Both teams are back where they wanted – and expected – to be.
But the defending champion Portland High boys’ basketball team and the 2016 runner-up, South Portland, needed more than effort and talent to return to the Class AA state final.
Both teams had to replace key contributors from last season, melding new and returning players into different or expanded roles.
“We talked about it as a team, what each person is going to bring to the team and contribute on the court,” said Portland’s Manny Yugu, a junior reserve guard.
The championship game will start at 9:05 p.m. Saturday at the Augusta Civic Center. Last season, heavily favored Portland beat South Portland in double overtime, 52-50, in front of a near-sellout crowd at Portland’s Cross Insurance Arena.
This year’s matchup is a toss-up.
Both teams won regular-season games on the other’s court. Portland (18-2) led the SMAA in scoring average (69.7 points per game) and was second in defense (48.0 points allowed). South Portland (17-3) was third in both categories (62.6 ppg and 48.1 allowed) and has increased its scoring in two postseason wins.
“You couldn’t ask for a better matchup in terms of excitement,” said Portland Coach Joe Russo, who got his 400th win with the Bulldogs in the South regional final. “It’s going to be a great game. It’s not an easy matchup for either team.”
Portland is in its fourth straight championship game, having won and then lost to Hampden Academy in the old Class A in 2014 and 2015. For the first time in that run, the Bulldogs will not have Amir Moss or Joe Esposito, both of whom graduated last spring.
“When we lost just those two, we lost about five components of basketball – their physical leadership, their emotional leadership, their work ethic, their aggressive play, their basketball skills,” Russo said. “And we’re replacing that this year, but it’s taken about nine, 10 guys to replace those two guys.”
Portland did return point guard Terion Moss, small forward Griffin Foley and center Charlie Lyall to the starting lineup. Moss and Foley have combined for more than 30 points per game.
But Lyall had to expand his game to look for his offense more and become the rim protector for a team that has limited size.
Clay Hardy returned to the team after living in Georgia his junior year. He has become a complementary scorer and rebounder who can guard power forwards or shooting guards. Sophomores Pedro Fonseca, who starts, and Simon Chadbourne have also become key parts of the attack.
The emergence of Hardy and Fonseca as starters, with Trey Ballew as a solid frontcourt reserve, were important evolutionary steps to the team building.
“At the beginning of the year, I was in Amir’s old spot, I was in Espo’s old spot, and I was in my spot from last year,” Foley said. “I was moved all around. We really had to experiment to figure out what would work. Now, we’re very versatile. We just have a lot of players capable of guarding multiple positions.”
South Portland underwent an even more dramatic overhaul. A year ago, the Red Riots were tall and big and did their best work in the half court, looking to get the ball to Jack Fiorini and Matt Pelletier, two 6-foot-5 players. This year, the team is smaller, faster, deeper and happiest when it’s pushing the pace.
“Both last year’s team and this year’s team are really good teams, but compared to last year’s team, we’re just so much more athletic,” said senior guard Deandre White.
Senior forward Ruay Bol, White (who will play after missing the two regional playoff games because of an elbow injury) and junior guard/forward Riley Hasson are the only players remaining among the eight players who factored into last year’s playoff run.
Getting the athleticism and strong rebounding of senior forward Ansell Stilley and senior guard Moses Oreste back on the team was an important first step. Both were on the roster in 2015-16, but neither finished the season because of academic (Stilley) or personal (Oreste) reasons.
“I was disappointed with myself. I felt I let my teammates down,” Stilley said. “But we got another chance this year to get a state title, and it means a lot.”
Junior guards Connor Buckley (transfer from Deering), Noah Malone and Liam Coyne stepped into important roles as shooters and defenders.
“I feel like for this team everything just clicked,” said Bol, who is averaging 20 points in the playoffs. “Our first couple practices, everyone was playing well. And then from there, we knew: This team really plays well together, and as long as we play like this all the time, we can do it.”
Both teams have made adjustments. The result is a premier matchup of equals, with similar styles and strengths.
“South Portland is a really good team,” said Moss. “Like Coach said, they can play like us, get out on the fast break and knock down some shots, and they do all those little things that we do. I think it’s going to come down to playing defense and rebounding.”
“We wanted this all year,” Bol said. “We’re happy to have this game, and it’s going to be a great one.”