PORTLAND—The Portland boys’ basketball team just keeps getting better.

And winning more emphatically.

Thursday evening at the Portland Exposition Building, hosting a red-hot Sanford squad which had won seven games in succession, including one at Deering 48 hours prior, the Bulldogs delivered a quick knockout blow, scoring the first nine points and grabbing a 20-8 lead after one quarter.

After the Spartans hung around in the second quarter and were still within hailing distance at halftime, trailing, 37-21, Portland quickly ended all doubt in the third period as senior standout Matt Talbot showed he was much more than an inside threat, lighting it up from the outside. By quarter’s end, the Bulldogs enjoyed a 54-25 advantage and they never looked back, going on to a 74-42 victory.

Talbot led all scorers with 24 points and Portland forced 27 turnovers as it improved to 14-0, snapped Sanford’s win streak and dropped the Spartans to 8-5.

“Every game we take seriously,” said Bulldogs coach Joe Russo. “We were well aware they’d won seven in a row and had beaten quality teams. I can see how they did it. We didn’t want them to believe. We wanted to control the tempo from the beginning.”

The favorite and the surprise

Portland entered the season viewed as the regional favorite or co-favorite with Bonny Eagle.

The Bulldogs haven’t disappointed, winning all of their countable games.

Portland opened by winning at Massabesic (84-31) and Noble (66-54), downed visiting Marshwood (65-40), then triumphed at Gorham (60-40) and South Portland (79-49) and at home over Thornton Academy (73-36) and Cheverus (55-46) to wrap up 2013 with an undefeated mark (although the Bulldogs did lose to Falmouth, 54-51, in a non-countable holiday tournament game Dec. 26).

The new year brought continued success, as Portland’s defeated host Westbrook (66-26), host Marshwood (48-44), visiting Biddeford (58-32), host Bonny Eagle (69-60), in a game played in front of a full house at St. Joseph’s College, host Deering (77-42) and visiting Scarborough (81-52).

Sanford, meanwhile, produced little buzz back in November and December. A year after losing to South Portland in the quarterfinals, the Spartans lost at home to South Portland in the opener, 57-45, then beat visiting Westbrook, 59-49. After falling at Bonny Eagle (67-46), at home to Windham (63-59) and at Thornton Academy (65-47), Sanford flipped the switch and rattled off seven straight victories: 66-63 at Noble, 60-44 at Biddeford, 57-44 over visiting Gorham, 43-39 over visiting Marshwood, 59-47 over visiting Cheverus, 71-47 at Massabesic and perhaps most impressive, 52-45 at Deering Tuesday.

Last winter, Portland won at Sanford, 68-48, staying perfect versus the Redskins/Spartans this century.

Thursday, the Bulldogs improved to 61-37 all-time against Sanford, making it 19 straight wins in the series (dating to Jan. 30, 1996, a 49-39 loss), behind another impressive effort.

It took a mere 11 seconds for Portland to go on top for good, as junior Steve Alex fed senior Travis Godbout for a 3-pointer.

After senior Jayvon Pitts-Young made a free throw, senior Justin Zukowski made a layup after a steal and after Sanford coach Paul Nolette called timeout to no avail, Talbot stole the ball and fed Zukowski for a 3 and a commanding 9-0 lead.

The visitors finally got on the board with 5:22 to play in the first period when senior Josh Schroder made a layup, but Talbot began to heat up, taking a pass from Zukowski and making his first 3 for a 12-2 advantage.

Schroder set up senior John Morgan for a layup, but Pitts-Young countered with a floater. After Morgan made a bank shot and Schroder converted a reverse layup to cut the Spartans’ deficit to six, Zukowski made a driving layup, Talbot hit a leaner and Talbot set up Alex for a layup. Senior Evyn Nolette then pulled Sanford within 20-11 with a 3-pointer late in the frame.

After Talbot opened the second quarter with a jumper just inside the 3-point line, Morgan made a floater and Schroder took a pass from Nolette and made a layup to cut Portland’s lead to 22-15.

The Spartans would draw no closer.

Talbot thwarted the comeback with a floater, Alex made a layup after a steal and Talbot set up Alex for a 3, which stretched the lead to 29-15.

After Morgan made a layup, Pitts-Young set up senior Dan Kane for a layup, Pitts-Young made a driving layup and a long Talbot jump shot made it 35-17.

Junior Nick Love made two free throws for Sanford, but junior Tanner Foley countered with a jump shot. A late jumper from Morgan brought Sanford within 37-21 at halftime.

In the first half, the Bulldogs got 11 points from Talbot and seven apiece from Alex and Zukowski as they benefited from 16 Spartans’ turnovers.

In a statistical oddity, the teams only combined for 10 rebounds as most possessions ended with a turnover or a made shot.

While Sanford was still within hailing distance, it didn’t take long for Portland to end all doubt in the third quarter.

Just 28 seconds in, Talbot made a 3. The next time down the floor, Zukowski sank a 3-ball. Talbot then added a jumper and the lead had ballooned to 45-21.

“It was mostly open shots,” said Talbot. “We’ve work on shooting a lot in practice. Sometimes I can’t make a shot, but the early ones fell and I went from there.”

Morgan made a pair of free throws, but Talbot sank another 3. After Schroder scored on a putback, Alex made two free throws, then scored on a driving left-handed layup before adding another foul shot. With 31.2 seconds to go, Pitts-Young sank a free throw and the Bulldogs enjoyed a 54-25 advantage.

The fourth period was academic, but Portland continued to excel.

After a Morgan bank shot opened the scoring, Zukowski made a 3. Schroder answered with a bank shot, but Talbot hit a floater, Zukowski delivered a pretty pass to Godbout for a layup and after senior Chase Smith-Roberts made a 3 for Sanford, Talbot made his final 3 for a 64-32 lead with 4:40 to go, effectively ending the statrters’ night.

Sophomore Tye Laviolette made a 3 for the Spartans and senior Josh Allen added a leaner, but sophomore Amir Moss made a 3, junior Joe Porcaro made a free throw and sophomore Joe Esposito converted a layup after a steal to make it 70-37 Portland.

With time winding down, Sanford junior Connor Yuill made a 3, but Esposito banked home a shot and Moss hit a difficult-angle leaner to end the Bulldogs’ scoring. Spartans junior Zach Smith then accounted for the 74-42 final score with a layup.

“(Sanford’s) a good team,” said Talbot. “We just happened to play really well. We’re on a roll. We got pressure going and controlled the game. We don’t want to play someone else’s game. We passed well. We hit the open man. We’re not selfish. We’re a good team when we’re not selfish. They won seven in a row, so we knew they wouldn’t give up. We kept fighting too.”

“(Sanford) played hard,” Russo said. “They were quick. It didn’t seem like we won by a large margin. They stopped us from doing some things we normally do. We did some nice things as a team.”

Talbot made six two-pointers and four 3s to give him a game-high 24 points.

“Matt had an exceptional shooting game tonight,” Russo said. “He gave us a cushion. They all have a green light on good shots, but Matt can shoot. I’d like to see him in the paint a little more, but he can step out.”

Zukowski added 13 points, Alex had a dozen, Pitts-Young had six, Godbout and Moss five each, Esposito four, Foley and Kane two apiece and Porcaro one.

“It was nice to see Zukowski shoot well tonight,” Russo said. “He’s moving like a basketball player now. He’s gutsy. He loves angles. Jay didn’t score, but he does other things. He had a lot of steals. He’s always relentless. Steve started off slow, then finished strong.”

Portland had a 19-16 rebounding edge, as Alex, Pitts-Young and Talbot all grabbed four. The Bulldogs had 17 steals to five for Sanford, as Godbout and Zukowski each led the way with three.

Portland committed 15 turnovers, but forced 27, and made 6 of 13 free throws.

Sanford was paced by Morgan’s 14 points. Schroder had 10 points (and a game-high five rebounds). Laviolette, Nolette, Smith-Roberts and Yuill all had three points, while Allen, Love and Smith each added two.

The Spartans made 4 of 7 foul shots.

Eyeing the top spot

While Sanford is hoping to climb as high as fourth in the Western A Heals if all goes well (the Spartans are now sixth), Portland would love to finish first and avoid having play both Bonny Eagle and Falmouth in the playoffs.

Sanford is back in action Friday when Biddeford pays a visit. After hosting Noble Tuesday, the Spartans go to Scarborough and Marshwood, then close at home versus Massabesic.

The Bulldogs (currently atop the standings) welcome Windham Tuesday, go to Cheverus next Friday, then host South Portland and Deering to wrap up the campaign.

Portland last completed an undefeated regular season in 1998-99, when it went on to win the Class A championship. While the Bulldogs would love to go 22-0 this winter, winning their last game is their top priority.

“Obviously we think about going undefeated,” Talbot said. “It would be fun, but we go into every game thinking about just that game. We don’t look ahead. Falmouth’s a great team and Bonny Eagle’s a great team, so playing just one of them would be big. We need to just play really well on game night. Sometimes it looks like we’re playing perfect, but there’s always things we can work on.”

“Going undefeated doesn’t matter,” said Russo. “Since we were 10-0 last year, we wanted to go 11-0. Now, at this point, we’re entitled to nothing. We want to keep playing hard. Our goal is number one. It would be a good seed this year. We’re capable of doing that. We play all our rivals again. Deering, South Portland, Cheverus. Windham’s a quality team. We’ll focus on Windham. We don’t take anybody lightly. Our team chemistry is good. We need to stay at the top of our game. The guys need to sacrifice now. They have to stay healthy and keep their grades up. They can’t stay up late, or be out late doing crazy things. It has to be all about the team now.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

Portland sophomore Amir Moss wrestles Sanford senior Josh Allen for possession.

Portland senior Dan Kane goes to the basket.

Portland senior Jayvon Pitts-Young lines up a free throw.

Portland senior Travis Godbout drives on Sanford senior Chase Smith-Roberts.

Portland junior Tanner Foley finds room to shoot.

Portland sophomore Joe Esposito handles the ball.

Portland junior Steve Alex goes up for a basket.

Portland senior Justin Zukowski fires from long range.

Sidebar Elements

Portland senior Matt Talbot drains an outside shot during the Bulldogs’ 74-42 home win over Sanford Thursday night. Talbot had a game-high 24 points as Portland stayed undefeated.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.


Portland 74 Sanford 42

S- 11 10 4 17- 42
P- 20 17 17 20- 74

S- Morgan 6-2-14, Schroder 5-0-10, Laviolette 1-0-3, Nolette 1-0-3, Smith-Roberts 1-0-3, Yuill 1-0-3, Allen 1-0-2, Love 0-2-2, Smith 1-0-2

P- Talbot 10-0-24, Zukowski 5-0-13, Alex 4-3-12, Pitts_Young 2-2-6, Godbout 2-0-5, Moss 2-0-5, Esposito 2-0-4, Foley 1-0-2, Kane 1-0-2, Porcaro 0-1-1

S (4) Laviolette, Nolette, Smith-Roberts, Yuill 1
P (10) Talbot 4, Zukowski 3, Alex, Godbout, Moss 1

S (16) Schroder 5, Clark, Laviolette, Love, Smith, Smith-Roberts 2, Morgan 1
P (19) Alex, Pitts-Young, Talbot 4, Kane, Moss 2, Esposito, Godbout, Zukowski 1

S (5) Love, Morgan, Schroder, Smith Tranchemontagne 1
P (17) Godbout, Zukowski 3, Moss, Pitts-Young, Talbot 2, Alex, Esposito, Foley, Kane, Philips 1

Blocked shots:
S (2) Allen, Tranchemontagne 1
P (4) Talbot 2, Alex, Foley 1

S- 27
P- 15

S: 4-7
P: 6-13