MALDEN -- Earlier this month, the Portageville Bulldogs were a team searching for answers after a humiliating blowout loss to Scott County Central at home.
But on Friday night against the Malden Green Wave, Portageville probably showed more potential in a loss than they've shown in most of its wins this year.
The Bulldogs took Bootheel Conference rival Malden -- ranked No. 1 in the region and No. 6 in the Class 3 state poll -- to the wire before falling 48-43 on the Green Wave homecoming night.
Even Portageville coach Jim Bidewell has noticed some strides his team has taken in the last few weeks.
"We've come a long way since Bloomfield and we've still got a long way to go," said Bidewell, whose team falls to 11-3. "We fought. The kids took a lot of pride in this game. It's our first conference loss -- we were trying to win the conference tonight, but the better team won."
Trailing by 15 in the third quarter and seemingly on the verge of getting blown out, Portageville turned up its intensity and gave the undefeated Green Wave their biggest scare this season.
After a Marcus Greene free throw made it 45-43 with 33 seconds left, the Bulldogs pressured and trapped Malden, nearly causing a turnover on an ill-
advised Alonzo Louis pass under the goal, but the ball was knocked out of bounds by a Bulldog player.
Louis sealed the game on the ensuing inbounds play as he split the Bulldog defense and found Quentin Franks for a conventional 3-point play with six seconds left to ice the victory.
Portageville, instead of fouling, tried for the steal in the final seconds. The plan backfired as the dynamic Louis used his quickness to get into the paint.
"We knew they were just going to try to run the clock out," said Bidewell. "We almost got a steal under the basket, but they got it and made the shot when it counted."
Malden coach Robert Ison said it wasn't a designed play, but Louis' improvisation.
"That's just Alonzo being able to get to the basket and making a good pass," said Ison. "Franks didn't have a good offensive night. Louis didn't have a good offensive night. But he got in there and got it to Franks and Franks made the 3-point play."
Louis, one of the elite point guards in the area, was contained to nine points, mostly being guarded by Portageville's Trey Mosby.
Mosby, still recovering from a broken wrist suffered during football season, committed numerous turnovers himself, but he recorded 12 points with seven steals.
"He's playing on all heart right now," said Bidewell of Mosby. "Not to make excuses, but he's got a bum hand and everything he does is because he desires it. I can't ask for much more than what I'm getting out of him. Hopefully by the end of the year his hand will be back to the point where he will feel comfortable shooting the ball. But he's not doing bad."
Portageville also got a strong game from 6-5 freshman Kony Ealy, who tallied a team-high 13 points while handling much of the ball-handling duties against Malden's pressure defense.
"He's come a long way and he's got a long way to go," said Bidewell. "He's got a lot of potential. He could be good, but he's not there yet -- he's just a freshman."
Despite the low score, the game had an up-tempo pace. Tight, pressure defense by both teams forced numerous turnovers and poor shooting by both sides.
Portageville finished with a whopping 29 turnovers while Malden finished with 20 turnovers.
"Our defense has improved, but offensively we're turning it over too much," said Bidewell.
Malden never trailed in the game. They jumped out early and led 12-7 after one quarter.
The Green Wave (16-0) led by as much as 10 points in the second quarter, but the Bulldogs managed to slice the lead to 25-20 by halftime.
Malden hit its peak to start the third quarter with a 10-0 run. An ally-oop slam by 6-foot-6 senior Robbie Ison on a beautiful pass from Louis highlighted the run, sending the Green Wave faithful into a frenzy.
All of a sudden, Malden led 35-20 and seemed well on its way to a comfortable victory.
But Portageville responded with a 9-2 run to close the gap to 37-29 heading into the fourth quarter.
The Bulldogs continued to steadily chip away in the fourth. Malden led 43-34, but Ealy scored back-to-back baskets, including a steal and layup with 3:08 left to make it 43-38.
"Portageville is Portageville -- coach Bidewell has a good program and always has a good team," said coach Ison. "They're going to fight back and they won't quit. I think that's what makes the difference. You get a team down and they don't quit and they play smart, they're going to be there in the end."
After Malden's Quentin Franks missed two free throws, Mosby hit a short fade-away jumper to cut the lead to four. After forcing a turnover, Mosby was fouled and made both free throws to cut the lead to 44-42 with 1:26 left.
With 36 seconds left, Ison was fouled and made 1-of-2 free throws to make it 45-42. Greene was then fouled on the inbounds play when Franks attempted to take a charge but was called for a blocking foul.
Greene made 1-of-2 free throws to set up the final sequence.
Greene finished with nine points and a team-high six rebounds.
Ison led the Green Wave with 11 points. Franks added nine points.
Neither team was sharp from the field. Malden was 17-39 (44 percent) while Portageville was 17-41 (41 percent). The Bulldogs were also just 1-9 from 3-
"We had too many turnovers and we had a couple mental mistakes," said Bidewell. "But the kids fought hard. (Malden is) so fast. They've got a good squad. It's going to take a good team to beat them, and they'll have to be off just a little bit."
Portageville will have a week off to prepare for a road game at Sikeston next Saturday afternoon at 3 p.m.
Malden will travel to Kennett for a Bootheel Conference game on Monday at 6 p.m.