February hoops madness tips off (Southern edition)

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The city of Portland will be a hoops hotbed over the next couple of weeks and there will be plenty of excitement in the capital city of Augusta as well.

The annual basketball tournament kicked off with the preliminary round Tuesday and Wednesday. The Western A quarterfinals will be held Friday, Saturday and Monday at the Portland Exposition Building. The Western D quarterfinals will be contested Saturday at the Augusta Civic Center.

Six of seven local squads made the cut, but only three retain Gold Ball dreams after the preliminary round. Here’s a look.

Red letter work

Scarborough’s girls went undefeated and won their first ever Gold Ball two years ago, but gradation and injuries stifled the Red Storm last year and it finished 6-12. Tom Maines replaced Jim Seavey as coach in the offseason and did he ever have the magic touch this winter.

Scarborough started 11-0, which included wins over playoff teams Gorham, Marshwood, Windham, South Portland, Thornton Academy, Cheverus and Deering, before suffering its lone loss, 49-37, at home to defending state champion McAuley. The Red Storm finished in style with six more victories and its 17-1 record gave it the No. 2 seed behind McAuley in the Western Class A Heal Points standings.

“I have to tip my cap to the Scarborough athletic program,” Maines said. “It’s been very successful. I hope the kids are having fun with it. I had no idea what the talent level was and wasn’t sure how the kids would respond to my method of teaching. It’s been fun teaching the girls and seeing how they’ve responded.

“We’re not healthy right now. It’s the most banged up we’ve been. We haven’t had the full team together for three weeks. We hope to get healthy with a few extra days. The kids are tough, resilient and very focused. Toughness will be our calling card the new few weeks.”

Scarborough will face No. 7 Cheverus (12-7 after Wednesday’s preliminary round win over No. 10 Gorham) in the quarterfinals Monday at 3:30 p.m. On Jan. 10, the Red Storm shook off a sluggish start and beat the host Stags, 48-36. The teams have no playoff history.

“Cheverus has good talent,” said Maines. “Fine players. They do multiple things well and they’re well coached. We work long days and weeks to get to play 32 minutes. The purpose of the regular season is to get ready for the tournament. If you’re not successful, you don’t get another 32 minutes. Our goal’s to win our last game.

“I think it’s obvious that McAuley’s by far the favorite. They’re the best recruited team in the state. They don’t have to build a program. They take the best kids around. I’ve felt for years there should be a separation between public and private schools. I think there’s a lot of equality after (McAuley). It’s hard to separate the teams.”

Action switches to the Cumberland County Civic Center for the semifinal round Wednesday. The Western A Final will be Saturday, Feb. 25. The Class A state final is Saturday, March 3. Both of those rounds will be contested at the Civic Center.

South Portland won just once in its last nine games, but still earned the 11th and final playoff spot in Western A with a 7-11 mark. The Red Riots lost their finale, 51-32, at home to McAuley, but still qualified for the postseason for the 12th straight season.

“(Making the playoffs is) something we hang our hat on,” said South Portland coach Mike Giordano. “We’re proud of that and we expect it. We knew it would be tough with our schedule coming down the stretch, but the kids battled the whole way. We won enough early games to get us in. We’re thrilled to be here.”

South Portland traveled to sixth-ranked Thornton Academy for a preliminary round game Wednesday. The Red Riots dropped the regular season meeting, 47-43, in Saco. The teams’ last playoff encounter came in the 1980 quarterfinals (a 43-40 win by the Golden Trojans). South Portland beat Thornton Academy, 53-39, in the 1977 regional final, en route to its first championship.

This time around, the Golden Trojans were able to advance to meet third-ranked Marshwood by virtue of a 50-30 triumph, ending the Red Riots’ year at 7-12.

In Western D, Greater Portland Christian School qualified with a 8-9 mark, good for the No. 7 seed. The Lions ended with a 63-56 home loss to Forest Hill (despite 35 points from Elaine Beech). They face No. 2 Rangeley (16-2) in the quarterfinals Monday at 11:30 a.m., at the Augusta Civic Center. GPCS lost at Rangeley, 62-24, back on Dec. 13.

In Western B, a year after making it to the quarterfinals for the first time this century, Cape Elizabeth fell short of the postseason. The Capers finished 4-14 and 14th in the Heals (only 12 teams made the playoffs). Cape Elizabeth did handle visiting Yarmouth last Tuesday, 52-33, behind 11 points from Caroline Kelly. Friday, the Capers lost at Greely, 41-26, despite nine points from Marlo Dell’Aquila.

One of three

On the boys’ side, only South Portland passed a preliminary round test Tuesday evening, as Cape Elizabeth and Scarborough lost in close calls.

The Red Riots dropped a tough 45-39 home decision to Cheverus in the regular season finale to finish 10-8 and seventh in Western A. Junior Tanner Hyland had 15 points and senior Logan Gaddar added 13. South Portland hosted No. 10 Westbrook in the preliminary round Tuesday night.

South Portland beat host Westbrook in the regular season, 57-51. The teams’ last playoff meeting came two years ago (a thrilling overtime win for the Blue Blazes, 72-66). Over the past 50 years, the schools had squared off 15 times in the postseason (with Westbrook holding a 10-5 edge).

Tuesday, the Red Riots made a character statement.

They enjoyed a seven-point halftime lead and extended it to 11 early in the third period before they went ice-cold. The Blue Blazes pulled within two after three quarters and appeared to have all the momentum, but South Portland dug deep, stepped it up at both ends of the floor and hit clutch foul shots in the waning moments to win, 40-32, improving to 11-8 in the process, ending Westbrook’s season at 8-11.

Hyland hit four 3-pointers and had a team-high 12 points. Gaddar, juniors Ben Burkey and Jack Tolan were strong in the paint and senior Jordan Muller made key plays as the Red Riots advanced to set up a quarterfinal round showdown with No. 2 Portland (14-4) Saturday at 9 p.m.

“Normally, at the beginning of the year we’d crumble, but we knew this could be our last game,” said Burkey. “We played hard and that gave us the momentum and the victory. We have experience with close games. Over time you develop anger almost that propels you play hard in close games and not let it happen again.”

“My kids all year have showed heart and character,” said South Portland coach Phil Conley. “The effort’s been there. I think the last two weeks of the season, even though we lost games against big-time teams where we just didn’t finish, I think those games helped us for a situation like this. We knew it would be a battle. I’m just happy for these kids. Every shot I wished I had a uniform. I was (contorting myself) hoping the shots would go in. It’s a nice win after a tough two-week stretch. Some teams wouldn’t have responded like we did, but I know the heart and character of these kids and they finished tonight.”

The Red Riots lost both regular season meetings against Portland, 61-57 at home Jan. 13 and 52-48 at the Expo Feb. 7. Last year, in the quarterfinals, the Bulldogs upset South Portland in emphatic fashion, 69-45, to take a 13-12 edge in postseason meetings between the longtime rivals.

The Red Riots feel like they’re ready to end an eight-game losing streak to Portland, beat the Bulldogs in the tournament for the first time in 25 years, turn heads and keep this run going.

“I like big games,”  Hyland said. “We’ll show up and play a close game like we always do and come out on top. Both (Portland) games we came out in the second half and fell asleep and played slow. They pounded us. It came down to the end. We didn’t finish and they did.”

“I think we’re more of a group this year,” Gaddar said. “Last year, it kind of fell apart and one guy tried to do it all and another guy tried to do it all. This year, I know we’ll work hard. We have three days to prepare. We have to work hard. We have to play 32 minutes.”

“Portland’s a very, very good team, but we are as well,” Conley added. “I think we need to take care of the ball better. We’ll go down to the Expo and play as hard as we can and stay composed. I’ve never lost confidence in my team. We won 10 games in a tough league. Our quad is Cheverus, Deering and Portland. That’s not an easy schedule. I think it’s made us stronger going into the tournament.  We’re going to give it all we have Saturday night. We’re looking forward to it and I think they’re looking forward to it.”

Scarborough rolled past visiting Kennebunk, 62-37, in its regular season finale Friday to finish 10-8, good for eighth in Western A. Junior Dillon Russo led the way with 12 points. The Red Storm drew No. 9 Biddeford in the preliminary round, a team it beat, 52-24 at home on New Year’s Eve day and 63-60 at Biddeford Jan. 20. Scarborough had lost to the Tigers in the 2006, 2008 and 2009 prelims and Tuesday, it happened again.

Scarborough led early, but the game was deadlocked, 15-15, after one period. Biddeford standout Bobby Cote heated up in the second quarter and the Red Storm was down, 38-31, at the half. By the start of the fourth, the game was tied, 48-48, but Cote (26 points) hit a pair of huge 3s in the fourth to put the Tigers ahead to stay and Scarborough’s season ended at 10-9 with a 65-59 loss. Senior Kolbey Adams led the Red Storm with 15 points.

In Western B, after its run of making the state finall three times in four years, Cape Elizabeth came into the 2011-12 season with a vastly different look, returning just two players who saw much playing time a year ago. The Capers managed to go 7-11 and earned the No. 10 seed after Friday’s 56-46 home loss to Greely (sophomore Austin Andrews led the way with 13 points), which ended the regular year.

Cape Elizabeth traveled to No. 7 Wells for the preliminary round Tuesday. The Capers lost twice to the Warriors in the regular season (67-53 at Wells and 60-56 at home). Cape Elizabeth had won three of the previous five playoff meetings, but was almost upset by the unheralded Warriors in the quarterfinals last winter before rallying to survive in overtime, 49-44.

This time around, the Capers played tough and led most of the way, but couldn’t prevail. They led by five after one period and at halftime and still clung to a four-point advantage heading for the fourth, but Wells took control down the stretch and ended Cape Elizabeth’s season at 7-12, despite 15 points from junior Chris Robicheaw and 11 from classmate Henry Babcock.

The Capers fell short of the quarterfinals for the first time since 1997.

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

Sidebar Elements

South Portland senior Logan Gaddar goes up for a first half layup during Tuesday night’s 40-32 win over Westbrook in a Western Class A preliminary round game.

South Portland junior Tanner Hyland pulls up his dribble against Westbrook pressure. Hyland had a team-high 12 points as the Red Riots advanced to meet Portland in Saturday’s quarterfinals.

Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.