Portland center Matt Talbot calls Saturday’s Class A boys’ basketball state championship game against Hampden Academy “a perfect matchup.”
“I think it’s going to be an amazing game,” said Talbot. “It should be fun. These are two teams that really don’t want to lose.”
And two teams that haven’t lost.
Talbot is right in his assessment. This is the marquee matchup Class A fans around the state have awaited.
“Portland is the best team we’ve played in two years,” said Hampden Academy Coach Russ Bartlett.
Portland and Hampden Academy are both 21-0. The Broncos have won 43 straight games. They beat South Portland in last year’s final 45-41 at the Augusta Civic Center. Hampden is playing in its third straight state final. The Broncos lost to Deering in the 2012 final 59-50 at the Cumberland County Civic Center, their last loss.
Portland and Hampden Academy play at 7 p.m. at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
The Portland seniors have been playing together since middle school. Talbot and Travis Godbout attended the same grammar school and have been playing together since the third grade.
“It has always been our dream to play in a state championship,” said Talbot.
“Coach (Joe) Russo instilled in our freshman year the importance of working hard.”
The Bulldogs have the grittiness and toughness of past strong Portland teams. This team has a chance of matching Portland’s perfect season of 1998-99. The 2003-04 team lost only one game in winning the state title. Russo’s 2006-07 team won the regional title but lost to Bangor in the state final 56-39 at the Augusta Civic Center.
“We’ve had to work hard to be good,” said Russo. “There’s no excuse for not working hard and that’s what we stress. You can’t control everything on the basketball court but players can work hard. Everyone can dive for a loose ball, go for a rebound and play defense.”
The Bulldogs have the athleticism to match their other skills. They have a little bit of the 1999 and 2004 championship teams in them.
“They’re a little blue collar like my 1998-99 team and they like to lead by example like my 2003-04 team. The players on the 1998-99 team weren’t afraid of speaking out if they thought one of their teammates wasn’t playing like they should be. All five starters were perfectly suited for their positions. This team is not vocal like that team. They have a quiet intensity like the 2003-04 team,” said Russo.
The acknowledged leaders are guards Justin Zukowski and Jayvon Pitts-Young. They both have been standout football players for the Bulldogs.
“They’re used to being aggressive and assertive on the playing field,” said Russo.
Zukowski was a finalist for the Fitzpatrick Trophy in football. Both are semifinalists for Mr. Basketball. On any other team, Zukowski, the point guard, would easily have averaged in double figures in scoring. He is certainly capable of scoring in the 20s in any game (he had 20 points in the Western Class A semifinals against Deering), but has sacrificed his offense for the good of the team. He is averaging 8.8 points a game.
Pitts-Young is a 6-footer but has played inside as much as outside. He’s strong with the ball and an excellent rebounder.
The 6-6 Talbot is the team’s leading scorer (15.9 ppg) and rebounder (10.4 pg). The Bulldogs will need a strong effort out of him if they’re going to beat the Broncos.
Steve Alex has been the Bulldogs’ ace in the hole. The 6-2 junior is excellent in an uptempo game. He also can hit the jumper in a halfcourt game.
Travis Godbout is the team’s best 3-point shooter although Talbot is also excellent from beyond the arc. Godbout starred against Bonny Eagle in the regional final with three 3-pointers. After not scoring in the first two tournament games, Godbout led with 17 points against the Scots.
Portland hasn’t trailed much this season, certainly not of consequence, except at halftime in the regular season against Cheverus and in the regional final with Bonny Eagle.
The Bulldogs were six behind Cheverus and five behind Bonny Eagle at the intermissions. Dustin Cole of Bonny Eagle hit a 3-pointer at the start of the third quarter to make it an eight-point deficit.
“Being down against Cheverus was really helpful,” said Russo. “It was nice to see the resolve in the kids and how they responded. When Bonny Eagle hit the 3-pointer early in the third to extend their lead, we really had to show some grit and desire. Once we got our defensive rotations down, it clicked for us.”
The Bulldogs hope things click in the biggest game of the season.
This game has the potential to be a classic.
“According to Eastern Maine people, this Hampden team is the best they’ve seen in awhile,” said Russo.
“They don’t give us much of a chance. We’re going to work hard. To go 21-0 in the SMAA is not easy. It’s a pretty good league with great coaches. To do that in our league stamps us as a pretty good team. The kids have always believed in themselves.”
Tom Chard can be reached at 791-6419 or at: