PORTLAND—The Portland boys’ basketball team, heavy underdogs after losing twice to Cheverus this regular season by an average of 24 points, had the mighty, undefeated, top-ranked, defending state champion Stags on the ropes Wednesday evening in a Western Class A semifinal at the Cumberland County Civic Center, but couldn’t finish the job.

The fifth-ranked Bulldogs, who overcame a dreadful start and an early 11-0 deficit, actually led by five points with just over five minutes to go, but sloppy play and a renewed commitment by Cheverus turned things around.

The Stags, led by senior Griffin Brady and junior Louie DiStasio, showed their championship heart and went on a 10-0 run to seize control, then managed to hold on for a 45-41 victory to improve to 20-0, send Portland home at 12-8 and set up a regional final showdown with No. 2 Bonny Eagle (17-3) in the Western A Final Saturday at 9 p.m., at the Civic Center.

“I think that’s the worst we’ve played in a long time, but I thought we showed an immense amount of courage at the end,” said Cheverus coach Bob Brown. “It’s a 32-minute ballgame, thank God.”

Surprise, surprise

Cheverus, the defending Class A state champion, was dominant in the regular season, winning all 18 games with varying degrees of ease. In the quarterfinals Friday, however, the top-ranked Stags were pushed before eliminating No. 8 Marshwood, 52-40.

Portland completely turned what appeared to be a lost season around, winning its final five games to make the playoffs as the No. 5 seed. Friday, the Bulldogs led No. 4 South Portland virtually the whole way in a stunning 69-45 rout.

The Stags had no trouble with the Bulldogs this year, winning, 49-28, at the Expo Dec. 23 and 70-43 at home Jan. 29. Cheverus had beaten Portland seven straight times dating to Feb. 5, 2008 (a 37-31 Bulldogs’ triumph at the Expo).

The teams had met 21 times in the postseason dating back to 1932, with the Bulldogs holding an 11-10 edge. The last meeting was in the 2008 semifinals, a 63-49 Cheverus victory.

Wednesday, it looked initially as if the Stags would cruise again, but in a microcosm of its season, Portland dug out of a hole and dazzled everyone on hand with its resilience and will.

Just 15 seconds in, Cheverus sophomore Matt Cimino, who seemed no worse for wear after returning from Friday’s knee injury, made a layup. While the Bulldogs were turning the ball over left and right, the Stags raced to an 8-0 lead behind a long jumper from Cimino. two DiStasio free throws and a layup by senior Peter Gwilym (from senior Joey Savino), forcing Bulldogs coach Joe Russo to call timeout.

At that juncture, with 3:48 still to play in the first quarter, Portland had turned the ball over seven times.

It didn’t get much better the rest of the period as the Stags took an 11-0 advantage as Gwilym fed Cimino for a layup and junior Cam Olson made a free throw.

Finally, with 56.1 seconds showing in the opening stanza, the Bulldogs got on the board when junior Peter Donato made two free throws.

While Portland shot itself in the foot repeatedly in the first eight minutes, Cheverus could have had a much bigger lead.

“The start didn’t bother us a bit,” Russo said. “We talked how well we played defense. I said, ‘Boys, it’s 11-2. That’s all they have is 11 points for eight minutes. Stick with your game plan and keep your composure.’ They did and we got back.”

Portland turned things around in the second quarter and made it a game by halftime.

After freshman Jayvon Pitts-Young, who for the second straight playoff game gave his team a tremendous spark off the bench, hit two foul shots, senior Connor O’Neil answered with one for the Stags to make it 12-4.

The Bulldogs then rattled off six straight points as Donato scored on a putback, sophomore Nate Smart scored on a driving layup and Pitts-Young hit two free throws to make it a 12-10 game. DiStasio answered with two foul shots to end a 4 minute, 20 second drought.

Then, with 1:36 to go before halftime, a strange situation developed.

Pitts-Young was fouled by Savino (his third) and went to the line for two shots. He missed the first, Cheverus grabbed the rebound and raced down for a layup by Gwilym.

Problem was, it was supposed to be a two-shot foul.

By rule, since the clock didn’t start and the basket was scored, the officials had to count it and the Stags, even though no time had elapsed, had extended their lead to 16-10.

“That was a weird thing,” Russo said. “We were yelling for two shots. Because Cheverus made the hoop, they couldn’t take it away. That’s how they had to administer it. It was a miscue on their part, but we got over it.”

Pitts-Young then got his second free throw and made it. Junior Mike Herrick then got on the board for Portland to pull the Bulldogs within 16-13 at the break.

“We had a rough second period,” DiStasio said. “We put them on the line.”

Brown was frustrated with the stagnation of his offense in that period.

“I think we executed offensively as badly as you can,” Brown said. “Nothing that we were supposed to do got done.”

When Herrick opened the third quarter with two free throws and freshman Justin Zukowski drained a 3 with 5:19 to play, the Bulldogs had a stunning 18-16 lead.

Cheverus fought back to go up, 20-18, on a layup from senior Griffin Brady (after a DiStasio steal) and a pair of Brady free throws. Portland tied the score on a leaner from Herrick, but Brady converted an old-fashioned three-point play (layup, foul, free throw) to make it 23-20 Stags.

Again, Portland fought back.

After Cheverus senior Nick Burns was called for a technical foul, Herrick made two free throws. Then, with 1:56 remaining, Donato added two foul shots for a 24-23 advantage.

DiStasio put the Stags back on top with two shots from the line, but Smart answered with two of his own. Cheverus went up, 27-26, on a Cimino hook shot, but a free throw from Pitts-Young tied the score and with 10.8 seconds left in the third period, Pitts-Young fed Donato for a layup to give the Bulldogs a 29-27 lead heading for the final quarter.

There, Portland had its chances to spring an epic upset, but the Stags snatched victory from the jaws of defeat.

The Bulldogs took their biggest lead of the night behind a foul shot from senior Dylan Goodman (DiStasio picked up his fourth foul on the play, but remained in the game) and a Donato leaner, which made it 32-27 with 5:17 to go.

Then, Cheverus’ offense finally awakened.

DiStasio got the rally started with a pretty left-handed layup on the drive. Gwilym then stole a pass under the Portland basket, was fouled and made both free throws. With 4:43 to play, Gwilym stole the ball again and fed DiStasio for a short jumper that put the Stags ahead for good, 33-32.

Twelve seconds later, Cimino made a layup after DiStasio broke the press and on the next Bulldogs’ possession, Gwilym forced yet another turnover which led to DiStasio feeding Cimino for a layup and a 37-32 advantage.

“We always thrive off our defense,” said DiStasio. “We played great defense all game. Our offense comes from our defense. At the end, it sparked us and we got some easy baskets. If I’m not hitting (shots), I have to find guys open to hit them.”

“(Louie) did a great job at the end,” Brown said. “His heart and his determination. He made plays when we needed them.”

Russo blamed that stretch for costing his team the win.

“(Cheverus) pressed us like they did all game, but we handed the game over,” he said. “It was a gift. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was disappointed. We thought in the fourth quarter, we had just as good a chance as they did. Those steals were devastating because of how they were created and where we gave them the ball. Turnovers long or on the sidelines aren’t as bad. I can’t even call them steals. They were miscues. They were assists. When you lay the ball under their basket and a guy picks it up and lays it in, it’s an assist. That’s why it’s frustrating.”

Portland fought back within two, 37-35, on a Donato three-point play with 2:46 remaining, but 10 seconds later, at the other end, Brady hit a leaner, was fouled by Zukowski and hit the ensuing free throw to make it 40-35.

With 1:49 to go, sophomore Nick Volger made one of two free throws to pull the Bulldogs within four, but DiStasio fed O’Neil for a layup with 1:29 to go to make it 42-36.

A 3-pointer banked home by Herrick with 1:14 showing again pulled Portland within a possession, 42-39, but after a Brady miss and a Pitts-Young rebound, the Bulldogs gave the ball away for 33rd and final time.

With 47 seconds left, Gwilym made the second of two free throws for a four-point lead, but Volger hit a jumper with 32.8 seconds remaining to make it 43-41 and keep the pressure on.

With 12.5 seconds to go, O’Neil went to the line for two clutch free throws and he sank them both to put Portland on the brink. Herrick was short at the other end and that did the trick.

Cheverus 45 Portland 41.

“We thought we had it the whole time,” said DiStasio. “We were confident. It was a tough game. After halftime, we just wanted to move the ball. We were in foul trouble and we didn’t want to put them on the line. We wanted to get the ball in transition.”

Cimino led the Stags with 12 points. He added six blocks, three rebounds and a steal. Brady and DiStasio (three steals) each had 10 points. Gwilym had his usual stellar sparkplug effort, despite foul trouble, scoring seven points, to go with four steals and three boards. O’Neil had five points and four rebounds and Olson added a point and three rebounds, two steals and a block. Cheverus turned the ball over an uncharacteristic 16 times, but only gave it away four times in the second half. For the game, the Stags were 17 for 22 from the free throw line.

Even in victory, Brown had plenty of concerns following the game.

“We played perimeter offense and we had no rebounds,” he said. “We had maybe two passes, then we forced shots. I have a 6-9 guy and a 6-7 guy and we didn’t go inside. We did at the end. Finally.We’re a good basketball team that didn’t execute tonight. We even had bad decisions at the end. We did not play anywhere near an 18-0 team plays. Why? I don’t know. Probably lousy coaching, but it didn’t get done. We weren’t disciplined enough to do what we were supposed to do. I can tell you right now, if we play that way Saturday night, we don’t stand a chance against (Bonny Eagle).”

Portland was paced by Donato’s 13 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks. Herrick, who didn’t score until just before halftime, finished with 11 points, five boards and a steal. Pitts-Young had six points and two steals, Smart four points, seven rebounds and two steals, Volger and Zukowski three points apiece and Goodman one. Senior Matt McInnis didn’t score, but grabbed four boards. The Bulldogs’ 33 turnovers were too much to overcome. They shot 17 of 23 from the line.

“The issue was the last two minutes of the game,” Russo said. “We played for 30 minutes. Unfortunately, it’s a 32-minute game. It came down to two minutes. Three weeks ago, we didn’t even think we were going to get in the tournament, but we came here to win tonight. I’d lie if I said I wasn’t disappointed in the last two minutes.”

While Portland was crestfallen after the loss and rightfully so, there’s no overstating just how marvelous this team’s resurgence was. The Bulldogs weren’t even close to resembling a playoff squad when they were 6-7 and Russo came close to throwing in the towel when he spoke about playing hard in the final games to make the experience pleasant for the seniors.

In the final accounting, he did one the finest coaching jobs of his storied career, doing what he does without peer in molding a team as a season progresses and having it peak in the biggest games.

Rest assured, the Bulldogs’ experience was more than pleasant once the calendar flipped to February.

“What we accomplished this year epitomizes how to get better every game,” Russo said. “It was probably one of my most enjoyable groups to coach. They responded. That’s why it hurts. My guys worked their butts off every day. I’m more disappointed and hurting for them. They gave it their best shot.”

With only Goodman and McInnis graduating, it’s safe to say Portland will be one of the preseason favorites in 2011-12.

“Most of them will be back if they can deal with me,” Russo said. “We have to get better.”

Two steps away

As for Cheverus, which appears more mortal by the game, it survived and advanced and is now just two victories from repeating as Class A champion for the first time since 1981-82.

Standing in its way is a dangerous and very, very confident Bonny Eagle squad. The Scots held off Deering, 41-33, in their semifinal. On Jan. 13, the Stags raced to a 25-1 lead after one quarter and humbled host Bonny Eagle, 63-34, behind 18 points from O’Neil.

The teams last met in the playoffs in 1997 regional final, 63-52 win for Cheverus.

The Stags know they have their hands full as they seek to extend their win streak to 25.

“(Bonny Eagle has) gotten a lot better since we played them,” DiStasio said. “We’ll have to come out much harder. We need to want it a lot more. We have to come back and play our basketball.”

“They’re looking very good,” Brown added. “They play within themselves. They get the right people the shots. If we don’t play better, we’ll go home.”

The Class A state final is Saturday, March 5, at the Augusta Civic Center. Game time is 7 p.m. Bangor and Edward Little are meeting in the Eastern A Final Saturday.

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @foresports

Cheverus sophomore Matt Cimino attempts a shot inside against Portland senior Matt McInnis.

Cheverus senior Griffin Brady puts up a floater against Portland junior Peter Donato.

Cheverus senior Joe Savino looks to make a pass off a drive as he’s guarded closely by Portland sophomore Nick Volger.

Cheverus junior Louie DiStasio launches a jump shot over the hands of Portland sophomore Nick Volger (left) and freshman Justin Zukowski.

Cheverus senior Peter Gwilym wrestles a rebound away from Portland sophomore Nate Smart (left) and senior Matt McInnis.

Sidebar Elements

Portland freshman Jayvon Pitts-Young knifes between Cheverus sophomore Matt Cimino (left) and senior Connor O’Neil on his way to the hoop Wednesday. The Bulldogs put a mighty scare into the undefeated, defending state champion Stags, but Cheverus managed to advance to the regional final, 45-41.

More photos below.