PORTLAND, Maine — When it comes to the Portland boys’ basketball team, opponents can only pick their poison and hope for a little good fortune.
Friday evening at the Portland Exposition Building, in a Western Class A quarterfinal round contest against eighth-ranked Noble, the undefeated and top-ranked Bulldogs weren’t getting their usual offensive production out of their standout senior trio of Jayvon Pitts-Young, Matt Talbot and Justin Zukowski, so Portland turned to someone else to make the difference.
That someone was junior Steve Alex, who not only stepped up, but had a career night in the process.
With Pitts-Young sidelined due to early foul trouble, Alex more than picked up the slack, producing 16 points and five steals in the first half as Portland gradually opened up a lead which reached a dozen, 36-24, at halftime.
Then, in the second half, the Bulldogs unleashed their full arsenal and ended all doubt.
Pitts-Young scored five points in the first 34 seconds of the third period, Talbot came to life and put on a show and sophomore Amir Moss, in his first tournament game, also made those on hand turn heads as Portland blew it open to take a 66-35 lead by quarter’s end.
The Bulldogs never looked back from there and went on to an 81-52 triumph, their 19th without a loss this winter.
Alex had a game-high 22 points and was one of five Portland players in double figures. The Bulldogs ended Noble’s fine season at 11-9 and advanced to set up a semifinal round city showdown with rival Deering (13-6) Wednesday evening at the new-and-improved Cumberland County Civic Center.
“From your spot, it looked easy, but from my spot it didn’t,” said longtime Portland coach Joe Russo. “Noble is a quality foe. Anytime you have guards like they have and they’re seniors, they can do a lot of good things. We were very, very concerned about them. ”
Portland’s undefeated regular season was its first since the 1998-99 squad went 22-0 and cut down the nets.
This year’s team knows it will be measured by whether or not it can duplicate that feat and based on their regular season dominance (their average margin of victory was 24 points), the Bulldogs have the goods, but Noble, which appearing in its first Western A quarterfinal after edging visiting No. 9 Gorham, 66-63, in Tuesday’s preliminary round, gave Portland a test way back on Dec. 10 in North Berwick, when the Bulldogs prevailed, 66-54.
The teams had no playoff history.
Friday, while the Knights were basking in their first exposure to the big stage, Portland treated its first playoff hurdle like business as usual.
Talbot set the tone just 17 seconds in with a blocked shot, but Noble kept possession alive and senior Austin Swart set up classmate Brady Dodge for a 3-pointer.
It took 2 minutes, 2 seconds for the Bulldogs to break the ice, which Pitts-Young managed to do by driving the baseline for a layup, but with 5:20 left in the first period, Pitts-Young was called for his second foul and he was done for the quarter.
After Alex put Portland on top for the first time with a leaner off the glass, Knights senior Grayson Waterman made two foul shots.
A pretty spin move followed by a layup from Zukowski gave the Bulldogs the lead, but with Noble coach Mike Waterman screaming for a timeout, senior Sean Jackson found Dodge for a layup.
Alex then scored five straight points, hitting a leaner while being fouled and adding the free throw for the old-fashioned three-point play, then making a layup. Senior reserve Dan Kane added a free throw, but senior Jacob Coffey hit two free throws for the Knights. An Alex layup after a steal made it 14-9 Bulldogs after one.
Alex had nine points and two steals in the period.
Portland distanced itself a bit in the second, but couldn’t quite pull away for good.
Thirty-nine seconds in, a technical foul was called on the Noble bench and Alex made one of two free throws to get in double figures.
He wasn’t done, as he scored on a putback, then made a layup after a steal.
“I was just looking to get to the basket and if I wasn’t open, I’d pass it,” Alex said. “I think I just had a nose for the ball the whole game. Everyone pays so much attention to (Jayvon, Justin and Matt), so I can get to the basket.”
Godbout then set up Talbot for a resounding dunk with 6:20 to go and the Bulldogs had a 21-9 advantage.
With 6:04 to go before halftime, Noble ended Portland’s 9-0 run and its 3 minute, 5 second drought when senior Sean Jackson scored on a runner, but Zukowski scored on a runner, then drove for a layup to make it 25-11.
After Waterman sank a 3 for the Knights, Pitts-Young returned with 4:44 left in the half and 38 seconds later, drove for a layup. Moss added a layup to push the lead to 15, 29-14.
After a Dodge foul shot, Moss countered with one, but Jackson knocked down a 3, then made a free throw.
Alex set up Zukowski for a layup, but Waterman knocked down a 3 to pull his team within 10.
In the final minute, Alex scored on a bank shot, but Jackson answered with a banker. then, inside the final second, Alex set up Talbot for a layup and a 36-24 lead at the break.
Portland blew it open in the third.
In an eight-second span, Pitts-Young stole the ball, made a layup, was fouled and hit a free throw, then, after an Alex steal, Pitts-Young made another layup to suggest the Bulldogs were ready to end matters.
After Jackson converted a three-point play for Noble, Alex set up Talbot for a layup. Swart made a free throw, but Zukowski knocked down a 3.
After Waterman hit a jumper in the lane, Alex set up Talbot for a layup, Zukowski set up Alex for a layup, Alex set up Pitts-Young for a breakout layup, Zukowski, off an inbounds set, passed to Pitts-Young for a layup, Talbot made a layup and with 4:06 remaining in the frame, Alex made a layup after a steal to cap the 12-0 run and essentially end the competitive phase of the contest, making it 58-30.
A 3 from Dodge ended the run, but Moss scored on a leaner and Zukowski fed Pitts-Young for a fastbreak layup.
After Knights senior Keegan Whelan made a bank shot, Moss scored a layup and Moss added two foul shots to make it 66-35 with eight minutes to go.
“Our energy was better in the second half,” Moss said. “We regrouped in the locker room. Jay came out strong.”
“I thought they played a great first half, so we focused on coming out in the second half with a lot of energy and the energy was brought by Jayvon,” Russo said. “I kept him out a little longer because of the magnitude of the game. We talked about halftime about how I thought we didn’t play well in the first half.”
In their limited remaining time, Portland’s starters contiued to shine down the stretch.
After Dodge made a 3 for Noble, Talbot put home his own miss. The next time down the floor, the extremely talented senior big man did even better, somehow managing to bank home a missed shot with one hand to push the lead to 70-38.
After Waterman converted a three-point play, Pitts-Young set up Moss for a 3-ball. Waterman countered with a jumper, but Zukowski made two free throws.
Dodge entertained the Knights’ cheering section with back-to-back 3s and added a foul shot, but Alex made two free throws to cap Dodge’s personal run.
With 2:20 to go, Dodge scored his and his team’s final points of the season, on a driving layup. Portland then closed out its 81-52 triumph as Kane made two free throws, Moss hit one and sophomore Joey Esposito added one more for good measure.
“I’m glad we got past this first one and now we’re off to the Civic Center,” Alex said. “I thought we just stepped on the gas in the second half. We knew they had key seniors and we had to watch out for them.”
“We have to take it one game at a time,” said Pitts-Young. “The first game’s the hardest. We got the butterflies out and did what we had to do to get the ‘W.'”
“First games in a tournament, especially for a number one seed, can be tough, but the guys handled it,” Russo added.
Alex has been turning heads all season, but he really sparkled on the big stage Friday, scoring 22 points, while adding seven steals, six assists, five rebounds and adding a blocked shot for good measure.
“Steve Alex set the tone early and did whatever he could to help us out,” Pitts-Young said. “I think by the end of the tournament, he’ll be a household name.”
“Steve Alex carried us and took over when we struggled without Jay and without Matt in his rhythm,” said Russo.
Pitts-Young made the most of his second half and had 15 points, two boards, two assists and a steal.
“(The first half) was frustrating, but I’m not worried about my minutes,” said Pitts-Young. “I was worried about my teammates and worried about getting the win. I was the biggest cheerleader in the stadium. I didn’t have anything to prove, but I felt like I owed my team something for being out and just wanted to contribute (in the second half).”
Talbot also erupted in the second half and had 14 points, 12 rebounds and four blocks.
Moss was huge, especially with Pitts-Young on the bench and added 13 points, four boards, two steals and a block.
“I just try to contribute the best way I can,” Moss said. “Whatever the team needs. I just try to bring a spark. I wasn’t happy about (playing so much because of fouls), because Jay is one of our best players, but it felt good to come in and contribute like that and play more minutes.”
“Amir is always working hard,” Pitts-Young said. “You can count on him to get rebounds, get loose balls.”
Zukowski, the quiet leader, had 13 points, three assists, two boards, a steal and a block.
Kane had three points and Esposito one.
Portland had a 33-21 rebounding advantage and posted 13 steals. The Bulldogs turned the ball over a respectable 14 times, forced 18 Noble turnovers and made 15 of 23 free throws.
The Knights were led by Dodge’s 21 points, most of which came courtesy his five 3-pointers. Waterman added 15 points, Jackson had 11, Coffey and Whelan two apiece and Swart one.
Noble made 10 of 15 free throws.
While Portland had never before faced Noble in the postseason, it’s seen its next foe, Deering (which survived No. 12 Marshwood, 60-53, in an overtime thriller in its quarterfinal), four times over the years (dating to 1955). Over the past 50 years, the ancient rivals have only met on three occasions: Rams’ wins in the 2005 semifinals (57-54) and 2006 regional final (70-64) and a Bulldogs’ victory in the most recent encounter, the 2008 quarterfinals (48-41).
Still, the Bulldogs know that the Civic Center is an entirely different venue and their rival has nothing to lose, hence making the Rams very dangerous.
“We can’t overlook (Deering) at all,” said Pitts-Young. “We can’t overlook anyone.”
“We have to go out there, play like we’ve been playing, maybe better,” said Moss. “We can’t take anyone for granted.”
“I think there’s pressure on these guys,” Russo added. “We can only do what we can do and hopefully things can work out. These guys realize we beat Deering twice, but they know Deering can be ready for us. We’ll see what they do and we’ll make an adjustment. The kids will be ready.”