PORTLAND — Despite public pronouncements to the contrary prior to the first playoff series in team history, the Maine Red Claws wanted Thursday night’s first-round opener with Rio Grande Valley to develop into a track meet.

The game did, but the Red Claws were still left asking for the race to last just a few more meters.

Eighth-seeded Maine nearly erased a 21-point deficit, but ultimately came up short in a 120-118 loss before 2,348 at the Portland  Expo.

Second-seeded Rio Grande Valley, which by league rule hand-picked the Red Claws for its first-round  opponent, returns home to Hidalgo, Texas, with a 1-0 lead. The best-of-three series resumes at 8 p.m. Saturday. If Maine wins, Game 3 will be played at RGV on Monday.

Chris Daniels led RGV with game-highs of 28 points and 11 rebounds. Glen Rice Jr. and Andrew Goudelock added 27 apiece for the Vipers, who beat the Red Claws  in both of their regular-season meetings. Jermaine Taylor paced Maine with 29 points, while Josh Selby came off the bench to score 23 of his 28 points in the fourth quarter to spark the near-comeback.

“We started off slow, and we can’t do that in the playoffs,” Selby said. “This is our first time there together, so I think next time you’ve just got to come out more aggressive, play smarter and play better defense, and I think everything will work out well.”

Back-to-back dunks by Tim Ohlbrecht ballooned the Vipers’ lead to 21, 93-72 late in the third quarter.

Maine cut that back down to 17 by the end of the quarter and continued to chip away in the fourth. An emphatic rejection by Fab Melo (11 points, 10 rebounds) led to a Mark Tyndale hoop that made it 101-90 with 7:54 left. Selby scored the next eight points for the Red Claws to pull them within five with 5:32 to go. Selby nearly made it 11 in a row but had a 3-pointer from the right corner waived off because he stepped on the sideline.

RGV inflated its lead back to nine points before free throws by Omar Reed and Taylor and a fast break dunk cut the deficit to 109-105 and sent the Expo crowd into a frenzy.

Rice quieted the throng by making four of four from the  charity stripe and Goudelock drilled 3-pointer to make it 116-107 with 52 seconds left. But the Red Claws continued to plug away, making it a one-possession game on back-to-back 3-pointers by Curtis Jerrells and Selby for a 116-13 deficit with 16 seconds left.

Selby’s 3-pointer made it 120-118 before the buzzer sounded. Officials put 0.9 seconds back on the clock. After a timeout,  Melo stole the inbounds pass but didn’t have any time to put up a desperation shot before the final horn sounded.

“It says a lot, not only for us, it says a lot to the other team, that we’re not going to give up,” Taylor said. “We’re going to play hard until the game’s over and I think that’s what we did.”

RGV wasted little time showing the explosiveness that earned it the No. 2 seed. The Vipers shot 67 percent in the first quarter and summoned a 16-4 run late in the period to take a 29-13 lead.

Maine closed the gap to 12 just before the end of the quarter on a thunderous dunk by Taylor. The Red Claws continued to chip away against the Vipers’ bench, putting together a 16-4 run of its own to pull within four, 38-34, when Tyndale fed Taylor cutting along the baseline for another crowd-pleasing jam.

“We wanted it to be a track meet the whole time,” Red Claws coach Mike  Taylor said. “I was just trying to get (the Vipers) thinking that we were going to slow it down. We wanted to run at them and … we were very successful. I think the one thing I was disappointed in in the first half offensively was the ball stuck. We needed better ball movement.”

RGV came out of the ensuing timeout with a dunk by Daniels, then slowly widened its margin to double digits with a Kennedy jumper with 3:12 left in the half. Melo’s hook shot dropped it back to single figures, 59-50, at halftime.

The Vipers made their first six shots of the second half, then pulled away with an 18-5 run late in the third quarter. Back-to-back inside hoops by Daniels sparked it and things only seemed to get worse for the Claws from there when Selby was called for a technical foul after clapping his hands following a foul call.

“In the third quarter, we lost our composure. We started playing slow again,” Selby said. “I just wanted to build the energy back up and put some fight in these guys.”

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