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SOUTH PORTLAND—With a brutal closing stretch of the regular season looming, the South Portland boys’ basketball team, very much in the playoff hunt, really needed to defeat the Marshwood Hawks in a Monday holiday matinee at Beal Gymnasium.
Instead, the Red Riots suffered a loss in an improbably agonizing manner.
South Portland led Marshwood most of the way and took an eight point lead to the fourth quarter, but the Hawks rallied and went ahead in the final minute.
The Red Riots pulled even with 20.8 seconds to go when junior standout Jaren Muller made a layup, but the visitors got the final opportunity and they would use every remaining second on the clock (and then some) to deal out a dish of heartbreak.
After Marshwood senior Brady Innes had a shot blocked by South Portland junior Jack Fiorini with time winding down, the ball came to sophomore Zachary Mitchell, who went up for a follow. As the horn sounded, Mitchell’s shot was blocked by Muller, but a foul was called as well and Mitchell got to go to the line with two chances to win it.
It only took one.
Mitchell sank the first free throw to give the Hawks a stunning 53-52 win, which lifted them to 4-8 and elevated their playoff hopes and dropped the Red Riots to 5-7 in the process.
“I’m disappointed,” said South Portland coach Phil Conley. “You think what-if. You never want to see a game decided by a foul called as time expires. That’s very unfortunate. I would have liked to have seen it go to overtime, but you can’t blame it just on one call.”
After last year’s stirring run to the Class A state final, their first in two decades, the Red Riots knew things wouldn’t come easily this winter, as just one player, Muller, returned with any kind of varsity experience.
Not surprisingly, South Portland has gone one step forward, one step back for much of the season. The Red Riots fell to visiting Noble in the opener, 69-51, then downed host Sanford (57-45) and visiting Westbrook (61-53) before losing at Thornton Academy, 65-49, and at home to powerhouses Portland (79-49), Bonny Eagle (75-45) and Deering (81-71, in overtime) to wrap up the 2013 portion of the schedule. The new year has been much kinder, as South Portland won at Massabesic (48-31), at home over Scarborough (66-53) and at Biddeford (57-48) before the streak ended Friday at Cheverus, 56-41.
Marshwood, meanwhile, a perennial playoff contender, which went 9-10 last winter after a loss to Sanford in the preliminary round, fell at Gorham, 48-45, in the opener, then held off host Windham, 67-61, before losing at Portland (65-40) and at home to Bonny Eagle (67-58). After a 68-37 home victory over Biddeford, the Hawks lost at home to Deering (71-52), at Sanford (43-39), at home to Portland (48-44), at Scarborough (77-62) and at Noble (62-59) before getting back in the win column Friday with a 66-60 home triumph over Westbrook.
Last year, South Portland beat visiting Marshwood, 64-48. Two years ago, the Red Riots held on for a 66-60 win in South Berwick. The Hawks’ last win in the series came Jan. 4, 2011 (57-40 at home).
Monday, Marshwood made it consecutive wins for the first time all season, staggering South Portland in the process.
The Hawks struck first, just 13 seconds in, on a long jumper from Innes, but Muller immediately got involved, scoring after a nice spin move on the Red Riots’ first possession to tie the score.
After Marshwood went back on top on a jumper from sophomore Baili Lontine-Kearson, Muller tipped home his own miss to make it 4-4.
Marshwood took its last lead for the remainder of the half on an Innes bank shot with 4:48 to go in the first period, but senior Patrick Conley put South Portland on top with a 3-pointer. Muller then stole the ball, made a layup while being fouled and hit the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play, giving the Red Riots a 10-6 advantage.
The Hawks battled back to tie the score on an Innes layup and two free throws from Mitchell, but a Fiorini layup gave South Portland a 12-10 edge. Muller then spun and banked home a shot from a tough angle and Fiorini took a pass from junior Kam Harper and made a layup to push the lead to 16-10.
After Lontine-Kearson made two foul shots, Fiorini countered with a pair, but junior Kyle Parmley pulled Marshwood back to 18-14 with a layup to end the first period.
The Red Riots threatened to pull away in the second quarter, but never could do so.
Hawks junior Drew Bartlett hinted at a huge shooting day to come when he opened the new quarter with a 3. After Fiorini made two foul shots, Bartlett tied the game with a 3-ball.
South Portland then rattled off seven straight points, as Fiorini twice kept the ball alive on the offensive glass, then fed junior Silas Zechman for a layup, Harper made a 3 and after a steal, Harper made a layup to make it 27-20.
Marshwood answered, as Innes hit a leaner, Innes made a layup and sophomore Ryan O’Neil made a layup to pull the Hawks within a point, 27-26, at the break.
Innes led all scorers in the first half with 10 points. Muller paced the Red Riots with nine points and Fiorini had eight.
South Portland could have opened up a larger lead, but Muller was stuck on the bench for most of the second quarter with foul trouble.
“This year, (Jaren’s) getting in foul trouble, which is too bad for us as a team and for him,” said Conley. “We had to sit him most of the second period. He’s got to stay out of foul trouble in the first half, but I can’t fault his effort.”
The game remained nip-and-tuck most of the third quarter.
After Harper scored on a driving layup, senior Jack Letellier fed Lontine-Kearson for a short jumper off an inbounds pass. After Muller made a leaner, Bartlett sank two foul shots, then made a 3 for Marshwood’s first lead of the half, 33-31.
After Fiorini fed Muller for a layup to tie the score, Conley sank a 3, Fiorini made a free throw and Fiorini hit a baseline jumper for a 39-33 advantage.
Innes stemmed the tide with two foul shots, but sophomore Jordin Jackson countered with one and Conley buried a long 3 to make it 43-35 with eight minutes to go.
Harper almost single-handedly brought the Hawks back and did so quickly by sinking two 3s in the first 62 seconds to cut the deficit to 43-41.
Muller countered with a 3-ball, but O’Neil scored on a driving layup and Bartlett made yet another 3 to make it 46-46. Another O’Neil driving layup put Marshwood on top, but with 2:57 left, Harper drained a leaner and the game was deadlocked, 48-48.
After a Hawks’ turnover, Muller missed a shot, but a foul was called on the rebound and South Portland kept possession.
With 2:09 to play, senior David Gravel found Jackson for a layup and the Red Riots were ahead, 50-48.
It would prove to be their final lead.
With 1:51 remaining, Innes was fouled and made both free throws to tie the game again.
After Muller missed a shot, Letellier got the rebound to give Marshwood a chance. O’Neil was called for a charging foul, however, and the ball went back to South Portland, but it turned it over as Mitchell stole the ball. Bartlett had a look at a go-ahead 3, but it was off target.
Unfortunately for the hosts, the rebound deflected off a Red Riot and the Hawks kept possession.
With 44.4 seconds left, Innes was fouled and made both ends of a one-and-one, putting his team ahead, 52-50.
At the other end, Harper had a 3 rim out and Muller, after an offensive rebound and a foul, missed both free throws, but Harper stole the ball from Mitchell after the second miss and fed Muller for the tying layup with 20.8 seconds to play.
Just when it appeared South Portland was going to get the game to overtime, however, its afternoon came crashing to a shocking conclusion.
After holding for the last shot, Innes attacked the basket, but Fiorini blocked his shot. Mitchell was in the right place at the right time, however, and after securing the ball, went back up, where Muller appeared to have a block, but the whistle blew and the official signaled a foul as the horn sounded.
“I’m not really an offensive player,” said Mitchell. “I think it was just luck. I’d been crashing the boards all night, just trying to get my teammates the ball back, but knowing there was only a second left, I tried to throw it back up and I got hacked.”
After a timeout, it was up to Mitchell, who went to the line all alone with a chance to end it.
“(In the timeout) Coach (Mike Zamarchi) brought the white board over, drew a Z for Zack and said, ‘You’re going to make the first free throw,'” said Mitchell. “I was nervous, but I’d made my last seven free throws.”
Mitchell never wavered, eyed his target, let his shot fly and it found nothing but net.
“I just focused on the back of the rim,” Mitchell said. “It felt good off my hand.”
“We were due for a break,” said Zamarchi. “We haven’t had anything go our way all season.”
Mitchell was prepared to shoot his second foul shot as a formality, but the referees declared game over and Marshwood had a 53-52 victory.
“I was going to take another one and the ref just said, ‘Let’s just get out of here.'” Mitchell said.
The Hawks were led by Bartlett, who made six 3s and had a game-high 20 points. Innes added 16 points and seven rebounds, Lontine-Kearson and O’Neil had six points each, Mitchell finished with three and Parmley had two.
Marshwood made a dazzling 13 of 14 foul shots.
South Portland was left distraught.
“I’m not going to make excuses, but it’s a tough way to end,” Conley said. “Supposedly there was a push. We’ll leave it at that.
“There were times we didn’t take care of the ball offensively and defensively, we didn’t guard (Bartlett), who hit six 3s. We didn’t take care of the ball in the fourth quarter and Marshwood made shots. I thought we were in good position, but we got outscored 18-9.”
The Red Riots were led, not surprisingly, by Muller, who had 18 points. Muller also had nine rebounds, three blocked shots and three steals.
Fiorini impressed with 11 points and a game-high 10 boards. He also had a steal and a block.
“Jack’s come a long way,” Conley said. “We have two sophomores who start in the tough SMAA. It’s a credit to he and Jordin Jackson. They’re both getting better. It’s a process. It’s quicker, faster, stronger from the freshman level.”
Conley and Harper (four steals) added nine points each, Jackson had three and Zechman had two.
The Red Riots finished with a 32-28 rebounding edge, had nine steals and only turned the ball over 13 times, while forcing 19 giveaways, but only made 7 of 13 free throws.
Both teams are in the playoff hunt, but have work to do if they want to play beyond Feb. 7.
Marshwood (now 13th in the Western A Heal Points standings) returns to action Friday at Cheverus, then hosts Massabesic Monday and goes to Massabesic Tuesday. Home games against Thornton Academy, Sanford and Noble wrap up the regular season.
“After the last two games, we’re pretty pumped,” said Mitchell. “We’ve won two in a row. We want to get on a roll and make the tournament.”
As for South Portland (clinging to the 12th and final spot in the Heals), it goes to Windham Friday, hosts Gorham and plays at Deering next week, then goes to Scarborough and Portland and welcomes Cheverus to close the season.
The Red Riots have some work to do.
“I’m not giving up, the kids aren’t giving up and we’ll continue to work hard to make the playoffs,” Conley said. “We’re going need to win a couple games and upset someone who’s higher ranked. I have faith in these kids.”
South Portland senior Patrick Conley brings the ball up the floor. Conley had three 3-pointers in the loss.
South Portland sophomore Jack Fiorini soars to the basket. Fiorini had 11 points and a game-high 10 rebounds.
South Portland junior Kam Harper fires from long range.
South Portland sophomore Jordin Jackson goes up for a shot.
South Portland junior Jaren Muller proves unstoppable as he shoots over a defender for two points.
South Portland coach Phil Conley talks to his team during a timeout.
South Portland junior Silas Zechman fights with a Marshwood defender for possession during Monday’s contest. The Hawks won, 53-52, on a free throw with no time on the clock.
Joe Carpine photos / 365digitalphotography.com
More photos below.
M- 14 12 9 18- 53
SP- 18 9 16 9- 52
M- Bartlett 6-2-20, Innes 5-6-16, Lontine-Kearson 2-2-6, O’Neil 3-0-6, Mitchell 0-3-3, Parmley 1-0-2
SP- Muller 8-1-18, Fiorini 3-5-11, Conley 3-0-9, Harper 4-0-9, Jackson 1-1-3, Zechman 1-0-2
M (6) Bartlett 6
SP (5) Conley 3, Harper, Muller 1
M (28) Innes 7, Mitchell 6, O’Neil 5, Letellier 4, Lontine-Kearson, McDaniel 2, Bartlett, Parmley 1
SP (32) Fiorini 10, Muller 9, Conley, Harper 4, Gravel, Jackson 2, Zechman 1
M (4) Bartlett, Mitchell, O’Neil, Parmley 1
SP (9) Harper 4, Muller 3, Fiorini, Zechman 1
M (2) Innes, Mitchell 1
SP (7) Muller 3, Gravel 2, Conley, Fiorini 1