PORTLAND – Paul Harris has been with the Maine Red Claws for only six days and stresses he has a long way to go before he’s in playing shape.
He might have a hard time convincing people after Sunday’s performance.
Harris had 30 points, 16 rebounds, seven assists and two blocked shots to lead the Red Claws to a much-needed 106-99 victory over the Erie BayHawks at the Portland Expo.
More than that, Harris — who missed all of training camp and the first five games of the season due to the premature birth of his son, Mason Sean — provided veteran leadership and a commanding presence when needed.
“He’s not really in great shape yet, but dog gone it, he nearly got a triple-double,” said Red Claws Coach Dave Leitao. “His voice was as loud as his game today too, just directing people. We’re hoping that once he rounds into shape and gets his legs under him, he’ll be even better.”
The Red Claws (3-5) out-scored Erie 9-2 in the final three minutes, with Harris squarely in the middle of the closing rally.
Erie (3-7) tied the game at 97 on back-to-back baskets by Loren Stokes. But with 2:54 left, Harris, uncovered on the back side, stuck in an offensive rebound to give the Red Claws a 99-97 lead. The BayHawks missed two chances to tie the game or take the lead, then Harris made a crucial assist.
He had the ball in the right corner, dribbled toward the lane then sent the ball to an open Justin Brownlee outside the 3-point arc. Brownlee’s straight-on shot was true, giving the Red Claws a 102-97 lead.
“He stepped up,” said Harris. “That was, in my opinion, the biggest shot of the game.”
“Coach told me to always be ready, with my knees, to shoot,” said Brownlee. “I was just thinking about what he said in practice and just locking in and focusing on that shot.”
Erie cut it to three on a layup by Kyle Spain, but Dominic Calegari and Harris each hit two foul shots in the final 43 seconds to help the Red Claws avenge Saturday night’s loss to the BayHawks.
“We needed it,” said Harris. “We couldn’t go 0-2 this weekend. We’re just happy that the fans stuck by us and we went out and won this for the fans.”
Red Claws point guard Darren Cooper said Harris’ performance was just what the team needed.
“He was aggressive from the jump and that’s what we needed,” said Cooper. “He was aggressive offensively and defensively and that was a big key for us, to have someone who was going to do that at both ends.”
For his part, Harris — who was 12 of 17 at the foul line — said he simply played his game.
“I let the game come to me, try to take shots that I knew I could make,” he said. “And my teammates found me in great position and I just went out there and played hard, the way I know I can play.”
The game was tight throughout, with 11 ties and eight lead changes. Erie’s biggest lead was six, Maine’s seven.
It was tied at 80 entering the final period. And holding Erie to just 19 points in the final 12 minutes was especially gratifying to Leitao.
“We talked about it at the end of the third, that somebody was going to make a run and that run was going to win the game,” said Leitao. “It needed to be us … and we finished it off right.”
Defensively, the Red Claws took away much of what Erie did successfully Saturday night. But, Harris said, the Red Claws also dug deep at the end.
“It was just determination,” he said. “The coaching staff told us to keep fighting and keep fighting and something good would happen for us. And it happened on the defensive end. We blocked out and rebounded and executed down the stretch.
“We really were helping a lot and there was a lot more talking and communication out there. I would say we took a step forward today instead of backwards.”
Courtney Pigram continued his strong offensive play for the Red Claws with 20 points.
NOTES: Attendance was 2,785, the third consecutive non-sellout at the Expo. The Red Claws had sold out their first 49 home games. Jon Jennings, the president and general manager of the Red Claws, said he wasn’t concerned about that, citing the preseason uncertainty of the NBA season and the poor economy. “I can’t tell you how many people came up to me and said, ‘It’s too bad you’re not playing this season,”‘ he said. “They thought because the NBA wasn’t playing, we weren’t. Now that everything is good at the NBA level, we’re looking to get back to where we were. I’m not concerned, but we’re focused on getting back to where we’ve been.”
Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at: