SP denied gold in heartbreaking fashion by Hampden Academy
AUGUSTA—Time and again, they got close.
Time and again they were rebuffed.
And ultimately, time ran out on the South Portland boys' basketball team in Saturday night's Class A state championship game at the Augusta Civic Center.
The Red Riots struggled early and fell behind powerhouse Hampden Academy 10-2, but South Portland gradually settled down and instead of falling further behind, hung tough.
The Red Riots trailed, 14-8, after one quarter and 22-17 at halftime, but when senior Jack Tolan hit a jumper late in the third period, they were within a single point, 31-30.
The Broncos never relinquished the lead, however. Not then and not later in the third when South Portland again made it a one-point contest, nor with 2:42 to play after senior standout Tanner Hyland brought the Red Riots within 42-41 after a 3-point shot.
South Portland just couldn't get the ball back and after draining two minutes off the clock, Hampden Academy got a huge insurance layup from senior Brian Fickett. After Hyland missed a 3 which could have tied the game, the Broncos missed an opportunity to ice the victory when senior Matt Palmer missed a foul shot with 19.5 seconds to go, but out of nowhere soared senior Tyler Norris for a backbreaking offensive rebound and with 17.4 seconds showing, Norris added a huge free throw which allowed Hampden Academy to slam the door and after falling short in last year's state game, win the program's second championship, 45-41.
Hampden Academy, which got 23 points from junior standout Zach Gilpin, finished 22-0. Despite 17 points and 10 rebounds from Hyland in his swan song, the Red Riots fell four points shy of their first title since 1992 and ended up 18-4.
"The guys left it all on the floor tonight," said a crestfallen, but extremely proud South Portland coach Phil Conley, following the game. "They gave me every ounce. The shots just didn't fall. Hampden's a very good team, but I think we showed we were just as good. We just fell four points short. I'm proud of my guys, how hard they worked."
Return to glory
South Portland, which made an unexpected run to the semifinals last season before losing to Bonny Eagle, wasn't on the short list of favorites (which included Bonny Eagle, defending champion Deering and Portland) entering the season, but the Red Riots handled visiting Windham (56-39), host Biddeford (68-43) and visiting Westbrook (54-36) to start the 2012-13 campaign, then edged host Thornton Academy (56-54) and downed visiting Kennebunk (69-39) and Massabesic (62-41) to close the 2012 calendar year.
In its 2013 opener, South Portland enjoyed a 76-55 win at Scarborough, but couldn't hold a late lead and fell at home to defending champion Deering in overtime (58-52). The Red Riots got back in the win column, 56-43, over visiting Sanford, then lost at Portland, 63-47. South Portland bounced right back with wins over visiting Marshwood (64-48) and host Gorham (62-48), survived host Bonny Eagle in an 82-77 double-overtime epic, then defeated visiting Cheverus (67-44), host Deering (53-38), host Noble (85-63) and visiting Portland (52-42) before being upset in the regular season finale at Cheverus, 56-51.
Despite their loss to the Stags, the Red Riots earned the No. 1 seed for the tournament for the first time since 1994 with a 15-3 record and proved they were the best in the West by ousting No. 9 Sanford (60-47), No. 4 Portland (49-41) and finally No. 3 Bonny Eagle (56-52).
Hampden Academy led much of the first half in last year's state final against Deering, but it was all Rams in the second half and the Broncos fell, 59-50. Hampden Academy graduated 2012 Mr. Maine Basketball winner Christian McCue, but came back better than ever this winter, winning all 18 regular season games by an average of nearly 30 points.
As the top seed in Eastern A, the Broncos dispatched No. 8 Mt. Ararat (78-35) in the quarterfinals and fourth-ranked Lewiston (65-35) in the semifinals, but Hampden Academy appeared doomed in the regional final, down two in the waning seconds before freshman Nick Gilpin etched his name into Maine schoolboy tournament lore by banking home a 30-foot 3 at the horn to give the Broncos an epic 40-39 win over No. 2 Lawrence.
Entering the game, Hampden Academy and South Portland had no playoff history. The Broncos' three previous state game appearances had all come against Deering (a win in 2005 and losses in 2006 and last year).
The Red Riots entered with a glorious, albeit distant state game history, which dates to 1922 (please see sidebar). South Portland had won 11 prior titles (including 1926, when a state game wasn't contested, but it was deemed champion) and had won the region 19 times. The last championship came back in 1992 (and it wasn't just any title, merely a five-overtime thriller over Bangor) and the last trip to the state game came in 1993 (a one-sided loss to Bangor).
Saturday, the Red Riots were a little overwhelmed by the setting (a new court and a capacity crowd) and a sizzling start by the Broncos, who had played their regional contests at the venue.
While Nick Gilpin basked in the role of hero all week after his improbable regional final game winner, Zach Gilpin was the best player on the floor in the first half.
Just 36 seconds in, Gilpin took a pass from Fickett and banked home a shot to break the ice.
The basket provided Hampden Academy with a lead it would never relinquish.
Gilpin added a baseline jumper before South Portland got on the board with 6:02 to go in the first quarter when senior Conner MacVane set up Tolan for a layup.
Gilpin countered with two free throws and Fickett banked home a shot to make it 8-2, forcing Conley to call timeout.
The Broncos stayed hot out of the stoppage as Fickett set up Gilpin for a layup and a 10-2 lead.
The Red Riots then started to get the offense going as senior Calvin Carr scored on a driving layup and Tolan converted a leaner to cut the deficit to 10-6.
Gilpin wouldn't be stopped, however, scoring on a tough leaner off the glass to make it 12-6.
"Zach came out hot," said Hyland. "I know when he gets going, he's hard to stop."
MacVane answered with a pretty driving layup, but sophomore Jaren Muller missed two free throws with a chance to pull South Portland closer. A driving layup from Norris pushed Hampden Academy's advantage to 14-8 after one quarter.
The Red Riots were more successful holding the Broncos at bay in the second period and made their first futile attempt to come all the way back.
Sixty-six seconds in, Hyland got on the board with a floater, but Gilpin countered with a 3.
A MacVane floater, a Muller putback and a Muller layup brought South Portland within a point, 17-16, but in an agonizing and frustrating sign of things to come, Fickett answered with a jumper to grow the lead back to three points.
A MacVane free throw cut the deficit to two, but Gilpin answered with a foul shot and late in the half, Gilpin buried a long jumper for his 15th and 16th points to give Hampden Academy a 22-17 lead at the break.
"I thought we settled down after the first period," Conley said. "Emotions are high in a state championship game with a huge crowd and the noise. The Gilpin kid got hot and we had to make a quick adjustment."
After scoring a mere two points in the first half, Hyland, the SMAA's third-leading scorer during the regular season (19.7 points per game), who was first in made 3-pointers, finally got it going, but even with his offense, it wasn't enough to catch the Broncos.
After a Palmer 3 41 seconds in to the second half allowed Hampden Academy to match its biggest lead of eight points, Hyland made a leaner, then hit a fadeaway to cut the deficit in half.
Palmer answered with a layup, but Tolan soared high to tip home a missed shot and Hyland hit a tough leaner to make it a 27-25 game.
"In the first half, I forced shots and wasn't taking good looks," Hyland said. "In the second half, I was finishing. I had to attack the rim and got easier looks."
"Tanner had a great second half," Conley said. "He scored for us, he got us into our offense, he got rebounds. Guys were guarding him tightly tonight."
Gilpin wasn't about to allow the Broncos to surrender the lead, however, and made a baseline jumper. Hyland countered with a driving layup, but this time, Fickett made a hook shot and Hampden Academy clung to a 31-27 advantage.
With 3:44 remaining in the third, South Portland senior Ben Burkey was fouled after an offensive rebound and made a free throw. Thirty-two seconds later, Tolan took a pass from Hyland and made a jumper and (stop me if you heard this before) the Red Riots were again within a point, 31-30.
Fickett frustrated South Portland with a hook shot in the lane, but Muller, after being fouled while going back up with an offensive rebound, made two foul shots to make it 33-32.
Again Gilpin came up huge, taking an inbounds pass from Palmer before knocking down a 3, restoring the lead to four points. Hyland made two free throws in the final minute and the Red Riots only trailed by two, 36-34, with eight minutes to go.
Drama and pressure were palpable and points were at a premium in the final frame, where, as they did all game, the Broncos met every challenge.
Two free throws from junior Matthew Martin gave Hampden Academy a four-point lead 51 seconds in.
With 5:29 to play, South Portland drew within two on an improbable and perfectly executed left-handed hook from Tolan.
The Broncos came right back down and made it 40-36 on a Gilpin layup, but after his first shot was off target, Hyland got a rebound and somehow put home a circus shot to make it a two-point game again.
Again, Hampden Academy answered when Palmer's floater hit the back of the rim, went straight up in the air, then came down and kissed the net, pushing the lead to 42-38 and suggesting that perhaps it was going to be the Broncos' night.
Undaunted, after missing a 3, Hyland got the ball back from Muller, who had grabbed the rebound, and nailed his lone shot of the night behind the 3-point arc to pull South Portland within one, 42-41, with a seemingly interminable 2:42 still to play.
As it turned out, that Hyland shot would be the Red Riots' final points of the season.
As Hampden Academy milked the clock, South Portland did all it could to regain possession, but two fouls, a held ball and an emphatic Muller blocked shot which sailed out of bounds, didn't result in a turnover, just take away precious time.
Finally, with 42.4 seconds showing, Norris got into the lane and fed Fickett for a layup, giving the Broncos a 44-41 lead.
The Red Riots had a chance to tie the score with a 3, but Hyland's long-distance attempt was off the mark and Gilpin grabbed the rebound.
Gilpin got the ball to Palmer, who was fouled by Muller with 19.5 seconds left.
Palmer had a chance to essentially ice the victory at the line, but he missed the front end of the one-and-one.
If South Portland had gotten the rebound, it would have had at least one more look to tie.
The Red Riots didn't get it.
Instead, Norris came down with the ball.
"It was a big play," Hyland said. "We worked on boxing out all year and we just missed it. If we were up, it wouldn't have mattered."
"That was a tough one," said Conley. "I thought we had a pretty good box out, but the ball bounced out wide to the baseline. You don't blame one person. We can look at the game as there were many times someone didn't box out or we didn't go to the glass."
Norris was immediately fouled by Carr and with 17.4 seconds left, made the first free throw attempt to make it a two-possession game.
Norris missed the second attempt, but Hyland was wild on a 3 and the rebound caromed out of bounds off South Portland senior Trevor Borelli.
Hampden Academy got the ball inbounds and at 8:20 p.m., the game clock expired.
Despite a valiant effort, the best Red Riots' season in two decades had come to a close on the wrong end of a 45-41 final score.
"I thought everyone played their hearts out tonight," Hyland said. "We played a hell of a game. We weren't picked to be here. We proved everyone wrong. It's been a fun run, a great ride. Nobody thought we could do it. Maybe 20 people, players and coaches, thought we get here and we got here. We just ran out of time and fell four points short of a state title."
"I told the guys it stinks now for players and coaches, but when we look back at what we accomplished, these guys put their mark in South Portland history," Conley said. "We feed off tradition. I'm happy for that. Even though we lost, I'm proud of my team and how we played and how they never gave up. We lost to a good team. They're 22-0 for a reason. It's an amazing run. We weren't the favorite going in by any means. We knew we could be good if we came together as a team. We came together as one and that translated into 18 victories and the Western Maine championship."
Despite the third best offense in the league, South Portland couldn't get it going when it mattered most, producing just 41 points (almost 21 below its average and its lowest in 22 games this winter).
"I didn't shoot all that great tonight," Hyland said. "That upsets me now, but I'll get in the gym and work on it and be better for whatever comes next. Credit to them for a good game plan against us. We just couldn't get anything to fall."
Hyland capped his sensational senior season and superb high school career with 17 points and 10 rebounds. He came to the program as Keegan Hyland's little brother and graduates as one of the state's elite players.
"(Tanner's) a special player," said Conley. "He proved that tonight."
Tolan saved some of his best games this year for the tournament and capped his time in a Red Riots uniform with 10 points, five boards, a steal and a blocked shot.
"Jack played a very good game tonight," Conley said. "He had to guard one of the best players in the state. Jack did a really good job on (Gilpin) in the second half. Gilpin couldn't post him up on the block. Offensively, he had that great lefty hook and a couple jumpers."
Muller had six points and nine boards, MacVane bowed out with five points, Carr with two (to go with four rebounds) and Burkey with one (and four boards).
South Portland won the battle of the glass, 34-28, but turned the ball over 16 times and missed 4-of-10 free throws (misses which loom monstrous in hindsight).
Gilpin led all players with 23 points. Fickett added 10 with a team-high eight rebounds and three steals. Palmer had seven points, Norris three and Martin two.
Showing its poise throughout, Hampden Academy only turned the ball over 10 times. The Broncos made 6-of-10 free throws, just enough to finish with a perfect record and the shiny prize.
The 2012-13 South Portland senior class will long be hailed for restoring the program to greatness with its teamwork, clutch play and leadership.
"I'm very fortunate to have such a great group of seniors and I wish them well as they graduate from the program," Conley said. "It's very hard to have to say goodbye to the seniors. They did some very good things for our program."
Next year's team will have a lot of rebuilding to do as only Muller returns having seen much playing team. He's a tremendous building block, however, and the Red Riots are seemingly always in the mix, so write them off at your own risk.
"We lose seven players, but we have good young kids coming up in the program," Conley said. "We'll get back to the drawing board. We'll work hard in the summer to get back to the playoffs."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.
Previous South Portland stories
Previous South Portland state games
Bangor 62 South Portland 37
South Portland 81 Bangor 79 (5 OT)
Waterville 60 South Portland 35
South Portland 66 Caribou 49
South Portland 75 Old Town 51
South Portland 102 Presque Isle 58
Cony 84 South Portland 63
South Portland 55 Presque Isle 53
Stearns 73 South Portland 67
Stearns 59 South Portland 57 (OT)
South Portland 83 Caribou 70
Ellsworth 61 South Portland 40
Waterville 51 South Portland 42
Winslow 41 South Portland 26
South Portland 34 Presque Isle 29
South Portland 25 Old Town 15
South Portland 20 Bar Harbor 17
South Portland Bangor (game not played)