Bulldogs title quest denied by Thornton Academy
By Michael Hoffer
PORTLAND— The sixth-ranked Portland boys’ basketball team, a squad which slumped at the end of the regular season and was forced to play in a preliminary round game, almost came away with a regional championship.
But Saturday evening at the Cumberland County Civic Center, the Bulldogs dug an early hole and failed to make key shots and free throws in the fourth quarter of their 49-43 loss to Thornton Academy in the Western Class A Final.
Portland ended its season at 15-7.
“This one stings,” Portland coach Joe Russo said. “Losing hurts, but we lost to a quality team. It took everything they had to beat us tonight. We held one of the best teams in the league under 50 points, so I feel we should have won. My kids played awesome, but it means we’re in second place.”
The Bulldogs had an up-and-down regular season, which included two losses apiece to Cheverus and South Portland and one each to Thornton Academy and Westbrook. Portland was just 5-4 at home. The Bulldogs slipped to the No. 6 seed and had to get past No. 11 Bonny Eagle in the preliminary round before an impressive 72-49 victory over No. 3 South Portland in the quarterfinals.
Last Wednesday, Portland met No. 2 Westbrook in the semifinals at the Civic Center. The Bulldogs lost 62-48 at home to the Blue Blazes Jan. 23, but turned things around in the teams’ first playoff meeting since a 63-59 Portland victory in the 2002 divisional round.
The Bulldogs took the lead early and gradually pulled away to a 55-43 triumph.
Only four players scored for Portland, but they did their share of damage. Junior Koang Thok led the way with 17 points, sophomore James Ek had 16, senior Ed Bogdanovich added 13 and junior Walter Stover finished with nine.
That set the stage for Saturday night’s regional final.
Back on Dec. 5, the Thornton Academy boys’ basketball team looked like world-beaters after a 21-point victory at Portland in the season opener. The last time the Bulldogs and Golden Trojans met in the tournament came in 2002 quarterfinals, a 51-30 Thornton Academy victory.
Portland got the jump on a basket from freshman Will DeFanti, but its 2-0 advantage was its only one of the night.
The Golden Trojans got a basket from sophomore Andrew Shaw to tie it, then a 3 from Shaw to take the lead for good. After a Bulldogs’ timeout, senior standout James Morse hit a jump shot to put Thornton Academy ahead 7-2. Portland junior Joe Zukowski made a spinner, but Shaw buried a 3 to make it 10-4.
Stover, who emerged as a standout in the tournament, answered with a 3-ball and Bogdanovich followed with a basket in the lane to make it a 10-9 contest, but John Trull beat Bogdanovich en route to a hoop and Morse and junior Tomas Littlefield followed with hoops to put the Golden Trojans up 16-9 after one period.
Portland then fell behind 22-13, forcing Russo to call timeout.
Thok responded with a jumper, but Trull came out of a scrum to score and make it 24-15 with 4:24 left. Thornton Academy didn’t score again in the half. Meanwhile, Portland got a leaner from Stover and a 3 from Ek to pull within 24-20 at the break.
The third period wasn’t pretty, as the lead fluctuated from eight points down to two. Trailing 30-24, the Bulldogs closed the period on a high note as Thok made a layup, then made another layup after a steal to make it, 30-28, after three.
Ultimately, the fourth period and the game was decided at the foul line. Portland went 10-for-16 from the charity stripe in the final stanza, but Thornton Academy made 15 of 20.
The Golden Trojans went up, 40-32. But the Bulldogs rallied to make it, 41-39, after DeFanti made the highlight play of the tournament, firing a fastbreak behind-the-back pass to Thok for a layup with 1:19 left.
Shaw missed at the other end. But before the Bulldogs could attempt to tie or go ahead, Shaw grabbed his own rebound and was fouled. He made the second of two for a 42-39 lead. At the other end, Bogdanovich was fouled and made one free throw to make it 42-40. Morse was promptly fouled on the inbounds and calmly sank two free throws for a 44-40 lead with 52 seconds to go. After two Portland misses and a turnover, Thornton Academy senior Michael Guerin stepped to the charity stripe and hit a pair for a 46-40 lead with just 24.2 seconds remaining.
The Bulldogs stayed alive with 14.7 seconds left when Ek buried a 3, but Morse was fouled and hit the first of two shots with 11.1 seconds remaining to put the Golden Trojans up 47-43. Morse missed the second free throw, but raced in among four Portland players to get his own rebound. He was fouled again and this time hit both free throws to ice Thornton Academy first-ever regional crown.
Morse led all scorers with 17 points and was named the George Vinall Award winner as the regional tournament’s most valuable player.
“His decision-making and his control of the ball are great,” Russo said. “Most guys aren’t that comfortable with the ball. He’s tough in a close game since he makes such good decisions.”
For Portland, Bogdanovich had 11 points in his swan song. Ek added 10 and Stover had nine.
“Wally was a trooper tonight,” Russo said. “He played with a broken finger and was awesome.”
The Bulldogs finished 15-7 after a stirring run. They’ll be heard from again.
“We don’t like losing,” Russo said. “I really thought we’d win. We had ’em, but we couldn’t make our free throws down the stretch. That was difference in the game. If we made free throws to take the lead, they would have acted different if they fell behind. We missed six big ones in the fourth quarter.
“The biggest difference of our team from the beginning of the year to now was our growth in playing together, team chemistry, kids understanding their roles. It took me awhile.”
Portland will graduate four seniors: Bogdanovich, Charlie Ho, Campbell Rico and Joe Violette, but returns plenty of firepower for 2009-2010.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time and we’ve been here probably more than most teams,” Russo said. “Every year I graduate good seniors. I can’t be any prouder of these four seniors. Their desire and their character. Joe, Eddie, Charlie Ho and Campbell are four fantastic human beings. I’m thankful the guys stuck with the program. They were awesome team leaders. Without them, we wouldn’t have been close to being here tonight.
“It’s also nice to know I have good guys coming back.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Portland freshman Will DeFanti soared past a Thornton Academy defender Saturday night during the Western Class A Final. (Jason Veilleux photo).