PORTLAND—The Deering Rams might be the defending Class A boys’ basketball champions, but the Portland Bulldogs continue to own city bragging rights.
Thursday evening at the Portland Exposition Building, in the first of two scheduled meetings this winter, the Bulldogs made it four straight wins over their rivals thanks to a staunch defensive effort and some clutch play down the stretch.
Coming off surprising, successive losses in the past week at Thornton Academy and at home to Westbrook, in which it blew fourth-quarter leads, Portland was once again in jeopardy of letting a victory slip away when an 11-point advantage with just over a minute to go was cut to five in the waning seconds, but Deering wasn’t able to take advantage of an opportunity that could have made it a one-possession contest and after a steal, Bulldogs junior Matt Talbot capped his stellar evening with a layup that brought the curtain down on a 44-37 victory.
Talbot had a team-high 11 points, Portland forced 21 turnovers, led virtually the whole way and got back on the right track as it improved to 11-2 on the season, dropping the Rams to 12-2.
“[Letting a win slip away] almost happened again, but we closed better,” said Talbot. “It’s going to be easier to sleep tonight. Our intensity helped tonight. It means a little more when it’s a crosstown rival. We don’t really talk about it, but this was one we really wanted.”
Deering ended up atop the Class A world last winter, but one thing the Rams couldn’t do was beat Portland. The Bulldogs eked out a 39-35 decision at Deering and romped, 46-22, at the Expo.
Entering Thursday, since the 2003-04 season, Portland had taken 15 of 21 meetings. The Bulldogs had an all-time record of 135-77 against the Rams.
Both teams have lived up to billing this winter, although they’ve taken divergent paths of late.
Portland opened with a 57-39 home win over Marshwood, then won at Sanford (68-48) and Cheverus (73-49), held off visiting Bonny Eagle in a thriller, 55-52, before closing the 2012 portion of its schedule with a 63-53 victory at Scarborough and a 73-44 home win over Gorham. The Bulldogs opened 2013 with a 69-40 romp at Biddeford, then defeated host Windham (49-31), visiting Kennebunk (68-33) and visiting South Portland (63-47), avenging last year’s quarterfinal round playoff loss in the process. Then, the bottom fell out as Portland lost at Thornton Academy (64-52) Friday and at home to Westbrook Tuesday (46-45).
Deering opened with wins over visiting Thornton Academy (77-28), host Marshwood (51-39), host Massabesic (80-40), visiting Noble (67-44) and host Sanford (47-39), then dropped an agonizing 45-44 home decision to Bonny Eagle. The Rams bounced back to defeat host Kennebunk (70-37), rallied for a palpitating 58-52 overtime win at South Portland, then defeated host Biddeford (69-51), visiting Cheverus (71-63), visiting Scarborough (54-50), host Westbrook (49-41) and visiting Windham (69-34).
Thursday, Deering sought its first win over Portland at the Expo since its 2005-06 championship season, but once again, the Bulldogs had the last laugh.
The first half was almost devoid of offense.
It took 100 seconds for Portland to break the ice as junior Justin Zukowski made two free throws. After Deering senior Labson Abwoch tied it with a jumper, Zukowski knocked down a 3-pointer. Rams senior Thiwat Thiwat answered with a layup and classmate Dominic Lauture tied the score with a free throw, but a layup by sophomore Steve Alex (from Zukowski) gave the Bulldogs the lead back. In the final minute, the Rams got a free throw from junior Ahmed Ismail Ahmed and as time expired, Ahmed took a difficult crosscourt pass from Lauture and buried a 3-pointer to give Deering its first (and only) lead, 9-7.
A free throw from Talbot and a Pitts-Young 3-pointer put Portland back on top, 11-9. After Abwoch had a shot blocked by Portland senior Nate Smart, but put home the rebound, the Bulldogs grabbed a 14-11 advantage on a 3-pointer from Zukowski (assisted by Smart). The visitors again pulled even as senior Medhane Haleform made a free throw and Thiwat scored on a putback, but with 3:13 left before halftime, a runner from Talbot gave Portland the lead for good. Senior Cosmo Donato added a putback and Alex hit two free throws with no time left on the clock for a 20-14 lead at the break.
The Bulldogs took further control in the third quarter.
Smart got things started by taking a pass from Pitts-Young and canning a 3-pointer. The next time down the floor, Smart somehow got a shot off while being guarded by two defenders and it found its target to push the lead to 25-14.
“The scary thing is we’ve had several big games this year and those were Nate Smart’s better games,” said Portland coach Joe Russo. “I hate to say we go by the way he plays, but if you look at what we’re doing, he has to knock down shots.”
With 6:07 to go in the third, after a 5 minute, 44 second drought, Deering got a layup after a steal from Ahmed to end the 11-0 Portland run, but Talbot (from senior Nick Volger) hit a 3-pointer to push the advantage to 12.
Abwoch countered with a layup, but Talbot made a jumper and after a steal, Volger was fouled and sank both attempts. An Abwoch jumper with time winding down pulled the Rams back to within a dozen, 32-20.
In the fourth, Deering’s offense finally came to life, nearly matching its output of the first three quarters, but it wasn’t enough.
A 3-pointer from junior Ahmed Ali pulled the Rams within nine, but Zukowski fed Smart for a layup (ending a 5:07 drought) and Volger made a layup after a steal to push the lead back to 13, 36-23, with just 3:43 to go.
Abwoch made a driving layup, but a Talbot foul shot with 2:45 remaining made it 37-25.
Ali sank another 3-pointer nine seconds later, but with 1:32 to go, Pitts-Young was fouled and made both ends of a one-and-one to make it 39-28 and seemingly put the game away.
Not so fast.
Lauture came to life, scoring six points in just four seconds, sinking a 3-pointer, then stealing the ball, making a layup while being fouled and adding the free throw to suddenly make it just a five-point game, 39-34, with 1:03 still to play.
After Zukowski missed the front end of a one-and-one, Smart batted the ball up top and Portland retained possession. With 53.5 seconds left, Pitts-Young missed the front end of a one-and-one, but Deering was called for a lane violation and Pitts-Young took advantage, making two free throws for a 41-34 lead.
“I don’t mind being at the line at all,” Pitts-Young said. “I’m pretty calm.”
After Lauture missed a 3-pointer, Pitts-Young was fouled again and with 41.9 seconds showing, he made one of two shots to push the lead to eight, but with 31.2 seconds remaining, Abwoch scored on a putback, was fouled and made the free throw and the Rams still had life, down, 42-37.
Lauture then came up with another steal and drove for a layup, but Zukowski tied him up and the possession arrow favored the Bulldogs.
Portland then turned the ball over, but Talbot stole it back and was fouled.
He missed his free throws, but as time wound down, Talbot got the ball back, courtesy Smart, and made a layup to make it official.
Bulldogs 44 Rams 37.
“I wasn’t getting too nervous,” said Pitts-Young. “The last few games, we haven’t scored in the fourth quarter. I think we did a lot better today. We finished the game tonight. We came ready to play. The game plan was to go out and play. We went out and competed.”
“A win’s a win,” said Russo. “When you lose two in a row, you need a win. It doesn’t matter who it’s against, however, it’s a lot to ask of a team that’s sliding to beat the best team in the league. We went from the frying pan to the fire. We responded. It’s a great way to hopefully come out of the slide, to do it against a quality team. This hopefully gives the guys some confidence.
“The kids played great defense. Our man-to-man defense is what we tried to be best at. We tried multiple defenses the past few games and wanted to go back to basics. We’ve still got to figure out how to finish stronger. The difference tonight was we managed a few points. If we didn’t score, we’d have been in trouble. We got a few layups and some free throws.”