PORTLAND — The Eagles have landed.
And two-time defending state champion Portland is still shaking its head, wondering how this one got away.
For the past five seasons, the Bulldogs have been close to unbeatable everywhere, especially at the Cross Insurance Arena, where they celebrated state titles in 2014 and 2016, but Tuesday afternoon, in absolutely shocking fashion, Portland met its match in a gallant and talented Windham squad and for the first time in the three-year history of the AA classification, someone other than the Bulldogs will raise the Gold Ball.
Top-ranked Portland threatened to make quick work of the fourth-seeded Eagles when it raced to a 13-2 lead behind the heroics of senior standout Terion Moss and the inside dominance of junior post presence Trey Bellew.
But unlike most of the Bulldogs’ foes, Windham didn’t buckle and behind its dynamic senior tandem of Nick Curtis and Mike Gilman, it rallied within three and only trailed by five, 17-12, after one quarter.
In the second period, Portland went back up by nine, but again the Eagles came back and when Curtis set up junior Andrew Wing for a layup in the final minute, the Bulldogs’ lead was a mere two points, 26-24, at the break.
Portland tried again to shake Windham in the third quarter, going up by 10 points, 37-27, on a layup from senior Manny Yugu, but again, the Eagles refused to fold and after drawing back within one on a layup from Gilman, they were only down 43-40 when the fourth quarter began.
There, Windham pulled even on an old-fashioned three-point play from Gilman with 4:31 to go, but Moss put back his own miss, then hit two free throws before a Bellew layup made it 51-45 with just 2:29 to go.
The Eagles saved their best for last, however, and stole the game and the show.
After a Curtis 3 was answered by two Moss free throws, Curtis hit a 3 and with 30.4 seconds on the clock, a Gilman 3 gave Windham its first lead, 54-53.
After a Portland miss, Curtis added a free throw, but the Bulldogs had one final chance to tie or win and got a good look, as senior Griffin Foley popped open for a 3-pointer up top, but the shot was off target, the Eagles got the rebound and held on for the 55-53 victory.
Gilman had a game-high 25 points, Curtis added 19 and Windham improved to 15-5, advanced to meet No. 2 Edward Little (16-4) in the Class AA North Final Friday at 6:30 p.m. in Portland and in the process, ended another superb Bulldogs’ season at 18-2.
“The guys are just confident,” said Eagles coach Chad Pulkinnen. “We knew we were just as good as them, if not better, if we played a good game. We think we’re the best team in this tournament. Portland’s the bar for everybody. They’ve separated themselves from everybody, but our guys were ready to go.”
Home away from home
Portland came to the Cross Insurance Arena, the erstwhile Cumberland County Civic Center, Tuesday having not lost there since the 2013 Western A semifinals against South Portland.
The Bulldogs were the gold standard again this winter, losing just once, by three points at Scarborough, and as the top seed in Class AA North, they advanced with a decisive 83-37 quarterfinal round victory over Lewiston (see sidebar, below, for previous results).
Windham was highly touted coming into the season and despite some early struggles, the Eagles wound up 13-5 and fourth in the region and in the quarterfinals, they downed No. 5 Bangor, 78-62, to move on.
On Dec. 13, Portland beat the host Eagles, 61-44. The teams had met just once before in the tournament, a 57-50 Bulldogs’ victory in the 2015 Western A quarterfinals.
Tuesday, Windham turned the tables and busted the bracket.
Portland needed all of three seconds to take the lead, as Bellew won the opening tip to junior Pedro Fonseca, who raced in for a layup.
Moss added an old-fashioned three-point play (leaner, foul and free throw) and after Windham got on the board on a driving layup from Gilman, Moss answered with an NBA-range 3, Bellew blocked a shot at one end and Yugu hit a 3 at the other and with 3:28 remaining in the first quarter, Bellew hit a leaner in the lane to make it 13-2.
The Eagles bounced back, as Curtis hit a 3, senior Cory Hutchison made a layup in transition and Curtis hit a long 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 13-10.
After Bellew ended the 8-0 run with a leaner, Gilman made two foul shots.
Windham had a chance to draw even, but Curtis’ 3 hit the back iron and as time expired, Moss drove down and banked home a finger roll for a 17-12 advantage after eight minutes.
Moss led the way with eight points, while the Eagles were paced by Curtis with six.
In the second period, Portland maintained the lead.
Bellew started the frame with a three-point play, then added a foul shot, but Gilman sank a long 3.
After Moss made a layup after a steal, Windham got a layup from Gilman (off a pass from Curtis after a steal), a free throw from Gilman and a bank shot in traffic from Gilman to make it 23-20.
After Gilman missed a 3 that could have tied it, Moss drove for a layup.
In the final minute, Gilman scored on a putback for the Eagles and after Bellew hit a free throw, Curtis set up junior Andrew Wing for a layup, cutting Portland’s lead to 26-24 at halftime.
In the first half, Moss led the Bulldogs with 12 points and Bellew added nine, but the Bulldogs couldn’t hit their accustomed shots from the outside.
The Eagles were paced by 13 points from Gilman and nine from Curtis in the first 16 minutes.
In the third quarter, Portland threatened to pull away, but Windham wouldn’t let it.
Bellew started the second half with a putback and after Curtis was whistled for his fourth foul with 6:35 to go in the period, but stayed on the floor, Bellew added a hook shot and Foley scored a putback to make it 32-24.
Curtis countered with a 3, but in transition, Yugu fed Foley for a 3 and on the fastbreak, Moss set up Yugu for a layup and a 37-27 advantage with 4:36 left in the frame.
Senior Hunter Coffin started to turn momentum with a three-point play and after Moss hit a leaner, Wing scored on a putback and Curtis drove for a layup to cut the deficit to four.
Fonseca answered with a putback, but Curtis fed Hutchison for a layup, Curtis threw a gorgeous pass to Gilman for a layup and with 1:23 on the clock, Gilman drove the baseline and made a layup to cut the deficit to one.
After Curtis missed a 3 which could have put the Eagles on top, Moss fed Bellew for a layup just before the horn and Portland took a 43-40 advantage to the final stanza.
Just 29 seconds into the fourth period, Hutchison threw a pass under the basket to a leaping Gilman, who managed to control his body and make a layup to cut the deficit to a single point.
Moss answered by banking home an off-balanced shot, but with 4:31 to play, after a steal, Gilman made a layup while being fouled and he added the and-one to tie it, 45-45.
Moss, as he’s done countless times in his career, then came up huge, putting back his own miss and after Wing missed a 3, Moss was fouled and hit both attempts.
With 2:29 to play, Moss fed Bellew for a layup and a six-point lead, but 16 seconds later, a Curtis 3 made it a one-possession contest again, 51-48.
Again, Moss hit two free throws with 1:54 remaining, but nine seconds later, Curtis got through a screen and buried another 3 to make it 53-51.
After Moss was called for a charge, Windham had a chance to tie or take the lead, but Foley stole a pass.
Moss had a chance to extend the lead with 39.4 seconds on the clock, but his front end of a one-and-one went in-and-out and the Eagles came down and took the lead when senior Nazari Henderson found Gilman in the corner and Gilman buried the 3 for Windham’s first advantage, 54-53.
“Coach just called a great play,” said Gilman. “I had two great screens set for me. I was open and I knocked it down. I was confident it was going in.”
“That’s a play we run every day in practice to get him free,” Pulkinnen said. “He played an unbelievable game.”
At the other end, Foley missed a 3 and Henderson got the rebound.
Curtis was fouled with 14.5 seconds to go. He hit the first attempt, then missed the second and that gave Portland one final chance.
Yugu inbounded the ball to Moss who came into the frontcourt. Before he could make a move to the basket, however, Foley flashed open up top and took a pass and attempted a 3, but it was just off target.
“There were two options, drive for the two, or kick for the 3,” Portland coach Joe Russo said.
The Eagles grabbed the rebound, avoided a foul and at 4:57 p.m., celebrated the biggest win in their history, 55-53.
“It’s the best thing that’s happened in my high school career,” said Gilman. “We haven’t done anything like this in a long time. It was nervewracking at the end. They got a shot, but they didn’t knock it down. We played good defense and walked away with a win. We had to stay in it mentally and keep grinding.”
“This means everything for us,” Pulkinnen said. “The amount of pride we have and work they guys have put in. The community was here supporting us. The seven seniors have taken the program to another level. I have nothing but joy for those guys.”
Windham got a game-high 25 points from Gilman.
Curtis added 19 points, seven assists and four rebounds and never despite playing almost the entire second half with four fouls, never picked up his fifth.
“Our best chance is with (Nick) on the court,” said Pulkinnen. “I felt he’d be smart.”
Hutchinson added four points and seven rebounds, Wing had four points and Coffin finished with three.
Windham had 12 turnovers and made 6 of 11 foul shots.
Windham beat Edward Little in the regular season meeting, 69-54, Dec. 22 at home. The Class AA North Final promises to be a doozy.
“It’s going to be a great regional championship,” Russo said. “EL looked good, maybe invincible-good and Windham played terrific tonight. They were very enthusiastic. They were into it tonight. Those teams will do a good job representing the North. It’ll be a heck of a game.”
“We have to work hard in practice and do everything we can do to get better before playing them Friday,” Gilman said.
“(Edward Little’s) very athletic,” Pulkinnen said. “They get up and down the court. They have good shooters. We’ll have to play our best game against them. They’re playing at a high level and we have to match that.”
Picking up the pieces
Portland was led by Moss’ 22 points in his swan song. The Mr. Maine Basketball favorite also had eight rebounds, three assists and two steals.
“Moss is an unbelievable player,” Pulkinnen said. “You can’t slow him down. You try to make his shots tough and slow down his co-workers. We didn’t want (junior Simon) Chadbourne to go off. Not allowing him to get comfortable was key.”
Bellew had a terrific game with 17 points and eight rebounds.
“We got the ball into Trey early to dominate inside,” Russo said. “He had a great game. I usually use my bench, but he did such a good job that I couldn’t take him out.”
Foley (five rebounds) and Yugu (four rebounds, three steals) each bowed out with five points, while Fonseca (nine rebounds) added four.
The Bulldogs had a 36-25 rebounding advantage, but made just 8 of 15 free throws and turned the ball over 11 times.
“Usually the shortcoming comes from the other team’s best player coming through or us not executing and we didn’t execute on offense and they have two really good players and they both came through at the end,” Russo said.
“Usually I toss and turn and scratch my head for two or three days, but I’m OK with this game. Our shortcomings showed and I’m kind of relieved, to be honest. It’s been a grind. If it was meant to be for us to win, we would have won.”
The Bulldogs have to part with a senior class which includes the sensational Moss, Foley, Yugu, Lino Ben, Quinn Clarke and Ben Fisher. That graduating class posted a four-year record of 76-8, won three regional and two state titles.
“At halftime, we didn’t really talk Xs and Os,” Russo said. “It was more about who wanted it more. I said, ‘Before you leave the locker room, you guys are already winners.’ They brought so much success to this program for four years. This game won’t define us by any stretch of the imagination. We haven’t lost many games. It had to end at some point. “
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.
Portland junior Pedro Fonseca and Windham senior Nazari Henderson go to the court to fight for a loose ball during the teams’ Class AA North semifinal Tuesday afternoon. The Eagles ended the Bulldogs’ two-year title reign, 55-53.
Windham senior Nathan Watson defends Portland junior Trey Bellew.