The referee’s hand went up, signaling yet another foul, and John Wassenbergh’s hopes went down. Chris Keene, his South Portland High teammate and his friend had just fouled out of the game.
On the South Portland bench, head coach Tony DiBiase turned to assistant coach Billy Whitmore and asked: now who?
Bangor High’s lead was at 12 points with a bit more than two minutes to play. Its fans were leaving their seats at the Cumberland County Civic Center to mass under the Bangor basket and storm the court at the end of the game. No one wanted to be left behind to celebrate Bangor’s upset victory over South Portland in the game for the 1992 Class A state championship.
Somewhere in the capacity crowd, Joanne Soucy put on her coat with a heavy heart. A supporter of South Portland teams, she needed to return to the high school to set up the postgame reception. Win or lose, the community would honor its boys’ basketball team.
“I remember thinking how hard we had worked,” Wassenbergh said 20 years later, remembering his thoughts as Keene, the team’s point guard, headed to the bench. “An undefeated season was going down the drain.”
He was wrong. It took five overtimes, but South Portland beat Bangor, 81-79. The game ended after midnight, some three hours after it started. No one who played or watched will ever forget what Bangor Coach Roger Reed described this week as an “epic struggle” between two teams of teenagers who simply wouldn’t give in to their opponents or fatigue.
And a player who took things into his own hands in the fourth quarter. When DiBiase turned to Whitmore to ask who should replace Keene, the answer was Bert Rich, a junior guard. DiBiase had to pause.
“I play as many kids in the first half as I can to see how they fit in,” said DiBiase. “This was a big game, big crowd. Bert didn’t play well in the first half.”
Rich replaced Keene. His first shot was swatted into the seats by Chris Pickering of Bangor. DiBiase gave Whitmore a questioning look.
Rich got the ball again and tried a 3-pointer. It went in. So did his second and third. It didn’t matter how far back Bangor’s defense was pushing him. Suddenly South Portland was back in the game. “My role was to start launching bombs,” said Rich from his office at a JPMorgan Chase bank in Tampa, Fla.
“I had an ability to focus late in games. I don’t know where it came from.”
As Rich’s shots found the basket, more and more South Portland fans left their seats. Soon, hundreds were behind both baskets. Steve Crane, the arena general manager, had to redeploy his staff for crowd control.
The game went into overtime. A second overtime and another. Soon, some lost track of which overtime the game was in. The pace of the game slowed, becoming a chess match. Players were conscious of how many fouls they had.
“I didn’t want to foul out,” said Mark Reed, son of the Bangor coach. Mark Reed’s shot-making kept his team in the game. His fall-away jumper after a South Portland turnover sent the game into its fifth overtime.
The concessions had closed back in the fourth quarter. Crane didn’t give a thought to reopening them. “Who was going to leave their seat?” he asked.
Friends later told DiBiase there were so many people in Portland’s Old Port bars with televisions tuned to the game. Norma Reed, wife and mother of Bangor’s coach and star player, walked the arena corridors, unable to watch.
Tournament director Bob Whytock asked or ordered the crowds surrounding the court to return to their seats. Not many did.
Back at South Portland High, Joanne Soucy had finished setting up for the reception and waited. And waited. And waited. She didn’t have access to a radio or television, and certainly no cellphone.
The more she waited, the angrier she got, thinking the community had forsaken its team because of the defeat.
Jim Dixon, an usher who was working crowd control at that point, could feel “electricity” running through the building. Dixon has worked at the Civic Center for 26 years and still can’t think of another event that compared.
He remembers there wasn’t an empty seat for much of the night. Earlier, Cindy Blodgett and her Lawrence High team had beaten Portland. When the South Portland team arrived, Wassenbergh remembers tournament officials couldn’t find enough empty seats for the team. They sat on the arena floor.
On the court during the boys’ game, referee Gary Agger went about his job with his Eastern Maine partner, Michael Webb. They maintained the “tunnel vision” referees need, said Agger. But they were aware they were involved in something that was becoming more special with each overtime.
With 1:06 left in the fifth overtime, Jeff Hogan of South Portland hit two foul shots. Bangor couldn’t score the points to send the game to a sixth overtime. The longest high school championship game played in Maine was finally over.
Wassenbergh, who had transferred to South Portland from a high school in metropolitan New York that summer, went into the stands to hug his parents while fans celebrated on the court. He scored 43 points that night.
Later, after showering and dressing, Wassenbergh and Rich saw Mark Reed and his Bangor teammates come into their locker room. The players who had fought each other so hard for so long couldn’t leave without talking about their shared experience.
They lingered for nearly 30 minutes, bonding over a shared experience.
“The game was such a hard-fought game, you leave the floor with a tremendous amout of respect for the other team,” said Mark Reed. “What a story, with Bert coming off the bench like that.”
The teams met again in the state final a year later. This time Bangor won easily. Rich remembers that he may have been the only player in a South Portland uniform smiling.
“I felt good for Bangor after what we went through together the year before. It was their turn.”
Wassenbergh, now a senior vice president of sales for a company in Manhattan, thinks of the five-overtime game often. “I’ve been fortunate to have played basketball all over the world, be named an All-American at St. Joseph’s (College), but that game will always mean more to me.
“Just talking with the Bangor players for 30 minutes (in the locker room). “After all the games I’ve played, that’s never happened.”
No one planned a 20-year reunion. Maybe they should. Eight months after winning the basketball championship, Rich rushed for well over 300 yards in a football game with Biddeford, the rival power of the early 1990s. He went to the University of Maine and played football, becoming a teammate of John Tennett, who played basketball for Bangor.
While university students, Rich was an assistant junior varsity coach at Bangor High and Tennett was the freshman coach. Both joined Reed’s staff in the playoffs. Tuesday night, Reed made a simple request.
“When you talk to Bert, please send him my regards. He was such a great player and a humble kid.”
They all were.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: