SP wakes up echoes, earns pivotal win over Portland
SOUTH PORTLAND—Beal Gymnasium has been home to many great players and storied teams over the years.
But what it's borne witness to this winter has been something truly special.
The South Portland boys' basketball team was viewed as a contender, but not a serious championship threat entering the season, but the Red Riots continue to pen a magical script.
Fifteen days after an inspirational double-overtime victory at Bonny Eagle and a week after an emphatic win at defending state champion Deering, South Portland hosted recent nemesis Portland, the preseason favorite, Tuesday evening.
The Red Riots haven't had much luck versus the Bulldogs this century, but in a battle of the top two teams in the Western Class A Heal Points standings, they produced their most impressive effort of the season.
South Portland never trailed and opened a healthy halftime lead behind sensational play from their big man, as well as senior point guard Tanner Hyland, who wasn't his usual lights-out-shooting self, but instead demonstrated dazzling passing skills.
Despite all that, Portland, as expected, rallied, and drew within a single point late in the third period. The Bulldogs could never get over the hump, however, and South Portland matched its fast start with a strong finish, holding Portland to just five fourth quarter points and Hyland, senior Conner MacVane and sophomore Jaren Muller all hit big shots as the Red Riots went on to a 52-42 victory.
Muller led all scorers with 14 points, Hyland added 12 points and 12 assists and MacVane had 10 points as South Portland improved to 15-2, dropped the Bulldogs to 14-3 and likely punched its ticket for the top seed for the upcoming tournament, something the Red Riots haven't enjoyed in nearly two decades.
"The kids really played well tonight, on both ends of the floor," said South Portland coach Phil Conley. "We had something extra tonight against a very good team. I'm very pleased with this win. I thought what won it for us tonight was our defense and rebounding on both ends."
South Portland shocked Portland in last year's Western A quarterfinals, 39-37, and both teams have lived up to billing as top contenders this winter.
Portland opened with a 57-39 home win over Marshwood, then won at Sanford (68-48) and Cheverus (73-49), held off visiting Bonny Eagle in a thriller, 55-52, before closing the 2012 portion of its schedule with a 63-53 victory at Scarborough and a 73-44 home win over Gorham. The Bulldogs opened 2013 with a 69-40 romp at Biddeford, then defeated host Windham (49-31), visiting Kennebunk (68-33) and visiting South Portland (63-47). Then, the bottom fell out as Portland lost at Thornton Academy (64-52) and at home to Westbrook (46-45). The Bulldogs returned to form with a 44-37 home win over Deering and rolled at Noble, 75-50, over Cheverus, 63-29, in a game played at Southern Maine Community College, and at home over Massabesic, 78-38.
South Portland handled visiting Windham (56-39), host Biddeford (68-43) and visiting Westbrook (54-36) to start, then edged host Thornton Academy (56-54) and downed visiting Kennebunk (69-39) and Massabesic (62-41) to close 2012. 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) and host Noble (85-63).
Portland has dominated the rivalry this century. Dating back to the start of the 2001-02 season, the Bulldogs had won 23 of 27 meetings (please see sidebar), including nine of the past 10, with the most recent coming Jan. 11.
Portland entered Tuesday's contest holding a 115-99 all-time lead on South Portland. This meeting was one of the biggest in the regular season in a long time between the rivals and hearkened back to many epic encounters over the years, but this time, on Senior Night, the Red Riots had the last laugh.
Both teams were sluggish early and it took over two minutes for the ice to be broken.
The hosts struck first and it set the tone as Hyland found senior Jack Tolan for a layup. Tolan was fouled on the play and hit the free throw for a 3-0 lead.
The Bulldogs battled back to tie the score on a free throw from junior Jayvon Pitts-Young and a Pitts-Young layup, but with 4:33 to play in the first quarter, Hyland found MacVane for a layup to put South Portland on top to stay.
Hyland and his teammates were just getting started.
The next time down, Hyland found senior Ben Burkey for a layup. After a MacVane hit a bank shot, Hyland fed Muller for another layup.
"When (Tanner) needs to pass, he'll pass and when he needs to shoot, he'll shoot," said Muller. "He's unselfish. We knew (Portland would) overplay our guards because they're much quicker, but we knew if we cut to the basket, we'd be open."
"We focused on Hyland a little too much maybe," lamented Bulldogs coach Joe Russo. "We weren't doing any double teaming. The guys didn't have their hands up and guys sneaked behind them. We didn't hedge or recover."
With 2:43 to go in the opening stanza, Hyland made a layup for a 13-3 lead, forcing Russo to call timeout, revving up the noise from the partisan crowd in the process.
"Once our crowd gets into it, they're loud and crazy," Muller said. "We have one of the best student sections in the state. That threw them off."
"I love to see the crowd. they're our sixth man," Conley said. "It's great to have that much support. It really helps."
Out of the stoppage, the Bulldogs got a 3 from junior Justin Zukowski, who excelled all night, but MacVane answered with a reverse layup. Pitts-Young countered with a leaner, but Hyland set up senior Trevor Borelli for a 3 and an 18-8 advantage after one quarter.
Early in the second period, Portland got back within five as Zukowski hit a 3 and senior Nick Volger made two free throws, but Muller bounced a leaner off the glass and in, Hyland found Burkey for a layup on an inbounds pas and Hyland fed MacVane for a layup to make it 24-13 South Portland with just over four minutes to go in the half.
The Bulldogs crept back within six on a pair of Volger free throws and another Zukowski 3, but Hyland capped his memorable first half with his 10th assist, a pass to senior Calvin Carr for a layup and a 26-18 lead at the break.
South Portland had carried play most of the way, but no one expected Portland to buckle and the Bulldogs certainly didn't.
A Zukowski free throw, a Volger foul shot and a 3 from Volger pulled the Bulldogs within three, 26-23, but Hyland answered with a leaner and Burkey made a layup to push the lead back to seven, 30-23.
After Portland got a putback from senior Nate Smart, Burkey made a layup, but junior Matt Talbot, who made several key shots in the first meeting, hit his lone field goal, a putback, and senior Steve Angelo scored on a driving layup to make it a one-possession game again, 32-29.
Again, the Red Riots got off the deck, courtesy Muller, who banked home a leaner, then made two free throws to make it 36-29.
Once more, the Bulldogs answered as Pitts-Young made a leaner and sophomore Steve Alex drained a 3 to cut the deficit to two, 36-34.
Hyland stemmed the tide with a driving layup, but with just under a minute to play in the third, Pitts-Young took a pass from Alex and nailed a 3 to make it a one-point game. After Portland failed to take the lead, Hyland somehow hit a turnaround shot, pivoting from his left to his right.
"In that situation, I wanted to see what we were made of," Conley said. "The momentum was turning a little bit. We got a stop."
A Pitts-Young 3-point bid to tie the score at the horn went in-and-out and South Portland clung to a 40-37 advantage with eight minutes to go.
As they did in the first period, the Red Riots controlled the final period and put their win on ice.
First, both teams were cold for over two minutes before South Portland got a layup from Muller. After a Bulldogs' miss, Hyland grabbed the rebound and raced down to hit a leaner at the other end to push the lead back to seven, 44-37.
With 4:34 remaining, Pitts-Young made a 3 to cut the deficit back to four, but after two scoreless minutes, Hyland found MacVane for a layup (his 12th and final assist). With 1:12 to go, Muller made one of two free throws to make it a three-possession game.
The Red Riots then put it away with 58.7 seconds left as Muller got the ball on the right block, drove past a defender and made a leaner while being fouled. He added the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play to effectively finish the job. Zukowski countered with a layup, but Hyland made two foul shots with 44.3 seconds remaining and South Portland brought down the curtain on its 52-42 victory, triggering a big celebration.
"It's a really big win," said Muller. "Bonny Eagle was a confidence booster. We knew we could beat Deering. Beating Portland the way we did feels good. We knew we had it. We had to continue to play hard."
"It means a lot," Hyland said. "We wanted to come out with a win. I'm not surprised. I knew going in, we had a good shot. We started slow, but we've jelled and we played really well tonight. (The Bonny Eagle and Deering wins) gave us confidence coming into tonight. Tonight, we executed a lot. I come into games and take what the defense gives me. They were focused on me and guys were wide open. I know I can pass. We've got four good bigs we can alternate in and out. We can get minutes for everyone. They all played well tonight. Everyone played their role and came together. It was fun. We came out and played well. We were really energized. We kept the lead."
"Our 2-3 zone was very effective against them," Conley added. "I thought our bigs down low did a good job limiting the number of touches (Portland) got on the ball. We played much better defense than we did the first time we played them. Defense dictates your offense.What I'm most pleased about is the kids battled on both ends of the floor. Against a really good team like Portland, that's well coached, every possession matters.
"I had a lot of faith in our kids (coming into the season). A lot of them played last year when we made it to the semifinals. We had some experience. We knew if we worked hard and stayed together, we'd be a special team."
The Red Riots won this one behind a complete team effort. Muller wound up with a game-high 14 points.
"I just came in (this season) knowing I'd be behind some seniors and I'd have to play hard," said Muller. "I'm confident in what I can do and do it the best I can."
"I'm pleased with Jaren," said Conley. "For a sophomore, he has a very soft touch around the basket. He gets his hands on the ball. Offensive rebounds and putbacks. He's just getting better. He made a big three-point play and had big rebounds."
Hyland had 12 points and more importantly, reinforced his status as one of the state's elite point guards with 12 assists.
"When Tanner has that many assists, that means he's getting us into our offense and he's getting good looks for other guys on the team," said Conley. "I thought he had an exceptional game tonight. Tanner did a tremendous job handling the pressure. He was dogged up and down the court. He's getting better and better."
MacVane added 10 points, while Burkey had eight, Borelli and Tolan three apiece and Carr two. South Portland finished with a narrow 29-27 rebounding edge, as Burkey had a game-high 11 and MacVane snared six. The Red Riots had 14 turnovers, but hit 7-of-9 free throws.
"Ben had 11 rebounds and was huge," Conley said. "Conner had big rebounds too. Everyone played their role."
For Portland, Pitts-Young led the way with 13 points. Zukowski had 12, including three 3's. Volger added eight points, Alex three and Angelo, Smart and Talbot had two each. Talbot had a team-high nine boards and three blocks. The Bulldogs, who only made 14-of-57 shots, committed a low number of turnovers (5) and made 7-of-12 free throws, but it wasn't enough.
"The good thing about tonight, is it wasn't for a Gold Ball," said Russo. "We shot so poorly we wouldn't have beaten anybody the way we shot tonight. We didn't get the ball inside. We had good looks, especially early. I really thought we did a nice job to come back. Now we know what we have to work on, but if we shoot like that, we'll have to shut teams out. Zukowski came in and played a complete game tonight. He handled the ball well, played good defense, made some hoops. As poorly as we played, we got it close. Every time we got it close, they'd get a couple hoops. Talbot wasn't moving and he rushed his shots. Nate Smart didn't have a good night. A lot of that had to do with their zone."
Each team has but one regular season game remaining.
Portland (now second in the Western Class A Heal Points standings) has a showdown at Deering to finish the regular season Friday. The Bulldogs will likely go into the tournament ranked second (if it wins) or third (with a loss). Regardless, Portland will be a factor in the postseason.
"It doesn't really matter (where we end up), because last year, we beat South Portland twice and beat Deering at the end," said Russo. "We finished up strong, but it didn't matter. I used to worry about that stuff, but not anymore."
Top-ranked South Portland hopes to finish strong when it goes to Cheverus Friday. The Red Riots last wound up first in 1993-94, a season which ended with a regional final loss to Westbrook.
This year's group, however, might not be stopped.
"We need to take care of Cheverus and keep practicing hard," said Muller.
"There's pressure on us either way," Hyland said. "The top two seeds are supposed to be in the Western Maine Final. We'll go one game at a time. We don't care who we play at this point. We can beat anyone. Going into the playoffs, we have momentum. We have the ingredients. We have to keep coming together. We're getting closer to where we need to be, but we're not there yet. Hopefully, that will come soon."
"The kids know they have to bring their 'A' game," Conley added. "We know Cheverus will be waiting for us Friday. We need to practice well the next two days to get ready for them. If we take care of business against Cheverus, I think we'll be No. 1."