Portland High boys’ basketball coach Joe Russo watched closely as his players went through a shot-faking drill at practice earlier this week. It’s a drill the Bulldogs have done all season, but this time Russo was looking for a crisper effort.

After all, Portland is preparing for its biggest game of the season.

“I really want a good ball fake,” said the veteran coach. “Hampden is long and has good defenders.”

Amir Moss faked a shot and drove to the basket.

“Nice,” said Russo.

Moments later, in another drill, Russo was quick to point out the importance of protecting the ball on the dribble. His target was Terion Moss, Amir’s brother, who, in his freshman season, has been impressive at point guard. Moss’ high dribble caught Russo’s attention.

“Hampden is going to eat you up if you do that,” admonished Russo.

Portland (19-2) and Hampden Academy (19-2) meet for the Class A state championship at 7:05 p.m. Saturday at the Augusta Civic Center. It’s the second straight year the teams have played for the Gold Ball. A year ago the Bulldogs stopped Hampden’s two-year win streak at 43 games. Portland pounced on the Broncos early, taking a 22-5 lead after one quarter en route to a 54-40 win.

The Bulldogs are back in the state final despite returning only one starter, guard Stephen Alex, from last season. Alex scored seven points against Hampden in last year’s state final. Amir Moss had four points as a reserve.

Portland lost Matt Talbot, Jayvon Pitts-Young, Justin Zukowski and Travis Godbout to graduation, but has had returning players step up and new players contribute this winter.

Alex (a senior), Amir Moss (junior guard), Joe Esposito (junior forward) and Tanner Foley (senior forward/center) have all improved. Alex is the Bulldogs’ leading scorer (16.5 points per game) and led the SMAA in steals (4.0 per game).

Portland got a boost when Liam Densmore transferred from crosstown Deering at the start of the school year. The Bulldogs didn’t have a bonafide 3-point shooter until Densmore arrived. The senior guard is the team’s second-leading scorer at 12.2 points a game and was sixth in the SMAA in 3s, averaging 2.2 a game.

“Defenses have to account for him because of the threat he brings,” said Russo.

Terion Moss, the freshman point guard, has made a quick adjustment to the varsity level. His minutes have steadily increased as the season progressed.

Cedric Smith, a senior center, played on the junior varsity last season but has given Portland an inside presence off the bench. And then there’s Charlie Lyall, a 6-foot-5 sophomore who transferred from Waynflete. He was relatively unknown until his fourth-quarter performance in the regional final against Falmouth, when he scored eight points and grabbed key rebounds.

The Bulldogs won their first 15 games this season to stretch their win streak to 37 before losing to Cheverus on Jan. 31. That was followed by a 20-16 overtime loss to South Portland; the Bulldogs used a slowdown offense in an effort to negate the Red Riots’ height advantage.

“We started slowly against Cheverus and never got going,” Russo said. “The South Portland loss was on me.”

In retrospect, those defeats might have been the best thing to have happened to Portland. The Bulldogs blew out Deering in the regular-season finale, then won three games in the regional tournament, including a last-second win over Deering, 59-57, in the semifinals and a big second-half performance during a 57-47 win over Falmouth in the final.

The team is a close-knit group that appeared focused but loose in practice.

“We support one another and have each others’ backs,” said Foley.

Esposito said the team gets together for pickup games when the weather is warm.

“We’ll play on the courts at Payson Park and Lyman Moore Middle School,” he said.

That’s in addition to team practices three times a week in the summer, the high school league the Bulldogs play in from mid-June to mid-July, and a basketball camp they attend together at Providence College.

To a player, they said their coach is the major reason Portland is in the state final again.

“We all listen to Coach Russo and do what he tells us,” said Amir Moss. “We execute our game plan.”

In 25 seasons at Portland, Russo has won three state titles – 1999, 2004 and last year. His teams have won titles at the former Bangor Auditorium and the Cumberland County Civic Center, now the Cross Insurance Arena. In 2007, his Bulldogs lost to Bangor in the final at the Augusta Civic Center.

“It would be nice to get one in Augusta,” Russo said.