SP holds off Westbrook, advances to quarterfinals
SOUTH PORTLAND—The end of the regular season was not kind to the South Portland boys' basketball team.
The Red Riots, despite being very competitive, dropped five of their final six contests and there were questions whether the team could close out and win a big game.
South Portland answered in the affirmative Tuesday night.
Hosting No. 10 Westbrook in Western Class A preliminary round game, the seventh-ranked Red Riots 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 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.
Junior Tanner Hyland hit four 3-pointers and had a team-high 12 points. Senior Logan 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 Saturday at 9 p.m., at the Portland Expo.
"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."
All or nothing
Both South Portland and Westbrook have a storied history with 17 combined state titles to their credit (11 for the Red Riots, six for the Blue Blazes), so another trip to the postseason was hardly unexpected.
Westbrook, which lost to Cheverus in the 2010 regional final and to Bonny Eagle in last year's quarterfinals, was hit hard by graduation over the past two offseasons. The Blue Blazes didn't enter the year with high expectations and were streaky. Westbrook won its first two games, lost three straight, won two in a row, then dropped five straight. After winning four in a row, the Blue Blazes dropped their final two and wound up 8-10. Westbrook's signature wins came over Scarborough, Portland and Thornton Academy.
South Portland has now made the playoffs in six straight seasons. Last year ended with a quarterfinal round loss to Portland. This winter, the Red Riots got off to a great start, winning three straight, dropping a close home decision to Thornton Academy, then rattling off three more victories to improve to 6-1. After sandwiching losses to Deering and Portland around a win at Sanford, South Portland earned a big win at Marshwood, then defeated Gorham to improve to 9-3. The Red Riots went 1-5 down the stretch, however, losing to top contenders Bonny Eagle, Cheverus, Deering, Portland and Cheverus again.
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 have squared off 15 times in the postseason (with Westbrook holding a 10-5 edge, see sidebar).
Tuesday, the Red Riots made a character statement.
Hyland hinted at a strong shooting night when he took a pass from Burkey and sank a 3 just 25 seconds in. The Blue Blazes answered with a running bank shot from senior Nguot Nguot and a putback from junior Keenan Lowe to take a short-lived 4-3 advantage.
After Hyland put the Red Riots back on top with a second 3, Lowe made a layup, Nguot hit a leaner and Lowe's turnaround floater put the visitors on top, 10-6.
But in the final minute of the first quarter, junior Conner MacVane hit a jumper in the lane and in the waning seconds, Muller took a pass from Gaddar and knocked down a 3 to put South Portland ahead, 11-10.
The Red Riots would never trail again and opened things up a bit before halftime.
After Tolan's spinner was answered by a layup from Nguot, Hyland sank yet another 3.
"I just came out with intensity," said Hyland. "I knew I had to spark our team a little bit. I came out firing the ball. When I get going, I'm the best shooter in the state. That's what I think at least, in my mind. I just keep putting them up."
Burkey followed by taking a pass from Gaddar and making a reverse layup and Gaddar scored on something you rarely see in high school hoops, a tip-in, to make it 20-12.
Afer Lowe ended he run with an up-and-under layup, Muller hit a leaner off the glass. Junior David Breunig answered with a free throw and junior Alec Hazlewood made a layup, but Gaddar hit two foul shots to put South Portland on top, 24-17, at the break.
When Gaddar set up Tolan for a layup, then did the same thing (this time with Tolan scoring on a reverse layup) early in the third period, the Red Riots had an 11-point advantage, but they got deliberate on offense, had five turnovers and wouldn't score the rest of the stanza as Westbrook made things very interesting.
The Blue Blazes' rally was sparked by a great individual effort from Nguot, who spun past a defender and went in for a dunk. Lowe scored on a putback, senior Ian King went coast-to-coast for a layup, Nguot scored on a floater and with 17.5 seconds to go, Breunig's free throw made it a 28-26 contest.
South Portland was on the ropes and its season was on the line, but instead of buckling, the Red Riots rose up and found a way to get the job done.
With 5:50 to play, Gaddar was fouled and sank both free throws to end the 9-0 Westbrook run and an 8 minute, 54 second scoring drought.
Less than a minute later, the game turned for good when Nguot went in for an apparent layup, but had his shot blocked by Tolan. The rebound came to Burkey, who brought the ball up the floor. While his dribbling didn't evoke memories of Curly Neal, he unleashed a perfect pass to a wide open Hyland, who calmly fired a 3 that found nothing but net, pushing the lead to 33-26.
"It was really the first time I took the ball up this year," Burkey said. "I saw Tanner open at the 3-point line and I had to get him the ball because I knew he'd make it. That was a crucial play. It seemed like that built our confidence and we were able to play looser and play like we normally play."
"Ben got the ball and saw me on the wing," Hyland said. "As soon as I got the ball, I knew it was going in. I hit it and we didn't look back."
"That was a key play," Conley added. "Nguot drove to the basket, Tolan went off his man and blocked the ball. It was great defense. Then we came down and Tanner hit a 3. It gave us a little bit of a cushion."
While the game was far from over, it was clear that South Portland wasn't going to give in.
After Nguot scored on a driving layup with 2:50 to play, the Red Riots ran over a minute off the clock before Muller was finally fouled. He made both attempts and the lead was back to seven.
With 1:15 remaining, Westbrook senior Joe Quinlan made a bank shot to cut the deficit to 35-30, but five seconds later, Gaddar was fouled (by Nguot, his fifth) and hit both attempts to push the lead back to seven.
With 1:02 to go, Quinlan made a driving layup and South Portland subsequently turned the ball over, but the Blue Blazes couldn't answer as King missed a 3 and Hyland got the rebound.
With 40.9 seconds remaining, MacVane was fouled and missed the front end of a one-and-one, but in its last golden chance to make things interesting, Westbrook couldn't convert as senior Will Batherson's 3 was off the mark. Gaddar rebounded and got the ball to junior Calvin Carr, who was fouled with 17.4 seconds to go.
Carr missed both free throws, but Burkey came from nowhere to get the offensive rebound, keep possession alive and pretty much bury the Blue Blazes.
"There were a lot of free throws at the end of the game," Burkey said. "Most of them, I went straight to the middle and I got boxed out. I thought I'd take a chance and go to the outside and it paid off and I got the rebound. It was a key possession in the game."
Burkey got the ball to Gaddar, who was fouled with 11.8 seconds remaining. Gaddar went to the line and made both free throws for a commanding 39-32 advantage.
"I just took them like was practice," Gaddar said. "I shoot free throws on that hoop every day. I walked to the line and acted like it was free throw practice. I put no pressure on myself and it was easy."
After a miss from Westbrook senior Jack Gilligan, Gaddar got the rebound and with 3.3 seconds to go, made the second of two free throws to bring the curtain down on the 40-32 win.
South Portland had survived.
"I thought it was tough," Gaddar said. "We beat them early in the season, but we knew they'd be different. They've changed a lot of things. We had a tough time finishing this year. We knew we had to play hard the whole game and finish. We stuck together as a group and kept fighting."
"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."
"Our offense was really stagnant (in the third quarter)," Hyland said. "There wasn't much movement. We kept throwing the ball away, mostly me. The rhythm wasn't there like the first half, but we got it back late in the fourth. Late in the season, we haven't played well down the stretch. This is a stepping stone to move forward."
Conley had plenty of praise to bestow.
"I'm proud of the kids for finishing," he said. "Muller and Gaddar stepped up and made foul shots. I thought Tanner Hyland played tremendous at the point. He took care of the ball and made smart decisions. He ran the offense. Westbrook's a good team. Offensively, we were patient because against that matchup, you have to be patient. You could see the game swing on the block and 3. It was a battle against a good team. We knew it would be. The crowd was unbelievable tonight. They were our sixth man. It was a great crowd. A great atmosphere. I thank them for sticking with us."
Hyland had a team-high 12 points. Gaddar finished with 11 points and a team-high seven rebounds..
"I'm not the biggest guy, but I can jump pretty high and I like running in from the outside," Gaddar said. "I'm good at timing. I just keep working and pushing myself to get rebounds like that because we need them."
Muller added seven points, Tolan six, Burkey (six boards)and MacVane two apiece.
South Portland had a 21-16 advantage on the glass, stole the ball eight times and overcame 18 turnovers with clutch 11-of-15 foul shooting.
For Westbrook, Nguot had 12 points before fouling out. Lowe had 10 points (and four boards) before he had to leave the game with his fifth foul. Quinlan added four points, Breunig (seven rebounds), Hazlewood and King two apiece.
The Blue Blazes gave the ball away 12 times and shot 2-of-4 from the charity stripe.
"I thought we put ourselves in a good spot in the fourth quarter, but we couldn't get over the hump," said longtime Westbrook coach Mark Karter. "We missed a couple shots late. We had our chances. I like the way we fought back in the third. I'm proud of the way the kids responded. It's tough with players who don't have a lot of experience. The inconsistencies have shown all year. Hopefully they'll commit themselves to basketball this summer and come back a little better. We're losing six (kids). We'll keep working at it."
See you Saturday
South Portland advances to meet another familiar foe, Portland (14-4), Saturday. The Red Riots lost both regular season meetings, 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 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."
"We're excited that our next game is against Portland," Burkey said. "We've dropped so many games against Portland we should have won. Last year, we lost to them really badly. It's a rematch. It's a big rivalry. We won't have any trouble getting up for that game. I'm not looking to get to the Expo. I'm looking to get to the Civic Center (for the semifinals). Saturday will be great. I feel like we're starting to peak and it's the perfect time. We've got nothing to lose."
"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."