Portland overcomes slow start, edges TA in possible state game preview

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Portland sophomore Pedro Fonseca goes up for two points during the Bulldogs’ hard-fought 68-64 home win over Thornton Academy Wednesday night.

Chris Lambert photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

Portland 68 Thornton Academy 64

TA- 17 11 15 21- 64
P- 12 16 14 26- 68

TA- Bouchard 7-1-21, Keohan 4-9-17, Christensen 2-7-11, Mckenzie 4-0-11, Fogg 1-0-2, Robinson 1-0-2

P- Moss 3-10-16, Foley 5-5-15, Yugu 5-5-15, Hardy 4-0-8, Fonseca 2-2-6, Bento 2-0-4, Bellew 1-0-2, Lyall 1-0-2

3-pointers:
TA (9) Bouchard 6, Mckenzie 3

Turnovers:
TA- 23
P- 8

Free throws
TA: 17-23
P: 22-27

PORTLAND—Champions find a way.

Even when they play nowhere near their best.

Wednesday evening at the Portland Exposition Building, in a compelling showdown of top Class AA contenders, the defending state champion Portland Bulldogs found themselves in a 32-minute struggle against one of the teams hoping to dethrone them, Thornton Academy, and for much of the evening, it appeared that the Bulldogs didn’t have enough to prevail.

But they’re champions and they found a way.

Portland started sluggishly and fell behind, 8-2, when the Golden Trojans, who lost their last outing, at home to South Portland, got long 3-pointers from seniors Austin Boudreau and Avery Mckenzie.

Bulldogs coach Joe Russo went to his bench early and often and his reserves kept his team afloat in the first quarter, which ended which Thornton Academy holding a 17-12 lead.

Portland, not surprisingly, surged in the second period, and with 1:43 to go before halftime, took the lead when junior Griffin Foley converted a three-point play. Junior Terion Moss extended the lead with two foul shots, but the Golden Trojans came back to forge a 28-28 tie at halftime.

In a repeat of the first half, Thornton Academy started fast in the second half too and another Boudreau 3 spelled a 38-32 lead. The visitors would go up by as many as seven points in the frame, but a layup from junior Manny Yugu, another from Foley and a pair of free throws from sophomore Pedro Fonseca pulled the Bulldogs within a single point, 43-42, heading for the fourth period.

There, Portland amped up the defense, hit some free throws and made enough plays to make the difference.

The Golden Trojans went ahead, 58-53, on a Boudreau 3-pointer with 4:02 left, but the Bulldogs finished strong, pulled even at 59-59 on two Foley foul shots with 2:31 left, then took the lead for good when senior Clay Hardy drove for a layup 44 seconds later.

The rest of the game was decided at the free throw line, where the Bulldogs had more success, and a Fonseca layup in the final minute slammed the door on a 68-64 victory.

Portland got 16 points from Moss, 15 apiece from Foley and Yugu and got contributions from several different sources as it won its eighth game in a row, improved to 12-1 and handed Thornton Academy its second straight loss, dropping it to 11-2 in the process.

“It’s a game we were folding, but we didn’t break and I like how we came through,” said Bulldogs coach Joe Russo. “Because we are who we are, I expect more out of them at times. We’re good enough to have a great year, but we’re not good enough to win a state championship. Yet.” 

Late season showdown

The Bulldogs and Golden Trojans were on the short list of title favorites when the new season began and neither has disappointed.

Portland began its title defense with a 61-54 win at South Portland in a state game rematch, then downed visiting Bonny Eagle (71-45), Oxford Hills (73-52) and Lewiston (73-31). After stumbling at Edward Little (76-70), the Bulldogs won at Noble (87-41) and Bangor (71-32), handled visiting Scarborough (67-38) and prevailed at Sanford (72-41) and Gorham (58-44) before handling visiting Deering (63-44) and rallying to edge host Cheverus, 47-43.

Thornton Academy opened with a 55-34 win at Marshwood, then rolled over visiting Scarborough (85-56), host Biddeford (61-50) and host Sanford (69-50). After winning at home over Noble (82-53) and Bonny Eagle (56-40), the Golden Trojans prevailed at Scarborough (74-51) and at Gorham (61-40). After earning a key win at Deering (56-53), Thornton Academy handled visiting Bangor (68-40) and won at Massabesic (67-32), but Friday, the Golden Trojans lost at home to South Portland, 68-58

The teams’ rivalry has been streaky in recent years (see sidebar, below). Between 2007-08 and 2012-13, Thornton Academy won all seven meetings, including the 2009 Western A Final en route to the Gold Ball.

Wednesday, Portland beat the Golden Trojans for the fourth year in a row and improved to 83-28 all-time in the series.

The Bulldogs got the first basket in unorthodox fashion, as a rebound appeared to be tipped in by a Thornton Academy player (Portland senior Charlie Lyall was given credit for the basket).

The visitors then heated up, getting a layup from junior David Keohan, a 3 from Boudreau and a 3-pointer from behind the NBA stripe from Mckenzie for an 8-2 lead. 

Russo then turned to the likes of senior John Bento, junior Quinn Clarke and sophomores Fonseca and Trey Ballew to rally the team.

A putback from Fonseca ended the 8-0 Golden Trojans’ run, but Mckenzie sank another 3.

After Moss somehow got a left-handed floater to drop, Boudreau hit a jump shot and after Hardy drove for a layup, Boudreau made another 3 with 2:59 left in the quarter for a 16-8 lead.

Bento scored on a putback and Ballew hit a leaner to draw Portland closer, but a free throw from senior Evan Christensen made it 17-12 Thornton Academy after one quarter.

“We came out of the gate slow,” Yugu said. “It takes us awhile for some reason to find energy against teams we should have energy against. Coach wasn’t hesitant to sit us down. Everyone on the bench can play. They kept us in the game.” 

“In practice, everyone works as hard as the next guy, so whether you’re a starter or a bench player, you’re ready to play,” Hardy said.

“I don’t mind using subs in the first quarter,” Russo added. “The starters didn’t come out ready to play. It wasn’t fair to the team to rest of the team or the school, so I used my bench and they were huge tonight. They kept us in the game. We could have been down double digits easily. They kept us within striking distance.”

The Bulldogs upped their intensity in the second period.

A bank shot from Yugu and a Yugu-to-Hardy fastbreak layup cut the deficit to one.

After senior Austin Robinson made a layup for the visitors, Bento answered with one for Portland, but Keohan made two foul shots and Boudreau drained a corner 3 to build the lead back to 24-18.

Then Portland roared to life, scoring the next 10 points.

Foley’s first point, a free throw, got it started. Moss then threw a length-of-the-court pass to Foley for a layup and after Yugu hit a leaner off the glass, Yugu stole the ball, threw ahead to Foley and Foley made a layup while being fouled and added the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play for the lead.

Moss added two foul shots with 1:14 remaining in the half, but Keohan made both ends of a one-and-one and Boudreau set up senior John Fogg for a layup to make it 28-28 at halftime.

In the first half, Boudreau led all scorers with 11 points, but Thornton Academy was hindered by 10 turnovers. Foley had six points, while four others (Bento, Hardy, Moss and Yugu) each had four.

In the third quarter, the back-and-forth continued.

Christensen started the second half scoring with two free throws and Mckenzie sank another 3. 

After Yugu made a leaner, Mckenzie answered with a baseline floater. Moss hit two foul shots, but Boudreau knocked down a 3 to make it 38-32.

After Foley got a leaner to drop, Christensen did the same at the other end.

Moss made a layup after a steal, but Keohan was fouled on an offensive rebound and hit both free throws, then was fouled again and hit the first. He missed the second and Yugu took it coast to coast for a layup.

In the final minute, Hardy set up Foley for a transition layup and Fonseca made two free throws to make it a one-point game, 43-42, heading for the final stanza.

Where the Bulldogs finally got over the hump.

Twelve seconds in, two Yugu free throws gave Portland its first lead of the second half, but Keohan banked in a shot, then finished a feed from Boudreau with a layup for a 47-44 lead.

Foley countered with a jumper from the free throw line, but Boudreau canned another deep 3 before a Hardy putback pulled the Bulldogs within two, 50-48, with 6:09 to play.

A Christensen three-point play made it a two-possession game, but Yugu made two free throws and with 4:44 left, Moss drove for a layup making it 53-52.

Christensen countered with two foul shots, while Moss made one and with 4:02 to go, after his defender fell down, Boudreau coolly buried his sixth 3-pointer of the night for a 58-53 lead.

With 3:21 left, Moss was intentionally fouled and made both free throws, but the Bulldogs couldn’t draw closer, as they turned it over and at the other end, Boudreau made a foul shot to restore the two-possession lead.

With 2:52 to play, Yugu hit a floater and 21 seconds later, Foley was fouled and calmly made both shots to tie the game.

After a Thornton Academy turnover, Hardy drove for a layup with 1:47 to go and the Bulldogs had the lead for good, 61-59.

After another Golden Trojans’ turnover, their 21st, Portland gave it back, which set up Christensen being fouled with 54.5 seconds showing.

Christensen hit the first of two free throws and when he missed the second and the rebound resulted in a held ball, Thornton Academy had a chance to take the lead, but Yugu deflected a pass, tipped the ball to Moss and Moss was fouled (by Christensen, who fouled out) with 45.9 seconds remaining. Moss hit both attempts for a three-point lead.

With 37.2 seconds to go, Keohan was fouled and he hit both attempts to cut the deficit back to one.

At the other end, Foley made the first free throw, but missed the second when Hardy got the rebound.

With 20.9 seconds to go, Moss went to the line and made his first foul shot, but missed the second.

Again, Hardy kept the play alive and Portland kept possession.

“I want to be that player who does the dirty work,” Hardy said. “I made sure I got the rebounds.”

With 16.7 seconds showing, Yugu went to the line. He missed the first attempt, but made the second for an all-important four-point lead.

“I try not to get nervous,” Yugu said. “I think every shot I take is going in, so I didn’t have any worries going to the line.”

After a Golden Trojans’ turnover, the Bulldogs looked to milk the clock, but instead, Fonseca saw empty space underneath and drove for a layup to ice it.

In the waning seconds, Keohan scored on a putback, but Portland ran out the clock and celebrated its 68-64 victory.

“It’s about being mentally tough down the stretch and executing the offense and hitting our free throws,” Hardy said.

“We made mistakes,” Russo said. “This shows we still have stuff to learn, but we’re happy we won.”

Portland featured a balanced attack, as eight different players scored at least two points.

Moss led the way with 16 points. He also had five rebounds and four steals. Foley and Yugu added 15 points apiece. Yugu added six steals.

“A lot of us are quick, but I’ve never played with anyone as quick as Manny,” Hardy said. “He can get to the basket.”

“Manny plays 100 percent every second,” Russo said. “He makes his share of mistakes, but he comes up big. At crunch time, the ball always comes back to him. He’s one of the few guys I’ll let make a few mistakes because he works so darn hard and his plus/minus chart is always a plus. We always put him on the other team’s best player because of his effort. He’s always around the ball and makes the other team’s ballhandler uncomfortable.”

Hardy, who played for the program as a freshman, but not as a sophomore or junior, finished with eight points and seven rebounds.

“Clay’s a tremendous player,” Russo said. “He’s helped us a lot. I’m glad he came back. He’s new to us and he’s learning. I have to be careful how I use him in key situations. I love his penetration, rebounds and defense. He’ll pay dividends for us come playoff time.”

Fonseca added six points, while Bento had four and Bellew and Lyall (four boards, three steals and a block) each finished with two. 

The Bulldogs didn’t make a 3-pointer, but only turned the ball over eight times and made 22 of 27 free throws.

Thornton Academy received a game-high 21 points from Bouchard. Keohan finished with 17 points and eight rebounds. Christensen and Mckenzie had 11 points apiece and Fogg and Robinson both added two.

The Golden Trojans had a 27-25 rebounding advantage and made 17 of 23 foul shots, but they were doomed by 23 turnovers.

“We had to keep them in front of us and make them make passes they weren’t comfortable with,” Yugu said. “Once we get on the fast break, it’s easy baskets. I think we wanted it more. We were both careless with the ball, but we took advantage of every turnover they had.”

See you again?

The teams won’t play again unless it’s in the Class AA Final March 4. To get there, each will need to win some key games down the stretch.

Thornton Academy (second to South Portland in the Class AA South Heal Points standings) hopes to get back on track Friday when Gorham pays a visit. The Golden Trojans have home games versus Cheverus and Sanford next week, then close with a trip to Windham and a home game against Biddeford.

Portland (which moved into first place in Class AA North by virtue of its victory) is right back in action Thursday when Windham pays a visit. The Bulldogs play at Massabesic and Deering next week, then close at home versus South Portland and Cheverus.

“We’re still pretty young,” Yugu said. “Compared to last year, we’re a work in progress, but we’ll get there.”

“I think we’re a great team, but we have to be on the same page, execute, do what Coach tells us and focus on our ultimate goal,” said Hardy.

“We have a chance to win, but we have to play like it,” Russo added. “I have sophomores and juniors who  didn’t see a lot of minutes last year. They have to play like veterans. They can’t make rookie mistakes. We’re not playing consistently. We’re good enough to play better all the time.”

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

Thornton Academy junior David Keohan lofts a shot over Portland senior Charlie Lyall.

Thornton Academy senior Austin Boudreau gets a shot off over the outstretched arms of Portland junior Griffin Foley.

Thornton Academy senior Evan Christensen drives on Portland sophomore Pedro Fonseca.

Thornton Academy senior Austin Robinson shoots over Portland junior Manny Yugu.

Portland sophomore Trey Bellew leans in for a shot as Thornton Academy senior Josh Fogg defends.

Portland senior Clay Hardy drives on Thornton Academy junior David Keohan.

Portland junior Griffin Foley is defended by Thornton Academy senior Austin Boudreau.

Recent Portland-Thornton Academy results

2015-16
Portland 61 @ TA 59 

2014-15
Portland 59 @ TA 51 

2013-14
@ Portland 73 TA 36 

2012-13
@ TA 64 Portland 52 

2011-12
TA 63 @ Portland 61 

2010-11
TA 57 @ Portland 53 

2009-10
@ TA 61 Portland 58 

2008-09
TA 67 @ Portland 46
Western A Final
TA 49 Portland 43 

2007-08
@ TA 66 Portland 62 (OT)

2006-07
@ Portland 69 TA 56 

2005-06
Portland 87 @ TA 56 

2004-05
@ Portland 84 TA 36 

2003-04
Portland 81 @ TA 44 

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