After a day of exhaustive travel, the Maine Red Claws staged their biggest comeback of their NBA Development League basketball season.

In doing so, they clinched both the top seed in the Eastern Conference and the first division title in franchise history.

Jason Calliste came off the bench to score a season-high 24 points as the Red Claws beat the Westchester Knicks 102-94 before an appreciative crowd of 2,631 Friday night at the Portland Expo.

After trailing by 21 points in the second quarter, the Red Claws whittled the margin to single digits late in the third quarter and pulled ahead for good early in the fourth on a 3-pointer by Andre Stringer.

When the Knicks cut the margin to four in the final minute, Calliste drained four free throws to secure Maine’s sixth victory in its last seven games.

“It was effort,” Calliste said. “In the first half, we weren’t really locked in.”

The Red Claws traveled home Thursday at the end of an 11-day road trip. Their 9 a.m. flight out of Erie was canceled, so they took a bus to Pittsburgh for a 9 p.m. flight that was delayed until 12:30 a.m. The team finally arrived in Boston at 2 a.m. and took a bus to Portland, pulling in at 4 a.m.

The Red Claws (32-14) had swept all five previous meetings with Westchester, which has lost six in a row and is mired in a 2-23 slump.

“It doesn’t matter how many times I say we can’t take them lightly,” said Red Claws Coach Scott Morrison, “it’s human nature where some guys are going to come out and assume that we’re going to win. Obviously, that wasn’t the case. These guys are a talented team and have actually gotten up on us before. We were fortunate to come away with a win.”

The pivotal play Friday came late in third quarter after Chris Babb missed a 3-point attempt. Ralph Sampson fought hard to get a hand on the rebound and batted it back to Babb, who started an around-the-horn passing sequence involving Tim Frazier and Calliste, who declined an open look from the wing because Omari Johnson was even more open in the left corner.

Johnson drained the 3-pointer, and for the first time since the first quarter the Red Claws found themselves within single digits of Westchester at 74-65, and with a loud crowd behind them.

“That type of play really fires everyone up,” Morrison said. “That’s how we have to play all the time. Maybe not exactly like that play, but in general. Making the extra pass, get one little bit better of a shot for the next man, and it all started with Ralph’s second effort, which is what we need to do to win games … have multiple efforts where we play together.”

On an off night for Frazier (four assists, three turnovers) and James Young (16 points on 5-of-13 shooting, with three turnovers), Calliste came through with five 3-pointers (in seven attempts) and career highs in points and rebounds (seven) to go with four assists.

“He has a knack for coming up with a loose ball or a big play,” Morrison said.

“He’s starting to get in the paint off the dribble and find his teammates on the perimeter, which is something he needed to work on.”

After starting the season late because of visa issues, Calliste has worked his way up from the 11th man to “where he’s finishing games and playing a great deal of minutes,” Morrison said. “It’s because of a number of things. He’s a good shooter. He’s a real tough kid. He never backs down.”

Sampson finished with 11 rebounds and received a standing ovation after diving for a loose ball near midcourt during Maine’s decisive run in the fourth quarter.

NOTES: The newest addition to the Red Claws, 7-foot-2 center James Tyler, was in the Expo but inactive for the game. He likely will suit up Sunday against Grand Rapids. Actually, his height couldn’t be confirmed from Tyler’s physical earlier this week with a local physician. “They said he was too tall for their thing they had to measure,” said Dave Lewin, the Celtics’ director of scouting who serves as Maine’s general manager.

Tyler grew up in North Carolina but has been playing in South America, Europe and Asia since finishing high school in 2008. Lewin remembered him as a top 150 recruit who never played college basketball.

“He’s had a good career overseas,” Lewin said. “Now we’ll see how he does with a more athletic, faster-paced game.”

Tyler’s opportunity arose when Rodney McGruder, whose playing time had diminished in recent weeks because of the assignment from the Celtics of Young, requested his release.

 


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