Red Riots find a way, rally at Deering to stay unbeaten
PORTLAND—Perhaps it's now time to give the South Portland boys' basketball team its due.
All winter, the Red Riots have been judged more on who's not in the lineup than who is, but Thursday evening in a hostile environment at Deering, South Portland proved once and for all that its senior-led team better be taken seriously.
The Red Riots fell behind 17-4 in the early going, but slowly battled back before dominating the fourth period en route to an impressive 62-58 victory over the Rams.
South Portland relied on its one-two inside punch of seniors Connor Hasson and Greg Reinhold (34 combined points) to lead the way to the team's ninth victory without a loss, dropping Deering to 6-2 in the process.
"It was a good character win for us," said third-year Red Riots coach Phil Conley. "We have a senior team and they've been there before in big games. We told them at halftime to continue to play tough which they did. We beat a very good team. I'm very pleased with the effort we showed."
Good times roll on
South Portland has been near the top of the Southern Maine Activities Association each of the past three seasons and with an abundance of seniors returning this year (led by reigning league Player of the Year and top scorer Keegan Hyland), the Red Riots were viewed as a serious title threat.
Hyland suffered a stress fracture in the offseason, however, and hasn't played a minute this winter, but South Portland has met every challenge, downing Biddeford, Windham, Massabesic, Gorham, Sanford, Marshwood, Noble and Scarborough thanks to a deep and balanced attack.
Deering, meanwhile, has flown under the radar, but has enjoyed a fine season of its own. The Rams opened with wins over Bonny Eagle, Sanford, Scarborough, Gorham and Biddeford, then lost a four-point decision at defending state champion Thornton Academy. Deering reached the final of the Yankee Ford Holiday Classic (losing to Cheverus), then returned to league play Tuesday with a home romp over Kennebunk.
Thursday, the Rams came out of the gate sizzling, but couldn't hold off the determined Red Riots.
Prior to the game, rumors were rampant that Hyland would return to action, but when South Portland came out for warmups, the standout was in street clothes and it appears as if he'll still be out for awhile.
"(Keegan's) day-to-day," Conley said. "We hope to have him back when he's ready."
His teammates then fell behind 17-4.
Just 35 seconds in, Deering junior Nick Colucci set the tone with a 3-pointer and 26 seconds later, sophomore Jon Amabile hit a leaner after a steal for a quick 5-0 lead. After the Red Riots got on the board thanks to a free throw from senior Spencer Bowring, Hasson added a foul shot and Bowring hit a layup to make it 5-4.
The Rams then went on a 12-0 run, stretching their lead to 17-4 after two Amabile foul shots, a layup from senior Eddie Tirabassi, a dunk after a steal by Tirabassi, a 3-ball from Colucci and another from Amabile.
With 3:08 left in the opening quarter, Hasson helped end the run by converting an old-fashioned three-point play. Hasson made a layup the next time down and after Tirabassi hit a jumper in the lane, Hasson made another layup to make it 19-11. After an Amabile leaner pushed the Deering advantage back to 10, Reinhold made a layup and freshman Tanner Hyland sank two free throws to pull the Red Riots within six, 21-15, after one period.
"They hit some shots early and we came down on the other end and missed shots," Conley said. "We talked about staying patient and running our offense. We got good looks that weren't falling. After their 17-4 run we cut it back to six and settled everyone down."
A runner by junior Jamie Ross made it 23-15 Rams early in the second. After Hasson answered with two free throws, Tirabassi converted a three-point play for a 26-17 advantage. A Reinhold putback was answered by a layup from Amabile, but senior Ryan Curit hit a layup, was fouled and canned the free throw to make it 28-22.
After a Tirabassi jumper, Reinhold scored on a putback, then hit a turnaround jumper to make it 30-26. Amabile stemmed the tide with a 3-pointer, but senior Brian McHugh made two free throws to pull South Portland within five, 33-28. With 22.7 seconds to go in the half, Deering senior Dennis Ross made a scoop shot, but with 13.2 seconds left, Curit hit two free throws to make it a 35-30 game at the break.
The Red Riots hung tough in the third.
After Dennis Ross hit a runner to get the second half scoring started, Reinhold converted a three-point play to make it 37-33. Amabile made a pullup jumper and Tirabassi hit a layup to push the lead back to eight, 41-33, but senior Jon DiBiase calmly sank a 3 for the visitors to make it 41-36. Amabile answered with another 3-ball, but Hasson made a layup, was fouled and hit the free throw to make it a five-point game again. Amabile again countered with a 3, but Hyland made a jumper to cut the deficit to six, 47-41.
With 2:34 to go in the third, Deering junior John Hughes made a layup. Bowring answered with a reverse layup. After Tirabassi made a free throw, Bowring made another layup to cut the deficit to five, but with 33.7 seconds left in the quarter, senior Sam Coyne made a pair of foul shots to give the Rams a 52-45 lead with eight minutes to play.
In the fourth, South Portland's inside prowess and senior poise proved to much for a Deering squad that suddenly went ice cold.
Just 25 seconds into the final stanza, Red Riots senior sharpshooter Matt Lee finally shook the oppressive defense of Tirabassi and sank a 3-ball for his first points of the game. With 5:46 left, Lee hit a left-handed leaner and suddenly it was 52-50.
"Matt had some looks that weren't going in," Conley said. "I told him he's a great shooter and to keep shooting the ball. He hit some shots late for us."
Ten seconds later, Colucci made a layup to momentarily stem the tide and push the lead to four, but Lee made a foul shot, Reinhold sank a runner and with 3:05 to play, Tirabassi was whistled for a techinical foul and Reinhold calmly buried a pair of free throws to give South Portland its first lead, 55-54.
"I was listening to both sides of the crowd and I wanted to make Deering stop cheering," Reinhold said.
"Those were two big foul shots he hit," Conley added. "He's a senior who has worked really hard in the offseason with his strength and conditioning. I couldn't be happier for him."
With 2:50 left, Reinhold scored on a putback for a 57-54 lead. The Rams turned the ball over on their next possession, but Lee's 3-point attempt at the other end went in and out. Colucci missed a 3 with a chance to tie the score and Bowring had a chance to extend the lead when the went to the charity stripe with 1:36 remaining, but both shots failed to drop and the hosts were still alive. Deering couldn't take advantage as Dennis Ross missed a shot in close and Hasson grabbed the rebound.
With 52.2 seconds to go, Hasson scored on a putback of his own miss and it was 59-54 Red Riots. Hasson then forced a charge on Amabile, the third charge Hasson drew in the game and South Portland got the ball back.
"Connor was huge tonight," Conley said. "He picked up three charges. Defensively, he was tremendous. The charges were big momentum swings."
With 34.7 seconds remaining, Reinhold made one of two free throws to make it 60-54. Finally, with 25.9 ticks to go, Dennis Ross made a pair of free throws to end a 10-0 South Portland run and a 5 minute, 11 second drought, but a free throw apiece from DiBiase and Hasson pushed the lead back to six, 62-56. With 3.9 seconds remaining, Dennis Ross made a layup to account for the 62-58 final score.
"To be honest, I think they came out playing hard, like Deering teams always do," Hasson said. "I don't think we were ready for it, but we regrouped and were all set. Our defense wasn't too good earlier in the season. We really stepped it up (against Scarborough) and I think that made a big difference. Deering runs a lot of screens. We did a nice job communicating."
"We really picked up the intensity on both ends of the floor and outrebounded them," Reinhold said. "We boxed out and eventually they started missing. We turned it into points on the other end. We've been together forever. It really helps us stick together and pull out a victory at the end.
"This was definitely a big test," Conley said. "I knew our guys would be ready. They get up for big games. Every game in the SMAA is a big game. I'm so proud of them to battle back."
Deering was done in by fouls and by its inability to score in the fourth.
"We got outmuscled tonight," said Rams coach Dan LeGage. "(South Portland) has a senior team. They executed and played physical. We got caught fouling. They shot 34 free throws and we shot 11. We didn't get to the line. We settled for jump shots and took quick shots. We got away from what we did in the first quarter. We shared the ball and were unselfish, but we stopped sharing the ball and they outexecuted and outrebounded us. We lost momentum. They're undefeated for a reason. They executed down the stretch. Phil has them playing well. As good as Hyland is, they're a very good team. With him, they'll be even better."
Reinhold led South Portland with 18 points, while Hasson had 16. Bowring added seven, Lee had six, Curit five, DiBiase and Hyland four apiece and McHugh two.
"I thought we did a very good job of rebounding tonight," Conley said. "Greg coming off the bench was active on the glass. He did a great job as well. DiBiase played very good defense. Everyone contributed and we hung tough."
The Rams were paced by a game-high 22 points from Amabile (all of which came in the first three quarters). Tirabassi had 14 points and played lockdown defense on Lee.
"I thought Eddie did an awesome job on Lee," LeGage said. "He's done everything we asked. He held him scoreless for three quarters and he scored."
Dennis Ross and Colucci both added eight points, while Coyne, Hughes and Jamie Ross all had two points each.
Deering looks to get back on track Saturday at home versus Massabesic. Tuesday, the Rams host undefeated powerhouse Cheverus.
"Our biggest thing to work on right now is consistency," LeGage said. "We'll stick with the unselfish play motto. The guys realize now we won't beat anyone if we foul."
South Portland continues the heavy lifting portion of its schedule as it hosts Thornton Academy Saturday and Portland Tuesday. The Red Riots will keep focusing on consistency and team and hope the wins keep coming.
"(Tonight) was a confidence booster," Reinhold said. "Hopefully we'll use it to beat Thornton Saturday."
"This is a talented group," Hasson added. "Guys with a lot of heart. Keegan would be a great addition if we get him back. Most of us in here know we're talented and don't have to prove anything. We have Thornton, Portland and Cheverus, all good teams, coming up. I think we're really starting to step up and play the way we know we're capable."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com