Portland's magic runs out in semifinal loss to Bangor

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Bangor senior Damien Vance gets past Portland senior Ronaldo Wakati to score two of his 20 points during the Rams’ 61-41 win in Tuesday’s Class AA North boys’ semifinal.

Ben McCanna / Portland Press Herald photos.

More photos below.

PORTLAND—Four days after one of the greatest wins in its long and storied history, Portland’s boys’ basketball team wasn’t able to manage an encore against top-ranked Bangor in a Class AA North semifinal Tuesday afternoon at the Cross Insurance Arena.

As they did Friday in their come-from-behind quarterfinal round victory over Deering, the fifth-seeded Bulldogs dug an early hole and again, they played better as the game progressed, but this time, there would be no comeback and no last-second miracle as the Rams prevailed, 61-41.

Senior standout Matt Fleming led the way with 21 points and classmate Damien Vance added 20 as Bangor improved to 18-2, advanced to meet defending champion and No. 2 seed Edward Little (18-2) in the regional final Friday at 6:30 p.m., at CIA and in the process, ended Portland’s season at 11-9.

“I watched a few tapes of Bangor and the more I watched, the more worried I got,” longtime Bulldogs coach Joe Russo said. “They’re a quality team. You have to cover all five guys at all times. We had to play flawless to beat them.”

Momentum

Portland is used to long playoff runs, but it didn’t look like the Bulldogs would get to the semifinals for the seventh year in a row when they trailed Deering, 22-7, early in the quarterfinals Friday, or when they were down by two as time wound down, but junior Stillman Mahan’s improbable 3-pointer saved the day and gave Portland new life.

“That game was awesome,” Russo said. “It was as good as it gets.”

Bangor, meanwhile, won 16 of 18 regular season games, losing only at Oxford Hills and Edward Little, then had no trouble with No. 8 Lewiston in the quarterfinals, winning 68-36, as it continues to climb back to the pinnacle it inhabited for so long.

“I’m hoping we’re sending a statement that Bangor basketball is back and will be for a long time,” said Rams coach Brad Libby. “We want to build our program back to where it once was.” 

The Bulldogs let a 15-point halftime lead slip away Dec. 21 in a 64-58 loss at Bangor.

The teams had met just twice before in the tournament, both times in state finals, as the Rams won the 1923 crown (41-22) and again in the 2007 state game (56-39). 

Tuesday, after longtime Portland teacher, historian and public address announcer Peter Gribbin was honored for his longtime service, Bangor came out red-hot and never looked back.

The Rams went on top for good 58 seconds in when Fleming, a Mr. Maine Basketball favorite who will be on scholarship at West Point next year, took a pass from Vance and made a layup.

After senior Noah Missbrenner kept play alive with an offensive rebound, he set up senior Isaac Cummings and a quick 4-0 Rams’ lead.

Portland’s first points came with 5:27 remaining in the first quarter, when senior Simon Chadbourne got a jumper to rattle in, but junior Henry Westrich made two free throws and Cummings sank a contested jumper for an 8-2 Bangor advantage, forcing Russo to call timeout.

It didn’t help, as Fleming drained a jumper, then set up Westrich for a corner 3 and a 13-2 advantage after one period.

The Bulldogs were completely baffled on offense in the first eight minutes as they couldn’t hit shots and turned the ball over seven times.

“We ran our offense too far out at times,” Russo said. “That wasn’t by design, but because of their defense. We got the ball at the NBA 3-point line instead of the high school 3-point line. We met our match against a quality team.”

“It started with defense,” said Fleming. “We were in the right position every time and we made them struggle and demoralized their confidence. We keyed on staying close to Chadbourne. When he couldn’t get good looks or space to breathe, it’s tough for them to make entry passes. I stepped up on (senior) Pedro (Fonseca) when he drove and another guy had to come over and guard who I left. We did that well.”

Portland settled down in the second quarter, but could only shave one point off the deficit by halftime.

Chadbourne was fouled while shooting a 3 to start the frame and he made two of three free throws, which was followed by a baseline jumper by senior Trey Bellew to make it 13-6.

Fleming countered with a long 3 and after Chadbourne hit a 3-ball, Fleming got a floater to rattle in.

Fonseca drove for a layup for the Bulldogs, but Cummings made a layup for Bangor and Fleming buried a long 3 for a 23-11 lead.

After senior Ronaldo Wakati got a high shot to kiss off the glass, Vance made an up-and-under layup for the Rams before a Fonseca leaner pulled Portland within 10, 25-15, at the half.

Fleming led all first half scorers with 12 points, while Chadbourne helped keep the Bulldogs within hailing distance with seven points.

In the third period, Portland tried to chip away, but Bangor kept answering.

Chadbourne set up Fonseca for a layup to start the second half.Fleming then caught a break as his initial shot was blocked by senior Jeremiah Alado, but he got the ball right back and laid it in.

After Alado made a layup, Fleming hit two free throws.

Alado made another layup, but to the Bulldogs’ frustration, Vance drove for a layup, then buried a long 3-pointer for a 34-21 Rams’ advantage with 4:58 to play in the quarter.

Alado kept fighting, scoring on a putback, but Cummings countered with a 3.

After Alado made two free throws, he drove for a layup to cut the deficit to 10, but a pair of Vance foul shots gave Bangor a 39-27 lead after three.

In the fourth, Bangor completely pulled away and ended any remaining doubt.

After Vance scored on a putback, Fonseca sank a 3, but Fleming countered with a leaner in traffic. 

Bellew made a leaner to make the score 43-32, but Vance hit a 3, then sank two free throws.

After a floater from Mahan, Fleming converted an old-fashioned three-point play (bank shot, foul, free throw) and Westrich added a jump shot to stretch the lead to 19.

Mahan made two free throws before Westrich made a layup and Vance drove for a pair of layups and a 59-36 advantage.

“It’s key for us when Damien can get to the rim and get the shots he wants,” said Fleming. “That’s when we’re tough to beat. He struggled in the first half, but the floor seemed to open up for him in the second half and his eyes got huge.”

Two free throws from Portland junior Ethan Thea were countered by two from Bangor junior Parker Noyes before a Mahan 3 accounted for the 61-41 final score.

“We had a lot of nerves at the beginning, then they went away and we started having fun,” said Fleming.

“We hadn’t played anywhere like this (building), but we worked all year long on our conditioning and with our athleticism, having the 10 feet of extra court, probably paid dividends,” Libby said. “The guys came out and worked hard and played as a team and executed the way we strive to do every day. The difference was effort and heart. (In the regular season game), we came out slow without great intensity or effort. We showed our heart and came back, but we’ve strived since the Portland game to show effort and intensity. It was a true team effort tonight.”

Fleming had a game-high 21 points and also grabbed six rebounds, blocked four shots and had a pair of steals.

Vance finished with 20 points, five rebounds and three steals.

Cummings and Westrich each scored nine points, while Noyes added two.

Bangor made 11 of 12 free throws and only turned the ball over seven times.

Friday finale

Next up for Bangor is Edward Little in the regional final. The Rams are seeking their first trip to a state final since winning Class A in 2011.

Bangor beat visiting Edward Little, 60-46, Jan. 7, but a month later, the Rams lost to the Red Eddies in Auburn, 69-56.

“(Edward Little) Coach (Mike) Adams is a great coach,” Fleming said. “We’re going to try to come out with the same energy and shut them down on defense.”

“We get to come back here one more time,” Libby said.

Take it to the limit

For Portland, Alado had a team-high 10 points, all in the second half. Fonseca finished with nine points, four rebounds and three assists. Chadbourne and Mahan added seven points apiece, while Bellew had four and Thea and Wakati two apiece.

The Bulldogs had a 25-21 rebounding advantage and made 8 of 10 free throws, but turned the ball over 18 times.

“(The Rams) make few mistakes and they take care of the mistakes you make,” Russo said. “They executed their offense. They all can shoot. They’re versatile. We knew it, but we came in thinking if we played well we could compete with our athletes. There’s a reason they’re number one and there’s a reason why we had nine losses.

“For our overall ability, I had a great year. I felt we overachieved. My kids who have been with me four years made it this far all four years. Pedro, Lewis (Gaddas), Trey and Simon made second round or further every year. As a coach, this was a very engaging year. I had to coach every game and every practice. It was constant engagement with the kids and they responded.”

Russo, who had a well-publicized battle with cancer in the offseason, said immediately after the contest that he’s unsure of his future with the program.

“I’m extremely thankful for the opportunity to come back and coach this year,” Russo said. “I didn’t know if I could seven, eight months ago. Now, I’m going to take some time. Right now it’s 50-50.”

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

Bangor senior Isaac Cummings shoots over Portland senior Trey Bellew.

Portland senior Pedro Fonseca drives on Bangor senior Matt Fleming.

Bangor senior Isaac Cummings drives on Portland senior Simon Chadbourne

Portland senior Pedro Fonseca soars for a rebound.

Portland senior Jeremiah Alado is defended by Bangor senior Isaac Cummings.

Longtime Portland High teacher, historian and public address announcer Peter Gribbin is honored by tournament director Gerry Durgin in a pregame ceremony that recognized Gribbin’s many contributions to the sport.

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