wanted to get the ball in Gemima’s hands and put us on her back and she did a great job,” Corcoran said.

Yugu then stole the ball and with 12.2 seconds to go, Kabantu made one more free throw and the Bulldogs closed out their 48-43 victory.

“It feels so good after losing last year,” said Kabantu. “To beat the winning team from last year, that adds to our confidence.”

“It’s been a crazy ride,” said Stacey. “We knew we were capable. It definitely means more that they’re defending champions and they knocked us out last year.”

“We got everything we expected,” Corcoran added. “We played very well at times and we played (not so well) at times. We made big plays when we needed to. We changed the defense and went to the 2-3 (zone). Their strength in the first half was all penetration. We challenged their shots in the second half and they didn’t make the ones they needed to. All credit to EL, they’re a great program, (Coach Cifelli) does a great job, but we made enough plays.”

Kabantu had a stellar game, scoring 22 points and grabbing a dozen rebounds. She also blocked two shots.

Motema had 10 points, eight steals, six rebounds and four assists.

“Gemima’s hands are one of our greatest gifts,” said Stacey. “She begins things and we flow off her. Her steals are crucial and they help us in the long run.”

Stacey contributed seven points, Eubanks had four, Yugu three and Joyce two (to go with six boards).

Portland enjoyed a 38-32 rebound advantage, overcame 14 turnovers and made 11 of 22 foul shots.

Not this year

Perry had 15 points, eight rebounds and four steals to pace the Red Eddies.

Chaput added 12 points, Fontaine had 10 and Ouellette finished with six.

Edward Little made just 7 of 15 free throws and turned the ball over 17 times.

“A couple times there we could have cashed our chips in, but we kept battling back and we had some opportunities to tie or go ahead,” Cifelli said. “Our shots just didn’t fall and (Portland) made big defensive stops. We kind of kept trading baskets. They went to that 2-3 zone and we got good looks, but they just didn’t fall. It was a like a slow bleed. It didn’t feel like it was getting away from us, but we couldn’t get the one basket to put the pressure back on them.

“The worst part is that the kids realize it’s over. We’re just like every other team. We’ve had ups and downs with injuries and issues off the court. You don’t want to go out, but if you go out, you want to go out giving your best.”

Don’t be surprised if the Red Eddies are right back in the mix next season.

“The seniors have left a legacy and a culture and they’re great role models,” Cifelli said. “Kids have to step up next year. We’ll find a new identity.”

Off to the big stage

Oxford Hills is the favorite in the region, but Portland will enter the teams’ semifinal with confidence.

The host Bulldogs dropped a hotly-contested 40-38 overtime decision to the Vikings Dec. 15. Kabantu and Yugu each had nine points in that meeting, a game that Portland played without an injured Motema.

Motema’s back and junior Davina Kabantu, presuming she’s cleared, as expected, from concussion protocol, will be active as well, so the Bulldogs like their chances in the rematch, which will be the first-ever postseason encounter between the teams.

“We now believe that we can beat anyone,” Stacey said. “We have confidence. We had a shot at the end to tie it last time. We win by defense. That sets the one. We’ll go off that.”

“It’s huge to make the semifinals,” Corcoran said. “Nobody shoots well (at the Cross Insurance Arena), but maybe we will. The great news is that Davina will be back. We can move Gemima off the ball and now we have two girls who can get to the basket.”

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

Portland junior Kiera Eubanks grabs a rebound over Edward Little senior Jade Perry.

Edward Little senior Grace Fontaine drives into the lane as Portland sophomore Gemima Motema defends.

Portland sophomore Amanda Kabantu shoots over Edward Little junior Caroline Hammond for two of her game-high 22 points.

Portland sophomore Gemima Motema soars for a shot over Edward Little senior Jade Perry.

Portland sophomore Amanda Kabantu lines up a free throw late in regulation.

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