BOX SCORE

Portland 47 Falmouth 44

F- 5 11 9 19- 44
P- 14 5 14 14- 47

F-Coyne 3-5-11, Armstrong 3-2-9, Morrill 3-3-9, Dilworth 2-3-7, Simonds 2-0-4, Stowell 2-0-4

P- W. Donato 6-3-16, Cross 4-2-10, P. Donato 4-1-10, Khamis 2-2-6, Johnson 1-3-5

3-pointers:
F (1) Armstrong 1
P (2) P. Donato, W. Donato 1

Turnovers:
F- 14
P- 18

FTs
F: 13-23
P: 11-16

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PORTLAND—Portland’s boys’ basketball team kept the door open all night for the visiting Falmouth Navigators to come back and earn an improbable win, but when all was said and done, the Bulldogs refused to let a victory slip away Friday evening at the Portland Exposition Building.

In the first-ever regular season meeting between the squads, the Bulldogs threatened to run away and hide in the first quarter, when they shot to a 14-5 lead, thanks in large part to six points from senior Spencer Cross.

Portland held a 10-point advantage midway through the second period, but the Navigators, playing their first countable game in over two weeks, closed the half on a 7-0 run to cut the deficit to 19-16.

The Bulldogs then roared out of the gate in the second half as well, scoring the first dozen points, and when senior Wani Donato scored on a finger roll, the lead was 31-16, but again, Falmouth would rally, closing within 33-25 heading to the fourth period before making things very interesting down the stretch.

Every time Portland appeared to have victory locked up, the Navigators answered and when senior Zach Morrill made a layup with 11 seconds to go, Falmouth was only down a point, but two clutch free throws from sophomore James Johnson helped slam the door and the Bulldogs held on to emerge victorious, 47-44.

Donato led all scorers with 16 points as Portland improved to 7-3, dropping the Navigators to 6-2 in the process.

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“It seems right now like our script is to have a lead with a couple minutes to go, then have to focus on making on big play at the end,” said longtime Bulldogs coach Joe Russo. “Winning comes with experience and making good decisions and players playing with ice in their veins down the stretch. We’ve been in great games and competitive games and it’s more fun to win.”

Return to action

Falmouth opened with lopsided wins over visiting Biddeford (84-40), host Kennebunk (91-69) and visiting Marshwood (64-46), then met its match in Class AA favorite South Portland, falling on the road, 58-41. The Navigators then rebounded and defeated visiting Brunswick (93-55), host Mt. Ararat (93-52) and visiting Gorham (74-47) before having games versus Morse, Greely, Marshwood and Westbrook postponed during their COVID pause.

Portland started with a 42-40 home loss to Lewiston, then won at Bonny Eagle (45-41) and at Hampden Academy (63-42), rallied for a 44-41 victory at Cheverus, then downed host Deering, 45-40. A 47-41 home loss to reigning Class AA state champion Edward Little was followed by a nearly two-week hiatus before Portland returned to action with an impressive 45-36 home victory over reigning Class AA South champion Thornton Academy and an impressive 52-43 home victory over Oxford Hills. Tuesday, the Bulldogs fell at home to Cheverus, 46-42.

The teams were scheduled to play twice last winter, during the COVID-shortened season, but those games were postponed.

Falmouth and Portland last met in a countable game in the 2015 Western A Final, a 57-47 Bulldogs’ victory.

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Friday, in the teams’ first-ever regular season encounter, Portland prevailed again.

Barely.

The Navigators were clearly rusty in the first quarter, as the Bulldogs pulled ahead.

Just 24 seconds in, Donato made two free throws.

A layup from Morrill tied the score, but sophomore Jeissey Khamis drove for a layup to put Portland on top.

With 5:47 left in the first, junior Judd Armstrong’s runner tied the game, but 41 seconds later, junior Brady Toher set up classmate Pitia Donato for a layup and the Bulldogs had the lead for good.

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Pitia Donato then set up Cross for a layup and Cross scored on a putback before Wani Donato found his brother for a layup and a 12-4 lead.

Morrill’s free throw ended the 8-0 Portland run but with just over a second to go, Johnson found Cross for a layup and a 14-5 advantage.

The Bulldogs had chances to run away and hide in the second quarter, but Falmouth settled down and rallied.

A putback from Navigators sophomore Chris Simonds opened the frame and after Pitia Donato scored on a putback, Simonds again put home a missed shot, but with 4:55 left before halftime, a 3-ball from Pitia Donato made it 19-9.

Portland didn’t score again in the half, as Falmouth hit its stride, getting a free throw from Coyne, a runner off the glass from senior Jack Stowell, two foul shots from Coyne and a tip-in from Coyne to pull within seven, 19-16.

The Bulldogs then started strongly in the second half as well.

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Falmouth senior Jack Stowell goes up for a shot as Portland junior Brady Toher defends. Hoffer photos.

Wani Donato got things started with a driving layup. Wani Donato then sank a 3-pointer, Cross converted an old-fashioned three-point play (putback, foul, free throw), Khamis made two foul shots and with 2:51 remaining in the quarter, Wani Donato got into the lane and banked home a finger roll for a seemingly commanding 31-16 lead.

But the Navigators answered.

First, Coyne made a free throw. Armstrong then got a 3-pointer, what proved to be Falmouth’s lone 3-pointer of the game (on 20 attempts), to bounce in before Stowell went coast-to-coast for a layup.

With just 3.3 seconds on the clock, a three-point play from Armstrong appeared to give the Navigators all the momentum, but Portland transitioned quickly and Pitia Donato fed Wani Dontao for a layup and a 33-25 advantage.

Falmouth then made things very interesting in the fourth quarter.

After Navigators junior Lucas Dilworth and Johnson traded free throws, Morrill made a layup to cut the deficit to four, but a bank shot from Khamis and a three-point play from Wani Donato gave the Bulldogs a 39-30 lead with 5:57 to go.

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Armstrong made a free throw, but a driving layup from Johnson extended the advantage to 10 with just 4:39 on the clock.

Falmouth continued to fight in two minutes time cut a 10-point deficit to just three, as Dilworth made two free throws, Morrill did the same and with 2:37 to play, Coyne put back his own miss, was fouled and made the and-one free throw to make the score 41-38.

Pitia Donato countered with one free throw, but with 1:51 to go, Morrill fed Coyne for a layup and we had a two-point contest.

After a Bulldogs’ turnover, Coyne appeared to tie the score with a contested leaner, but the whistle blew and Coyne was instead called for an offensive foul.

That loomed large, as Cross added a free throw and after Stowell missed a potential game-tying 3-ball, Wani Donato drove for a layup to make it 45-40 with 44 seconds left.

Still, the Navigators refused to buckle and after Dilworth got a leaner to drop, Pitia Donato missed two free throws and with just 11 seconds on the clock, Morrill took a pass from Coyne and made a layup to cut the deficit to just one.

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But Portland refused to lose and got the ball in to Johnson.

With just 3.3 seconds to go, Johnson went to the line and the son of longtime Bulldogs assistant coach Joe Johnson came through as you’d expect a coach’s son to do in a clutch spot, sinking both free throws.

“I just had to breathe and focus and pretend I was the only one there,” Johnson said.

“We moved the ball around to get it in the right hands,” Russo said. “Johnson’s a good free throw shooter. I thought he could make it. He was one of our better options.”

Falmouth had a faint chance to tie, but couldn’t get a shot off and Portland was able to celebrate its 47-44 victory.

Portland senior Spencer Cross (11) and his teammates celebrate Friday’s victory.

“I think our free throws were big at the end,” Cross said. “We hustled the whole game. Even if we made some stupid plays sometimes, our hustle made up for it. This definitely boosts our confidence coming off our loss.”

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“This was important game for us to win,” Johnson said. “We had a tough game against Cheverus. I thought it would be a tough game all around, but we were able to pull it out.”

“It’s always better to win ugly than to lose pretty,” added Russo. “Tonight, we survived by winning ugly. That takes some courage. This is big for two reasons. We’re rebounding from a loss and we played a team that’s really good. They’re going to be the (Class A South) champs. What I liked was when we didn’t execute on offense, the best part of our game was defense. Between Coyne and Stowell, they can outscore our whole team. We double-teamed those two as much as we could, but I was very impressed with some of their other players who normally don’t score. They kept them in the game.”

The Bulldogs were led by Wani Donato’s 16 points and 10 rebounds. Cross finished with 10 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots. Pitia Donato also had 10 points, while Khamis finished with six (to go with five rebounds and two steals) and Johnson had five.

Portland had a 33-31 rebound edge, made 11-of-16 foul shots and overcame 18 turnovers.

Falmouth’s effort was paced by Coyne’s 11 points, six rebounds, five steals and three assists. Armstrong and Morrill had nine points apiece, Dilworth (who had a team-high eight boards) added seven points, while Simonds and Stowell (eight rebounds, four steals) had four apiece.

The Navigators made 13-of-23 free throws and only turned the ball over 14 times, but couldn’t quite come all the way back.

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“I’m pleased with the effort, but didn’t like the result,” said longtime Falmouth coach Dave Halligan. “We have some grit. You could tell we hadn’t played in 15 days. You can practice all you want, but it’s not the same as a game. As badly as we played, we were right there at the end. Portland’s gritty. They’re well-coached. They do the little things well. This is why you play the best teams. Maybe that balance will pay off for us in the long run.”

Ramping up

Falmouth has two more road games upcoming, at Marshwood Monday and at Brunswick Tuesday. The Navigators are back home next Friday versus Class AA South power Thornton Academy.

“We have some good teams to play,” said Halligan. “We have to get ready for the tournament.”

Portland has a busy week upcoming, as the Bulldogs host Windham in a makeup game Monday, go to Lewiston Tuesday and Oxford Hills Thursday, then welcome Bangor next Friday.

“We just have to focus and lock in and keep working harder and harder,” Johnson said.

“This is motivation for us for all the games we have coming up,” said Cross.

“Our schedule doesn’t get any easier,” Russo added. “Everybody’s tough. There’s no easy game on our schedule. Our bench has been a big for us. We need them and next week, they’ll be critical. All those guys on the bench are good enough to play.”

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

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