PORTLAND—Thursday evening at the Portland Exposition Building, the ancient rival Portland and Deering boys’ basketball teams did battle for the 218th time in their fabled history.
And it’s doubtful they ever produced a game quite like this one.
The defending champion Bulldogs, the host team, already riding a program-record win streak, got everything they could have asked for from a Rams’ squad looking to make a mark and ultimately, every raucous fan on hand came away a winner.
In a type of setting one would expect more from February in the tournament, the teams produced a back-and-forth game for the ages, one which took all 1,920 seconds to decide.
Deering, which lost three meetings to Portland a year ago by an average of 22 points, made an immediate statement, scoring the game’s first four points.
The lead would change hands six times in an up-tempo first quarter, but the Rams held a 16-13 advantage when it ended.
Deering went up by six, 20-14, early in the second period, but the Bulldogs battled back, forging three ties, but the Rams, despite foul trouble to two of their biggest stars, senior Garang Majok and junior Ben Williams, managed to take a 33-29 lead to halftime, thanks to a transcendent effort from several players off the bench.
Deering took a 37-29 lead early in the third period, but Portland, sparked by a 3-pointer from junior reserve John Williams, went on an 11-2 run and when freshman Terion Moss hit a 3, the Bulldogs had their first lead since the first quarter.
Neither team led by more than three the rest of the frame and when Rams junior Jason Thach made a free throw inside the final second, the visitors had a 48-47 advantage heading for the final stanza.
Fittingly, the game would come down to the wire.
Portland retook the lead, 51-50, on a pair of Moss free throws, but Deering rallied to tie the score, 53-53.
With 5:16 to play, John Williams canned another clutch 3 for the hosts and junior Amir Moss added a free throw, but a free throw from Rams sophomore Raffael Salamone, two from Ben Williams and two more from Williams, made it 58-57 Deering with 3:22 remaining.
A putback from Bulldogs senior Tanner Foley was countered by two more Williams free throws and the Rams led, 59-58, with 2:59 to go.
Nine seconds later, a driving layup from Portland senior standout Steve Alex put the hosts ahead to stay.
Amir Moss added a layup, but Majok countered with a bank shot and Deering was within a point, 63-62, but with 24.6 seconds to play, in arguably the biggest sequence of the night, Alex missed the front end of a one-and-one and junior Joey Esposito, who hit a buzzer beater to beat South Portland earlier in the season, was in the right place at the right time to put it home, stretching the lead back to three.
The Rams would have a final chance to tie and got a great look when White attempted a 3 from the wing, but the shot was off target and the Bulldogs survived, 65-62.
Portland, which got 21 points from Alex, extended its win streak to 33, improved to 11-0 this season and dropped valiant Deering to 8-4 in the process.
“We have a pretty good history with Deering,” said longtime Bulldogs’ coach Joe Russo. “We enjoy playing each other. It’s more fun to win those types of games. Rivalry games are fun because the fans get excited and the city gets excited.”
Both teams have staked their claim to the top of the standings so far this winter.
Deering held off visiting Bonny Eagle in its opener (64-59), then won at Thornton Academy (63-58) and at home over Noble (67-42). After letting a lead slip away in a 45-34 home loss to Cheverus, the Rams bounced back with a 66-52 win at Westbrook and really impressed with a 71-49 victory over Gorham, but the next time out, they couldn’t hold a double-digit second half lead and fell at home to South Portland, 64-58. After beating visiting Marshwood, 72-63, Deering lost at Windham, 71-60, but Friday, the Rams erupted and doubled up Massabesic, 96-48, and Tuesday, they ran roughshod over visiting Gorham, 80-51.
Portland opened with victories over visiting Massabesic (72-38), visiting Noble (62-44), host Marshwood (71-63) and visiting Gorham (75-51), then got a dramatic buzzer-beater from Esposito to beat visiting South Portland, 45-43. After capping a perfect 2014 with victories at Thornton Academy (59-51) and Cheverus (57-45), the Bulldogs opened 2015 by beating visiting Westbrook, 61-51, rolled at Biddeford, 67-33, and Tuesday, had no trouble with visiting Bonny Eagle, 59-35.
Portland entered the game with a 139-78 all-time advantage over Deering. That included a 19-7 mark dating back to the start of the 2003-04 season (see sidebar, below) and also took into account three victories a year ago: 77-42 at Deering, 63-46 at home and 64-49 in the Western A semifinals.
Thursday, the Rams were seeking their first win over the Bulldogs since Feb. 7, 2013 (37-30 at home) and their first over Portland at the Expo since Feb. 3, 2006 (61-58).
Instead, the Bulldogs went out and made Deering their 33rd straight victim over the past two seasons.
But it sure wasn’t easy.
A year ago, the Rams played scared against Portland and dug early deficits.
This time around, Deering led most of the way, beginning when Majok made two free throws 44 seconds in. Majok added two more foul shots for a 4-0 lead.
The Bulldogs got on the board when Esposito hit two free throws (Ben Williams got his second foul on the play and would sit the remainder of the stanza), but Majok made one more shot from the charity stripe for a 5-2 advantage.
The game’s first field goal came 3 minutes, 9 seconds in when Alex spun to get free, then, while hanging in the air, he banked home a shot.
Fifteen seconds later, Alex drove for a bank shot, giving Portland its first lead, 6-5.
It didn’t last, as White fed sophomore Moses Oreste for a layup.
A baseline jumper from Portland senior Tanner Foley put the hosts back on top, but Deering senior Max Chabot came off the bench and knocked down a long jump shot for a 9-8 advantage.
After senior Cedric Smith scored on a putback and Alex hung in the air before banking home a shot, the Bulldogs were ahead, 12-9, but the Rams got a layup from junior Jason Thach and a 3-ball from Chabot to go on top, 14-12.
Alex countered with a free throw, but in the waning seconds, Majok made a layup after a steal (one of Portland’s eight turnovers in the first eight minutes) for a 16-13 advantage after one exciting quarter.
Oreste started the second period with two foul shots and Amir Moss answered with one. Majok then hit a leaner to make it 20-14, but Alex made a leaner while being fouled and added the free throw for an old-fashioned three-point play. Salamone scored his first point at the line, but Foley scored on a putback and Alex did the same to tie the score for the first time, 21-21.
With 4:42 left in the half, Ben Williams was called for a charge, his third foul, and his very limited first half came to an end.
“It hurts when your best player plays only about eight minutes in a game,” Deering coach Todd Wing lamented. “It’s hard to get a good rhythm going.”
Still, the Rams hung tough.
After sophomore Machar N’Guany made a free throw, N’Guany banked home a shot. Terion Moss made a runner off the glass, but Salamone answered with a layup. An Alex tip in was followed by a Salamone free throw before a jumper from Alex tied the score, 27-27.
Salamone put Deering back in the lead with two free throws, but Terion Moss deadlocked the score again with a jumper.
The Rams would finish the half strong, however, as Oreste made a jump shot and Salamone hit two more foul shots for a 33-29 lead at the break.
The biggest difference in the first 16 minutes was Deering’s 14-of-19 foul shooting, compared to Portland’s 5-of-11 effort from the stripe.
The contest would remain taut in the second half.
When Majok and Oreste both made jumpers to open up a 37-29 lead, the Bulldogs were on the ropes, but an unlikely hero sparked a run.
John Williams, who was bristling over not playing in the first half, made the most of his first look, burying a 3, ending a 3:37 drought and getting his teammates going.
“I’m just a good shooter, I guess,” Williams said. “I wanted to prove Coach wrong for not playing me in the first half. I wasn’t worried at all. I knew I could come in and make a shot and I was lucky enough to do it. I usually just chuck it up.”
“John made big shots,” Russo said. “He loves to shoot. We needed that against a triangle-and-two (defense). We had a chance to get a shot or a rebound.”
Portland senior Liam Densmore, who played his first three seasons at Deering, followed with a layup and Alex hit a jumper after a Smith steal, giving the Bulldogs seven points in 45 seconds and pulling them within a single point, 37-36.
The Rams refused to relinquish the lead, as White went coast to coast for a layup, but after grabbing an offensive rebound and being fouled, Alex made a free throw and with 2:49 left in the third period, Terion Moss buried a 3 to give Portland its first lead since 12-11.
Deering went right back on top, 42-40, when White made a 3. Amir Moss made a free throw, but Salamone drove for a layup. Foley hit a jumper, but Salamone made a foul shot for a 45-43 Rams’ advantage.
The Bulldogs pulled even when Terion Moss drove for a pretty left-handed layup, but racing down to the other end, Deering went back on top as Oreste hit a leaner.
The frenetic pace continued as Amir Moss put on an athletic show, driving for a layup, but seconds after Majok had to sit with his fourth foul, Thach made a free throw to put the Rams ahead, 48-47, with eight minutes to play.
The final stanza would be something to remember.
Just 22 seconds in, a driving layup by Williams produced the ninth lead change and gave Portland a 49-48 advantage.
At the other end, lead change number 10 featured a layup by N’Guany and Deering was up, 50-49.
With 7:15 to go, a pair of Terion Moss free throws gave the Bulldogs a 51-50 advantage. Amir Moss drove for a layup 21 seconds later, but an Oreste jumper, followed by a Salamone free throw forged a 53-53 tie.
That set the stage for John Williams to make another clutch 3, with 5:16 left, and the hosts were ahead, 56-53.
With 4:24 to play, Amir Moss was fouled on an offensive rebound and hit one of two free throws for Portland’s biggest lead, but the Rams roared back, as Salamone made a free throw, Ben Williams got his first two points at the line and with 3:22 left, Ben Williams added two more foul shots for a 58-57 Deering advantage.
Portland got a putback from Foley with 2:59 remaining, but Williams made two more free throws to give the Rams their final lead, 60-59, with 2:51 left.
Nine seconds later, the 15th and final lead change of the night saw the Bulldogs go ahead for good, as Alex drove for a layup and a 61-60 advantage.
After Ben Williams missed for Deering, Esposito grabbed the rebound and Portland pushed its lead to three as Densmore passed to Amir Moss for a layup with 2:14 to play.
A Majok bank shot pulled the Rams within a point with 1:59 showing, but that would prove to be the visitors’ final points of the night.
After Amir Moss missed a shot, Majok got the rebound and Deering had a chance to go ahead, but Alex stole the ball. Alex couldn’t hit a shot, however, and Salamone got the rebound, giving the Rams a chance, but Ben Williams was called for traveling.
With 26.8 seconds to play, Alex was fouled and went to the line for a 1-and-1.
While he wouldn’t make his free throw, Portland got a huge break, as Esposito went back up with the rebound and made a layup for a 65-62 advantage.
“Espo is a quality player,” Russo said. “He’s struggling right now, but he never gives up. That putback was huge. It gave us breathing room. Most kids would have packed up their tent and went home, but not Espo, he’s gutsy.”
Deering still had a chance to answer, but Ben Williams missed on a drive.
Luckily for the Rams, the rebound caromed out of bounds off a Bulldog and with 15 seconds to go, Deering had a chance to set up a play to tie the score.
It worked out nicely as the inbounds pass came to White on the wing and White had a good look at the basket, but his shot was off target.
“We wanted to shut down Malik and fortunately, he missed,” Amir Moss said.
Williams got the rebound, but couldn’t score and Amir Moss came down with the ball.
“We got the look we wanted,” Wing said. “We had the option of having Ben going tot he rim. We had a timeout, so we didn’t necessarily have to get a 3. We had two players in their best roles. It just didn’t fall.”
Moss broke free, hoping to run out the clock, but he was fouled.
The clock showed just 2.1 seconds remaining, but Wing was adamant that 5 or 6 seconds was more accurate.
“I thought there should have been more time left,” Wing said. “I looked at the clock because I anticipated we’d foul. I saw six seconds left. It’s a big difference.”
He argued to no avail and that loomed large as after Moss missed the front end of a 1-and-1 and Ben Williams got the rebound, the Rams’ last hurrah resulted in a Williams desperation heave that was well short of the basket.
Portland 65 Deering 62.
“We always play as a team when it matters most,” John Williams said. “Deering’s a fast and athletic team. I didn’t know it would be this close, but I had a feeling it might be. (Our win streak is) a huge accomplishment and we don’t want it shattered. We don’t want to lose. We don’t want to lose to Deering. There’s a lot of pride there.”
“It’s usually a dogfight with Deering,” Amir Moss said. “We expected them to be in our faces a lot and to press a lot. We stuck together and worked as a team. There was lots of relief when it was over.”
“This was a high energy game,” Alex said. “A rivalry game. They’re a really good team. We had to be ready. We’re both intense teams.”
“I told my kids that tonight was a team win,” Russo added. “It got ugly, but that’s because both teams pressed and created turnovers. It was hard-nosed, in-your-face defense. I don’t think we played that well in the first half, mentally or physically. In the second half, we came out and played with courage. We gave ourselves a chance. We knew they’d be tough. They beat teams we beat by the same gap. They have a quality team.
“We needed this because there will be games that are more important where we’ll find ourselves on our heels. We’ll have to play with courage and heart. We showed a lot of mental toughness in the second half. The guys have little varsity experience. They responded in a rivalry game. I love those kids.”
Alex had a game-high 21 points, 12 rebounds and six steals.
“We tried to get Steve Alex the ball,” Russo said. “He created those baskets on his own. He had a great game.”
Terion Moss had 11 points and a pair of steals, Amir Moss nine points (to go with four rebounds), Foley (seven boards and two steals) and Williams eight apiece, Esposito (six rebounds) four and Densmore and Smith (six boards and two steals) two each.
“Cedric had energy,” Russo said. “Terion is a shooter and banged home a couple shots.”
Portland enjoyed a 37-23 rebounding advantage, had 14 steals and only committed 13 turnovers (just two after halftime), but poor foul shooting (10 of 21) prevented it from pulling away sooner.
“We have to work on free throws, big time,” Russo said. “We can shoot well, but not from the 15-foot foul line.”
Deering was paced by 13 points apiece from Majok (six rebounds) and Salamone (a team-high eight boards). Oreste contributed 12 points, five rebounds and two steals. Williams was held to six points, Chabot (two steals), N’Guany and White had five apiece and Thach finished with three.
The Rams committed 20 turnovers (nine after halftime), but made a solid 24 of 33 free throws.
“It was a fun game,” Wing said. “It’s Deering-Portland. I keep it short and sweet in these games. It’s a game that features guys they used to play with. The beauty of rivalries is that it brings out the best in both teams. Hats off to Portland. They played well. They’ll be right there at the end. We get them again and we’ll be ready. You get angry about some losses, but we lost by a possession to a very good team. It happens.
“There’s been a lot of adversity. We’ve replaced five starters, but we’re getting better and better. Our bench is picking up. That’s what matters at the end of the year. One of the positives we’ll take out of this is our bench. Raffael came in and was superb. Moses is athletic. He came in and hit some shots. He was smart with the ball.”
The ancient rivals finish the regular season with Act II Thursday, Feb. 5 at Deering.
Both teams have plenty of heavy lifting to contend with first, however.
Deering (third behind Portland and Falmouth in the Western Class A Heal Points standings) is back in action Tuesday at Sanford. The Rams then return home to meet Scarborough Jan. 23 and Biddeford four days later. After playing at South Portland and Cheverus, the Rams close at home versus Portland.
Deering looks to get senior sparkplug Stephen Ochan and sophomore JeanClaude Nzenza healthy.
“Stephen has a compound dislocation,” Wing said. “He’s our leader. He’s our best defender. He’s a tremendous athlete. Because of his soccer skills, he has great court awareness and he makes our pressure go. We hope to get him back. Jean-Claude, who has played well for us, had a concussion against Marshwood. With those guys out, that’s opened things up for other guys. We’ll get healthy and we’ll have depth. This is when the fun really starts.”
The top-ranked Bulldogs, meanwhile, are back in action Saturday when Marshwood pays a visit. Portland then goes to Scarborough Tuesday, Sanford Thursday and Windham Jan. 27. After hosting Cheverus, the Bulldogs close at South Portland and Deering.
“We can’t let teams control the pace of the game,” Alex said. “We’re right up there with the team from last year. We have to keep building. This win gives us a ton of confidence to keep going. We have a lot of courage.”
“There’s lots of pressure (to be undefeated), but we have to forget the pressure and go out and play,” Amir Moss said. “We can get a lot better. We’re not playing to our full potential. We have to bring energy out of the gate. Show courage, play together and make free throws.”
“We don’t really talk about (being undefeated),” Russo added. “Last year, we didn’t focus on going undefeated and having the scoreboard take care of itself. No one mentions being undefeated, but it’s something the kids should be proud of and enjoy every day. It’ll end at some point. We have to make sure it doesn’t come at the wrong time.
“We have to be more in tune at crunch time. The kids are being challenged and they’re getting it. I feel so much more comfortable now thinking we can do something. They’re coachable and fun to be around. They stay out of trouble. They’re really enjoyable. It’s been a really enjoyable run so far.”
Deerign junior Malik White defends Portland junior Amir Moss as Deering coach Todd Wing barks out instructions.
Portland’s superb senior, Steve Alex, finds himself in a jam.
Portland junior Amir Moss soars to the basket.
Portland senior Liam Densmore, a former Ram, races up the floor.
Deering junior Ben Williams splits Portland junior Amir Moss (4) and freshman Terion Moss.
Deering sophomore Raffael Salamone puts up a shot as Portland senior Cedric Smith defends. Both players produced enormous efforts off the bench.
Deering junior Jason Thach launches a shot.
Deering junior Ben Williams tries to drive on Portland senior Steve Alex.
Portland’s fan section erupts after a Bulldogs’ basket. In the end, the group had plenty to cheer about.
Deering’s fans, conversely, suffered in agony.
Portland 39 @ Deering 35
@ Portland 46 Deering 22
@ Portland 56 Deering 45
@ Deering 49 Portland 48
Portland 60 @ Deering 57
@ Portland 71 Deering 47
@ Deering 59 Portland 50
@ Portland 53 Deering 47
Western A quarterfinals
Portland 48 Deering 41
@ Portland 63 Deering 55
Portland 64 @ Deering 49
Portland 63 @ Deering 58
Deering 61 @ Portland 58
Western A Final
Deering 70 Portland 64
@ Portland 54 Deering 46
Portland 55 @ Deering 52
Western A semifinals
Deering 57 Portland 54
Portland 85 @ Deering 46
@ Portland 65 Deering 38
Portland senior Cedric Smith (foreground) and senior Stephen Alex (background) are all smiles as they celebrate the Bulldogs’ palpitating 65-62 home win over rival Deering Thursday night.
Ben McCanna photos.
More photos below.
D- 16 17 15 14- 62
P- 13 16 18 18- 65
D- Majok 4-5-13, Salamone 2-9-13, Oreste 5-2-12, Williams 0-6-6, Chabot 2-0-5, N’Guany 2-1-5, White 2-0-5, Thach 1-1-3
P- Alex 9-3-21, T. Moss 4-2-11, A. Moss 3-3-9, Foley 4-0-8, Williams 3-0-8, Esposito 1-2-4, Densmore 1-0-2, Smith 1-0-2
D (2) Chabot, White 1
P (3) Williams 2, T. Moss 1
D (23) Salamone 8, Majok 6, Oreste 5, White 2, Coon, Williams 1
P (37) Alex 12, Foley 7, Esposito, Smith 6, A. Moss 4, Densmore 2
D (6) Chabot, Oreste 2, Majok, Thach 1
P (14) Alex 6, Foley, T. Moss, Smith 2, Esposito, A. Moss 1
D (2) Coon, Salamone 1
P (2) Esposito, Smith 1