PORTLAND – They played like rookies, with great enthusiasm and hustle, with great passes and shooting, but also with unforced errors and bad shots.

This is the Maine Red Claws this year — young, talented and at least for now, unpredictable.

The Red Claws, with seven rookies on their 10-man roster, had stretches of impressive play Friday night in their opener at the Portland Expo, but that wasn’t enough.

The Austin Toros went on a late 14-6 run and defeated the Red Claws 103-97 before a sold-out crowd of 3,045.

Maine led 91-89 with 5:54 remaining after Champ Oguchi knocked down a long 3-pointer — his fifth of the night. But the Toros scored the next nine points and then, after Lawrence Westbrook scored three baskets to bring the Red Claws within one, Austin scored the final six.

“They played hard and they made some good plays,” said Red Claws Coach Austin Ainge. “But in the end, too many turnovers, and we let them kind of bully us and outrebound us.”

The Red Claws had 26 turnovers — to Austin’s 18 — and were outrebounded 49-42. Austin had 22 offensive rebounds; the Red Claws had just eight.

“We certainly can’t let anyone outrebound us and out-tough us,” said Ainge. “Especially in our building. That’s something we have to work on.”

The Red Claws were hurt by the absence of a couple veterans. Forward Stephane Lasme had surgery Friday on a stress fracture in his left foot. And guard Mario West left with a pulled hamstring with 8:09 remaining in the first half, scoring just four points.

“That had a huge impact,” Ainge said of West’s loss.

Without them to settle things down, the Red Claws were learning as they ran.

“I thought as a team, we did all right,” said forward Paul Harris, who led the Red Claws with 20 points and 10 rebounds. “We’ll grow together.”

It was a game of runs for the Claws. They raced to a 13-point lead early in the second quarter, only to see the Toros score the next 13 points to make it 28-28 on Thomas Gardner’s three-point play with 7:56 left in the half.

Maine regrouped, opened a nine-point lead twice in the final 3:16 of the half, then watched the Toros score the final 10 points to take a 45-44 halftime lead. Carldell Johnson’s two foul shots with 1.2 seconds left gave Austin the lead, its first since the first basket of the game.

The Toros led by six a couple times in the third quarter, only to see the Red Claws pull within two after three quarters. That set up a wild fourth.

Maine immediately took the lead on a 3-pointer by Oguchi (17 points on 5-of-8 3-point shooting) and a power spin by Tiny Gallon (17 points, eight rebounds). Austin came back behind Kevin Palmer, Lance Thomas and Gardner to take an 87-83 lead.

Oguchi then scored eight points, hitting two 3s and a drive, to give the Red Claws their final lead, 91-89. Lewis Clinch tied it with two foul shots, Marcus Cousin (21 points, 12 rebounds) scored inside, and Clinch hit a short jumper, then followed with a 3-pointer to make it 98-91.

Westbrook, who came out briefly in the fourth because of cramps, got the Red Claws back, but they couldn’t overcome the deficit.

“I’m not sure how we won, to be honest,” said Toros Coach Brad Jones. “I’m very pleased. We’re going to go back to Austin and have a parade. I thought we were going 0-and-2 here.”

They won by hitting the boards and playing tight defense at crucial times. The Red Claws know what they have to do tonight when the teams meet again.

“We’ve got to rebound,” said Gallon. “That’s all we’ve got to focus on.”

“It’s not just on the big men,” said Westbrook, who had 15 points. “The guards have to rebound as well. Everybody has to put in that effort.”

NOTES: Dan Reed, president of the D-League, presented Jon Jennings, the Red Claws’ president and general manager, with the D-League Executive of the Year award for the team’s first season. Reed was very complimentary not only of Jennings but also of the city of Portland in welcoming the D-League. Danny Ainge, president of the Boston Celtics (and dad of Red Claws coach Austin), was in his customary midcourt seat.

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

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