BOX SCORE

Oxford Hills 45 Portland 35

P- 7 13 5 10- 35
OH- 10 11 11 13- 45

P- A. Kabantu 2-6-10, Motema 4-0-8, D. Kabantu 3-0-7, Eubanks 2-2-6, Kelley 1-0-3, Yugu 0-1-1

OH- Colby 5-2-14, Dumont 4-2-11, Dieterich 3-1-9, Hartnett 1-3-6, Smedberg 1-1-3, B. Carson 1-0-2

3-pointers:
P (2) D. Kabantu, Kelley 1
OH (6) Colby, Dieterich 2, Dumont, Hartnett 1

Turnovers:
P- 13
OH- 16

FTs
P: 9-12
OH: 9-20

PORTLAND—The moment was at hand.

After chasing defending champion Oxford Hills all season, Portland’s girls’ basketball team had caught the Vikings and even taken the lead in the second half of Saturday’s Class AA North Final at the Cross Insurance Arena.

But the Bulldogs couldn’t finish the job, because just as quickly as they went in front, they endured a series of tough calls that sent the game the other way, in Oxford Hills’ favor.

And the Vikings take advantage of their opportunities.

Always.

Unlike last year’s playoff meeting, which saw Oxford Hills deliver an early knockout blow, Portland hung tough and was only down three points, 10-7, after one quarter.

In the second period, the Vikings went up by six on three different occasions, but the Bulldogs closed the half strong with five straight points, capped by two free throws from junior Amanda Kabantu, to trail by a single point, 21-20, at the break.

When junior Gemima Motema opened the second half with a basket, Portland had the lead for the first time and when Kabantu added a jumper and sophomore Elizabeth Yugu made a free throw, suddenly the Bulldogs were up by four, 25-21, and seemingly were on their way.

But the tide turned when first Kabantu picked up her fourth foul and had the sit the final 3-minutes, 51-seconds of the frame and Portland coach Gerry Corcoran was given a technical foul for being out of the coaching box.

That sparked a quarter-ending 11-0 run for Oxford Hills, which put it ahead to stay.

The Bulldogs got back within a point, 32-31, on a three-point play from senior Kiera Eubanks, but the Vikings answered with a 3-pointer from senior standout Julia Colby and gradually pulled away for a 45-35 victory.

Colby had a game-high 14 points and was named tournament MVP as Oxford Hills improved to 20-1, ended Portland’s best season in two decades at 17-4 and in the process, advanced to take on South Portland (18-3) in the Class A state championship game next Saturday, Feb. 29 at 7 p.m., at the Cross Insurance Arena.

“I posted a score back in the coach’s room, a 52-43 victory for us, because I knew it would take 50 points to win,” said Corcoran. “They had 45 and I thought if we could do what we’d been doing, score in the low 50s, we’d have a shot to win at the end. We just came up short.”

Nemesis

The Bulldogs won 15 times during the regular season (their highest win total in 20 years), losing only to Oxford Hills (twice) and Bangor and wound up the No. 2 seed in Class AA North for the second time in three years.

After dispatching No. 7 Edward Little, 58-25, in the quarterfinal round, Portland beat No.3  Bangor, 54-42, in Wednesday’s semifinals (see sidebar, above, for links to previous game stories).

Other than a one-point loss at two-time defending Class A champion Greely, Oxford Hills was unblemished this winter and as the top seed, the Vikings pulled away in the second half to beat No. 8 Deering (55-30) in the quarterfinals, then handled No. 5 Windham in Wednesday’s semifinal round, 54-31.

On Dec. 13, host Oxford Hills rolled over Portland, 60-32, as Colby scored 27 points and surpassed the 1,000-point plateau for her career. On Jan. 23 at the Expo, the Vikings held on to beat host Portland, 48-38, as Colby and junior Cassidy Dumont each scored 16 points, while Motema paced the Bulldogs with 13.

The teams had met just once before in the playoffs, Oxford Hills’ 47-36 semifinal round victory last year en route to the championship.

In that one, Portland started slowly. Saturday, the Bulldogs aimed for a better beginning and got it, but the Vikings were right there with them.

Oxford Hills opened the scoring 25 seconds in when Colby set up senior Margaret Hartnett for a 3.

Portland answered on a 3-pointer from senior Davina Kabantu, but Colby scored her first points on a runner in the lane.

The Bulldogs drew even again on a leaner from Motema, but Dumont drove for a layup and a 7-5 Vikings’ lead.

After Portland tied it a third time, on a Motema layup after a steal, senior Cecelia Dieterich drained a 3 from the corner with 19.5 seconds on the clock to make it 10-7 Oxford Hills after one period.

In the second quarter, the Vikings had an opportunity to open it up, but missed foul shots and turnovers allowed the Bulldogs to roar back.

Dieterich opened the frame with a free throw, then Dumont scored on a putback to stretch the lead to six, but Davina Kabantu scored on a runner and Amanda Kabantu got a jumper to rattle in to cut the deficit to 13-11.

After Dieterich banked in a shot, Davina Kabantu answered with a jumper, but Dumont sank a 3 from the corner and with 2:43 to go, Amanda Kabantu was called for her third foul and Dumont added a free throw for a 19-13 advantage.

Motema then hit a short jumper and after senior Brooke Carson made a shot from just inside the 3-point stripe for Oxford Hills, Eubanks converted an old-fashioned three-point play (layup, foul, free throw) and with 18.4 seconds to go, Amanda Kabantu’s two free throws pulled Portland within a single point at the break, 21-20.

In the first half, Dumont led all scorers with eight points, while Davina Kabantu paced the Bulldogs with seven.

In the third period, Portland got out to a fast start before things took a sudden turn.

Motema scored on a putback 37 seconds into the second half to give the Bulldogs their first lead, then Amanda Kabantu stepped back after a nice crossover dribble and made a long jumper before Yugu sank a foul shot for a 25-21 advantage with 4:01 to go in the frame.

And that was as good as it would get for the Bulldogs.

Ten seconds later, Amanda Kabantu got her fourth foul and had to sit the rest of the quarter.

Forty-three seconds after that, Corcoran, who received a verbal warning in the first half, was given a technical foul for being out of the coaching box, and Dumont made one of two free throws to end a 5-minute, 29-second scoring drought.

Following the game, Corcoran had little to say on the matter other than, “I wasn’t saying anything, That was out of the blue. I was just out of the box. I’m six-foot-nine, I’m long and lanky.”

Dieterich then set up senior Jade Smedberg for a layup and with 1:46 to go, a 3-pointer from Dieterich put Oxford Hills back on top for good.

Colby then got involved on the offensive end again, driving for a layup with 44 seconds to play, then draining an NBA-range 3-pointer 26 seconds later to make it 32-25 Vikings heading for the final stanza.

There, Oxford Hills relied on its championship heart and poise to close it out.

But not before Portland made one more run.

Junior Mia Kelley started the frame by banking home a 3-pointer, then Eubanks converted a three-point play to cut the deficit to one.

The Bulldogs then had a chance to go on top after a turnover, but Motema’s shot rimmed out.

At the other end, Colby wasn’t about to let the Vikings lose and she got the ball at the top of the key and launched a 3 that found nothing but net with 5:43 to play.

With 4:21 to go, after a Colby steal, Dumont raced in for a layup to stretch the lead to six.

Amanda Kabantu got a point back at the line after Dieterich fouled out, but Colby banked home a runner and Colby and Hartnett each sank two free throws to stretch the lead to 11.

After Amanda Kabantu and Smedberg traded foul shots, Amanda Kabantu made two free throws with 25 seconds left for Portland’s final points, before one final foul shot from Hartnett with 13 seconds remaining gave Oxford Hills the 45-35 victory.

“Portland’s a super-athletic team, so we had to work hard on boxing out and getting rebounds,” Colby said. “We did a good job with that. We’re used to big games like this, so we didn’t get overwhelmed.”

“I didn’t expect it to be easy,” Vikings’ coach Nate Pelletier said. “I’m really impressed with the grit my team had. We got down, but we decided to pick up the tempo and press a little bit. I wasn’t sure it would be effective, but it turned the tempo a little bit. We started playing the basketball we play, which is high-intensity, up-tempo. (Portland’s) so athletic, it just scares the heck out of you trying to press them. As a whole, I think we did what we needed to do on the boards. I think not giving them three or four shots a possession won us the game. I’m so proud of these girls because (Portland’s) a very good team and to beat them three times this year is a testament to their character.”

Colby finished with 14 points and four steals and was the difference with the game on the line.

“We couldn’t get Jules going in the first half, but she hit some big shots in the second half and some big free throws when we needed them,” said Pelletier.

Dumont also finished in double figures with 11 points and added a couple key assists.

Dieterich had nine points, three rebounds and three assists prior to fouling out.

Hartnett added six points (and three rebounds), Smedberg had three points (and eight boards) and Carson two.

Oxford Hills turned the ball over 16 times and made just 9-of-20 free throws, but dug deep and found a way to prevail.

“I thought Brooke Carson, when Cecelia fouled out, stepped up for us and played tough,” said Pelletier. “Maggie hit some big free throws. Jade on the boards, battled against Eubanks, who is much bigger than her. It was a grind, but we’ll take it. I didn’t feel at any point, our girls would give up. Even when we got down. We wanted to have an opportunity to be up at the end to spread them out and use our guards to our advantage.”

Looking ahead to next weekend, Oxford Hills and South Portland didn’t meet this year and have no playoff history.

They’ll make some, in what should be a terrific matchup.

“This is big, but we’re on to the next one,” said Colby. “We just have to practice hard all week, scout them and see what their weakness is.”

“We’ll gather as much as film as possible,” Pelletier said. “We want to play our style and make them adjust to us. We’ll keep playing the way we play and hopefully, we’ll grind another one out.”

Frustration

Portland was paced by Amanda Kabantu, who had 10 points, eight rebounds and two steals in her limited time.

Motema had eight points, five rebounds, three steals and two assists.

Davina Kabantu was solid in her swan song, scoring seven points, while grabbing six rebounds and dishing out three assists.

Eubanks scored six points and had seven rebounds in her final game.

Kelley added three points and Yugu had one (to go with a couple steals).

The Bulldogs haa a 34-28 rebounding advantage and made 9-of-12 free throws, but turned the ball over 13 times.

For Portland, it was a case of what-if.

What-if Amanda Kabantu hadn’t picked up her fourth foul just when the Bulldogs were cresting?

What-if Motema hadn’t been called for a critical, questionable travel call when Portland had the momentum?

And of course, what-if Corcoran never got the ill-time technical foul?

Ultimately, Corcoran chose to focus on what happened later in the game as the reason for his team’s demise.

“There were two or three times late where we didn’t switch properly and they hit 3s,’ Corcoran lamented. “Great players make great shots and (Colby) did that.

“Our shots didn’t go. We’re feast or famine. When we’re hot, we’re winning and when we’re not, we have to generate offense other places, usually off our defense.”

The Bulldogs may have fallen short of their ultimate goal, but they generated plenty of admirers along the way.

“I’m looking at the Portland side of the stands, knowing a community that supports their team was behind us,” Corcoran said. “I only knew about 30 or so, who are family members, but we had a side of fans who stood up and cheered for us. It was awesome to witness that. That’s a compliment to these girls.”

The Bulldogs have to part with Eubanks and Davina Kabantu, along with Justice Smart, but the 2020-21 squad will have an impressive nucleus of Amanda Kabantu, Kelley, Motema and Yugu and will make another run at the big prize.

“It would have been nice to get one off Oxford Hills, but we’ll keep trying to kick in the door,” said Corcoran.

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

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