Red Riots shake Sanford, avoid upset
PORTLAND—As the top seed in the Western Class A tournament for the first time since 1994, the South Portland boys’ basketball team learned Friday evening at the Portland Exposition Building that what you did in the regular season doesn’t guarantee anything come tournament time.
The Red Riots were pushed and pushed hard by No. 9 Sanford in a quarterfinal round tilt, but South Portland’s players, especially battle-tested seniors Tanner Hyland and Conner MacVane, had the answers to every challenge.
South Portland never trailed, leading 9-8 after one period, before opening the second stanza on an 11-0 run to seize control. Sanford pulled within 29-21 at halftime and carried play much of the third period, making it a 34-33 game with 1:25 to go in the quarter on a pair of senior Ryan Camire free throws, but MacVane converted an old-fashioned three-point play, then took a pass from Hyland and hit a baseline jumper to make it 39-33 at quarter’s end.
In the fourth, the Spartans got as close as 41-38, but Hyland set up senior Trevor Borelli and sophomore Jaren Muller for layups and the Red Riots never looked back, going on to a 60-47 victory.
South Portland got 23 points and seven assists from Hyland, 14 points from Muller and a dozen from MacVane as it improved to 16-3, ended Sanford's season at 11-9 and set up a semifinal round showdown with fourth-ranked Portland Wednesday at 7:30 p.m., at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
"I'm pleased with the win," said Red Riots coach Phil Conley. "It was a gritty win. We had to battle for 32 minutes. I knew and the coaching staff knew that this would be a close game. (Sanford) made a run. In this game, it's a game of runs and how you respond. I told (the guys) to relax and to be patient on offense and to limit them to one shot on defense. We have tough kids. We had to hang together. We did tonight and I'm proud of them."
Closer than expected
South Portland, which made an unexpected run to the semifinals last season before losing to Bonny Eagle, 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.
Sanford, which lost in the preliminary round last winter, started 0-2 with losses to Bonny Eagle and Portland, then downed Gorham and Marshwood. After a close home loss to Deering, the Spartans defeated Kennebunk, Noble and Cheverus. Losses to South Portland (56-43), Westbrook and Thornton Academy followed before Sanford rebounded to down Massabesic. After falling to Marshwood and Scarborough, the Spartans saved their best for last, downing Windham, Biddeford, Noble and Massabesic. Tuesday, Sanford went to Marshwood and won a preliminary round playoff game, 52-49.
South Portland won all six of the prior playoff meetings (dating to 1975) between the schools. The most recent was a 71-55 regional final triumph in 1993.
Friday, Sanford made the Red Riots sweat, but South Portland held serve and survived and advanced.
The Red Riots came out confident and grabbed a quick 4-0 lead on a pair of Hyland free throws and a layup from senior Ben Burkey (set up by Hyland). After the Spartans got a foul shot from senior Brandon Stanton and a putback from junior John Morgan, Hyland knocked down a 3-pointer.
"I got to the line early, which is good, and I hit my first few shots, which was a good sign," said Hyland.
After Sanford drew back within a point on an old-fashioned three-point play (layup, foul and free throw) from junior Josh Schroder, Hyland made two foul shots, but Schroder answered with a pair and the Spartans only trailed by a point, 9-8, heading for the second quarter.
Hyland had seven points and assisted on the other South Portland basket in the first period.
The Red Riots opened up what seemed to be a healthy lead in the second, as Hyland hit a fadeaway jumper, MacVane converted a leaner and Hyland made a layup after a steal, giving his team a 15-8 lead and forcing Sanford coach Paul Nolette to call timeout.
It didn't stem the tide as MacVane scored on a driving layup and senior Trevor Borelli canned a 3 from the corner, making it 20-8 and inducing another Spartans' timeout.
This time, Sanford responded as Camire got fouled and made both free throws, but Muller took a pass from Hyland and made a short jumper to push the lead back to 12, 22-10.
It didn't last.
The Spartans roared right back behind a 3 from Morgan and a three-point play from Nolette. After the Red Riots pushed their lead back to 10, 26-16, on a pair of Hyland free throws and a Burkey putback, Camire answered with a 3.
With just 19.6 seconds left before halftime, Muller took a pass from Burkey, made a layup while being fouled, then completed the three-point play with a free throw.
But as time wound down, Sanford senior Alex Shain, the football Fitzpatrick Trophy finalist, scored on a putback to bring the Spartans back to 29-21 at the break.
South Portland made all seven of its free throws in the first half and had a 13-10 rebounding advantage, but the Red Riots hadn't been able to bury Sanford, partially due to 11 committed turnovers.
The Spartans hung tough throughout the third quarter.
After Muller and Nolette traded free throws, Morgan banked in a 3-ball to cut the deficit to 30-25.
Hyland answered with a leaner on the baseline, but Shain made two free throws and Nolette hit a runner with 4:52 showing in the frame, causing Conley to call timeout.
Sanford would get the ball back and Nolette launched a 3 to tie the score, but it was off target. Hyland then fed Burkey for a layup, but Schroder hit a leaner, while being fouled (he missed the free throw) and Camire made two foul shots with 1:25 left in the quarter to bring the Spartans to within a single point, 34-33.
The unheralded, clutch, tough forward drove to the basket for a layup while being fouled, hit the free throw, then with a second left, took a pass from Hyland and knocked down a baseline jumper to give South Portland a little breathing room, 39-33.
"Conner made a couple key baskets," Conley said. "He definitely comes up big in big spots. He doesn't get a lot of notoriety, but he's one of the toughest kids on the team. He's one of our best rebounders and when we need a big basket, he's there. He had a very good game tonight."
The Spartans still didn't give up at the start of the fourth as Morgan hit a leaner and after Hyland answered with a jumper in the lane, Camire knocked down a long 3 to bring his team within three, 41-38, with 6:32 still to play.
"(Sanford's) gotten better as the season went on," Conley said. "They played very well down at Marshwood (in the prelim). They have two kids who can score the ball. Nolette and Camire can score. I never got comfortable because of those two kids."
But Sanford would draw no closer.
A 7-0 Red Riots' run opened it back up.
First, Hyland drove the lane, then dished to Muller for a layup. After Shain missed the front end of a one-and-one, Hyland, on the fastbreak, spotted Borelli wide open for a layup. Coach Nolette was then whistled for a technical foul and Hyland made both free throws. MacVane added another foul shot with 4:22 left and the South Portland lead was up to 10, 48-38.
Camire made a free throw nine seconds later, then hit two with 3:56 remaining, but MacVane countered with a leaner. After Morgan made one foul shot, Hyland spotted Muller for another layup and the lead was 52-42, with just 2:35 left.
Stanton made a free throw and Camire hit a leaner, but Muller showed both his skill and his youth in successive trips down the floor, scoring on a leaner, then, with the Red Riots ostensibly killing time, taking an ill-advised baseline jumper that found nothing but net (Conley was screaming at Muller not to shoot, but calmed down when the ball went in).
Hyland then grabbed the rebound of a missed shot and raced coast-to-coast for a layup. Hyland added two free throws and Sanford senior Josh Allen accounted for the 60-47 final score with a late layup after a steal.
South Portland had been tested, but passed.
"I was pretty nervous," MacVane admitted. "I knew we had it, but they came after us."
"Everyone stepped up and did what we needed to do," Hyland said. "Our bigs got rebounds. It's good to see. We just settled down, ran our offense, played good D and ran the clock out. We were ready to go. We have seven seniors and we know what's on the line."
"There were three things we needed to do," Conley added. "We needed to rebound the ball at both ends, we had to come out with the same energy both halves and we had to share the ball on offense. If we did those three things we'd be fine. I told (the guys) not to worry about who's the number one seed, the number nine seed. At this point, you throw the seeds out and just go out and play."
Hyland continued to stake his claim as the league's top player with 23 points, a team-high seven rebounds, a steal, blocked shot and a game-high seven assists.
"I thought Tanner did a great job running the offense," Conley said.
Muller came up huge again off the bench with 14 points, eight of which came in the final quarter.
"For our big sophomore, Jaren Muller, to have eight points in the fourth quarter, is a good sign," said Conley.
MacVane finished with 12 points and six boards, Burkey had six points (to go with two blocked shots) and Borelli added five.
South Portland had a 27-22 rebounding advantage and shot a solid 14-of-18 from the free throw line. The Red Riots did commit 16 turnovers, but only five of those came in the second half.
Sanford was paced by 15 points from Camire, 11 from Morgan, seven from Schroder, six from Nolette, four (and a game-high 11 rebounds) from Shain and two each from Allen and Stanton.
The Spartans turned the ball over 11 times and made 17-of-25 free throw attempts.
Battle of the Bridge, hoops style
South Portland advances to play Portland (15-4), which downed fifth-ranked Westbrook in its quarterfinal, 54-32.
The teams split in the regular season, each winning at home, and while the Bulldogs have dominated recent history with the Red Riots (winning nine of the past 11 games and 23 of the last 28), South Portland won the last encounter Feb. 5 and also took the last playoff meeting, 39-37, a year ago in the quarterfinals.
Portland has captured seven of the 12 playoff showdowns over the past 50 years, but the Red Riots will enter the game believing they still has celebrations in their future.
"We have to come out confident and ready to play," said MacVane. "It's nice to be the No. 1 seed, but anybody can beat anybody."
"I've played them 10, 11 times in my four years, so we know what they're going to do," Hyland said. "They know what we're going to do. Whoever executes better and puts the ball in the hoop will move on."
"We'll get back to work tomorrow to get ready for Portland," Conley added. "Portland's a very good team. It's a rivalry game. We'll be ready. I'm sure they'll be ready. I hope it's a good game for everyone. Anytime you move on, it gives you confidence. We know it will probably be nip-and-tuck. It's good to have a game like this to get ready for Wednesday. It's always fun, especially when you win."