PORTLAND—The Portland boys’ basketball team appeared to have turned the corner, winning seven games in a row, but Thursday evening at the Portland Expo, the Bulldogs were reminded that Western Class A has plenty of potential landmines.
Hosting a Thornton Academy squad viewed by most as middle of the pack, Portland came out flat and found itself down by 10 points in the second period as Golden Trojans’ senior Justin Pollard lit it up.
The Bulldogs rallied, took the lead entering the half and even clung to a slim advantage with three minutes to play, but with the game on the line in the waning moments, Thornton Academy made plays and hit shots, which Portland did not and the Golden Trojans held on for a 63-61 win, improving to 8-4, while dropping the Bulldogs to 8-3.
The Bulldogs’ all-time lead in the series is now, 77-29.
“We got exactly what we deserved,” said Portland coach Joe Russo. “We did not deserve to win that game and we didn’t That’s what happens when you don’t play basketball the way it’s intended to play. When you don’t play defense, rebound or shoot well, you don’t deserve to win. I’m not happy we lost, but I couldn’t expect to win with that performance.”
Thursday’s contest saw several local coaches in attendance as it was the only game on the schedule.
Portland, which went 12-8 last winter, falling in the regional semifinals to Cheverus, 45-41, has sizzled after starting the year 1-2. The Bulldogs captured their opener, 52-43, over visiting Sanford, but lost at Marshwood (65-62) and at home to Cheverus (49-41). Portland started its resurgence with a 66-47 win at Bonny Eagle, then edged visiting Scarborough in an overtime thriller, 63-60. A 46-36 home victory over Gorham ended the 2011 portion of the schedule. Since the calendar flipped, the Bulldogs defeated host Biddeford (61-52), visiting Windham (73-38), host Kennebunk (59-20) and host South Portland (61-57). In coming from behind to beat the Red Riots, Russo earned his 300th victory with the program (he would be presented with a commemorative basketball prior to Thursday’s game).
Thornton Academy, which was upset in last year’s quarterfinal round by Deering, 41-33, to end up 15-4, got off to a rough start this winter with a 62-41 home loss to the Rams. After a 53-37 home triumph over Kennebunk, the Golden Trojans fell to visiting Bonny Eagle, 56-38. Wins at South Portland (43-41), at home over Massabesic (51-48) and Gorham (61-35) followed before Thornton Academy dropped a 49-44 decision at Scarborough. The Golden Trojans made a statement with a 57-37 home victory over Marshwood, then downed host Kennebunk (54-30) and Windham (44-41), but Monday, they lost by a point at Sanford, 54-53.
Portland dominated Thornton Academy over a four-year stretch from its championship season of 2003-04 through 2006-07, winning all four meetings by an average of 32 points. In the 2007-08 opener, the Golden Trojans ended that skid with a 66-62 overtime decision at home. The next winter, Thornton Academy beat the host Bulldogs to start the year (67-46), then eliminated Portland in the Western A Final (49-43) en route to its first Class A state title. Two years ago, in the season opener, the host Golden Trojans held off the Bulldogs, 51-48. Last winter, Portland lost at home to Thornton Academy to start the year, 57-53.
Thursday, the Golden Trojans got the better of the Bulldogs once more.
The visitors got the jump 32 seconds in when junior point guard Adam Ek scored on a left-handed runner. With 6:13 to play in the first period, Pollard first made his presence felt with a 3-pointer and just like that, Thornton Academy was up, 5-0.
Portland finally came to life and got on the board with 5:38 to go when junior Nick Volger made a layup after a steal. Senior Mike Herrick followed with a floater, but Golden Trojans junior Connor McCrum made a free throw.
After the Bulldogs drew even on a Herrick putback, Pollard sank a 3. Sophomore Jayvon Pitts-Young made a layup, but Pollard scored on a putback and sank a 3 and junior Jeff Gelinas buried a turnaround jumper for a 16-8 lead after one quarter.
When Pollard started the second quarter with a jump shot, Thornton Academy had its biggest lead, 18-8. Volger answered with a runner and Herrick made a left-handed layup, but Pollard answered with a driving layup of his own.
After Herrick made a 3 and promising sophomore Matt Talbot hit a bank shot, Portland was within three, 20-17. McCrum made a layup and Gelinas took a pass from Ek and made a layup to stretch the lead back to seven. After senior Peter Donato made a layup after a steal for the Bulldogs, Pollard countered with a jump shot. Talbot sank a jump shot, but McCrum answered with two free throws and it was 28-21 with 3:37 to play before the half.
Portland would close the second quarter on an 8-0 run to take its first lead.
First, senior Zach Lane set up sophomore Justin Zukowski for a layup. After Talbot sank a long jumper just inside the 3-point line, Zukowski knocked down a 3-ball to tie the score. Then, with less than a second to go before the break, Zukowski was fouled and made the second attempt for a 29-28 advantage.
“We made a couple mistakes in the second quarter and they got to loose balls we couldn’t get to,” said Thornton Academy coach Bob Davies. “At the end of the half, we fouled a kid on a jump shot and they took the lead. We had two quarters left to play our best.”
The second half would feature four ties and five lead changes.
The Golden Trojans retook the lead 16 seconds into the third period when Ek made a layup after a steal, but Donato hit a floater and Volger made two foul shots for a 33-30 advantage. Ek fed McCrum for a layup, but Zukwoski countered with a 3 and Portland was up, 36-32.
After sophomore Quinn Richardson-Newton made a 3 for Thornton Academy, Donato countered with a jump shot, but with 4:37 to go in the third, Pollard let fire from beyond the NBA 3-point line and got nothing but net to tie the score at 38-38.
A minute later, Ek hit a floater to put the Golden Trojans back in the lead and Gelinas fed Pollard for a layup, but Donato hit a jumper in the lane and Volger made a layup after a steal to re-tie the score, 42-42.
Again, Thornton Academy went on top on an old-fashioned three-point play from junior Eric Christensen. Christensen added a foul shot before Zukowski answered with another 3. Late in the quarter, Ek made a free throw and the Golden Trojans took a 47-45 lead to the final stanza.
A runner from Pollard started the fourth period scoring. Donato answered with a leaner, but Gelinas set up McCrum for a layup and a 51-47 advantage.
The Bulldogs got back within a point when Zukowski converted a three-point play, but with 5:31 to go, Pollard set up senior Brandon Aull for a layup.
With 5:14 remaining, Volger sank a 3 to tie the game and 24 seconds later, Donato scored on a putback to give Portland the lead. When Herrick hit a jumper in the lane with 4 minutes to go, the Bulldogs had a 57-53 advantage and appeared on the verge of taking control.
After Ricarhdson-Newton made a leaner off the glass, Zukowski set up Donato for a layup and a 59-55 lead, but Ek made two foul shots and Christensen hit a layup while being fouled (he missed the free throw) to tie it, 59-59, with 2:58 to play.
“We made that run and were up by four, but we gave them four points,” Russo said. “We didn’t get back on D and didn’t rotate. We didn’t play well. I guess we don’t play any defense. If you want to score a lot of points, play us. We give everyone’s best players a bunch of points.”
After each team had a chance to take the lead, Pollard passed to Gelinas who made a layup and was fouled with 1:48 left. Gelinas added the free throw to make it 62-59.
Portland looked to tie the score and had three looks, but couldn’t convert. Finally, with 7.4 seconds remaining, Ek got the ball, was fouled and made the first of two free throws to make it a two-possession game.
“We just tried to get two hands on that rebound and we finally did,” said Davies.
Zukowski would score on a putback in the final second, but the Bulldogs could get no closer and Thornton Academy held on for the 63-61 victory.
“We emphasize playing basketball for four quarters as hard as we can,” Davies said. “Even though we lost that last game, we did that and we did that again tonight. We played hard, team basketball for four quarters. They did too. We stayed with it as a team. We’re fortunate the ball went through the basket more for us than them. We just wanted to come out in the second half and play hard and play team basketball.”
Zukowski led Portland with 17 points. Donato had 14 (along with two blocked shots), Herrick (five rebounds) and Volger (a game-high four steals) 11 each, Talbot six and Pitts-Young two. The Bulldogs gave the ball away 12 times and hit four of seven foul shots.
“We’re not one of the top teams in the league,” Russo said. “You can’t put us in the same breath as Cheverus, Deering and Bonny Eagle. Tonight was more of an emotional game than anything else. Their minds weren’t on the court.”
Thornton Academy relied heavily on the production of Pollard (24 points, five rebounds, three steals).
“He’s a senior captain who can obviously score some points,” Davies said. “He’s doing all the little things a senior captain does. That’s getting the weak side rebound, getting steals and being in the right spot at the right time. It’s fun watching him.”
Ek finished with 10 points and three steals. McCrum had nine points (and five boards), Gelinas seven (along with seven rebounds), Christensen six, Richardson-Newton five and Aull two.
The Golden Trojans had a 26-19 rebounding advantage. They turned the ball over 13 times and made 10 of 15 free throws.
Each team made five 3-pointers.
Thornton Academy (eighth in the Western A Heals, prior to this game being reported), which is now two-thirds of the way through its regular season schedule, is idle until Tuesday, when it hosts rival Biddeford.
Games with Westbrook, Cheverus and Scarborough still loom.
“We’re getting better,” Davies said. “We’re a young team with not many varsity minutes returning. We’ve gotten better all year long and the kids are gaining confidence. We’re looking forward to playing as hard as we can the rest of the year. We’re becoming a team. I can’t emphasize that enough. The kids are starting to trust each other and realize they can be a good team.”
Portland (third in the region, behind city rivals Deering and Cheverus) has a showdown at the Stags Monday and goes to Westbrook Tuesday. The Bulldogs also go to Deering and host South Portland and Deering as big tests between now and the end of the regular season.
“We have Cheverus, Westbrook and then Deering,” Russo said. “Things can go one way or the other.”
TA- 16 12 19 16- 63
P- 8 21 16 16- 61
TA- Pollard 10-0-24, Ek 3-4-10, McCrum 3-3-9, Gelinas 3-1-7, Christensen 2-2-6, Richardson-Newton 2-0-5, Aull 1-0-2
P- Zukowski 6-2-17, Donato 7-0-14, Herrick 5-0-11, Volger 4-2-11, Talbot 3-0-6, Pitts-Young 1-0-2
TA (5) Pollard 4, Richardson-Newton
P (5) Zukowski 3, Herrick, Volger 1
TA (26) Gelinas 7, McCrum, Pollard 5, Richardson-Newton 4, Christensen, Ek 2, Aull 1
P (19) Herrick 5, Donato, Pitts-Young, Smart, Volger 3, Lane, Talbot 1
TA (8) Ek, Pollard 3, Aull, Gelinas 1
P (9) Volger 4, Herrick 2, Donato, Pitts-Young, Smart 1
TA (3) Christensen, Pollard, Richardson-Newton 1
P (3) Donato 2, Zukowski 1