Portland handled Deering with ease twice in the regular season, but their third meeting Wednesday night in the Western Class A boys’ basketball semifinals was a little bit different.
The top-ranked Bulldogs (20-0) used a big third quarter to gain a good cushion and needed all of it late in the fourth quarter before finishing off Deering 64-49 at the newly renovated Cumberland County Civic Center.
Portland advances to the regional final at 9 p.m. Saturday against No. 3 Bonny Eagle (19-1), which beat second-seeded Falmouth 62-61.
The final score between the city rivals wasn’t indicative of the game. Portland, which won by 35 points at Deering and by 17 points at the Expo in the regular-season matchups, found itself tied 19-19 at halftime.
The Bulldogs made some adjustments at halftime, going to a half-court trapping press that caused Deering turnovers. Portland reeled off eight straight points before a Deering timeout and eventually opened a 15-point lead late in the third quarter.
Portland’s scoring was well-distributed during the decisive 18-3 run. Justin Zukowski had seven points in the third quarter, and both Jayvon-Pitts Young and Matt Talbot were 4 for 4 from the line. The Bulldogs took a 41-27 lead into the fourth.
“We were playing not to lose,” Zukowski said of the first half. “We were going to lose if we kept playing like that. We knew we had to pick it up in the second half. We moved to a half-court press at the start of the second half and forced Deering to make tighter passes.
“It was an ugly win.”
Ben Williams scored 12 points in the fourth quarter to bring Deering back. A 3-point play by Williams made it 48-42 with four minutes left, and it was 50-44 after Ahmed Ali scored inside with just over three minutes remaining.
But then Zukowski, as he has done several times this season, scored on a coast-to-coast drive and followed with another drive in which he passed off to Amir Moss for a layup. That gave the Bulldogs a nine-point lead, and Zukowski was perfect from the line, going 8 for 8 in the final two minutes.
Zukowski finished with 20 points, Pitts-Young added 15 points, and Talbot and Steve Alex each had 10.
“Deering was face-guarding Matt, which opened it up for us,” said Zukowski.
Of his full-court drives, Zukowski said: “When I have pressure on me, I like to penetrate.”
Deering fell behind 10-2 but scored six straight late in the opening quarter and trailed 12-8. The Rams outscored Portland 11-7 in the second quarter. Patrick Lobor had six points in the second quarter, while Ahmed Ali added five.
At the start of the third quarter, the Rams missed a wide-open layup that would have given them the lead. Portland then surged ahead for good.
“We gave ourselves a chance,” said Deering Coach Todd Wing. “Our strategy was to really work our possessions and give us a chance in the fourth, which we did. The guys executed our game plan and I couldn’t be prouder.”
Deering started the season four new starters and a new head coach in Wing, who was an assistant under Dan LeGage.
“I think we peaked at the right time. The kids worked hard. We just came up a little short tonight,” said Wing.
Williams led Deering with 15 points.
“We beat Deering twice with ease, and then you find yourself in a tight game in the most important game of the season,” said Portland Coach Joe Russo. “We had a good halftime talk about what we had to do. Our first-half press wasn’t what we wanted it to be, so we made a couple changes. Deering played awesome. They mixed it up on defense.”
Portland beat Bonny Eagle 69-60 on Jan. 14 at St. Joseph’s College in their only regular-season game.
Tom Chard can be contacted at 791-6419 or at: