SP rallies, upsets Portland
PORTLAND—With as wide open a field as we've seen in years, consensus held that any of five or six teams could take home the Western Class A boys' basketball title when all was said and done.
A team not included on that list was the seventh-ranked South Portland Red Riots.
After a season full of close calls and frustrating endings, the Red Riots earned a signature win Saturday evening in the quarterfinals at the Portland Exposition Building against their nemesis of recent years, the second-seeded Portland Bulldogs.
Form held in the first half, as the Bulldogs had their way on the glass and built a nine-point lead. Portland went up by 11 early in the third period, but struggled offensively the rest of the night.
South Portland, conversely, saved its best for last, taking the lead on a tip-in from junior Jack Tolan. After the Bulldogs tied the score, unheralded junior Conner MacVane got in on the act, scoring on a leaner to give the Red Riots the lead back. Again, Portland drew even, but with 3:52 to play, MacVane finished again with a tough shot and South Portland was ahead to stay.
The Red Riots would have to survive a harrowing last few minutes, which included turnovers and missed free throws, but when Bulldogs sophomore Justin Zukowski was off target on two potential game-winning 3-pointers as time ran down, South Portland exulted in a 39-37 victory.
It was a team win if there ever was one, as senior Jordan Muller had 11 points and MacVane, Tolan and senior rebounding machine Logan Gaddar all added eight as the Red Riots improved to 12-8, stunningly ended the Bulldogs' year at 14-5 and advanced to face No. 3 Bonny Eagle (16-3) in the semifinals Friday at 7:30 p.m., at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
"This was a great, great win for these kids," said South Portland coach Phil Conley. "The kids really dug down deep tonight. To be down 11 against a great Portland team and then to come back the way they did, I'm so happy for these kids."
South Portland was sent packing by Portland in last year's quarterfinal round and turned heads in the first half of this season before struggling down the stretch.
The Red Riots opened with wins at Windham (44-32), at home over Biddeford (65-53) and at Westbrook (57-51), before dropping a close home decision to Thornton Academy. South Portland then rattled off victories over host Kennebunk (57-42), host Massabesic (80-55) and visiting Scarborough (39-20) to improve to 6-1. After sandwiching losses to Deering (40-29) and Portland (61-57) around a win at Sanford (54-46), South Portland earned a clutch 66-60 win at Marshwood, then defeated Gorham, 38-37, to improve to 9-3. The Red Riots went 1-5 down the stretch, however, beating only visiting Noble (72-33), while losing to top contenders Bonny Eagle (56-49), Cheverus (49-33), Deering (49-38), Portland (52-48) and Cheverus again, 45-39.
At 10-8, South Portland earned the No. 7 seed and had to get past No. 10 Westbrook, 40-32, in the preliminary round Tuesday.
Portland peaked late last year and made it to the Western A Finals before dropping a close decision to Cheverus, 45-41. This year, the Bulldogs, who returned most of last year's top players, took care of business more often than not.
Portland won its opener 52-43, over visiting Sanford, but lost at Marshwood (65-62) and at home to Cheverus (49-41). Portland then rattled off seven straight, beating Bonny Eagle (66-47), Scarborough (63-60, in OT), Gorham (46-36), Biddeford (61-52), Windham (73-38), Kennebunk (59-20) and South Portland (61-57). After an upset home loss to Thornton Academy, 63-61, the Bulldogs went to Cheverus and eked out a palpitating 40-39 win. Portland wasn't able to build on that momentum, however. getting upset at Westbrook (42-38). The Bulldogs wouldn't lose again in the regular season, edging host Deering (39-35), then dominating visiting Noble (71-32) and host Massabesic (87-48) before holding on for a 52-48 home win over South Portland and easily beating visiting Deering, 46-22.
Over the past 50 years, the teams had met 11 times in the playoffs (please see sidebar), with the Bulldogs taking the past five, including last year's surprisingly easy 72-49 decision in the quarterfinals. The Red Riots hadn't beaten Portland in the tournament since the 1987 quarterfinals (57-46).
Saturday, South Portland dug a hole, but came together and wouldn't be denied.
The first quarter was sluggish and full of fouls.
The Red Riots scored first on a jumper from junior Tanner Hyland. After junior Nate Smart tied the score with a spinning bank shot, he gave the Bulldogs a 3-2 lead with a free throw.
A leaner from Red Riots' senior Jordan Muller with 4:48 to go in the first gave South Portland its final lead for a long time.
Portland took the lead on a Smart jumper and Volger converted an old-fashioned three-point play, making a driving layup, getting fouled and making the free throw. After MacVane made a pretty reverse layup for the Red Riots, Bulldogs senior Peter Donato blocked a shot at one end and scored on a putback at the other to make it 10-6. A layup after a steal by Muller and two Gaddar free throws tied the game, 10-10, heading for quarter number two.
There, South Portland went cold and the Bulldogs took the lead.
A 3-ball from junior Nick Volger 18 seconds in gave Portland a 13-10 lead. Tolan hit a leaner for the Red Riots at the 6:47 mark, but the Bulldogs got the next 10 points to open things up.
A layup by Donato got the run started. Donato followed with a putback, Zukowski hit a leaner, sophomore Matt Talbot scored on a putback and Talbot, after a steal, set up Volger for a layup and a 23-12 advantage.
With 2:16 to go before halftime, South Portland ended the run and a 4 minute, 31 second scoring drought when Muller made two free throws. Gaddar added a layup, but with 10 seconds to go, Volger stole the ball and fed Talbot for a layup and a 25-16 lead at the break.
In the third, things started to change.
After a Smart layup made it 27-16 Bulldogs a minute in, the Red Riots began chipping away as junior Ben Burkey got a rebound, was fouled and made one of two free throws, Gaddar scored on a putback, Muller made a driving layup and with 2:27 to go, a putback by MacVane cut the deficit to 27-23.
"You have to give South Portland credit," said Portland coach Joe Russo. "They got the game back. We were up 11, but didn't put the hammer down. When you let a team hang around, anything can happen. That's what happened when we lost to TA and when we lost to Westbrook. They crawled back and started believing. They were on the verge of cashing it in and got a second life. A lot of that came from Muller and MacVane."
Nine seconds later, a Talbot 3 appeared to restore order, but Muller answered with a 3 of his own and with 20.2 seconds remaining in the quarter, Gaddar scored on a putback to make it a one-possession game. As time wound down, Volger drove into the lane, almost lost the ball, but somehow settled it in midair and made a layup to give Portland a 32-28 advantage heading for the fateful fourth.
There, it took less than two minutes for South Portland to pull even, then go ahead, thanks to the heroics of Tolan.
Tolan's layup 28 seconds in again made it a two-point contest. Then, with 6:05 to go in regulation, Gaddar missed a contested layup, but Tolan was there for the weak side rebound and put it home to tie things up. With 5:28 left on the clock, Hyland missed a shot, but as he fell backwards, Tolan managed to tip the rebound home and for the first time since it was 4-3, the Red Riots had the lead, 34-32.
"A lot of it had to do with luck," said Tolan, of his tip-in.
After a Portland miss, South Portland wasn't able to add to the lead as Zukowski stole the ball and tied things up with a layup.
The next time down, the Red Riots turned to MacVane, who didn't even start the game. He took a pass, drove and knocked down a short leaner to put South Portland back on top, 36-34.
The Bulldogs would answer, however, as Zukowski scored on a driving layup, but with 3:52 left, MacVane converted another leaner and South Portland had the lead for good, 38-36.
"I just felt good and took it to the hole," MacVane said. "The defender was smaller than me. I took it to the basket."
Closing the win out would not come easily.
After Zukowski missed a 3, Volger missed a putback. The Red Riots tried to take time off the clock, but gave the ball away as Pitts-Young made a steal. Portland turned the ball right back over, however, but with 1:48 to go, Hyland was called for an offensive foul and the Bulldogs had another chance.
Donato would manage to draw a foul and went to the line with 1:43 remaining. He missed his first attempt, but South Portland was called for a lane violation and Donato still had two chances. His first was good, but his second, which would have tied the game, was off, and the Red Riots got the ball, up one.
Again, South Portland gave Portland an opening with a turnover, but with 1:02 to play, Pitts-Young couldn't finish a layup after splitting the defense and racing into the lane, and Gaddar got the rebound and was fouled.
Gaddar went to the line for a one-and-one, hoping to extend the Red Riots' lead, but his first attempt was off and Talbot got the rebound.
As the clock went under a minute, the Bulldogs had another chance to retake the lead, but after a timeout, Zukowski drove and had his shot blocked by Tolan. Hyland got the rebound and was fouled with 31.4 seconds showing.
Hyland, who hadn't scored since the first basket of the game, made his first attempt, but missed the second. However, MacVane came from nowhere to get the rebound and keep possession alive.
After a timeout, South Portland gave the ball right back with a turnover and Portland called timeout to set up a tying or winning play.
The Bulldogs would get three looks at the basket, one to tie and two to win, but it just wouldn't be their night.
With 12.3 seconds showing, Smart had a good look at a tie from the baseline, but his shot was off. Luckily for Portland, the ball was deflected out of bounds off a Red Riot. Then, taking a pass from Pitts-Young, Zukowski had a look at a 3 that was close, but rimmed out. The rebound was batted around and was grabbed by Smart, who passed the ball back to Zukowski at the top of the key.
As the clock hit 2 seconds, Zukowski, who was all alone, lined up another potential game winner. The ball floated through the air as the clock hit 1 second. Just before the horn sounded, the shot bounced off the glass and the rim and before the Bulldogs could get another chance, the game was over and the upset was in the books.
South Portland 39 Portland 37.
"We pulled together and played all four quarters," MacVane said. "Defensively and offensively, we played well. We played good D at the end. Tolan stepped up on Donato and didn't let him score. Tanner had a clutch free throw at the end. We were all motivated to win and we didn't want to give up. It feels good. Especially after they beat us in the playoffs here last year."
We didn't have much momentum coming in," Tolan said. "At halftime, we were down a lot, but we knew what we needed to do. Donato was getting a lot of offensive rebounds. That was on my shoulders. I had to play harder in the second half. There were a lot of turnovers and mistakes, but we kept our heads and stayed in the game. We all knew coming in to the season, we had the talent if we put in the work. We didn't keep our heads in all the games. We were close with all the top teams, but we couldn't finish. Tonight, we finished."
"This team is tougher than any team I've played on," added Gaddar. "Nobody wanted to give up. We dug deep, played tough and kept going. We fought back little by little. At the end of the third, we were only down four and it was a game from there. Four points is nothing. Last year, we went 0-3 against them. I was not going to let that happen again. A lot of us remember that and it hurt."
Conley told his team to never give up and they rose to the occasion.
"At halftime, we were down nine and I said its was going to be about defense," he said. "We held them to 12 points in the second half and we really rebounded. At the end, it was close. I didn't know if (that last shot) was going in. Finally we got a break. We've been waiting for one all year. I think I lost maybe five pounds in the last five or 10 seconds. It was well worth it. I'm so happy for the kids. They really dug down deep tonight and played great basketball. We played Portland twice and they were tough games that could have gone either way, so we were confident going in that we matched up well with them. We recognized they're a top tier team, but we knew we could play with them and we did tonight."
Muller led all scorers with 11 points, which included his team's lone 3-point field goal. He was even more impressive on the other end of the floor.
"Jordan had the assignment of guarding a first-team all-star, in my opinion, (senior Mike) Herrick," Conley said. "He didn't score. You can't say enough about Jordan's defense."
Gaddar had eight points and a game-high 11 rebounds. He also had two steals and a pair of blocked shots.
Every one of MacVane's eight points were huge. He also grabbed six boards.
"Conner's a great player," Gaddar said. "He battles. He's the toughest kid I know. He never gives up. He's a big part of the team this year."
"Conner MacVane, I can't say enough good things about him," Conley said. "Rebounding the ball and playing solid D. He's our sixth man. He's improved 100 percent from the start of the season. He's a tough defender and a tough kid. We know he'll be on the floor for loose balls. He made some key baskets tonight."
Tolan also scored eight points, grabbed nine rebounds and blocked four shots.
"Tolan was unbelievable on the boards and inside," Conley said. "He had his best game of the season. He had some huge putbacks. He boarded up incredibly well. This is his first varsity year and he's improved as the season has gone along."
Hyland had just three points, but was poised at point guard and played solid defense. He grabbed five rebounds and had a pair of steals.
"Tanner handled the pressure well all game," said Conley. "It was a team win. Everyone contributed tonight."
Burkey added a point.
South Portland, which had been outrebounded, 19-15, in the first half, turned things around in the second and wound up with a 36-31 advantage for the game. The Red Riots struggled at the charity stripe, making just 6-of-11 attempts, and committed 18 turnovers, but willed their way to victory.
"We had a tough stretch toward the end of the regular season, but I think we got better in that stretch," Conley said. "We beat a very quality team tonight. We thought we matched up well with Portland because of the two close games that we played. They're a very good team, but we had confidence coming in. I'm so proud of my kids. I don't think anyone was really expecting us to be here, but our coaching staff and our kids believed we could win big games and we won a big game tonight.
For Portland, Volger was superb with 10 points, three rebounds and three steals.
"Nick Volger played a terrific game," said Russo. "If you look at the box score and see he had 10 points and held Hyland to three points, you'd think we'd won."
Donato had seven points, but a mere one in the second half. He also had 10 boards and two blocks.
"I'll give credit to Tolan," said Gaddar. "In the first half, Donato was getting the boards. Tolan toughened up in the second half and controlled him. Donato didn't get anything in the second half."
"They took Peter out of the game," said Russo. "We needed someone else to come through and they didn't. When Peter had the ball, they had three guys on him."
Smart finished with seven points and seven rebounds. Talbot, who is poised to become a big star over the next couple seasons, finished with seven points, five rebounds and a steal. Zukowski added six points (and had two steals).
Conspicuous by his absence was Herrick, was didn't manage a single point.
The Bulldogs gave the ball away on 13 occasions and made a mere 3-of-9 free throws.
"One-and-done. Wow" Russo lamented. "I've been doing this for awhile now. Some losses hurt more than others. This one's disappointing. We had three shots at the basket at the end. We didn't play well, obviously. We didn't shoot well. We played good defense. They did their thing, the ball just didn't go in. I'm proud of the kids because they worked hard. We missed key free throws and had turnovers. South Portland played good team defense."
Portland loses Donato, Herrick, Zack Lane and Barry Quinn to graduation.
"My seniors not only had a good year, but I think it was a good experience for them," Russo said.
Several other key players will return and the Bulldogs will look to learn from this loss and advance deeper in the 2012-13 tournament.
South Portland advances to face a Bonny Eagle team it lost to in a close game in January. The teams' lone prior postseason meeting resulted in a 57-51 Scots' triumph in the 2007 quarterfinals.
The Red Riots know they'll again be the underdogs, but at this point, this carefree group can't be ruled out.
"I think it'll be a good game," Tolan said. "We have to come out with the same mentality and play hard."
"If we play like we did against Portland, I feel like we can win," said MacVane.
"I'm excited to play Bonny Eagle," added Gaddar. "We had a great game the first time. We did lose, but it was a close game. I think we match up well with them. I don't think they have height we have. I think we'll use that to our advantage. We have a good chance. I'm excited (to go to the Civic Center). My brother (Nick) played there as a senior. I haven't been there yet."
Conley has full faith in his kids.
"We heard South Portland can't win a big game," he said. "I think the kids proved tonight that they can win a big game. Bonny Eagle won't be easy. They have two first-team all-star selections (Cole Libby and Dustin Cole). They're very well coached. We're looking forward to that challenge. The regular season game was winnable. We'll go in with confidence. This is a confident group. They'll work hard to get ready."