THOMASTON - Thomaston wanted to beat Portland in the worst way. They owed them one and they had them in their gym. In the end the Bears may have wanted it too much.
Third-seeded Thomaston started a little out of synch and it ended up costing them as No. 6 Portland jumped out to an early lead and held on for a 42-35 victory in a Class S quarterfinals matchup Thursday night at Thomaston High.
It is the third straight season that Portland defeated Thomaston in the state quarterfinals. The Highlanders advanced to the state finals in each of the two previous years and won the Class S title last season. They will face second-seeded Capital Prep in the semifinals on Monday.
Portland knew it was in for a battle and prepared to take a shot from Thomaston right off the bat, instead it was the Highlanders that landed the first blow.
"We prepared for them to come out fast, we were in their gym and they were motivated," Portland coach Nick Chaconis said. "For us to get off to the start we did was big."
Portland was led by its three seniors Meaghan Rodgers, Alyssa Unikewicz and Sarah Bierly. Rodgers scored nine of her game-high 18 points in the first quarter and Bierly added four as the Highlanders opened up a 16-6 lead.
"We picked the worst night to stink it up in the first eight minutes," Thomaston coach Bob McMahon said. "we wanted it really bad and we were pretty undisciplined with trying to stay in front of our guys. It was for the right reasons, we were trying to make plays, we have been making them for months, tonight we didn't."
It wasn't because they didn't try.
The Bears started to claw their way back into the game in the second, cutting the deficit to 24-17 at the half. In the third quarter Thomaston got back to within 28-26 with 2:35 left in the quarer on a three-point-play by Kellie Burns.
Portland took a 30-26 lead into the fourth and found a way to hold on despite making only one field goal over the final eight minutes. The highlanders only made three baskets in the second half but the Bears were having trouble scoring as well.
Unikewicz scored six of her eight points in the final quarter and she hit a huge 3-pointer to put the Highlanders up 33-28 with a little over five minutes to go. Thomaston missed and when Portland got the ball back with 4:58 to play and with a five-point lead, it went into stall mode.
"We wanted to take care of the ball but take a layup if it was there," Chaconis said. "It's hard to hold the ball for that long, but we did enough and made enough fouls shots at the end to pull it out."
Abby Hurlbert hit a rainbow 3-pointer for the Bears to cut the lead to 34-31 with 2:27 to go and after the Highlanders missed the front end of a one-and-one, Thomaston had the ball down three. Maggie Eberhardt drove hard to the lane and went down hard with no call. She scored moments later to pull the Bears within 37-33 with 1:04 to go but they managed just one more hoop and Rodgers hit four free throws in the final 38 seconds to ice it.
"We have a lot of experience in close games," Rodgers said. "Alyssa, Sarah and I have been playing together forever and we have been in tough games before and knew we could get it done.'
While the end was frustrating for the Bears, it was the beginning that set it all up.
"They come right after you, that's a credit to them and their conference," McMahon said. "We put ourselves in a tough spot with our start. We had to dig deep and usually that's us pulling it out, we've been playing these crazy back and forth games for months. Tonight it just wasn't our night."
But the Bears had a lot of nights where things went right this season and while McMahon said "I'd feel bad no matter who we lost to," in regards to the three straight quarterfinal losses to Portland, there is a lot to feel good about for Thomaston this season.
The Bears were expected to be a top team in the Berkshire League this season after surprising people last year. They started 3-0 but dropped to 3-3 and lost at Nonnewaug and Coginchaug. It was December 27th when the Bears went to Durham and were sent home with a stinging loss, but it was also a launching pad to a stellar season.
"It's tough to lose this one, we accomplished alot, we just had one bad quarter. But I also don't want it to overshadown everything that we accomplsihed this season," McMahon said. "Especially this group of seniors. I love this senior class. They have been through a lot, worked hard and put up with a lot. We have asked a lot of them and they responded every time. This senior class is one of the best we have ever had."
The seniors helped lead the Bears to 17 consecutive wins and they had not lost in 2012 until Thursday night. In the end Thomaston won the Berkshire League regular season and tournament titles and finished 20-4.
Hannah Russo, Sarah Hafele, Burns, Laura Miller, Holly Sechow and Natalie Obar make up Thomaston's senior class and they lingered with the rest of the team in the locker room a bit, proabably not wanting to believe what was a great season had come to an end. When they emerged through the locker room door, they did so in a tight huddle that could easily have passed for a team hug, there were few dry eyes in that group as they were greated by a nice ovation by fans still in the gym.
"We all wanted it so bad, but give them credit, Portland is a great team," Burns said. "We have accomplsihed so much and I love my team, this team is my family."