PORTLAND—Portland and Deering have been doing battle on the hardwood since not long after Dr. James Naismith invented the game of basketball.
It’s safe to say that none of the ancient rivals’ 219 previous meetings were quite as impactful as Friday evening’s Western Class A semifinal at the Cross Insurance Arena.
In a game that packed an abundance of intrigue and drama into every single one of its 1,920 seconds, the city powers produced a tour de force.
Deering, which was humbled at home by Portland in the regular season finale just a couple weeks ago, came out determined and strong and grabbed a 15-13 lead after a frenetic first quarter.
When Bulldogs standouts senior Steve Alex and junior Amir Moss got in foul trouble in the second period, the Rams extended their advantage to as many as nine points on a couple occasion, but Portland’s season was saved by its bench, specifically sophomore Charlie Lyall and freshman Terion Moss and Emmanuel Yugu, who helped the Bulldogs stay within hailing distance at halftime, 33-28.
To no one’s surprise, the Bulldogs then went on a run in the third quarter and a 20-6 surge, capped by a Moss 3, spelled a nine-point lead.
A late 3 from junior Malik White pulled Deering back within six points heading for the fourth and set up a fantastic finish.
The Rams crept within a point, 51-50, but a free throw from senior Tanner Foley and a layup from senior Liam Densmore pushed Portland’s lead to 54-50.
The Rams then rallied to retake the lead, 57-56, on a free throw from sophomore Moses Oreste with 24.3 seconds left.
The Bulldogs would get a final chance, however, and did they ever make the most of it.
With time winding down, Moss drove and threw up a prayer that was answered with 1.7 seconds to play. He was fouled on the shot and added a free throw, but Deering had one last chance to pull off a miracle win,
The Rams never managed to get off a shot, however, as Moss stole the final pass and Portland held on and survived and advanced in breathtaking fashion, 59-57.
Densmore had 17 points against his former team, Moss added 15 and sophomore Joe Esposito finished with 10 as the Bulldogs improved to 18-2, ended the Rams’ season at 14-7 and advanced to meet No. 3 Falmouth (17-3) in a heavyweight bout of a Western Class A Final Saturday at 9 p.m. at CIA.
“We have a great rivalry and I never want to lose to Deering High School, but when we’re not in it, I root for them,” said longtime Portland coach Joe Russo. “I told (Deering coach) Todd (Wing) that we need to meet in the finals, so we can both walk away with something. They did a nice job.”
For most of their ancient rivalry, Deering and Portland did battle in the regular season, but almost never squared off in the tournament.
That’s changed over the past decade, as the squads battled four times, with each taking two. Last year, en route to their perfect season and state title, the Bulldogs fought off a spirited effort from the Rams in the semifinals, 64-49.
This winter, both teams have impressed and it wasn’t much of a surprise to see them get this far.
Deering’s 12-6 record was a bit misleading, as the Rams were competitive throughout. As the No. 5 seed, Deering had to host a preliminary round game, but pulled way to beat 12th-ranked Scarborough, 78-62. Then, last Friday, in the quarterfinals, the Rams made just enough plays down the stretch to edge No. 4 Gorham, 61-59.
Portland built on last year’s title and started the 2014-15 campaign with 15 successive victories, then finished 16-2 to earn the top seed. Last Friday, the Bulldogs defeated No. 8 Windham in the quarterfinals, 57-50.
Portland beat Deering twice during the regular season (65-62 at home Jan. 15 and 66-44 on the road Feb. 5).
Friday, the Bulldogs completed the season sweep and beat the Rams for the sixth straight time overall, but it sure wasn’t easy.
Deering scored first, as senior Garang Majok made two free throws, but Alex hit a floater and junior Joe Esposito made a foul shot. Majok then hit a floater and junior Ben Williams went coast to coast for a layup, but Esposito answered with a 3 to tie it, 6-6.
After Amir Moss made a leaner for Portland, Williams countered with a floater and Oreste added a free throw, but Esposito hit another 3 for an 11-9 Portland advantage.
The Rams went up, 12-11, on a free throw from Oreste and a pair of foul shots from sophomore Raffaele Salamone, but a leaner from Densmore gave the Bulldogs the lead again. With 1:18 to go in the first, Oreste sank a 3 and Deering took a 15-13 advantage to the second quarter.
There, fouls added up for Portland and the Rams extended their lead.
After Oreste scored on a putback, Russo called timeout to try and light a fire under the Bulldogs, but Alex was called for a technical (his third foul, which sidelined him the rest of the half) and White made both free throws. Junior Max Chabot followed with a 3 and Deering led, 22-13.
“We were ready,” Wing said. “We came to play. When we lost the second Portland game, they were part of the reason we lost, but that was also our worst game of the season. There were so many correctable errors in that game. I knew we didn’t have to do anything gimmicky to compete with them.”
Portland refused to fold, as Densmore made a 3.
“I’ve been preparing all day,” Densmore said. “I was shooting all day. We had a shoot-around, then I went to the gym. I was ready. I love shooting here.”
After Williams hit a free throw and Majok made two, Lyall made his presence felt with two foul shots. Williams made a layup to restore a nine-point lead, 27-18, but Densmore canned another 3, Yugu made a free throw and Lyall took a pass from Terion Moss and made a layup to make it a 27-25 game.
After Williams drove for a layup, Yugu made a free throw. Salamone then banked home a shot before Lyall finished a feed from Yugu and made a layup. With 30 seconds left, Salamone’s leaner gave the Rams a 33-28 advantage at the break.
Portland’s reserves had saved the day.
“Our bench was really good,” said Densmore. “They have a bright future.”
“We came back with our young guys,” Amir Moss said. “Charlie and the freshman, Terion and Emmanuel. They play against us every day and they did great.”
“We were in dire straits with foul trouble and being behind against a quality team,” Russo added. “I had to go with my young kids. It was a no brainer putting them in. I had confidence putting them in because they play against the best guys every day and handle themselves. I just wanted them to keep us within striking distance and they kept us within two possessions. That was huge. They’re going to help us in future games.”
Deering’s inability to build a larger lead with Alex and Amir Moss on the bench loomed large, as the Bulldogs would dominate the third period.
“We could have taken better advantage of that, but their young players came in and played well,” Wing said. “Terion penetrated to the rim and Charlie did a heck of a job defensively. That kept them in it.”
Alex set the tone for the comeback with a driving left-handed layup. Esposito then set up Amir Moss for a layup and with 4:57 left, an Esposito 3 put Portland ahead for the first time since the opening period, 35-33.
Densmore added a layup before Oreste got a jumper to roll in, ending the 9-0 Bulldogs’ run and a 4 minute, 22 second drought.
Amir Moss made a 3 and after Oreste hit a floater, Densmore hit another 3 and Terion Moss made a floater. Williams answered with a putback, but Amir Moss made another 3. Then, with time winding down, a 3 from White gave the Rams a little momentum, but they still trailed, 48-42, heading for what proved to be a frenetic fourth period.
With Portland slow coming out of its huddle, the officials let Deering inbound the ball and Chabot passed to Majok for an easy layup.
“That was my bad,” Russo said. “I didn’t get them out in time. We talked about not doing that.”
Terion Moss made a free throw, but Majok hit two and sophomore Jean Claude Nzeza hit one to cut the deficit to just two, but a driving layup from Densmore made it 51-47 with 5:52 to play.
Majok got a point back at the line and Oreste set up senior Stephen Ochan for a layup to pull the Rams within a single point, 51-50, but Foley made a free throw.
“Tanner was sick, but he gave me 12 minutes,” Russo said. “Everything he did was positive. He got a hand on everything.”
After a steal, Esposito fed Densmore for a layup and a 54-50 advantage with 4:01 to go.
After Williams drove for a layup, Williams had a look to tie the score, but couldn’t convert and with 2:12 left, after collecting a loose ball, an Amir Moss jumper bounced in to make it 56-52 Portland.
Then, the Rams reminded everyone just quickly they can do damage.
First, Oreste hit a baseline jumper to cut the deficit to two.
Then, after a Williams steal, Chabot took a pass from Majok and tied the score with a layup.
“What a crazy sequence,” Wing said.
The Bulldogs turned the ball over again (Ochan had a steal), but Williams missed a potential go-ahead shot. After Moss missed at the other end, Oreste got the rebound and was fouled.
With 24.3 seconds to play, Oreste went to the line for a 1-and-1 and when he hit the front end, Deering led for the first time since the early stages of the third period, 57-56.
“We had a lull to start the second half, but we have those at times,” Wing said. “I knew our kids would make plays and they did.”
The second free throw would be off target and led to a fateful sequence. Williams got the rebound, but instead of pulling it back out to run time off the clock, Williams tried to put it back and missed.
“(Ben’s) such a ferocious and aggressive player and hindsight is 20-20,” Wing said. “He said after the game he should have taken it back out, but I put that on myself. We’ve never practiced that situation, being up and missing the back end of a 1-and-1. That’s going to be in my two-minute drill now.”
Amir Moss got the rebound and Portland called timeout to set up a go-ahead play.
Out of the timeout, the ball not surprisingly came to Alex, but the Rams cut him off. Alex was forced to make a dangerous cross-court pass to Esposito, who collected it and passed to Amir Moss. Moss then drove toward the basket and with the clock ticking away, even though he was in traffic and had a tough angle, he went up and got his shot to go while being fouled.
“The play was meant for Steve, but it got broken down, so we had to operate any way we could,” Moss said. “The ball got in my hands and I took the shot I normally practice. I practice it a lot, believe it or not. I didn’t want to go home, so I had to put it in the basket and I did. It felt great. It felt good off my hands. It was unbelievable. It was a great feeling.”
“I was on the wing,” Densmore said. “Steve went opposite and I thought when Amir got the ball, he’d pass it, but he took it himself and I knew it was going in.”
“We were down one and I said (in the timeout), ‘We’re going to win this game,'” Russo added. “They kept their composure. We set up a play. The thing I’m most proud of, when the first look wasn’t there, instead of taking the bad shot, Steve went to the second option. Amir all year long has been our most consistent player. Tonight, he showed no different.”
Wing could only tip his cap.
“What a shot,” he said. “We chose to go with our 2-3 zone to stop dribble penetration. I thought Steve Alex would make a play. We didn’t want Liam to get a wide open look. Amir is just a silent assassin. It was just a great shot. Losing stings, but you have to be happy about a player like that. He did his job. I’m glad a true Portland High player made that shot.”
The strategy that made most sense was for Moss to miss the free throw and for Deering to get the rebound with time ticking away, but when Moss made it (he said after the game he intended to miss), the Rams were able to take a timeout and set up one final play.
“You never want to miss a shot, because if you miss an airball, no time comes off the clock, but if you miss and they get a rebound, they have to turn,” Russo said. “I just wanted him to hit the rim. A 3 is a 3 and it beats you, whether you’re up one or two.”
With the memory of Patrick Green (who gave Deering a semifinal round win over Bonny Eagle with a buzzer beater three years ago) fresh in everyone’s mind, Deering wasn’t able to get lightning to strike twice.
The inbounds pass came toward center court, but Moss anticipated it and picked it off and the horn sounded.
“We were looking to run our ‘Victory’ play,” Wing said. “It’s similar to a play Valparaiso ran to win a (NCAA tournament game) in 1998. We wanted to hit Raffaele in the middle and have our two best 3-point shooters streak up the sidelines. The plan was the throw the pass, hit the 3 and slide across the floor in celebration, but it just wasn’t meant to be.”
“We faceguarded them until they went for the ball, then we were going to let them go for the ball and not foul, but Amir got it,” Densmore said.
At last, Portland could celebrate its epic 59-57 triumph.
“Every time we’ve gotten down all season, I never feel like we’re going to lose,” said Densmore. “It was amazing. There was a lot of pressure, but we were calm. We came in confident, but we didn’t think we’d blow them out, like we did at Deering. Beating them every time we played them (this year) feels great.”
“I knew it would be a dogfight,” Amir Moss said. “Deering’s physical. They don’t let down. They came out hard.”
“I’ve been in so many games over the years and I’ve been on the other side of that, losing on a last second shot,” Russo added. “My hat goes off to the kids. I didn’t really expect to get back here. Ninety percent of my team was unproven varsity players, but they’ve worked hard, they’ve played together and have great attitudes. That showed tonight. Todd and I did not design that last minute at all. It was probably went totally opposite of what you think might happen. Deering never gave up. They made some great defensive plays, but give my guys credit.”
Densmore had his best game yet against Deering, sinking three 3s and tallying 17 points.
“Liam hit some big shots,” Russo said. “He played relaxed and competed tonight. He drove well to the rim, played great defense and showed leadership.”
Amir Moss overcame foul trouble to score 15 points. He also grabbed seven rebounds.
Esposito was huge early and had 10 points, five rebounds, three blocked shots, two steals and two assists.
Lyall added six points (to go with five rebounds, two blocks and a steal), Alex had four (to go with six boards), Terion Moss and Yugu three apiece and Foley one.
The Bulldogs had a slim 31-29 rebounding advantage, committed 17 turnovers and made just 9 of 18 free throws, but found a way to prevail.
Oreste led the Rams with 14 points. He also had six rebounds.
Williams stuffed the stat sheet to the tune of 13 points, 13 rebounds and two steals.
Majok bowed out with 11 points and four steals.
Salamone had six points, Chabot and White five apiece, Ochan two and Nzeza one.
The Rams turned the ball over 15 times and hit 16 of 22 free throws.
Deering saved its best for last and impressed all on hand with its late comeback and ability to take Portland to the wire.
“We gave everything we had,” Wing said. “We knew it would come down to the fourth quarter. I’m disappointed for the kids, but 20 years down the road, maybe I’ll bump into Amir and we’ll look back and smirk and shake our heads.
“It’s great to be a part of these games. That’s why I coach high school basketball, to be part of these moments. You take the good with the bad. I’ve been on the other side.
“I think we got the most out of the guys this year. We only had one bad loss and a lot of close ones. We exceeded last year’s win total in a league that top to bottom, was better than last year. We ended up where we wanted to be, back at the Civic Center, and we were 1.7 seconds from advancing. The staff did a great job developing talent. We had five new starters and the new kids had to learn our system. That was a remarkable task. Our season was a success story. Once the hurt goes away, the guys will realize just how successful a season it was.”
The Rams will miss their departing seniors, Coon, Majok and Ochan.
“The hardest part of the loss is having to address the seniors after the game because I have so much respect for them,” Wing said. “Garang took a winding path, but he took full advantage of his opportunity. Is there a better human being than Stephen Ochan? Jacob won every sprint in practice.”
With that said, look for Deering to be one of, if not the top team in 2015-16.
“Ben was one of the last guys out of the locker room and he’s hungry to begin with,” Wing said. “Don’t underestimate this team next year. I liked the underdog role this year, but next year, look out. Moses is capable and confident. He’s emerging as a star, like Ben did last year. Our sophomore group has a lot of talent. They went undefeated as freshmen and lost one JV game as sophomores. (Longtime assistant) Larry Nichols said this group of sophomores is the best he’s every seen and he’s been with the program for eons.
There won’t be much rest for the weary, as the Bulldogs are right back at it Saturday night with even bigger stakes.
Portland and Falmouth have no history, but provide a compelling matchup.
“We all want it,” Amir Moss said. “I can see that. We know how to win. We have to limit turnovers tomorrow and step up on defense and rebound. “
“We have to make smarter passes and not have turnovers,” Densmore said.
“We deserve to be here tomorrow night,” Russo added. “We want to compete and enjoy it. We’ll do our shootaround and do a little walkthrough. The good feeling is the young kids have a feel for this floor.”
The winner will meet either defending regional champion Hampden Academy (18-2) or Lewiston (13-7) in the Class A Final Saturday, Feb. 28 at 7:05 p.m., at the Augusta Civic Center.
Portland junior Amir Moss leans in for a shot. A similar shot from Moss late in regulation provided the Bulldogs with the winning margin.
Portland senior Steve Alex goes hard to the basket. Alex was limited by foul trouble Friday.
Deering junior Max Chabot defends Portland junior Amir Moss.
Portland senior Liam Densmore brings the ball up the floor. Densmore had a game-high 17 points in his best performance yet against his old squad.
Deering junior Ben Williams gets Portland junior Joe Esposito out of position on a drive.
Deering junior Max Chabot gets in the face of Portland sophomore Charlie Lyall.
Portland senior Liam Densmore guards Deering sophomore Jean Claude Nzeza.
Deering junior Ben Williams floats in for a shot.
Deering junior Ben Williams looks for divine intervention to help the Rams in the waning moments.
Portland’s student section, as usual, was out in full force Friday.
Deering’s fan section was out in full force as well, but couldn’t spur the Rams on to victory.
Portland seniors Steve Alex (2) and Cedric Smith are congratulated by assistant coach Joe Johnson following the Bulldogs’ 59-57 win over Deering in Friday’s Western Class A semifinal. Portland advanced to meet Falmouth in the regional final Saturday night.
Ben McCanna photos.
More photos below.
D- 15 18 9 15- 57
P- 13 15 20 11- 59
D- Oreste 5-3-14, Williams 6-1-13, Majok 2-7-11, Salamone 2-2-6, Chabot 2-0-5, White 1-2-5, Ochan 1-0-2, Nzeza 0-1-1
P- Densmore 7-0-17, A. Moss 6-1-15, Esposito 3-1-10, Lyall 2-2-6, Alex 2-0-4, T. Moss 1-1-3, Yugu 0-3-3, Foley 0-1-1
D (3) Chabot, Oreste, White 1
P (8) Densmore, Esposito 3, A. Moss 2
2014 Western A semifinals
Portland 64 Deering 49
2008 Western A quarterfinals
Portland 48 Deering 41
2006 Western A Final
Deering 70 Portland 64
2005 Western A semifinals
Deering 57 Portland 54