PORTLAND, Maine — Hampden Academy boys basketball coach Russ Bartlett suggested in the days leading up to the Class A state championship game that the Portland Bulldogs were the best opponent his team has faced in the last two years.
He wasn’t lying.
Portland scored 17 unanswered points to close out the first quarter Saturday night and never allowed the Broncos a serious comeback bid in winning its first gold ball in a decade with a convincing 54-40 victory in their battle of the unbeatens at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
“Coming into the game people were saying we were the underdogs,” said Portland senior guard Justin Zukowski, who contributed 11 points, seven rebounds and five assists. “We just wanted to make a statement. We came out in our fullcourt pressure, got in their face and proved everybody wrong.”
Portland finished the season with a 22-0 record while Hampden, the 2013 state champion, had its bid for a second straight unbeaten season derailed as well as a 43-game winning streak that dated back to its loss at the same site to Deering of Portland in the 2012 state final.
“The first quarter they really out-toughed us, and that falls on me,” said Hampden coach Russ Bartlett, whose Broncos finished the season at 21-1. “I felt like we were really prepared but they were a lot more physical than we were ready for and we dug ourselves a big hole.”
Portland set the tone for the game with a matchup 2-2-1 fullcourt trapping defense the likes of which Hampden hadn’t seen this year.
The pressure forced several early turnovers by the Broncos, and even when they were able to beat the press they often rushed shots in anticipation of the pursuing Bulldogs.
By the time Hampden began to become somewhat more comfortable against the pressure, Portland was comfortably ahead.
“I didn’t know that we could press them,” said Portland coach Joe Russo, “but that’s how we play, and I wasn’t going to change from that because that’s what the kids know.”
Senior center Matt Talbot led the Bulldogs offensively, scoring eight of his 16 points in the first quarter — including a pair of 3-pointers to spark Portland’s early surge.
“That was our plan from the beginning, to feed the ball to Matt,” said Zukowski. “He’s the best player on this team, so we fed it into him and let him do the work.”
Talbot opened this highly anticipated contest with a 3-pointer to help Portland build a 5-0 lead before a coast-to-coast drive by Nick Gilpin and a fast-break 3-pointer by Zach Gilpin rallied Hampden to a 5-5 tie 2½ minutes into play.
It was the high point of the night for the Broncos.
Talbot hit a fadeaway jumper and Steve Alex scored twice after Portland grabbed offensive rebounds, then two 3-pointers by Zukowski around a third by Talbot extended the run before Amir Moss beat the first-quarter buzzer with a fast-break layup after Hampden’s seventh turnover of the period to give Portland a stunning 22-5 lead.
“We actually played them last year in a preseason game and the same thing happened,” said Zach Gilpin, a senior who capped off his career at Hampden with game-high totals of 22 points and 11 rebounds. “We got down in a big hole and battled back, we were behind 14 at halftime and ended up battling back and winning. We couldn’t get it done tonight.”
Portland’s first-half lead grew to as much as 27-9 on a Jayvon Pitts-Young free throw midway through the second quarter, but Zach Gilpin’s slam dunk off a baseline drive and a three-point play by Nick Gilpin after a Cam Scott steal were highlights of a late rally that drew Hampden within 30-18 by intermission.
Hampden got as close as 11 early in the third quarter on a 3-pointer by Scott and then had possession with a chance to get to within single digits, but the Broncos came up empty and Pitts-Young game up big, scoring eight of his 12 points on the night in the period as Portland surged back out to a 45-31 lead.
Portland then scored the first five points of the fourth quarter to put the game away.
“We got settled in the second quarter and cut it to 12, and we felt like we needed to have a big third quarter to have a chance and got it to 11 once or twice and had a couple of consecutive stops, but we turned it over and didn’t score,” said Bartlett, whose team finished the night with 17 turnovers while shooting just 28 percent (14 of 50) from the field..
“They flat-out outplayed us tonight. They were the better team on the floor.”