March 1, 2012

Steve Solloway: An epic game, 20 years later

They played and played, and played some more in a state final for the ages.

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.

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John Wassenbergh played college ball at St. Joseph’s College, then became a professional. But the game he’ll never forget was with South Portland High, when he scored 43 points and the Riots won the Class A state title in five overtimes.

1992 file photo/John Ewing

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Valley High and Jonesport-Beals combined for 188 points in the 1998 title game, the first of six straight state titles for Valley.

1998 file photo/David McDonald

Additional Photos Below


The best Maine high school basketball game of all time? Below is a list of 10 games that might qualify. Add a comment to this story, telling us your choice.

1963: Morse 61, Stearns 60 (2 OTs), Class A final. Soon after the state title game, Stearns beats Morse at the Boston Garden to win the New England championship.

1969: Caribou 65, Westbrook 63, Class A final, Mike Thurston hits winning shot from beyond half court.

1975: Hall-Dale 64, Katahdin 62, (3 OTs). Girls' Class C final. This was the first year girls played for state titles.

1978: Cony 78, South Portland 63. Class A final. Cony went on to win the final New England championship.

1992: Winthrop 67, Washington Academy 66, Class C final. Jeff Love hits winning shot at the buzzer.

1993: Lawrence 68, Westbrook 66, Girls' Class A final. Cindy Blodgett hits two free throws with 35 seconds left as Lawrence wins its third of four consecutive state titles.

1994: Mountain Valley 84, Camden-Rockport 73, Class B final. Andy Bedard scores 53 points to lead the Falcons.

1998: Valley 96, Jonesport-Beals 92, Class D final. The first of Valley's six consecutive Class D state titles.

2001: Bangor 57, Deering 56, Class A state final. Reverse layup by Joe Campbell at buzzer to win.

2004: Portland 69, Brunswick 63 (OT). Class A final. The Bulldogs overcome 46 points by Ralph Mims.





GIRLS: McAuley (21-0) vs. Cony (21-0), 4 p.m.

BOYS: Deering (18-3) vs. Hampden (20-1), 7 p.m.



at Bangor Auditorium

GIRLS: Lake Region (19-2) vs. Presque Isle (21-0), 7 p.m.

BOYS: Yarmouth (17-4) vs. Gardiner (19-2), 8:45 p.m.



at Augusta Civic Center

GIRLS: Hall-Dale (18-3) vs. Central (18-3), 7 p.m.

BOYS: Dirigo (20-1) vs. Lee Academy (19-2), 8:45 p.m.



at Augusta Civic Center

GIRLS: Richmond (19-1) vs. Washburn (20-1), 1 p.m.

BOYS: Forest Hills (18-3) vs. Jonesport-Beals (18-2), 2:45 p.m.

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.

(Continued on page 2)

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Additional Photos

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Ralph Mims of Brunswick scored 41 of his team’s final 43 points and finished with 46, but it wasn’t enough to beat Portland in 2004.

2004 file photo/John Ewing

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Yes, Mike Thurston is a legend. His shot from just beyond half court at the buzzer lifted Caribou over Westbrook in 1969.

1999 file photo/John Patriquin


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