There's only one more item of business to take care of for the Portland girls' basketball team. Where in the David L Bengston gymnasium will they hang their hard-earned 2010-2011 Class S State Championship banner.
That's right. Portland's second-ever trip to the finals ended victoriously Friday night at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville as they dug deep into their heart and soul to beat conference rival Cromwell, 45-41.
"That banner is for the town and for all the players that have made Portland basketball what it is today," Portland coach Nick Chaconis said.
The Lady Highlanders (23-4), as they have all season, found a way to win, and Friday night's test was to do it with their best player on the bench, having fouled out with 5:08 to play.
Portland senior Kelly Coleman (13 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks), watched as her teammates battled down the stretch.
"It's the first game that I fouled out all year and I never dreamed it would be in the state championship game," Coleman said. "I'm just so proud of our team."
Fellow senior Lindsey Dionne rallied the Highlanders down the stretch with her determination to not let this game slip away. Dionne, Portland's high scorer (14 points, 7 rebounds), hit six free throws in the final two minutes to help secure Portland's first state title in girls' basketball.
"It feels much better to be wearing gold," said junior point guard Meaghan Rodgers as she showed off her gold chamionship medal.
Rodgers, who hit two clutch free throws for the game's final points, was referring to Portland's runner-up finish last season, losing to St. Paul in the Class S title game.
"Lindsey kept telling us that we have heart and we have to believe in each other after Kelly fouled out," junior Sarah Bierly said.
About the only thing separating these two evenly-matched teams is the Connecticut River. Each team began the game with excellent pursuit on defense, but good looks at the basket were not resulting in points. Portland shot 16.7 percent and Cromwell 25 percent in the first quarter. A three-pointer by Cromwell's Alex Marchinkoski put the Panthers up heading into the second quarter, 8-5.
With junior Alyssa Unikewicz picking up two quick fouls near the end of the first quarter, Chaconis went to sophomore Katie Coleman to come off the bench and Coleman provided what the team needed. Unikewicz reentered the game with a little over a minute to go in the half.
Rodgers tied the score at 8 when she hit a three from the top of the key but Marchinkoski matched that on Cromwell's next possession to regain the lead. However, the back-and-forth defensive battle continued until Cromwell's Shaniya Tripp (11 points) went on a 5-0 run to close out the half with Cromwell leading, 18-15.
Kelly Coleman scored and was fouled on the first play of the second half and converted the old fashioned three-point play to tie the score. After a Marchinkoski layup, Portland took over. The Highlanders went on a 7-0 run to open up a 27-20 lead. Dionne later hit a three-pointer from the right side as she was fouled to put Portland up 30-22 at the end of three.
Portland turned the game around in the third quarter by holding Cromwell (21-5) to 1-for-10 shooting from the floor and allowing only four points.
"We've been saying it all year, that defense will win games and we can run our offense off our defensive stops," Chaconis said.
"Cromwell is a good team. We knew they weren't going to go away."
Cromwell did not go away and entered the last quarter of the season with a new level of energy and focus.
Janelle Harrison put back an offensive rebound and Abby Marchinkoski followed up her end-to-end dash with a layup off an assist from her sister, Alex, to get Cromwell back in the game at 30-28 with 6:14 left.
With Portland clinging to a 30-28 lead at the 5:08 mark, they learned they would play the rest of the game without their leading scorer, Coleman, who picked up her fifth foul.
Portland took a minute to find themselves without their co-captain on the floor and did what every championship team does, find a way to win.
"Our saying is, Believe, and we pulled through," Unikewicz said. "I'm really proud of my team."
Fortunately for Chaconis, his tournament-tested nucleus drew on last year's experience and held its ground by not allowing Cromwell to get the lead back.
Defensive pressure and rebounding kept Cromwell to one shot possessions. The Panthers, having fouled a lot, put Portland at the line frequently, where they converted 13 of 15 free throws in the fourth quarter.
Alex Marchinkoski led Cromwell with 14 points.
As for Cromwell (23-4), they will return many of this season's team and look at Friday night's game as a stepping stone.
"They got to this game which is saying something, they never gave up and left everything they had on the floor," Cromwell coach Kelly Maher said. Portland is a good team."