PORTLAND—Portland’s boys’ basketball team, the defending Class A state champion, has won a lot of games of late, but not in epic, dramatic, buzzer beating fashion.

Until Thursday at the Portland Exposition Building.

Hosting a South Portland squad which has far exceeded expectations and has the capacity to get better still, the Bulldogs were pushed for 32 minutes, but in the end, dug deep and demonstrated the heart of a champion.

The Red Riots, decided underdogs in the minds of everyone outside of their locker room, made an immediate statement by roaring to a 9-0 lead.

Their momentum vanished, however, when senior standout Jaren Muller picked up his second foul and Portland’s offense came to life as the hosts went on a 19-4 run to seemingly seize control.

Not so fast.

South Portland rose off the deck and went on an 8-0 run to regain the lead, but the Bulldogs closed the first half strong and took a 27-23 lead to the break, thanks in large part to the play of senior standout Steve Alex.

When junior Joey Esposito canned a 3-pointer late in the third period, Portland had a six-point lead, 32-26, but the Red Riots crawled back to within two points, 34-32, heading for the final stanza.

There, breathtaking drama was the theme as all 480 seconds would be needed to decide a victory.

After the Bulldogs got the first basket of the quarter to go up by four, South Portland erupted for 11 straight points, capped by an NBA-range 3-pointer from junior Matt Pelletier with 3:42 to go and suddenly, a monumental upset was within reach.

Again, not so fast.

That’s because Portland rose off the deck and saved its best for last.

A layup from senior Cedric Smith ended the run, a pair of free throws from junior Amir Moss pulled the Bulldogs within 3 and with 2:07 to go, senior sharpshooter Liam Densmore tied the score with a 3-ball.

After the Red Riots turned the ball over, Portland ran down the clock and after the latest in a series of controversial calls went against the visitors and allowed the Bulldogs to retain possession, they held for the last shot.

While Alex’s bid for a winner was off the mark, the rebound came to Esposito on the left side of the basket and just before the horn sounded, Esposito’s putback found its mark and Portland survived, 45-43.

The Bulldogs won their fifth straight game this winter, their 27th in a row over the past two seasons and in the process, handed South Portland its first defeat in five outings.

“We talk about never giving up,” said longtime Portland coach Joe Russo. “As long as we give our best shot, I’m happy. We needed a game like this. It will be dogfights all year. This will benefit us.”


Portland won all 22 games last season, capped by a surprisingly decisive win over Hampden Academy in the Class A state final. Despite some key graduation losses, the Bulldogs haven’t missed a beat this winter, as they opened with victories over visiting Massabesic (72-38), visiting Noble (62-44), host Marshwood (71-63) and visiting Gorham (75-51).

South Portland, meanwhile, was the 2013 Western A champion, but fell short of the playoffs after a 6-12 campaign last winter. This season, the Red Riots have been a pleasant surprise by winning their first four contests: 47-31 at Noble, 63-54 over visiting Sanford, 52-43 at Westbrook and 55-46 over visiting Thornton Academy Tuesday.

Entering Thursday’s contest, Portland had dominated the rivalry in recent years (see sidebar, below). Since the start of the 2001-02 season, the Bulldogs had won 25 of 31 meetings, including both last winter: 79-49 at South Portland and 64-42 at home.

The Red Riots were seeking their first win over Portland since a semifinal round triumph in the 2013 tournament, but the Bulldogs waited until the final second to dash their hopes.

Just 64 seconds in, Muller took a pass from Pelletier and made a layup to break the ice. He made another layup the next time down for a quick 4-0 lead.

After a steal, South Portland junior Sam DePaolo made a layup and with 4:46 remaining in the first period, DePaolo sank a 3 to give the Red Riots a stunning 9-0 advantage.

Just when the visitors appeared to have everything going their way, however, Muller picked up his second foul and had to go to the bench for the rest of the quarter.

South Portland’s zone defense was giving the Bulldogs fits, but finally, with 3:38 left int he first period, Alex hit a jumper. Moss made a layup after a steal and Alex set up freshman Terion Moss for a layup after a steal to cut the deficit to 9-6, but Red Riots junior Jack Fiorini finished a feed from senior Kam Harper and made a layup and junior Ruay Bol, seconds after coming off the bench, sank a jumper to make it 13-6.

Portland would finish the quarter hot, however, as Amir Moss made a free throw, Alex made a layup after a steal and another Alex layup, this one in the waning seconds, pulled the hosts within two, 13-11.

When Terion Moss sank a 3 eight seconds into the second period, the Bulldogs had their first lead and they weren’t done yet.

The next time down, Amir Moss hit a 3. After Muller returned to the contest, Alex set up Terion Moss for a layup and Portland was up, 19-13, but the Red Riots got a layup from Fiorini, a jumper from Muller, a baseline jumper from Muller and a pretty left-handed layup from Bol to retake the lead, 21-19.

Alex tied the score with a layup after a steal, but a jumper from Muller put South Portland on top, 23-21.

The Bulldogs then closed the half on a 6-0 run, as Amir Moss hit a floater, Alex made a layup and Alex set up junior John Williams for a layup and a 27-23 advantage.

Things remained taut throughout the second half as well.

The Red Riots served noticed that they were in it for the long haul when Pelletier buried a 3 to start the third period scoring. Portland got a jumper from Densmore and a 3 from Esposito to go up, 32-26, but back roared South Portland behind a layup from Fiorini and a layup from Muller.

Two free throws from Esposito were countered by a Muller layup and the game went to the fourth period with the Bulldogs clinging to a 34-32 lead.

Portland would actually trail most of the final stanza, but still found a way to prevail.

Just eight seconds in, after a steal from Densmore, Alex made a layup, but the Bulldogs wouldn’t score again for almost five minutes.

A layup from Fiorini was followed by a 3-ball from Pelletier with 5:24 to go and suddenly, the Red Riots had their first lead of the half, 37-36.

They weren’t done, as DePaolo made one free throw, Fiorini scored on a putback and with 3:42 remaining, Pelletier calmly buried a 3 from beyond the NBA stripe.

South Portland had a 43-36 advantage, but it wouldn’t score again.

And with their winning streak on the line, back came the Bulldogs.

A layup from Smith ended the 11-0 Red Riots’ run and gave Portland life.

With 2:54 remaining, Amir Moss was fouled on a drive and hit both free throws to cut the deficit to 43-40.

After a South Portland turnover, Smith kept possession alive with an offensive rebound and kicked the ball out to Densmore, who wouldn’t be denied, as his 3 found nothing but net and tied the game for the fourth and final time, 43-43, with 2:07 still to play.

The Red Riots raced down looking to go back ahead, but a feed to Fiorini was too high and went out of bounds, giving the ball back to Portland.

Russo called timeout and the Bulldogs were able to milk the clock.

Finally, with 16.1 seconds left, Densmore had a look at a 3, but it was no good and the rebound appeared to come down to Fiorini, then wound up in the hands of Smith, who crashed to the floor and was called for travelling.

The call was then overturned and a held ball was the ruling.

Not surprisingly, the call brought mixed results.

“It was the right call,” Russo said. “(Cedric) had it in his hands.”

“We should have had the ball,” South Portland coach Phil Conley said. “It was unfortunate.”

The possession arrow was in Portland’s favor and the hosts would get the final chance.

And they would take advantage of it.

As time ticked down, the ball came to Alex, who drove into the lane, but was met by two defenders. His shot was off target, but took a fortuitous bounce to Esposito.

Esposito had a tough angle shot from the left side, but he didn’t waver and just before the horn sounded, Esposito’s shot found the net and the Bulldogs had survived, 45-43.

“It felt really good,” Esposito said. “I played bad the whole game. Steve is the playmaker. I was there for the rebound. Everybody mobbed me. I didn’t get meaningful minutes last year, so it’s been good this year. Coach told us we had to focus. We couldn’t give up. I knew South Portland would be a good team.”

“We just listened to what Coach said and we pulled it out,” Alex said. “We got a lucky shot at the end. We had all the confidence in the world. They had two people in the middle, so I had to shoot it. ‘Espo’ was in the right place at the right time. It was pretty exciting.”

“The final play was for Steve,” Russo added. “If he didn’t get it, it was to go to Liam. If it went to someone else, it was supposed to go back to Steve.”

Portland was led by Alex’s 12 points. He also had five steals, three assists and three rebounds.

Amir Moss had 10 points, four rebounds and two steals.

Esposito and Terion Moss each had seven points apiece, Densmore finished with five, while Smith and Williams added two apiece.

Senior Tanner Foley didn’t score, but had five crucial boards and along with Smith, helped neutralize Muller.

The Bulldogs committed 16 turnovers and took only eight foul shots, making five, but they found a way to dig deep and win.

South Portland was led by Muller’s 14 points. He also had four rebounds, two assists, two blocks and two steals. Fiorini added 10 points (six rebounds, two assists, two blocks and a steal), Pelletier nine, Bol four (to go with five rebounds and two steals), DePaolo four and Harper two.

The Red Riots had a 19-17 rebounding edge, but  turned the ball over 17 times and made 1 of 3 free throws.

“I’m proud of my kids,” Conley said. “Some people out there don’t believe in this team, but I believe in this team and I think we can do good things and I think we proved it tonight. (Portland) just made that last play at the end.

“This team won’t back down from anyone. We’re here to play. I was confident because I know the type of kids I have in my locker room. The Mullers, Pelletiers, Fiorinis. They won’t back down. They play hard and play basketball the way it should be played.”

After the contest, much was made of South Portland’s zone and the way it flustered Portland.

“We played tremendous defense,” Conley said. “That’s a credit to the kids. They work so hard in practice. They did a great job to hold that team to 45 points on their home floor.”

“We struggled with their 2-3 zone,” Russo said. “We knew they’re a good team. They have veterans, they’re big. It’s just inexperience. We’ll learn. I’m glad we saw a zone early. The kids didn’t believe me, but now they know.”

Heavier lifting

South Portland hopes to quickly shake off this loss, but its road gets no easier as Tuesday brings a trip to Bonny Eagle. A home game versus Scarborough Dec. 27 and a trip to Deering Dec. 30 brings the calendar year to an end.

“This is a tough one, but I know these kids and I know we’ll come to work Friday and Saturday to get ready for our next game,” Conley said.

Portland is at Thornton Academy Tuesday, then closes the 2014 portion of its schedule Dec. 30 at Cheverus. Showdowns with Bonny Eagle and Deering loom in January.

There’s still a long, long way to go.

“We still have to work on everything,” Esposito said.

“Things are coming along,” said Alex. “We have to work on our zone offense a little more. We have some time. We’re taking it one game at a time and hopefully we keep winning.”

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

Portland senior Steve Alex soars for a layup.

Portland junior Amir Moss shoots over South Portland senior Jaren Muller.

South Portland junior Ruay Bol defends Portland senior Cedric Smith.

Portland senior Liam Densmore drives to the basket.

South Portland junior Sam DePaolo is defended by Portland senior Steve Alex.

Portland senior Tanner Foley lines up a free throw.

South Portland senior Jaren Muller drives to the basket as Portland junior Joey Esposito defends.

Portland senior Cedric Smith and South Portland junior Jack Fiorini battle for a loose ball.

Portland freshman Terion Moss is guarded by South Portland junior Sam DePaolo.

South Portland coach Phil Conley bristles as his tie goes flying after a controversial call in the second half.

Portland coach Joe Russo barks out instructions.

Recent Portland-South Portland results

Portland 79 @ South Portland 49
@ Portland 64 South Portland 42

@ Portland 63 South Portland 47
@ South Portland 52 Portland 42

Western A semifinals
South Portland 49 Portland 41

Portland 61 @ South Portland 57
@ Portland 52 South Portland 48
Western A quarterfinals
South Portland 39 Portland 37 

@ Portland 80 South Portland 71 (3 OT)
Portland 59 @ South Portland 54
Western A quarterfinals
Portland 69 South Portland 45

Portland 56 @ South Portland 49
@ Portland 49 South Portland 48 

@ South Portland 57 Portland 49
South Portland 56 @ Portland 51
Western A quarterfinals
Portland 72 South Portland 49 

@ Portland 65 South Portland 50
@ South Portland 67 Portland 57 

Portland 79 @ South Portland 76
@ Portland 53 South Portland 51 

Portland 75 @ South Portland 63
@ Portland 87 Portland 60 

@ Portland 71 South Portland 53
Portland 78 @ South Portland 58
Western A quarterfinals
Portland 58 South Portland 51 

Portland 98 @ South Portland 44
@ Portland 66 South Portland 29 

Portland 62 @ South Portland 36
@ Portland 59 South Portland 40

@ Portland 65 South Portland 61
Portland 67 @ South Portland 52

Sidebar Elements

The Portland boys’ basketball team (and some students as well) mob junior Joey Esposito after his shot at the horn beats rival South Portland Thursday night, 45-43.

Ben McCanna photos.

More photos below.


Portland 45 South Portland 43

SP- 13 10 9 11- 43
P- 11 16 7 11- 45

SP- Muller 7-0-14, Fiorini 5-0-10, Pelletier 3-0-9, Bol 2-0-4, DePaolo 1-1-4, Harper 1-0-2

P- Alex 6-0-12, A. Moss 3-3-10, Esposito 2-2-7, T. Moss 3-0-7, Densmore 2-0-5, Smith 1-0-2, Williams 1-0-2

SP (4) Pelletier 3, DePaolo 1
P (4) Densmore, Esposito, A. Moss, T. Moss 1

SP- 17
P- 16

SP: 1-3
P: 5-8