BOX SCORE

Edward Little 47 Portland 41

EL- 8 15 10 14- 47
P- 11 4 16 10- 41

EL- Shea 16-5-38, Sheikh 2-0-4, Adams 1-0-3, St. Laurent 0-2-2

P- P. Donato 8-1-18, Cross 4-0-8, Christensen 2-0-5, W. Donato 2-1-5, Girumugisha 1-0-3, Toher 1-0-2

3-pointers:
EL (2) Adams, Shea 1
P (3) Christensen, P. Donato, Girumugisha 1

Turnovers:
EL- 17
P- 12

FTs
EL: 7-11
P: 2-8

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PORTLAND—In a season with no shortage of quality teams, a transcendent individual player can make all the difference.

And that’s something the Portland boys’ basketball team found out the hard way Thursday afternoon at the Portland Exposition Building.

In the form of Edward Little senior center John Shea.

Shea was the focal point of the Bulldogs’ defense all day, but to no avail as he did just enough to allow the Red Eddies to prevail in a battle between two Class AA North contenders.

Portland got out to a fast start and led, 11-8, after one quarter, but Shea roared to life in the second period, scoring 13 points, to help Edward Little open up a 23-15 advantage.

The Bulldogs then came out red-hot in the second half and behind the heroics of junior Pitia Donato, who scored a dozen points in the frame, cut the deficit to 33-31 heading for the fourth quarter.

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There, Portland pulled within one on a 3-point shot from sophomore Pepito Girumugisha, but Shea refused to let the Red Eddies lose and after setting up senior Hamza Sheikh for a basket, he scored his team’s next six points as Edward Little went on to a 47-41 victory.

Shea stuffed the stat sheet with 38 points and 13 rebounds and the Red Eddies improved to 5-1 on the season, snapping the Bulldogs’ four-game win streak and dropping them to 4-2 in the process.

“It was an exciting game for a fan, but not as fun for the losing team,” lamented longtime Portland coach Joe Russo. “It could have gone either way.”

Unstoppable

After opening with a 42-40 home loss to Lewiston, Portland’s first win came at Bonny Eagle (45-41). The Bulldogs then prevailed at Hampden Academy (63-42), rallied for a 44-41 victory at Cheverus, then downed host Deering in their most recent outing last Thursday, 45-40.

Edward Little, the reigning Class AA champion, started with wins over Oxford Hills (66-65), Hampden Academy (88-74) and Lewiston (69-59). After falling to Bangor (51-46), the Red Eddies defeated Windham (63-31) last Thursday.

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Edward Little and Portland didn’t meet during the COVID-shortened 2020-21 campaign.

Two years ago, the Red Eddies beat the Bulldogs three times, 55-48 at the Expo, 78-38 in Auburn, then 77-22 in a Class AA North quarterfinal.

Thursday, Portland sought its first victory over Edward Little since a 78-70 home win Jan. 5, 2018, but instead, the Red Eddies made it five straight in the series, as Shea proved to be the difference.

The Bulldogs started fast, courtesy senior Aiden Christensen, who opened the scoring just five seconds in, taking a pass from senior Spencer Cross off the opening tip and making a layup, then knocking down a 3-pointer.

But the Red Eddies settled in and drew even, as Shea scored on a putback and sophomore Marshal Adams banked home a 3.

Senior Wani Donato then scored on a putback and Cross hit a leaner to make it 9-5 Portland.

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Shea scored on another putback, then was fouled on an offensive rebound and hit a free throw before a jumper from Cross put the Bulldogs ahead, 11-8, after one period.

Edward Little then flipped the switch and went on top to stay in the second quarter.

After Shea started the frame with a layup, a putback from Sheikh gave the Red Eddies their first lead, 12-11.

Shea added a leaner, then Shea scored on a putback and senior Pat Anthoine set up Shea for a layup and an 18-11 advantage midway through the period.

With 3:34 to go before halftime, Portland snapped the 10-0 run and a 5-minute, 54-second scoring drought, as Pitia Donato drove for a layup and his first points.

Shea again made a layup off an Anthoine feed, then, with 2:10 remaining, Shea let rip a 3-point attempt that found nothing but net.

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“Typically, I wouldn’t do that, but they gave me space and I had confidence in myself to hit a shot like that,” Shea said.

“Shea is very difficult to cover even though we knew exactly what he was going to do,” said Russo. “He has great footwork, he knows how to get great position, he can score and he can lead his team. We prepared for him a couple different ways, but we didn’t execute what we needed to do to limit him.”

Cross closed the half by scoring on a spinner which rolled in, but Edward Little enjoyed a 23-15 lead at the break.

Shea had 13 points in the second quarter, giving him 18 at halftime, but the Bulldogs weren’t ready to call it quits.

Pitia Donato announced he was in for a big third quarter when he drained a 3-pointer 20 seconds in. Donato then hit a runner in the lane before scoring on a floater to cut the deficit to one point just two minutes into the second half.

But Portland couldn’t take the lead.

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Shea stemmed the run with a driving layup and after Cross scored on a putback to make it 25-24, Shea put home his own miss, then banked home a shot in traffic to make it a five-point contest.

Pitia Donato answered with a putback, but Shea scored on a reverse layup.

Pitia Donato then made a free throw, but Adams set up Shea for a layup and a six-point lead.

The Bulldogs then closed the period strong, as Wani Donato drove for a layup, then Wani Donato set up Pitia Donato for a reverse layup just before the buzzer to cut the deficit to 33-31.

“We had a nice little run with Pitia and that got us back in the game,” Russo said.

Shea started the final stanza with a layup, but Girumugisha made a 3 with 5:30 left and Portland was once again within a single point, 35-34.

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But that’s as good as it would get for the Bulldogs.

Twenty-four seconds later, Shea got the ball in the lane, drew the defense, then passed to Sheikh, who hit a short jumper to extend the lead to three.

Wani Donato made one of two free throws with 3:58 remaining to cut the deficit to two, but after missing two foul shots, Shea took a pass from junior Landon Cougle and made a layup to make it a two-possession game.

With 2:10 on the clock, Shea sank two free throws and after Pitia Donato countered with a runner in the lane, Shea scored his final field goal, a layup from junior Conor Burtchell, to make it 43-37 with just 1:09 remaining.

In the final minute, St. Laurent made two foul shots and after Portland made one final push to draw within four on a driving layup from junior Brady Toher and a reverse layup from Pitia Donato, Shea clinched it with two free throws and Edward Little closed out its 47-41 victory.

“It’s always hostile down here and I feed off of that, said Shea. “It’s always going to be physical against teams like Portland. Long, athletic kids who know how to play basketball. It’s always fun to play against teams that will give you competition. Typically, Portland and ourselves have a competitive nature.”

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“(The Expo’s) a great arena to play at and Portland’s as tough as anyone,” said longtime Edward Little coach Mike Adams. “It’s a compliment to Coach Russo and his kids to say it’s going to be ugly. Things got heated and emotions got the best of both teams because it means so much to us. We respect each other. It was fun. I’m proud tonight we didn’t get out-toughed. They have a good team with good players. We calmed down offensively and took care of the ball against their pressure.”

Shea, who tied the program record with 44 points earlier this season in a win over Hampden Academy, turned heads with 38 points. He also grabbed 13 rebounds (eight on the offensive end) and had three steals.

“I’ve got four teammates on the perimeter who free me up,” said Shea, who is still considering his college options. “That gets me open and if I get double- or triple-teamed, I can get it to them opposite side. They put me in a great place to score the basketball. They always throw the ball where I need to turn so I know where I’m going to get an uncontested layup.”

“It helps to have (Shea),” Mike Adams said. “Even if we miss shots, he’ll get offensive rebounds. We have guys who shoot well and if they miss, it’s a soft miss and he’ll get the rebounds. He takes up so much space and uses his body well. The more we use him, the more the guards can do what they do. We didn’t hit shots tonight, but we have all year and we will.

“When COVID first hit, he wanted to lose weight and get himself in better shape. He lifts (weights) with us and he works with Toby Grondin and B.J. Grondin, who run Prime 360, year-round. They do the new exercises that make kids better and stronger.”

Sheikh added four points and six rebounds, Marshal Adams had three points and St. Laurent finished with two.

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The Red Eddies out-rebounded the Bulldogs, 34-18, overcame 17 turnovers and hit 7 of 11 foul shots.

Portland was paced by Pitia Donato, who had 18 points, as well as four rebounds and a pair of assists.

Cross added eight points, Christensen five, Wani Donato five (to go with five rebounds and three assists), Girumugisha three and Toher two (to go with four steals, three rebounds and two assists).

The Bulldogs turned the ball over a dozen times and only made 2 of 8 free throws.

A new year of promise

The teams play again Feb. 1 in Auburn, but both squads have their share of heavy lifting to do as 2021 gives way to 2022.

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Edward Little returns to action Tuesday at home versus Deering.

“We’ve gotten a lot better and we still have a long way to go,” Shea said. “We’re getting a lot better with turnovers and just being a team. Some of us were on that team two years ago when we won it and I know we want to win it again.”

“It’s still a work in progress,” said Mike Adams. “I think we have to use each other better. John is one of the best players in the state, but we have to use all our pieces. We’re built on team, not just one person.”

Portland begins its new year at Oxford Hills Tuesday of next week.

“I think that the league is wide open,” Russo said. “I still think Bangor and Oxford Hills are the two best teams.”

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

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