Portland boys’ basketball Coach Joe Russo told his players before Saturday night’s Class A state championship game that they were going to press Hampden Academy and contest every shot. And just to reassure the Bulldogs before they hit the court against an opponent with a 43-game winning streak – as if this confident group needed any reassuring – Russo reminded his team it was every bit as good as the defending champs after compiling a 21-0 record in the best league in the state.
The Bulldogs then went out and performed just like they practiced all week, beating Hampden Academy 54-40 at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
In what has to rank as one of the best starts in a Class A state championship game, Portland completely overwhelmed the Broncos in the first quarter, using a 17-0 run to build a 22-5 lead. Portland’s press completely discombobulated Hampden’s offense. The Bulldogs’ quickness and athleticism were something the Broncos hadn’t had to contend with during their two-year unbeaten streak.
One Eastern Maine observer said of Hampden Academy on Friday: “They don’t have any weaknesses.”
The Bulldogs exposed a lot of weaknesses. They also made a point of getting the ball to Matt Talbot, a 6-foot-6 center who can shoot the 3-pointer. By doing so, they drew Hampden star Zach Gilpin away from the basket. Gilpin was forced to come out and challenge Talbot, who had eight points in the first quarter.
“If I get off to a good start, it makes all the difference. I’m a lot looser,” Talbot said at a practice earlier in the week.
“Matt Talbot played a great opening quarter for us,” said Russo.
Much like Deering pressed Hampden two years ago in winning the state title, also at the Cumberland County Civic Center, Portland did, too, but a lot more impressively.
“We had a good week of practice,” said Talbot. “We were ready to play this game after we beat Bonny Eagle for the regional title. We stayed patient and focused leading up to the game. We played loose.”
Talbot said the strategy was to keep the pace of the game at a high level and take Hampden out of its comfort zone.
“The KVAC is more of a half-court offensive league,” said Talbot. “The SMAA is more of an up-tempo league.”
Jayvon Pitts-Young scored eight points in the third quarter and finished with 12. Point guard Justin Zukowski ran the offense, handled Hampden’s pressure and chipped in with 11 points. Steve Alex was outstanding in the first half and played great defense on Isaiah Bess, who was held scoreless. He averaged 13.3 points during the season.
The Bulldogs followed their coach’s instruction to challenge every Hampden shot. That extended to every loose ball.
Talbot got a thunderous ovation from the Portland fans when he was taken out in the fourth quarter. After the final second ticked off, Portland started the celebration. Talbot ran onto the floor straight to Travis Godbout for a full-body bump. The two have been teammates since the third grade at Presumpscot Elementary School.
Afterward, parents gave the team a party in the high school cafeteria.
It was Portland’s first state title since 2004 and eighth overall. The Bulldogs also won state finals in 1936, 1942, 1950, 1986 and 1999, and the 1943 team is listed by the Maine Principals’ Association as state champion after winning the Western Maine tournament (no Eastern Maine tournament was held that year).
HOULTON AND WAYNFLETE played what was arguably the best state final of the weekend, with Houlton winning the Class C boys’ title 58-56 in overtime on two free throws with one second left. From early in the second half, neither team held a lead larger than four points and there were eight lead changes.
Houlton finished 22-0, with wins over strong Class B teams Caribou and Presque Isle as well as Class C contenders Calais and Lee Academy and Class D champion Hodgdon. Shiretowners Coach Robert Moran said no opponent was tougher than Waynflete, which was seeking its first state championship.
Waynflete will graduate two starting post players, Serge Nyirikamba and Henry Cleaves, and top reserve Joe Schnier. Nyirikamba went out strong, with 24 points and 22 rebounds against Houlton.
Throughout the season, McAuley Coach Bill Goodman liberally used his bench during the first, second and third quarters.
Often McAuley already had a comfortable lead, but not always. The substitutions were consistent and gave the Lions’ less-experienced players quality time against opposing teams’ top players.
That game experience paid dividends Saturday in the first half of a 67-41 victory against Oxford Hills for the Class A state championship. Goodman wasn’t using his bench by choice. He had to use it. His three leading scorers, Allie Clement, Victoria Lux and Olivia Smith, each picked up a second foul in the first quarter.
“All year, our bench practices just as much as our starters because we need them,” Goodman said.
Mary Furlong is a 5-foot-9 forward from Old Orchard Beach. Rather than being intimidated, Furlong started to alter the game. She dove on the court for a steal, scrapped for rebounds, worked hard on defense and twice tied up Oxford Hills players for jump-ball possessions.
“Every opportunity I get I am willing to work hard and do any little thing I can to help my team,” Furlong said. “Whatever time I get I am very grateful for.”
Senior tri-captain Jackie Welch said of the McAuley reserves: “They had to play well. Margaret Hatch, Ayla Tartre, Mary Furlong, we won the state championship because of them. You know, Oxford Hills has their top two or three players, but it comes down to the bench. That’s what makes the difference.”
Freshman Ally Tillotson also contributed. Tillotson plays in a fashion similar to starting guard Olivia Dalphonse with her ability to pressure ball-handlers.
Tartre is usually the Lions’ first reserve. She started early in the season while Smith was recovering from a knee injury and had two double-digit scoring efforts in the regular season.
Tartre made her presence felt early in the second quarter, hitting a pull-up jumper from 15 feet to cut Oxford Hills’ lead to 13-11. Then, her tough offensive rebound in traffic and kick-out pass freed Clement at the top of the key for a 3-pointer and subsequent four-point play that gave McAuley’s its first lead, 15-13.
“Our bench has done incredible,” Clement said. “There was no dropoff. They just came in, stepped up, knew what they had to do and knew their roles.”
The bench story had its exclamation point in the fourth quarter when seniors Carolyn Liziewski, Pam Mukiza and Lauren Coulombe each made a basket. Mukiza’s 3-pointer had the starters screaming in unison.
Sara Paclat is leaving the Cape Elizabeth program better than she found it. A senior, Paclat finished 14th in slalom Saturday and ninth in giant slalom Friday at Mt. Abram to help the Capers win the Class B Alpine state championship, the first in school history.
Three years ago, Paclat was the only female Alpine skier at her new school, having moved north from the Boston area.
“I didn’t know anyone,” Paclat said. “I was a freshman. I walked on to the team and there were no girls. It took a while for all the guys to talk to me, too. It was until the first race, when I beat a lot of them, that they started to talk to me.”
The Capers cleaned up in Friday’s giant slalom, placing six skiers in the first nine places. In slalom, they survived mishaps by two of their top skiers, sophomore Sophie Hewitt and junior Emma Landes. Sophomore Emma Dvoroznia (fifth), freshman Kinnon McGrath (eighth) and freshman Caroline Paclat (17th) picked up the slack to take the Alpine title from slalom and overall champion Yarmouth by 13 points.
– Staff Writers Tom Chard, Steve Craig and Glenn Jordan contributed to this report.