SOUTH PORTLAND—It was anything but pretty.
But so what?
The South Portland boys’ basketball team, playing without senior guard Keegan Hyland, the league’s top scorer each of the last two seasons, hung around the Windham Eagles and then hung around some more, before ripping off 11 straight points to erase a late four-point deficit and escape with a 48-44 victory in Western Class A action Tuesday night at Beal Gymnasium.
Red Riots senior forward Matt Lee shook off a slow start and dropped 13 of his team-high 15 points in the second half, including three big-time 3-pointers for a team still searching for an offensive identity with Hyland sidelined likely until mid-January with a stress fracture of the left hip.
Trailing 41-37 with 2:36 left in the fourth quarter, Lee buried a deep 3 from the corner while wearing his defender, then delivered a brilliant backdoor feed to senior captain Connor Hasson to put South Portland ahead to stay at 42-41 with 1:34 remaining.
“They played great defense on me in the first half,” said Lee. “It was tough to get open looks and the ones I had didn’t fall. In the second half we started screening more and I was able to get set and take better shots. We’re still trying to find our way without Keegan. But we got 10 seniors on this team and we’re looking forward to going out with a good season.”
The Red Riots salted the game away on 6-of-8 shooting from the charity stripe the rest of the way, with Hasson officially putting the Eagles on ice with a pair that made it a two-possession game at 46-41 with 29 seconds remaining.
South Portland senior forward Ryan Curit hit on three of his four attempts from the line during the stretch to finish with seven hard-earned points on the night.
Curit, named as one of 10 semifinalists for football’s coveted Fitzpatrick Trophy (and The Forecaster’s selection as South Portland’s 2009 Fall Male Athlete of the Year) for his well-known exploits on the gridiron, sunk a pair with five-seconds left to make it 48-41.
Windham senior guard Garrett Clemmer poured in a game-high 19 points, adding his third 3-pointer as time expired for the 48-44 final.
The arrival of Windham marked another homecoming of sorts for coach Kevin Millington, now in his 13th season running a first-class operation.
Millington was a three-sport star for South Portland in the early 1990s as the starting quarterback, point guard and pitcher come spring. After serving as a top assistant for the Eagles’ state championship football team, Millington carries high hopes for this basketball season with all five starters returning.
“To win in our league you have to play defense, rebound and make your free throws,” Millington said. “We played great defense but got out-rebounded, and not only did we not get to the line enough, we didn’t convert them when we did.
“I thought South Portland played with a lot of heart without Hyland. It will only make them better in the long run. I root for those guys so long as it doesn’t impact Windham. I really like the kids on that team and know all their families well.”
In need of some help missing Hyland’s presence and his near 30 points each time out, South Portland got just that from senior Brian McHugh in a variety of ways.
Coming off the bench, McHugh, a wiry 6-foot-3 forward, finished with seven points but two of his three buckets came at crucial moments.
McHugh picked off a rebound in a scramble and scored to tie the game 25-25 with three minutes to go in the third, then put South Portland on top for the first time since leading 6-5 midway through the opening quarter, driving baseline for two and a brief 32-31 lead with six minutes to go in the game.
McHugh was credited with 15 rebounds, leading a devastating effort on the glass for the Red Riots (2-0). With Curit, Hasson, and senior Spencer Bowring each clearing eight boards, South Portland earned several second- and third-chance opportunities to score while limiting Windham to one-and-done on the defensive end.
“We had some guys really step up and contribute when we needed them,” said South Portland coach Phil Conley. “I though McHugh was outstanding. He hit some big shots and gave us a little giddy up on offense with his ability to rebound or tip balls to keep them alive. Ryan Curit really stepped up and did a great job defending Clemmer, a very good shooter and player.
“This was a great team win. Windham is extremely well-coached and will win a lot of games in this league. This was big for us. I’m really proud of our guys.”
The first half was hardly a poetic arrangement for either team.
South Portland jumped out to a 4-0 advantage and led 6-5 after Hasson converted a long pass from senior guard Jon DiBiase.
Windham (1-1) quickly regained the lead on a slashing hoop from star quarterback Jackson Taylor to ignite an 8-1 run to close out the first quarter. Clemmer netted back-to-back 3-pointers as the Eagles built a 13-7 lead after one.
The second quarter was downright ugly as both teams labored to find the bottom of the net and combined to register a mere 11 points. South Portland scored seven points and still trimmed the deficit to three, 17-14 at intermission.
Junior guard Steve Hodge connected for a foul shot, Bowring scored four of his six points and McHugh chipped in his first bucket with 30 seconds left in the second quarter.
“My job is to do what the teams needs me to,” said McHugh. “If we need scoring, rebounding, whatever. We talk about everyone contributing. We come to practice and work hard everyday with the main goal being a state championship in the end.”
Lee did not score in the second frame, but neither did Clemmer, with Windham getting a rebound and putback from sophomore forward Nolan Allen and pair of freebies from senior guard Stephen Lambert.
The action started to pick up in a third quarter South Portland won 16-14, paced by a resurgent Lee who popped off for 10 of his 15 points to guide his team back to within one at 31-30 to begin the fourth.
Lee, the Red Riots’ other top playmaker, began to gain separation from his defender in the halfcourt set, coming off screens and adding a deliberate ball fake to clear space and set his feet. All great shooters have selective amnesia, and Lee’s first 3-pointer just inside the half was nearly as important as his bookend job for 3 on a designed out of bounds play with 24 seconds left in the third.
The Eagles’ scored the first basket after the break on a 3 from senior guard Adam Szklany (seven points), but Lee answered from downtown to stay close at 20-17.
With his counterpart Hodge limping after twisting his ankle and DiBiase already at the scorer’s table waiting to replace him, the veteran Szklany slashed in for an easy two, and Clemmer came back to life for his first basket since the six-minute mark of the first quarter to extend the Eagles lead to 24-17.
Hasson (11 points) answered for South Portland with a rebound and putback, and after Windham knocked down one free throw, Lee was fouled in the act of shooting from 3-point range and converted on the last two of his three attempts to make it 25-21.
DiBiase stripped Szklany on the way by on Windham’s next possession, and Lee faked his defender out of his sneakers with a pump fake just behind the foul line and calmly swished a jumper to pull the Red Riots within a pair.
The Eagles missed on the other end, and McHugh tipped a rebound to back to himself and tied the game at 25-all with 2:54 left in the third, but Windham thundered right back with six straight points and pulled ahead 31-25 with under a minute left in the quarter. Jackson (10 points) scored on a give-and-go from Lambert, and Clemmer drove in for two and sank a jumper on the ball reversal from the top of the key to give the Eagles some breathing room.
Needing at least a basket to keep pace, Lee nailed his second 3 of the quarter on a designed out of bounds play to close the gap for South Portland to 31-30 after the third.
The final quarter held four lead changes and one tie, 34-34, after Curit hit a pair of foul shots at the six-minute mark. But once again it looked like Windham was going to pull away when Allen and Clemmer scored for a 38-34 lead.
McHugh added one foul shot to a leaning score high off the glass in the paint from Hasson for the Red Riots, matching a jumper from Szklany and one free throw from Andy Brix for a 41-37 Windham lead with 2:36 left to play.
But Lee’s final 3-pointer and his clever dish to Hasson set off a run of 11 straight as South Portland narrowly escaped its home opener with a 48-44 win over a Windham team that figures to be in the mix come playoff time.
With Hyland out, the win looks even more important for the Red Riots. The Eagles represented the only real threat for a team with state championship aspirations until after the holiday season when Hyland will be much closer to returning.
South Portland hosts Massabesic on Thursday, travels to Gorham on Saturday night, then embarks on a York County swing to face Sanford, Marshwood and Noble before the Christmas break.