First time since '93; Hyland, SP win regional final duel
PORTLAND—The echoes have been awakened and the South Portland boys' basketball team is back on top.
Next stop, Augusta.
The top-ranked Red Riots and No. 3 Bonny Eagle Scots put on a memorable show in Saturday evening's Western Class A Final at the Cumberland County Civic Center, as South Portland senior Tanner Hyland and Bonny Eagle junior star Dustin Cole combined to score 66 points in an anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better duel for the ages.
In the end, Hyland's supporting cast was just slightly stronger and that spelled the difference in a game which came down to the waning seconds.
Both teams came out hot and the game was deadlocked, 17-17, after one quarter, but the Red Riots went ice cold in he second period, failing to score for almost six minutes while the Scots went on a 12-0 run to take a 29-22 lead to halftime.
South Portland came out a different team for the second half, however, as sophomore sensation Jaren Muller scored six quick points before a Hyland 3 put the Red Riots back on top to stay. The fourth quarter was almost exclusively Hyland and Cole trading hoops as Bonny Eagle pulled within two points on five different occasions, but South Portland answered every salvo and two late Hyland foul shots slammed the door on a palpitating 56-52 triumph.
Hyland wound up with 30 points and seven assists as the Red Riots improved to 18-3, ended the strong season of the Scots, who got 36 points from Cole, at 17-4, won a regional title for the first time since 1993 and advanced to set up an appetizing Class A state final showdown with undefeated Hampden Academy Saturday at 7:05 p.m., at the Augusta Civic Center.
"Credit to the kids," said South Portland coach Phil Conley. "Bonny Eagle's a very good, well coached team. It was a battle all night. I'm so proud. It's been 20 years. Long overdue. I call this an award not just for the team and the school, but for the city of South Portland, which stayed with us 20 years. We always draw well on the road. The fans come to all of our games. This is a city championship. We're rich in tradition and now we've got one."
What a run
South Portland wasn't viewed as a top contender entering the season, but by the end of the year, the Red Riots were 15-3 and held the top spot in the final Heal Points standings for the first time since 1994. South Portland then fended off an upset bid from No. 9 Sanford, 60-47, in the quarterfinals and showed tremendous fortitude in beating rival No. 4 Portland, 49-41, Wednesday in a back-and-forth semifinal.
Bonny Eagle, which made it to the regional finals in each of the past two seasons, only to be ousted by Cheverus and Deering, was considered one of the teams to beat and matched South Portland with a 15-3 mark, good for the No. 3 seed. After eliminating No. 6 Scarborough in the quarterfinals, 48-32, the Scots advanced with a decisive 54-38 victory over No. 7 Thornton Academy in the semis.
The Red Riots won a memorable, instant classic 82-77 double-overtime decision at Bonny Eagle back on Jan. 21. The teams met in last year' semifinals, a 56-39 triumph for the Scots. Bonny Eagle also beat South Portland, 57-51, in the 2007 quarterfinals.
Saturday's contest was almost as good as the regular season showdown and ended with a similar result.
Considering the way the game played out, it was a bit surprising that Cole nor Hyland got the game's first point. That honor went to Scots sophomore Ben Malloy, who made a free throw 1 minute, 7 seconds in.
Hyland got the Red Riots going with a 3 and senior Jack Tolan scored on a putback, but sophomore Zach Dubiel took a pass from Cole and made a 3 which rattled home, then took a pass from Cole and made another 3 to give Bonny Eagle its first lead, 7-5.
A Hyland fadeaway jumper tied the score and the next time down, Hyland knocked down a 3-ball to give South Portland a 10-7 advantage.
The Scots came right back as Malloy made two foul shots and Cole got his first points on a leaner off the glass with 1:45 left in the frame.
Hyland then passed to Muller on the baseline, who drove before laying the ball home off the glass for his first points. Hyland then hit a baseline jumper, but Cole answered with a 3, to tie the game, 14-14.
Hyland hit Tolan for a fastbreak layup. Tolan was fouled on the play and hit the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-play, but again, the lead didn't last as Cole converted a three-point play to make it a 17-17 game after an action packed first quarter.
Bonny Eagle stayed hot in the second period, while the Red Riots couldn't put the ball in the basket.
A long 3 from Malloy put the Scots on top. Dubiel then set up Cole for a layup. After Cole made two free throws, the standout hit a pullup jumper and Bonny Eagle was up nine, 26-17, with 2:46 to play before halftime.
Twenty-two seconds later, South Portland finally ended a 5 minute, 56 second drought and the Scots' 12-0 surge courtesy a layup from Tolan, but Cole converted another driving layup while being fouled and hit the free throw for a three-point play to stretch the lead to 10.
That would prove to be the Scots' highwater mark.
The Red Riots gave themselves a little momentum when Hyland made a 3 in the final minute, but the top seed was down seven, 29-22, entering the break.
"I think we started forcing some shots, myself included, and we didn't pound the ball down low," Hyland said. "When we don't do that, our offense goes stagnant and we get shaky."
At halftime, Conley delivered a simple message.
"We had to make adjustments as halftime, which we did," Conley said. "Basically, two things we talked about were staying together as a team, since we were only down seven points, and we had to get the ball inside, which got us here. If we did those things, good things would happen. There was no panic."
The tone was set for the comeback when Hyland fed Muller for a pick-and-roll layup 27 seconds in.
The next time down the floor, South Portland did the same thing as Hyland set up Muller for another layup.
With 5:24 remaining in the third, Hyland again spotted Muller, who this time hit a short bank shot to cut the deficit to a single point, 29-28.
"We talked about getting the ball inside for layups," Hyland said. "Jaren freed himself up. Jaren's been really good this year. We didn't know how good he'd be, but he's phenomenal. We have so many good big guys."
"My Dad told me that this was a once in a lifetime chance and I had to seize the moment," said Muller. "I've tried to do that by pumping up the crowd and getting everyone to get behind me and have confidence in me. We knew we were bigger than Bonny Eagle and that we had to get it done down low. We failed in the first half, but we came out strong in the second half. We got it going and played good defense. Me and Tanner, when we run a pick-and-roll, who can stop that? That's just a great guard and a big kid setting a screen. Once they get around me and go out on (Tanner), I'm open down low."
"Jaren was unbelievable with the pick-and-roll in the second half," Conley added. "He has soft hands around the basket. At one point, he wasn't feeling well and had to go back into the locker room, but he came back great."
Then, 28 seconds later, the Red Riots took the lead for good as Hyland, instead of passing, hit a pullup 3 and it was 31-29 South Portland.
"We've been (behind) a bunch of times before and we knew we had to keep our heads," Tolan said. "We knew we were a better team. We're all really unselfish. We're willing to share the ball. It's nice for our team. We've talked since day one about being unselfish."
The Hyland to Muller combo clicked one more time then next time down the floor and it was 33-29.
With 4:01 remaining in the third, Cole was fouled and made both free throws to snap a 5:05 drought and an 11-0 Red Riots' flurry.
Undaunted, South Portland pushed the lead right back to seven points as Tolan made a layup and Hyland canned a 3. A pair of Cole foul shots pulled Bonny Eagle within five, 38-33.
The fourth period also stayed tight.
Cole made it a two-point game with a 3 just 26 seconds in, but South Portland senior Ben Burkey took a pass from classmate Conner MacVane and made a layup. After Dubiel scored on a putback, Hyland made a 3, then Hyland scored on a pullup jumper for a 45-38 lead with just over six minutes to go.
By that point, the Cole vs. Hyland duel had captured the fancy of all on hand.
"Me and Dustin went back and forth," Hyland said. "It's a lot of fun to play against him. We know each other pretty well. We've played against each other in the spring and in AAU. We love going back and forth."
"(Tanner and Cole are) both great players," said Tolan. "It's amazing to have a player like Tanner on our team."
"Two of the best players in our league went toe-to-toe and each one had a fantastic game," Conley added. "I'm really proud of Tanner. He's matured. He's a three-year varsity starter at the point. He's gotten better this year as the season goes on. he doesn't force many shots. He gets others involved in the offense."
Back stormed the Scots as Cole was fouled on a 3 and hit all three free throws and senior Clayton Autry added two more foul shots to cut the deficit to 45-43.
One final time, Muller made his presence felt inside as he spun and banked home a shot to push the lead back to four.
Cole made it a 47-45 game with two foul shots, but Hyland, thanks to a subtle push off of his defender, got enough room to launch a 3 that found nothing but net, making it 50-45 Red Riots with 3:26 to play.
Cole answered with a driving bank shot, but Hyland fed MacVane for a layup and a five-point cushion with 2:29 left.
After Bonny Eagle missed two 3-pointers, South Portland senior Calvin Carr was fouled and Carr, who was huge in the Red Riots' semifinal round win over Portland, made one of two free throws.
Cole was then fouled on a drive and with the clock stopped at 1:07, sank two free throws to make it 53-49.
The Scots then had a chance as MacVane missed the front end of a one-and-one, but Malloy couldn't convert a shot and Tolan got the rebound.
With 21.8 seconds to go, Hyland went to the line, made the front end of a one-and-one, but missed the second, keeping the door open a sliver for Bonny Eagle.
Cole missed a 3, but senior Jon Thomas kept possession alive with an offensive rebound and the ball came back to Cole, who drove into the left corner and somehow sank a high-degree-of-difficulty 3 while falling into the media table to pull the Scots within a basket, 54-52, with only 8.2 seconds remaining.
The inbounds pass came to Hyland, who was fouled and Hyland wasn't about to miss with the game and his legacy on the line. Hyland sank his first attempt, then made the second and that did it.
A last-ditch Cole 3 was off and when the horn sounded at 10:17 p.m., South Portland was the Western Class A champion, courtesy of a 56-52 decision.
"It's amazing," Tolan said. "We knew we could do it coming into the season. Everyone was doubting us, but it feels really good. It's a really humbling feeling. Everyone told us how excited they were. We know the history of South Portland basketball. The crowd pushed us. We know with their support, we can beat anybody in the state."
"It means so much," said Hyland. "We've been dreaming about this since sixth grade. We said we were going to win the championship senior year. We're almost there. It was just so much fun. Our goal as the season progressed was that we could play with everyone. We want to beat the best to be the best. We beat Portland and Bonny Eagle. They're a high scoring offense, but (after the regular season win) we had confidence we could beat those guys. We knew Dustin would put up 25, 30 points. Dustin will score. You have to slow him down a little bit. We controlled the ball well and hit free throws."
A season-long surge had culminated in glory.
"I don't think we were in the top four at the start of the season, but as a coaching staff, we believed in these kids," Conley said. "We got experience going to the semifinals last year. We were confident with how we improved throughout the year. If you watched a game film of our first few games and if you watched film of the last half of the year, it's a huge difference. That's a credit to how hard these kids worked. What we took from the first game was that we knew Cole would get points. We knew they had a great scorer in Malloy and a great shooter in Autry. We beat them on the road, so we were confident coming in. We knew it would be a battle, but we were confident. This is one of the best feelings in the world for me as a coach, to see how happy the kids are and how they performed out there under tough circumstances. They came through, especially in the second half."
Hyland, snubbed in the Mr. Maine Basketball voting, wound up earning the George Vinall Award as the regional tournament's outstanding player/sportsman. He finished with a regional tournament-tying seven 3s and a team-high 30 points.
"Tanner's the most fun player I've ever played with," Muller said. "He's a great scorer and a great passer. Once he gets going, our team feeds off it."
Muller had 12 points, Tolan nine, Burkey and MacVane two apiece and Carr one.
The Red Riots had a 28-21 rebounding advantage, as Burkey collected seven, Hyland six and MacVane and Tolan five apiece.
South Portland had 13 turnovers and made 5-of-8 free throws.
"It was a team win," said Conley. "MacVane had some big rebounds, Jack Tolan, Burkey too. We couldn't have just one guy guard Cole. He's the MVP of the league. We went with Calvin and (Senior) Trevor (Borelli). Both of those guys did a great job."
Cole continued his other-worldly play and capped another tremendous season with 36 points, including a record 16 free throws (he also broke the record for foul shots made in a regional tournament).
Dubiel had 10 points, Malloy four and Autry two. Thomas was the top rebounder with eight, while Cole had five. Cole also had two steals.
Bonny Eagle only committed five turnover in the crucible of a regional final and made a sparkling 20-of-22 free throws, but for the third straight season, fell just short.
States. At last
Saturday, South Portland goes up against an absolute juggernaut in 21-0 Hampden Academy, which, as everyone now knows, somehow survived Lawrence's upset bid with a miracle buzzer-beater in the Eastern A Final Friday night.
The Broncos lost Deering in last year's finale, 59-50, and are seeking their first championship since 2005.
For South Portland, it's been a lot longer. The last time the Red Riots were the last team standing, the year was 1992, when the Minnesota Twins were the reigning World Series champions, George H.W. Bush was in the White House and it took five overtimes for the Red Riots to edge Bangor in one of the most storied games in state annals.
Saturday, in the first ever meeting between South Portland and Hampden Academy, the Red Riots hope to put the cherry on top of an amazing season.
"We just have to play tough and stay focused," Tolan said. "We'll do our thing."
"Looking at other teams' rosters, I knew we had a chance this year," said Muller. "We knew Deering, Portland and Bonny Eagle were favored, but we knew if we played hard, the sky was the limit for us. We're not satisfied. We want a ring. We have (a plaque) for our wall. Now, we want something for our hands."
"We just have to keep doing what we're doing, run our offense and play our defense," Hyland said. "It's going to be a lot of fun."
Conley can't wait to spend another week with this group and go for the gold next weekend.
"(Hampden Academy's) undefeated for a reason," Conley said. "They're a very good team, but we're also a very good team. We'll go in confident and we'll do what's gotten us there. It'll be a good game. We're practice hard and look forward to Saturday. We'll leave it on the floor. Whatever happens happens. That's how we've approached every game. If we can say we left it all on the floor, I'll be happy as a coach."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.
Previous South Portland-Bonny Eagle playoff meetings
2012 Western Class A semifinals
Bonny Eagle 56 South Portland 39
2007 Western Class A quarterfinals
Bonny Eagle 57 South Portland 51