Portland’s amazing three-year run in girls’ basketball came to an end on Monday night.
Bidding for their third consecutive trip to the Class S title game at the Mohegan Sun, the defending Class S champion Highlanders ran into a familiar opponent. Capital Prep, whom Portland defeated in the semifinals last season on its way to the state title, was back, and from the start appeared to have no interest in reminiscing.
The Trailblazers took control early and never looked back en route to a 68-45 victory in Plainville.
Though Capital Prep returned several players from last year, this was not the same group that lost 51-46 to Portland.
“They’re not the same team they were last year,” Portland coach Nick Chaconis said. “They improved in a couple of their key spots."
And they have a new coach, too, in Tammy Millsaps, but the Trailblazers’ newness doesn't end there. Capital Prep (22-3) was led in scoring by freshman DeJane James with 20 points. Another freshman, Kiah Gillespie, scored 12. Prep scored from the perimeter (six three-pointers) and they scored from down low. They scored in the halfcourt and they scored off their aggressive defense. Portland didn’t have the answers.
In the 24 games Portland (18-7) had played leading up to Monday night, the Highlanders had allowed 40 or more points seven times, none in their three Class S tournament games. Capital Prep had 37 at halftime.
“We don’t score in bunches,” Chaconis said. “We’re pretty disciplined. We keep it close and if we’re in there at the end of the game it’s to our advantage. This team had a double-digit lead at the half. It’s tough to overcome that.”
Capital Prep made it tougher, with the third quarter looking much like the first two. Leading 37-15, the Trailblazers extended their lead to 45-19 on a 13-foot fadeaway from inside the key by Dymond Thomas, who had the good fortune of a loose ball coming right to her. A layup by James gave Prep a 50-19 lead and a layup by Thomas (18 points) off a turnover caused by the press made it 54-22. Portland’s Meaghan Rodgers closed out the third-quarter scoring on a drive to the basket, making the score 58-26.
“They’re a tough team,” Chaconis said. “They’re tough to match up with. Not only did they come up with the deflections or loose balls, they came up with them for baskets.”
To their credit, the Highlanders did not quit, cutting the lead to 20 late in the fourth, but it was too little, too late.
“Things kind of fell apart here tonight early, but we gave that 4 or 5 minute run in the fourth quarter that was kind of our signature the last three years, led by our seniors,” said Chaconis, adding, “We knew we couldn’t play in the 50s or 60s.”
Sarah Bierly led Portland with 12 points. Alyssa Unikewicz added 10 and Laura Wall had nine. Bierly, however, played the game on a sore foot.
“Tonight she was injured a little bit and she showed a lot of character playing on a hurt foot,” Chaconis said of Bierly’s effort.
No. 2 seed Capital Prep will meet No. 1 seed Coginchaug, a 52-37 winner over Morgan on Monday, in the Class S final either Friday or Saturday at the Mohegan Sun Arena.
With the end of the season, comes the end of an era for Portland girls’ basketball. For the three seniors Chaconis mentioned, Rodgers, Unikewicz and Bierly, it was their final game.
“Our three seniors, I couldn’t have asked more from them,” Chaconis said. “Tonight they gave it every ounce they had. This would have been the third year in a row to the finals, would have been nice, but it wasn’t meant to be. That’s a good team.”
The three were part of the greatest three-year stretch in Portland’s history, compiling a record of 63-17 with two trips to the Class S championship game, one state title and a trip to the semifinals. After losing an All-State player in Kelly Coleman and second team All-Shoreline Lindsey Dionne after last season, another run at a state title seemed unlikely, but this group, along with their supporting cast, proved any doubters wrong.
“The three seniors, they showed what they’re made of,” Chaconis said. “They showed a lot of character. They’re great role models for next year’s team. Next year we’re going to have our hands full. The last three years we’ve lost a great senior class. Everyone is going to have to step up a little bit. But if there is any type of role model to follow, it’s Sarah, Alyssa and Meaghan. No one gave us much of a chance once we got into the tournament. Those guys just fought it out.”
Though there were a few tears being shed following the game, their accomplishments on the court will be something they’ll be able to smile about for years to come.