Portland senior Harrison Collins brings the ball up court as the Highlanders student section behind him cheers on the team on March 10 at PHS. Collins scored 22 points as Portland defeated Wheeler to advance to the state semifinals.
Portland High School basketball maestro Harrison Collins put on a show during the team’s final home game, slicing and dicing his way through defenders as the Highlanders defeated Wheeler 60-42 in the quarterfinals of the Division V state tournament on March 10.
Collins scored a game-high 22 points and dished out eight assists as the No. 4 seed Highlanders eliminated the No. 5 seed Lions to advance to the state semifinals.
“We were really amped up,” said Collins, who is one of six seniors. “We just had to stay together; we knew it was going to be a rowdy environment.”
Although the Highlanders had the advantage of playing at home, the gym at PHS was packed with Wheeler fans that made the long trip from North Stonington to see a potential upset.
But it didn’t take long for the visitors to find out that an upset was not in the making.
Behind Collins and a terrific supporting cast, the Highlanders controlled the tempo and never trailed in the game.
Head coach David Bradbury said it’s the best his team executed on the court this season.
“It’s great when you’re playing really well at the right time,” added Bradbury. “I talk to the boys about reaching that peak at the right time and we’ve hit our stride at the right time.”
Junior Joe Rusczyk scored the game’s first points when he banked in a shot off glass and—after Wheelers’ Deondre Bransford tied it with a layup—Collins scored five straight points to provide Portland the lead for good.
Similar to Portland’s style, Wheeler plays at a high-tempo, but they couldn’t match the Highlanders athleticism. They also had no answer for Collins, switching from a man defense to a zone defense in the second quarter in an attempt to get the ball out of Collins’ hands.
The result was a shooting exhibition from senior Ryan Kerr, who canned a pair of three-pointers on passes from Collins. Kerr scored eight of his 15 points in the second quarter.
“We knew they wanted to play man, but we know we have the size and skill to beat guys in man-to-man,” added Bradbury, who credited Wheeler head coach Stephen Bailey for mixing in multiple defenses. “He made good adjustments, but our guys just really executed.”
It was more of the same in the second half as Collins drained a straight away three-pointer in the first minute of the third quarter, promoting a 14-3 scoring run.
Rusczyk scored five straight points during the third quarter surge, converting a three-point play and then stealing a pass in the open court before making a layup.
By the four minute mark of the third quarter, the Highlanders had turned a 10-point halftime lead into an insurmountable 21-point advantage.
Second-chance points also helped the Highlanders.
Senior captain Ben Fecteau gobbled up a dozen rebounds, many on the offensive end. Fecteau put the finishing touches on the game when he drove baseline and converted a traditional three-point play by powering his way through a pair of defenders for a bucket and hitting the ensuing free throw midway through the final frame.
Rusczyk finished with nine points, Fecteau scored seven, and senior Austin Vess added six points—all in the second half.
Bradbury was impressed with his team’s ability to take Wheeler’s best punch and stay composed, something he said the team struggled with a season ago.
“We did a good job defensively with our switches and with our help defense.” added Bradbury. “In the first quarter [Wheeler] hit some tough shots and I thought we didn’t get out in transition as much as we wanted to. There were a lot of
50/50 balls that we may not have gotten in the first half, but we did a great job at tightening that up in the second half.”
Collins agreed that it was the team’s relentless defense that put the game to rest.
“Everyone was playing their role well and we worked on helping,” stated Collins. “Everyone played great team defense. That is what won it for us.”
Collins added that the team leaned on the experience from a season ago when they won a pair of state tournament games before being eliminated in the quarterfinals round at Windham.
The goal this season was to assure home playoff games and, after finishing the regular season with 15 wins this winter, the Highlanders earned a first round bye in the state tourney before ousting Wolcott 67-46 at PHS In the second round behind 27 points from Rusczyk.
The home win over Wheeler put the finishing touches on a historic home schedule in which the Highlanders won 13 of 14 games at PHS this winter.
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Sports Editor for the Rare Reminder, Glastonbury Citizen, and Rivereast News Bulletin