SCARBOROUGH—It was the kind of game we don’t see much of anymore, especially in the Southwestern Maine Activities Association.
And it was a delight.
There was non-stop offense, back-and-forth action and lead changes galore.
But in the end, the story was the same.
Tuesday evening, at Scarborough’s Alumni Gym, the defending Class A champion Bulldogs boys’ basketball team, riding a 34-game win streak, got everything they could have asked for and more from the host Red Storm, who were hoping to earn a statement victory, but ultimately fell just short.
Portland came out sizzling, posting 26 first quarter points, as seniors Steve Alex and Liam Densmore had the hot hands. The Bulldogs, who led by as many as 10 points, couldn’t put Scarborough away, however, and behind the sizzling shooting of senior Sam Freeman and the inside dominance of foul-addled junior Jake Gardner, the Red Storm rallied to take a 30-28 lead.
It didn’t last, as Portland junior Amir Moss made a living in the paint and helped the Bulldogs to a 44-36 halftime advantage.
In the third quarter, Portland took an early 10-point lead, but behind an awesome display from senior Nate Wessel, who had 13 points in the frame, the Red Storm roared back and even took a five-point, 54-49, lead.
The Bulldogs tied the score by quarter’s end, however, and a 3 from Densmore 11 seconds into the fourth put them ahead to stay. While Scarborough battled to the final horn, clutch foul shooting from Alex down the stretch proved to be the difference and Portland held on for a 78-71 victory.
Alex led all scorers with 29 points, Densmore added 20 and Moss had 17 as the Bulldogs improved to 13-0, extended their two-season win streak to 35 games and dropped valiant Scarborough to 7-7 in the process.
“We beat a good team tonight,” said Portland coach Joe Russo. “People always say you learn from losses and you can, but we take the approach that we learn from our wins. We don’t need to lose to learn.”
After going 22-0 and winning the Class A title a year ago, Portland opened the 2014-15 campaign with victories over visiting Massabesic (72-38), visiting Noble (62-44), host Marshwood (71-63) and visiting Gorham (75-51), then beat visiting South Portland, 45-43, on a buzzer beater. 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, rolled at Biddeford, 67-33, and had no trouble with visiting Bonny Eagle, 59-35. Last Thursday, Portland held off visiting rival Deering in an instant classic, 65-62, and Saturday, the Bulldogs beat visiting Marshwood, 65-47.
Scarborough rolled at Biddeford on Opening Night, 74-46. The Red Storm then beat visiting Westbrook, 55-47. After falling at Windham, 66-59, Scarborough beat host Noble (47-29), visiting Massabesic (69-44) and outlasted visiting Gorham in an overtime thriller, 74-70, before falling at South Portland, 66-43. An 80-47 home win over Biddeford was followed by losses at Thornton Academy (80-74), at home to South Portland (60-54) and at Marshwood (62-57). After downing visiting Windham (64-54), the Red Storm dropped a 68-50 decision at Bonny Eagle.
Heading into Tuesday’s tilt, the Bulldogs had won 10 of all-time 11 meetings (see sidebar, below), with Scarborough’s lone victory coming Jan. 28, 2010 (58-45 at the Expo), when current Portland junior varsity coach Joe Johnson was leading the Red Storm.
Last year, the Bulldogs handled visiting Scarborough, 81-52.
Tuesday, Portland got pushed for 32 entertaining minutes and once again, rose to the occasion.
The tone was set in the first quarter, where the teams raced up and down the court, scoring so quickly that it was hard for scorekeepers and statkeepers to keep up.
Off the opening tip, the ball came to Bulldogs junior Joey Esposito, who was fouled. Five seconds in, he made one of two free throws.
The Red Storm then set up their offense and senior standout Milani Hicks fed Gardner for a layup, but Densmore answered with a jumper and Moss drove for a layup and a 5-2 lead just 60 seconds into the contest.
After Gardner scored on a putback, Moss made a reverse layup. Wessel got his first point at the free throw line, but Alex fed Densmore for a layup, Esposito set up Alex for a layup and with 5:15 to go in the first, Densmore drove for a layup making it 13-5 Portland.
“We were more aggressive,” Densmore said. “We went right at them. I knew they were going to guard Steve, so I tried to go to his side.”
Freeman answered with a 3, but Esposito scored on one of his patented putbacks (which usually come much later in a game under more pressure circumstances). Freeman set up Gardner for a layup, but after a steal, Alex went in for a layup to make it 17-10.
After Freeman made a layup, Alex drove for a layup, was fouled and completed the old-fashioned three-point play with a free throw. Esposito then set up Densmore for a layup and the Bulldogs had a double-digit advantage. Gardner made two free throws, but with 2:16 to go in the frame, Portland senior Tanner Foley scored on a putback to make it 24-14.
But just when it appeared the Bulldogs might be en route to a romp, the hosts responded.
Freeman buried a 3 and after Moss fed Alex for a layup, Wessel kept possession with an offensive rebound and passed to Freeman who made another 3, cutting the deficit to 26-20 after one of the wildest first periods of this or any other season.
“It was fun,” Densmore said. “I love high scoring, tight games. It could end up being like that in the tournament.”
Scarborough continued its rally in the early moments of quarter number two, as Hicks set up Gardner for a layup, Wessel hit a jumper in the lane and with 6:30 to go in the half, Wessel banked home a leaner to tie the score, 26-26.
Portland retook the lead on an Alex floater, ending the Red Storm’s 12-2 run, but Wessel made a layup and with 4:48 to play in the second quarter, Freeman, on the fastbreak, threaded a nice to pass to Gardner for a layup and a 30-28 advantage, Scarborough’s first since the score was 2-1.
Russo called timeout and the Bulldogs responded, as freshman Terion Moss scored on a runner and Amir Moss put home a miss.
With 3:34, the hosts were hampered when Gardner was whistled for his third foul, forcing him to sit for the remainder of the half.
And Portland took advantage, as Amir Moss went off.
Moss first set up Foley for a layup, then, after a Wessel putback, Moss made a jumper in the lane, drove for a layup and scored on a putback. Alex then drove for a layup and just like that, the Bulldogs had a double digit lead again, 42-32.
After two Hicks free throws got him on the board and ended the 14-2 run, Bulldogs junior John Williams hit a jump shot. Inside of the final second, Wessel fed Freeman for a jumper and the Red Storm were within eight, 44-36, at halftime.
In the first eight minutes, Alex had 13 points, Moss 12 and Densmore eight for Portland, which only committed eight turnovers, despite the frenetic pace. Freeman’s 13 points, Gardner’s 12 and Wessel’s nine kept the hosts within hailing distance.
The fun continued in the third period.
A runner in the lane from Densmore put the Bulldogs back up by 10, but Hicks made a 3, Freeman banked home a runner and after an Alex free throw, Wessel hit a jumper, Wessel made a baseline jumper off an inbounds pass from Freeman and with 3:53 left in the third, Wessel took another inbounds pass from Freeman and banked home a shot, tying the score, 47-47.
A Moss leaner put Portland back on top, but Scarborough would get the next seven points to enjoy its biggest lead.
A 3 from Wessel put the Red Storm on top, Hicks drove for a layup and Wessel made a layup, giving Scarborough a 54-49 advantage with 2:05 remaining in the third.
But the Bulldogs didn’t buckle.
Densmore stemmed the tide by driving to the basket and banking home a shot to end the 13-2 run. Densmore then hit a 3 to tie it.
“If I make one, my confidence goes way up,” Densmore said. “Same thing with the layups.”
After Wessel put the Red Storm back on top with a jumper (his 12th and 13th points of the quarter), Alex drove for a layup to make it 56-56 heading for the fourth period.
There, Portland never trailed and eventually did just enough to hold on.
Eleven seconds in, Densmore came up clutch once more, burying a 3, and the Bulldogs had a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
After Gardner couldn’t convert a layup at one end, Alex was fouled and in a sign of things to come, made two free throws at the other end to push the lead to 61-56.
Gardner made a layup the next time down, but Densmore drove for one himself. After Hicks hit two foul shots, Portland senior Cedric Smith made one, but with 5:31 to go, Gardner’s layup pulled Scarborough within 64-62.
Alex countered by making two free throws and with 4:29 remaining, Alex passed to Moss, who hit a 3 for a 69-62 advantage.
Gardner made a layup, but Alex answered by driving for one himself. After Gardner hit two free throws, then, with 1:47 to play, made one more, the Red Storm’s deficit was only four, 71-67. Hicks and Wessel then each had a look to pull Scarborough closer, but couldn’t finish and Foley got the rebound.
With 1:35 left, Alex was fouled and while he missed his first attempt, he canned the second.
A Wessel jumper 18 seconds later made it a one-possession game, 72-69, but with 41.1 seconds to play, Alex calmly made two more foul shots.
Wessel was then short on a 3 and while the Red Storm initially grabbed the rebound, Smith stole it back and got the ball to Alex, who was fouled again with 25.3 seconds left.
Alex again made both attempts and the lead was up to seven, 76-69.
After a Hicks 3 was blocked by Esposito, Scarborough sophomore Emmett Peoples got the ball and laid it in, but with 12.9 seconds to go, Alex was fouled one final time and fittingly, made both free throws to put the finishing touches on Portland’s 78-71 win.
“It was a hard, intense game,” Alex said. “We had to pull it out. The difference was free throws. We’ve been shooting a lot of free throws in practice.”
“Scarborough’s a good team,” Russo said. “They like to push the ball. They have quality players. They’re dangerous. They like to score and play hard. I expected something like this. I hoped we come out on top and we did. We got down five and I contemplated a timeout, but I wanted to see what we were made of. I wanted them to pull up their bootstraps and they did. It was nice to see. We were assertive and made tough shots. Games do ebb and flow, up and down, up and down. Lately, we haven’t had the rhythm. We have to find the rhythm in our offensive flow.”
Alex refused to let the Bulldogs lose, scoring 29 points, including 13 from the line. In the fourth quarter alone, Alex made 11 of 12 attempts. He also had five rebounds, three steals, two assists and a blocked shot.
Densmore had one of his best games to date, producing 20 points, including the two second half 3s.
Amir Moss once again came up huge with 17 points, four rebounds, three assists and a steal.
Foley had four points (and five boards), Esposito three (to go with nine rebounds, three steals, two assists and a block), Terion Moss and Williams two apiece and Smith (four boards, four steals) one.
The Bulldogs enjoyed a 28-23 rebounding advantage, only committed 12 turnovers and made 15 of 23 free throws.
Wessel paced Scarborough with 24 points. He added nine rebounds and three assists. Gardner had 21 points, four blocks and four rebounds. Freeman finished with 15 points and four assists. Hicks was held to nine points, but managed seven rebounds, five assists and five steals. He also blocked a shot. Peoples had two points.
The Red Storm went 10 of 13 from the free throw line and turned the ball over 18 times.
“My kids competed hard,” said Scarborough coach Tony DiBiase, who once upon a time coached Portland (leading the Bulldogs to a state title in 1986) and preceded Russo in that position. “They weren’t intimidated. Portland pressed us. They have some good sized kids who can jump. Once we handled their pressure, we got into a transition game. In the first half, I think they hurt us in the transition game. In the second half, we scored off the transition game. They’re a tough team to play because they have so many athletes, but I thought we gave them all they wanted. I was happy with that. We competed well, which is what I wanted to do. We had a hard time matching up at the end with some of their skill players.”
Scarborough (eighth in the latest Western Class A Heal Points standings) has another tough test at Deering Friday and hosts Cheverus Tuesday. The Red Storm then go to Sanford before closing at home versus Thornton Academy.
One gets the feeling that no one will want to face Scarborough in the tournament.
“We’ll build off this,” DiBiase said. “We’re close. We can compete with everybody. We have to close out games. We have to build more depth and consistency. We can’t rely on just three guys. The idea is to get in the tournament and we’ll see what happens.”
Portland (first in the region) has a makeup game at Sanford Thursday, visits Windham Tuesday, then closes with a home game versus Cheverus and an at South Portland and Deering crucible.
“We know we always get the other team’s best game,” Alex said. “We have to bring it every game and be focused. We have to get better every day and listen to what Coach has to say.”
“(Being undefeated) doesn’t faze me or anyone else on the team,” Densmore said. “We just have to stay focused. We think we’re pretty good. We still need more spacing on the court. We have to get everything straightened out and we can get so much better.”
“(Being undefeated) wears on me, but I’m not sure about them, because they’re quiet kids,” Russo added. “We don’t really talk about it, but we know it’s there. It’s already in the record books. We can still play so much better. Every team comes at us and our kids are resilient. (Our remaining schedule is) a great way to end the season. You don’t want to end with easier games.”
Portland senior Steve Alex is guarded by Scarborough senior Milani Hicks.
Portland junior Amir Moss, who was able to get into the lane on several occasions, scores two of his 17 points.
Portland junior Joey Esposito looks to go up with a shot.
Scarborough senior Sam Freeman drives on Portland junior Joey Esposito.
Scarborough junior Jake Gardner blocks the shot attempt of Portland senior Steve Alex.
Scarborough senior Nate Wessel shoots over Portland senior Tanner Foley.
Scarborough senior Milani Hicks blocks the shot of Portland junior Amir Moss.
Scarborough senior Nate Wessel goes up for two of his team-high 24 points.
@ Portland 81 Scarborough 52
Portland 63 @ Scarborough 53
@ Portland 63 Scarborough 60 (OT)
Portland 58 @ Scarborough 42
Scarborough 58 @ Portland 45
Portland 63 @ Scarborough 53
@ Portland 59 Scarborough 43
@ Portland 57 Scarborough 53
Portland 80 @ Scarborough 48
Portland 63 @ Scarborough 37
@ Portland 74 Scarborough 35
Portland senior Steve Alex shoots over Scarborough senior Milani Hicks (4) and junior Jake Gardner during Tuesday evening’s scoring fest. Alex had 29 points and the Bulldogs outlasted the valiant Red Storm, 78-71, for their 35th consecutive victory.
Ben McCanna photos.
More photos below.
P- 26 18 12 22- 78
S- 20 16 20 15- 71
P- Alex 8-13-29, Densmore 9-0-20, A. Moss 8-0-17, Foley 2-0-4, Esposito 1-1-3, , T. Moss 1-0-2, Williams 1-0-2, Smith 0-1-1
S- Wessel 11-1-24, Gardner 8-5-21, Freeman 6-0-15, Hicks 2-4-9, Peoples 1-0-2
P (3) Densmore 2, A. Moss 1
S (5) Freeman 3, Hicks, Wessel 1