PORTLAND—When Portland’s girls’ basketball team won the opening tip of Friday afternoon’s contest against Sanford at the Portland Exposition Building and sophomore Kate Johnson raced in for a layup, all signs pointed to it being the Bulldogs’ day.

When Johnson made a second layup 20 seconds in, Portland appeared en route to an easy victory.

Even when the Bulldogs stretched their five-point lead after one quarter to 12 at halftime and then to 38-25 entering the fourth period, there was little reason to worry, but things got very interesting very quickly down the stretch.

The Spartans, who had committed nearly as many turnovers (24) as they had managed points in the first 24 minutes, suddenly forced Portland to give the ball away on multiple occasions and went on a run and with 2:16 left in regulation, when sophomore Kristen O’Connell knocked down a 3-pointer, Sanford had pulled even, 41-41.

Two free throws from Bulldogs senior Gabby Wagabaza restored the lead, but the Spartans tied the game once more, 43-43, on  driving layup from sophomore Summer Camire with 1:35 to play.

But with the potential of a gutwrenching defeat staring the injury- and illness-ravaged Bulldogs in the face, they came up huge in the final minute.

With 50.9 seconds showing, Wagabaza fed senior Sydney Fredrick for a layup to put Portland ahead to stay.

Sixteen seconds later, Wagabaza calmly made two free throws, which loomed huge when Sanford got a 3 from senior Hannah Howes with 13.3 seconds left, but as time wound down, Fredrick took a pass from junior Merritt Ryan, made a clinching layup and time ran out, allowing Portland to escape, 49-46.

Johnson had 13 points, Fredrick and sophomore Taylor Sargent added 10 apiece and Wagabaza ended up with nine as the Bulldogs improved to 5-3, dropping the Spartans to 1-7 in the process.

“We have to pick up the games that are 50-50 and make those wins count,” said Wagabaza, one of several Portland players battling sickness. “I think we got lackadaisical going into the fourth quarter. We didn’t go out as hard as we should have. We just had to keep our composure and know we could win and we finished.”

Rediscovering their bite

Portland, which is coming off the program’s best season in a decade, has been up and down this winter.

The Bulldogs began with wins at Massabesic (52-23) and Noble (67-27) and at home over Marshwood (52-48). Portland then fell at Gorham, 51-47, at home to South Portland (65-55) and at home against Thornton Academy (61-26). The Bulldogs bounced back Tuesday with a 66-60 win at Cheverus.

Sanford lost its first five, then won at Noble before falling at home to Gorham Tuesday.

Last year, Portland won at Sanford, 55-52, its first victory over the Spartans in four years.

Friday, despite playing without senior standout Elizabeth Donato (out with a shoulder injury), the Bulldogs managed to beat Sanford in consecutive seasons for the first time since 2009 and 2010, but it certainly didn’t prove easy.

Wagabaza won the opening tip to Fredrick, who passed ahead to Johnson, who laid the ball in and Portland got the jump.

After a steal by junior Merritt Ryan, Ryan passed to Johnson for another layup and just 20 seconds in, it was 4-0 Bulldogs.

The Spartans got on the board on a baseline jumper from Howes and senior Lynzie Nadeau added a free throw to cut the deficit to one, but Wagabaza made a bank shot while being fouled and added the free throw for an old-fashioned three-point play and Johnson hit two foul shots to make it 9-3.

After junior Jen Jones made two free throws for Sanford, a bank shot from Sargent pushed the lead back to six, but the visitors erupted for the next seven points, as Howes banked home a 3, Camire drove for a layup and a putback from O’Connell with 2:05 remaining in the frame gave the Spartans their lone lead of the game, 12-11.

A Sargent bank shot ended the run. Johnson then hit two foul shots and as time wound down, off an inbounds set, Johnson passed to Fredrick for a layup and a 17-12 advantage.

Portland got eight points from Johnson and forced six turnovers in the first eight minutes.

The Bulldogs opened things up even further in the second quarter.

After Sanford got a putback from Jones and a free throw from senior Liz Bougie, Sargent hit a jumper, Wagabaza set up Ryan for a layup and junior Gianna Gaudet came off the bench to make a layup after a steal for a 23-15 lead.

Sophomore Emma Graves countered with a layup for the Spartans, but Gaudet hit a long jumper and Wagabaza fed Fredrick for a layup on the fast break to push the lead to double digits, 27-17.

The visitors got a hoop back when Howes sank a long jumper, but in the waning seconds of the half, Johnson hit a jumper and at the horn, Sargent was fouled while attempting a desperation heave from just inside of midcourt and she made two of three free throws for a 31-19 advantage.

Portland couldn’t quite deliver the knockout blow in the third period.

Sanford started strong behind baskets from Jones and Camire, cutting the deficit to eight, but Johnson made a free throw, Wagabaza hit a foul shot, Johnson made a layup after a steal and Sargent knocked down a jumper to make it 37-23 Bulldogs with 3 minutes to go in the frame.

Portland wouldn’t manage another field goal for over 10 minutes, however.

With 10 seconds to go in the third, Jones scored on a putback. A late free throw from freshman Shayla Eubanks then gave the Bulldogs a seemingly comfortable 38-25 lead heading for the fourth quarter.

The Spartans hinted at their comeback to come when Bougie buried a 3-ball 48 seconds in. Nadeau added a free throw, then took a pass from Howes and made a layup.

With 5:39 left, a Nadeau layup after a steal cut the deficit to 38-33 and forced Portland coach Jay Lowery to call timeout.

It helped momentarily as with 4:04 remaining, a Wagabaza free throw snapped Sanford’s 8-0 run and a 3 minute, 57 second drought, but Howes canned a 3 and Camire set up O’Connell for a layup, making Portland’s lead a precarious 39-38 with 3:05 left.

Fredrick came up huge 15 seconds later, grabbing an offensive rebound and being fouled. Her first foul shot rolled around the rim before falling through. Her second was nothing but net and the advantage was three.

With 2:16 to play, the Spartans completed their comeback on a 3 from O’Connell.

The Bulldogs were at a crossroads, but dug deep.

Twenty-four seconds later, Wagabaza went to the line for a 1-and-1 and hit both ends.

With 1:35 remaining, a driving layup from Camire retied the score, 43-43.

Lowery took timeout and set up a play which worked perfectly.

After milking some time, Portland got the ball to Wagabaza, who dribbled into the paint, drew the defense and sent a perfect bounce pass to Fredrick, who made a layup with 50.9 seconds to go, putting the Bulldogs on top for good, 45-43.

“I knew that if I drew the defense, (Sydney would) be wide open,” Wagabaza said. “She’s good at finishing. I saw that opportunity.”

“We were looking to spread them out and eat up some time and go to the basket and that’s exactly what we did,” Lowery said. “They’re starting to listen and it was good at the end when we stayed with the plan. Sydney has been tough all year.”

At the other end, O’Connell missed a shot and Ryan got the rebound. The ball would come to Wagabaza, who was fouled with 34.9 seconds left.

Again, Wagabaza stepped to the line in a clutch spot and buried both free throws for a 47-43 lead.

“It’s a little nervewracking, but I just pretend it’s practice,” Wagabaza said.

Camire missed a runner for the Spartans, but the rebound resulted in a held ball situation and the visitors kept possession.

Then, with 13.3 seconds to go, a Howes 3 made things very interesting.

Portland had to protect its one-point lead, but instead of trying to sit on the ball. Ryan sent a long pass ahead to Fredrick and Fredrick went right to the basket, making a layup with 2.1 seconds left.

Before Sanford could get the ball inbounded and attempt a desperation 3 to tie the score, the horn sounded and the Bulldogs had held on, 49-46.

“This game is about four quarters,” Lowery said. “We thought we could come out and press them in the second half and we were getting them pretty good in the backcourt, but we lost our composure and showed a little bit of youth there.”

Johnson led Portland with 13 points. She also had three assists and two steals.

Sargent turned heads with a 10-point performance.

“Taylor did a nice job,” Lowery said. “We looked for her and found her a couple times. She’s come a long way this year.”

Fredrick had 10 points and a team-high eight rebounds.

Wagabaza did a little of everything, scoring nine points (seven from the line), grabbing six boards, dishing out four assists and blocking three shots.

“Gabby has really got this team on her back,” Lowery said. “She’s tough.”

Gaudet added four points, Ryan had two and Eubanks finished with one.

The Bulldogs committed 25 turnovers, but held on, in part due to making 17 of 26 free throws.

For Sanford, Howes led the way with 13 points. She also had five rebounds, three assists and two steals. Jones added eight points (and five boards), O’Connell seven, Camire six (to go with six rebounds, three assists and three steals), Nadeau six, Bougie four (along with eight boards) and Graves two.

The Spartans finished with a 31-22 rebounding advantage, turned the ball over 25 times and made 5 of 12 foul shots.

Staying hot

While Sanford (15th in the Western Class A Heal Points standings at press time) is back in action Tuesday at Marshwood, Portland (ranked sixth) will seek its second three-game win streak of the season at Westbrook. The Bulldogs then travel to Biddeford, Bonny Eagle and Deering before finally returning home Jan. 20 to battle Scarborough.

“We hit a little speed bump with our sickness and (Elizabeth’s injury), but we just have to go out and play as hard as we can and we’ll get good outcomes,” Wagabaza said. “We need to sustain it for 32 minutes.”

“When we put four quarters together, we’ll be a contender,” Lowery said. “We’re trying to play more players off the bench. We’re looking for more depth. If we can find players who can give us minutes defensively, we can do it.”

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

Portland junior Gianna Gaudet goes up for a shot as Sanford senior Lynzie Nadeau defends.

Portland sophomore Kate Johnson skies for two of her team-high 13 points.

Portland junior Merritt Ryan tries to get past a Sanford defender.

Portland sophomore Taylor Sargent stands tall on defense.

Portland senior Gabby Wagabaza races up the court with Sanford sophomore Summer Camire in pursuit.

Portland sophomore Taylor Sargent goes up for a shot in traffic.

Sidebar Elements

Portland senior Gabby Wagabaza blocks the shot attempt of Sanford junior Jen Jones during the Bulldogs’ 49-46 win Friday afternoon. Wagabaza had nine points, six rebounds, three blocks and four assists, including one on the game-winner in the final minute.

Joe Carpine/365digitalphotography.com photos

More photos below.


Portland 49 Sanford 46

S- 12 7 6 21- 46
P- 17 14 7 11- 49

S- Howes 5-0-13, Jones 3-2-8, O’Connell 3-0-7, Camire 3-0-6, Nadeau 2-2-6, Bougie 1-1-4, Graves 1-0-2

P- Johnson 4-5-13, Frederick 4-2-10, Sargent 4-2-10, Wagabaza 1-7-9, Gaudet 2-0-4, Ryan 1-0-2, Eubanks 0-1-1

S (5) Howes 3, Bougie, O’Connell 1

S- 25
P- 25

Free throws
S: 5-12
P: 17-26