SOUTH PORTLAND—Clutching a basketball like he always does, Keegan Hyland pushed open the door for the first time in more than a year and charged out in front of his Red Riots for the real thing, filling what little spaces remained open with a current blast of energy that swept on through and quickened the collective pulse of an already hyped-up crowd on hand to witness the second-coming of Maine’s top high school basketball player.
Hyland, the most prolific scorer to ever pull on a South Portland jersey, missed the first 17 games of his senior season with a mysterious hip injury but returned on Friday night to the old building he’s filled with hoops at a record clip and fans by the hundreds to headline a celebration thrown largely in his honor.
Back on the grip with his old crew just in time to inherit the most unusual of circumstances, Hyland handled his moment with the grace and easy cool of a proven winner in firm control of the electric atmosphere heavy with the expectation of catching at least a cameo from the 6-foot-4 guard just 38 points away from becoming the all-time leading scorer for South Portland boys’ basketball despite not taking the floor for a single minute of his final season.
A few more elements got tossed into the mix, like Hyland officially ending a season’s worth of speculation regarding his health to play in his first game of the season, the last game of the regular season, which just happens to be the final home game of his career on Senior Night. There was that brief trophy ceremony to recognize his selection as a McDonald’s All-American, featuring one of the three extended standing ovations Hyland took in before, during and after the game.
Drop in a long-awaited reunion with his charismatic old friend and wingman Matt Lee that just days ago seemed highly unrealistic, and just for good measure consider the recent developments with Indiana Faithfull since the top-ranked and unbeaten Cheverus Stags were on tap. What you got were the makings of an old school basketball party Western A style, framed in a made for Hollywood script at a slammed Beal Gymnasium crammed to the rafters with folks still unaware of the magic about to unfold.
Hyland stepped out on center stage and delivered a blockbuster performance to galvanize an already powerful South Portland attack with a game-high 18 points, inciting a 53-43 upset victory of epic proportion to hand Cheverus’ its first loss on a night worthy of at least its own chapter somewhere among the great ones in the Red Riots’ thick book of unforgettable moments. The Red Riots improved to 14-4 and will be the third-seed for the regional tournament set to kick off next weekend at the Portland Expo. Saturday at 7:30 p.m., in the quarterfinals, South Portland will face the sixth-ranked Deering Rams (11-7), a team they beat twice during the regular season without Hyland’s services.
“I’ve been waiting so long to get back on the floor,” said Hyland. “There were a lot of things going through my mind but nothing could be better than tonight. We have the best fans in the state and it was a great feeling to have them honor me on Senior Night, my first game back. But we’re just getting started. We’ll get started at the Expo. We’re dangerous right now.”
And while this was Hyland’s night on just about every level, this seems like the time to interrupt with some levity on the severe dose of bad news that rocked the Cheverus Stags along with rest of the league early last week. After stomping through the league virtually every time save one behind Faithfull, word came down the Stags’ star point guard had somehow used up his high school eligibility and played the last game of his brilliant career. Based on a decision by the Maine Principals’ Association’s to enforce a bogus interpretation of an obscure rule, Faithfull was effectively robbed of the chance to lead his school on a championship run due to a timing difference with the start of the school year in his native Australia. This after Faithfull had directed the Stags on a 15-game tear with his relentless defensive pressure and fast-breaking style.
And while Cheverus has plenty of talented players left to work with, namely the explosive 6-foot-5 junior Alex Furness, entering the firestorm surrounding Hyland’s return while still smarting from the loss of Faithfull was the hardly the ideal situation for coach Bob Brown and his Stags (17-1).
In fact, it didn’t take very long for Cheverus to get a refresher course on just how good Hyland can be, starting with 3:57 left in the first quarter when he rose from the bench and entered the game to another thunderous ovation from the near-delirious crowd and proceeded to issue a league-wide memo that South Portland is back in the hunt for real and on a mission like never before.
“First of all, I’m very happy for the guys,” said South Portland coach Phil Conley. “It was great to see Keegan out there. I know it’s been a tough year for him not being able to play. He’s been eager to get back out there and he was outstanding tonight. We got great leadership from our veteran guys and had tremendous support from the community. South Portland has the best basketball fans in Maine. They’re our sixth-man out there and we just want to thank them.”
With South Portland holding an early 5-3 lead, Hyland checked in and made his presence felt almost immediately with a spinning reverse layup under the hoop with precisely 2:21 left in the first quarter, representing his first hoop of the season. When he picked off a Cheverus pass on the next possession and angled his way by Furness in transition with a left-handed layup on the other side of the rim, the Red Riots led 9-3 and Cheverus needed timeout to talk about things over the sound of a hastily put together “Guess Who’s Back” serenade from South Portland’s zoo-like student section behind the far basket.
Furness was simply terrific in this one for Cheverus, tossing in a team-high 15 points while showcasing the completeness of his game. Furness quickly answered Hyland’s last two with a pair buckets, but Lee showed up unconscious for this one and followed a 3 from the elbow extended with a tricky layup high off the glass to give South Portland a 14-7 lead after the first quarter.
On a rare night where Cheverus struggled to find the bottom of the net, Lee added four of his 15 points in the second, including his second 3 that opened the first 10-point lead of the game for South Portland at 19-9 just three minutes into the quarter.
Hyland scored five points of his own in the second to finish with nine at the break, sinking his first 3-pointer with 4:09 left in the quarter and smiling with delight while retreating on defense, before forcing a tough layup over Furness to spin down as time expired with the Red Riots in full command up by 15 points, 29-14 at the half.
“We didn’t show up to play in the first half and they dominated us,” said Brown. “They pushed us around until the second half when we finally started to play. Give them credit. No excuses. We didn’t get it done and they did. We’re still the top-seeded team for the tournament. We won the league championship. We know who we are and we’ll respond. We’ll come ready to play.”
The third quarter started with a rapid-fire display of offense by both teams, with Furness scoring consecutive baskets for Cheverus to trim the deficit to 29-16, setting off a barrage of 3-pointers that ended in favor of the Red Riots when Lee pulled up on the break and decided to drain another 3, Faithfull’s replacement junior Joseph Savino (five points) connected from downtown but red-hot-of-late junior Jon DiBiase (five points) hit for 3 deep in the far corner to push South Portland’s lead back to 14 only two-minutes into the third.
The scoring tapered off dramatically over the middle parts of the third quarter Cheverus eventually won 19-12 to get within six points to start the fourth. Junior forward Peter Gwilym capped an 8-0 run by the Stags to close the third with the Red Riots clinging to a 41-35 lead.
With Hyland on the bench to start the final quarter, Furness made it a two-possession game at 41-37 with a jumper from the baseline, but in a recurring theme, Lee came right down the floor and swished another 3 to make it 44-37. Hyland would return and hit a pair of foul shots to stretch the lead back to nine points with 5:30 left to play.
But Cheverus refused to go away with Savino hitting two foul shots to match a playground two on the dribble drive from sophomore guard Louie DiStasio to get back to within five points at 46-41 midway through the fourth.
But again it was Lee, this time pulling down a pair of huge defensive rebounds on missed 3-pointers, setting up Hyland to show what his return means for the Red Riots heading into the tournament when he converted a big-time layup over Furness down the center of the lane for a seven-point lead with two-minutes left to hang on in the fourth.
When Lee stripped a Cheverus player and stole the ball with 1:23 left South Portland came down looking to spread the floor and chew up clock, but senior center Greg Reinhold (five points) stumbled across an offer he couldn’t refuse and stormed down the lane to drop in a soft knuckling floater that inched the Red Riots ever closer to the upset of the season with just over a minute left to protect a 51-40 advantage.
“I’m really at a loss for words right now,” said Lee. “It’s huge having Keegan back. You have to respect the best player in the state or he’s going to do his thing. When they concentrate on him the rest of us can make you pay. It was a great atmosphere tonight. We have the best fans in the league. It’s like having a sixth-man out there. We consider it a big advantage.”
Hyland hit the first of two from the line with 34 seconds left, and sent the home crowd into hysterics when he took a nice bounce from DiBiase on the fly and punctuated an emotional night and win when he rose up and slapped the glass while dropping in his final bucket with 19 seconds left to seal a monumental, 53-43 win for South Portland. Hyland’s final hoop moved him within 20 points of matching Chris Markwood in the all-time scoring column.
Cheverus still enters the tournament as the top-seed and will face No. 8 Scarborough (11-7) in the quarterfinal round Friday at 8:30 p.m., at the Expo. The Stags met the Red Storm only once this season, a 59-44 victory on Jan. 9 at Scarborough, and have no prior playoff history.
With Hyland back and determined to make up for lost time, the Red Riots will look to defeat Deering in its first playoff game. South Portland beat Deering twice during the regular season, 62-58 on the road on Jan. 7 and then again at home, 62-50, on Jan. 28. The teams last met in the tournament in the 2004 preliminary round, when the Red Riots rallied to win, 44-42.
Since 1963, South Portland has faced the Rams 10 times in the postseason. The Red Riots have won eight of those games.