South Portland digs deep, edges Portland in thrilling semifinal
PORTLAND—It's time to stop doubting the South Portland boys' basketball team.
Even after 15 regular season victories, including one over every team in the league, earning the top seed for the playoffs and fighting off a scare in the quarterfinal round, the Red Riots haven't gotten their due.
Now, they must.
Wednesday evening in a thrilling Western Class A semifinal round showdown at the Cumberland County Civic Center against rival and dangerous No. 4 seed Portland, South Portland was tested time and again, but playing like the champions they hope to become, the Red Riots consistently had a resounding answer.
After a slow start, South Portland rallied from a 7-2 deficit to dominate the second quarter and take a 22-14 advantage to halftime when senior standout Tanner Hyland hit a 3-pointer at the horn. The Red Riots extended their lead to 12 points early in the third period, but the Bulldogs began heating up from 3-point land and roared back.
With 5:36 to play, Portland junior Matt Talbot knocked down a 3 and just like that, the Bulldogs were on top, 38-37. Hyland restored the lead with an NBA-range 3-ball, but Talbot made a jumper, then hit a free throw with just 2:26 to go and South Portland's title hopes were in severe jeopardy.
Then, the Red Riots closed the game out in style.
Hyland's floater with 2:15 remaining put South Portland ahead to stay. Senior Calvin Carr then made his presence felt with consecutive layups and the Red Riots closed the game on a 9-0 run to capture a 49-41 victory.
South Portland improved to 17-3, ended Portland's season at 15-5 and advanced to its first regional final in 13 years, a delicious showdown with No. 3 Bonny Eagle (17-3) Saturday at 9 p.m., at the Civic Center.
"After (Portland) went ahead, we didn't fold," said South Portland coach Phil Conley. "We played hard on both ends and got the job done. We've been here before, this group. We have seven seniors. All year long, they've worked hard. If you have to weather a storm, you want a senior group. They did a great job."
Here we go again
Between 1988 and 2008, Portland and South Portland played just three times in the postseason. Since 2009, however, it's almost been a yearly ritual (see sidebar).
The Bulldogs rolled in the 2009 and 2011 quarterfinals, but last year, the Red Riots sprung an upset.
Overall, in 27 previous playoffs meetings (dating all the way back to 1923), South Portland held a 14-13 lead.
Both teams have stolen headlines all season, for good reason.
South Portland won seven in a row to open the season, then lost (in overtime) to Deering and at Portland in a three-game span. The Red Riots turned around and won six in a row, including revenge victories over the Rams and Bulldogs, before being upset by Cheverus in the finale. That loss didn't prevent South Portland from winding up first in the Heal Points for the first time since 1994 and in its first playoff test Friday, the Red Riots pulled away late to down No. 9 Sanford, 60-47.
Portland started 10-0, then was upset in consecutive games at Thornton Academy and at home by Westbrook. After rattling off four more wins, the Bulldogs closed with setbacks at South Portland and Deering to fall to the No. 4 seed.
Portland shook off that tough final week with a strong showing in Friday's quarterfinal round, a 54-32 romp over No. 5 Westbrook.
Wednesday's game was viewed as a pick-em by most observers and a nailbiter is what transpired.
A baseline jumper from Bulldogs senior Nate Smart just 16 seconds in suggested that a lot of offense was in store, but that wouldn't be the case. Two free throws from junior Justin Zukowski and a Talbot tip-in (an amazing four-tip effort to get it right) was the only additional offense Portland would manage in the first period.
Trailing 7-2 (its first points came on a senior Ben Burkey layup), South Portland got a 3 from Hyland to pull within 7-5 after one quarter.
Hyland tied the game at the start of the second on a jump shot (from senior Conner MacVane), but a Talbot putback put the Bulldogs back on top. MacVane tied the the game with a jumper, but a Smart leaner gave Portland the lead, 11-9.
Then, the Red Riots embarked on an 8-0 run.
After MacVane tied matters with a bank shot, a leaner from Burkey with 5:08 remaining in the first half put South Portland ahead for the first time.
After a Burkey steal, Hyland made a layup and sophomore Jaren Muller added a jumper to make it 17-11 South Portland.
A 3 from Portland senior Steve Angelo ended the surge, but Red Riots senior Jack Tolan knocked down a jumper and as time wound down, Hyland raced into the frontcourt and threw up a 3-point runner as the horn sounded which found its target and South Portland was up eight, 22-14, at the break.
In the first 16 minutes, the Bulldogs made just 5-of-21 shots. The Red Riots were 50 percent from the floor (10-of-20 shooting) and even more impressive, didn't commit a turnover during their second quarter burst.
Action heated up big-time in the second half, leading to a palpitating stretch run.
MacVane opened the scoring with a leaner, but Pitts-Young countered with a leaner, was fouled and capped the old-fashioned three-point play with a free throw.
Carr then made his presence felt, taking a crosscourt pass from Hyland and burying a 3. Tolan added a putback and with 4:47 left in the third quarter, South Portland had its biggest lead, 29-17.
It didn't last.
Portland senior Nick Volger sparked the comeback by taking a pass from Zukowski and hitting a 3. Muller answered with a putback, but Smart made a 3. After Muller set up Tolan for a layup to push the lead back to 10, 33-23, Pitts-Young scored on a driving layup and Volger made another 3.
"Nicky played with a lot of courage in the second half and got us back in the game," Portland coach Joe Russo said.
A pair of Muller free throws in the final minute gave the Red Riots a tenuous 35-28 advantage heading for the final stanza.
There, the Bulldogs completed their comeback, but it proved insufficient to steal the win.
Just 13 seconds into the fourth, Zukowski took a pass from Pitts-Young and knocked down a 3 to cut the deficit to four. Carr then penetrated into the lane, drew the defense and fed Burkey for a layup, but after a pretty spin move, Volger threw home a one-handed shot and Pitts-Young added a leaner.
Then, with 5:36 to go, Portland's comeback was completed when Talbot took a pass up top from Pitts-Young and buried a 3 to give the Bulldogs a 38-37 lead, their first since 11-9.
To say South Portland was on the ropes would be a major understatement. Luckily for the Red Riots, their star senior remained confident and with 4:15 left, Hyland let loose a shot behind the NBA arc. It found nothing but net and the Red Riots went back on top, 40-38, ending a 10-2 Bulldogs' run.
"I like shooting anywhere," Hyland said. "I knew it was in. As soon as they go up, I think they all go in. If they miss, I think the next one will go in."
Each team then turned sloppy, turning it over twice apiece.
Finally, with 2:44 left, Talbot made a jumper and the game was tied for the fourth and final time.
At the other end, Muller appeared to have a good look at the hoop, but Talbot appeared from nowhere, swooped in and blocked the shot.
Talbot then got fouled on the offensive end and with 2:26 to play, made one of two free throws to make it 41-40 Bulldogs.
No one imagined that the free throw would be Portland's final point of the season.
Just 11 seconds later, after racing into the frontcourt, Hyland effortlessly threw home a one-handed floater and South Portland had the lead for good.
After Smart was called for charging, Carr made a daring move, dribbling into the lane and challenging the imposing Talbot, but Carr was able to lay the ball off the left side of the backboard and in for a 44-41 advantage with 1:29 left.
"I've never been in doubt of scoring all year," Carr said. "It just hasn't been my role on the team. We have Tanner. In my opinion, He and (Bonny Eagle junior Dustin Cole) are easily the top two scorers in the league. I just get the ball to him. Tonight, we needed big baskets and I did what I could do. (Assistant) coaches (David) Brenner and (Harvey) Moynihan told me in practice during the week that I needed to attack. They said for us to win, I had to step up on offense and be a defensive stopper."
Pitts-Young looked to answer, but his shot was no good and Hyland got the rebound. The Red Riots got the ball across halfcourt.
After a stoppage, with just under a minute to play, South Portland inbounded the ball and MacVane spotted a wide open Carr near the basket. The pass was true and so was the layup and the Red Riots had a measure of breathing room, 46-41.
"I don't know what they were doing," said Carr. "A lot of the game, Zukowski was doubling Tanner on the inbounds pass and letting me catch it in the backcourt and bring it up. We didn't plan it. We ran a different out of bounds play. I started on the block and (the defender) didn't notice it. He thought I was up top and left me wide open. I was pretty surprised. I was hoping Conner saw me in time for the layup."
"Calvin came through with some big layups," Hyland said. "We haven't seen that since the sixth grade. That was a ridiculous layup on Talbot, then he was wide open backside and hit that layup."
Now desperate, Portland tried to answer, but Volger's 3 was no good and on the rebound, Smart was whistled for his fifth foul, sending him to the bench.
MacVane went to the line with 33.1 seconds left. He hit the front end of the one-and-one, but missed the second, keeping the door open a crack.
The Bulldogs hoped to cut their deficit in half, but Volger's 3 was no good and Burkey got the rebound and was fouled.
With 21.8 seconds remaining, Burkey sank both attempts and that all but iced it.
One final Pitts-Young 3 was no good, Burkey got the rebound and as the clock showed 8:48 p.m., for the first time since the St. Louis Rams were Super Bowl champions, the world had barely "escaped" the Y2K bug and Bill Clinton was nearing the end of his second term in the White House, South Portland's boys' basketball team had a semifinal round win.
Red Riots 49 Bulldogs 41.
"It's a big step," said Hyland. "Since I've been in high school, we were 0-2 (in this round). We knew they would put a run together and we'd have to come back with another run. They hit shots. Credit to them. We stuck together and we came back and got our lead back and got the win. I don't have doubts with this team. Most of us have played together. We're all so close. Everyone stepped up tonight and played big. I think it helps that we had the lead. Everyone was just calm."
"We knew this is a pretty big stage with a lot of people watching," Carr said. "Obviously, nerves will slow down the game at the beginning and people will miss shots, but we settled down and knocked down shots. We always have battles against Portland. There are personal battles going on and as a city as a whole, it's always nice beating them."
"Good teams have guys who can score," Conley added. "You'll give up a few. (The Bulldogs) have good shooters. We did a good job the last four minutes containing them. Another key tonight was rebounding. We won the battle of the glass."
Hyland certainly sparked the victory, but he had plenty of help on this night. Hyland had a game-high 15 points, including three of his team's four 3-pointers, and grabbed a team-high seven rebounds.
Burkey had eight points and six boards.
Then, there was Carr, who wasn't about to let Wednesday be his final high school contest. Carr had three huge field goals, good for seven points, and even dished out three assists in his time at point guard.
"A couple other games, I played point guard too," Carr said. "When they pressure Tanner and deny him the ball, it's easier for our offense if I bring it up."
"Calvin Carr played a tremendous game on both ends of the floor tonight," Conley said. "He's not typically known as a scorer, but he made some big baskets for us. Hats off to him. We moved Tanner off the ball and Calvin got us into our offense. They play Tanner 94 feet. I wanted to take a little pressure off Tanner. (Carr) has been steady all along, but he played his best game of the year. In our offense, if they give us the lane, we'll take the gap and kick. We practice being aggressive. We want to be the aggressor on offense. Good things happen if you attack. Calvin got open tonight."
MacVane also had seven points (and five boards), Muller (four rebounds) and Tolan (six boards) each added six.
"Everyone played well," said Hyland. "Conner made free throws. Ben made free throws. We pulled it out."
The Red Riots finished with a 28-27 advantage on the glass, only committed 12 turnovers in a pressure setting and made 5-of-8 foul shots.
Bitter pill to swallow
Portland was paced by nine points apiece from Talbot and Volger.
Smart had eight points, Pitts-Young seven, Zukowski five and Angelo three.
Talbot had a game-high 11 rebounds, while Pitts-Young and Smart each added six. Talbot also had three steals.
The Bulldogs only committed 12 turnovers, but only shot six free throws, sinking four.
Russo wasn't pleased with the way his team came out to perform.
"If we're going to play that poorly, we should just get pounded," Russo said. "We couldn't play much worse that that. As poorly as we played, we still had a chance to win. That made it a tougher loss. Call it nerves. Call it young kids in the first half. I told them there's nothing I can do if you don't assert yourselves. We didn't play better in the second half, but at least we played with some energy. We played up-tempo and got some kick-outs. The energy got us back in the game. We have a lot of depth, but we don't have one superstar. It came down to making big shots at the end. When they were reeling, Hyland made a big play. It's nice to have a player like that. We rushed at the end. We didn't have to take those ill-advised shots."
Portland had high hopes entering the year. The Bulldogs did manage to win 15 games, but their goal was to get to Augusta for the state game, not to fall two wins shy.
"It's a disappointment," Russo said. "Sometimes the lows are overwhelming. We had the capability to do some things. We had a good record and I'm sure there are teams who would trade with us, but we didn't have a good year in terms of what we could have done. Our (second half) spurt is how the kids should have played all year."
One step away
South Portland will take part in its first regional final since 2000 when it meets Bonny Eagle Saturday night. The Scots feature Cole (the league's leading scorer), as well as several other dangerous players.
The Red Riots won a palpitating 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.
South Portland is seeking its first state final berth since losing to Bangor in the 1993 championship game. The Red Riots last title came the year before, in a fabled five-overtime victory over Bangor.
South Portland isn't just happy to qualify for the regional final. As hard as it might be to conceive, the Red Riots still have some respect to earn.
"There's always something to prove," Hyland said. "Going into the year, we were ranked fourth. We got the No. 1 seed, but people still don't think we're that good. We took out Portland, who everyone thought was the favorite coming into the year. Now, we have to move on and take care of Bonny Eagle on Saturday. We have to show up and score more points than them. We have to close out on shooters, get the ball down low, get layups, play inside and out and make free throws."
"This group of kids has played together since second grade," Carr said. "We always said we'd win states when we were seniors. Guarding (Cole) is always fun. I'm looking forward to that challenge."
"We finally got over the hump," Conley added. "I'm looking forward to the regional final. It means a lot to the program. I know how much the kids have put into it. I know how much the coaching staff has put into it. We still have work cut out for us. Bonny Eagle played us tough in the regular season.
"I'm very proud of this group. I'm proud of our community. They stayed with us throughout. It's a community effort. The fans are our sixth man and I appreciate their support. I'm happy to play in a regional final, not just for us, but for our community."