SACO—South Portland High School has played boys’ basketball for over a century and in that time has produced teams and won games that live on in legend.
We’re only halfway through the 2010-11 season, but it’s become clear that this version of the Red Riots has all the makings of a team worthy of the program’s storied legacy.
Saturday afternoon, in its third stern road test in six days, unheralded South Portland stared adversity and defeat in the face and simply refused to lose.
The Red Riots bent but didn’t break amid a barrage of 3-pointers from Thornton Academy senior sharpshooter Andrew Shaw, who had 27 first half points (and a whopping 46 on the day), and found themselves down, 46-27, at halftime.
But somehow they saved their best for last, coming all the way back behind senior Vukasin Vignjevic’s 31 points, even leading by four late in regulation before the Golden Trojans rallied to force overtime.
In OT, South Portland again was close enough to taste victory, but again, the hosts got up off the deck and sent the game to another extra session.
There, finally, the Red Riots made just enough plays, got enough defensive stops and rode the poised foul shooting of junior Jordan Muller, who scored all 16 of his points from the line, to sneak out of town with an improbable, inspirational and downright scintillating 82-78 triumph.
South Portland improved to 8-1 on the year, reminded everyone that perhaps it is the squad best equipped to challenge powerhouse defending state champion Cheverus and dropped struggling Thornton Academy in the process to 6-3.
“It was amazing,” said Muller. “We just came into the locker room at halftime and said we’d get back into it. We came back and hit our free throws at the end.”
“It was an unbelievable high school basketball game,” said Red Riots coach Phil Conley. “Two very good teams. I’m just so proud of how my guys battled from down almost 20 at halftime. I’m so happy and proud for these kids.”
South Portland impressed a year ago even without standout Keegan Hyland, who missed almost the whole season with injury, and made it to the Western A semifinals before an overtime loss to Westbrook left it 15-5.
The Red Riots not only graduated Hyland, but also several other players who saw the lion’s share of playing time. As a result, South Portland wasn’t given much preseason consideration.
Instead, the Red Riots haven’t missed a beat, winning their first four games. After a loss at Marshwood opened the 2011 portion of the schedule, South Portland beat visiting Noble, 63-50, then embarked on a make-or-break four-game road test.
So far, you can call the Red Riots road warriors.
South Portland downed Scarborough, 48-33, Tuesday, then earned a big dose of confidence at Deering Thursday, leading from start to finish in a 50-39 triumph.
Thornton Academy, which lost to Windham in last year’s quarterfinals, won its first five contests, then fell at Deering, 50-48, and at home to undefeated, defending Class A champion Cheverus, 52-37. Thursday, the Golden Trojans got back on track by edging visiting Scarborough, 61-56.l.
A year ago, the Red Riots beat visiting Thornton Academy, 58-48.
Saturday, some how, some way, they beat the Golden Trojans for the eighth year in a row in the regular season, for the fifth straight time in Saco and for the ninth time in the last 10 meetings between the schools.
In a year in which complaints about the lack of offense, especially in this region, have been loud and frequent, the teams put on a shooting clinic from the get-go.
The Golden Trojans, playing without senior standout James Ek, who spent the afternoon on the bench, per coach Bob Davies’ decision, came out sizzling.
Just 14 seconds in, Shaw set the tone with a long 3-pointer. The next time down, the Golden Trojans made it 6-0 when junior Justin Pollard drained a 3-ball. Behind the 3-point arc was where the Red Riots got on the board, naturally, when Vignjevic canned a shot. Undaunted, Thornton Academy answered when Pollard sank another 3 for a 9-3 lead. At the other end, senior Steve Hodge made a 3-pointer for the visitors.
With 5:28 to play in the eventful first period, junior Logan Gaddar made the game’s first two-point field goal, a jumper, to pull his team within a point, but Shaw answered with another 3. After senior Matt Russell took a pretty pass from Vignjevic and made a layup, Golden Trojans sophomore Adam Ek hit his team’s fifth 3 in the first four minutes of the game to push the lead to five, 15-10.
South Portland roared right back as Vignjevic hit back-to-back 3-balls to give his team a short-lived 16-15 advantage. Pollard put the hosts back on top with a 3 and after senior Corbett Smith made a foul shot, Shaw hit a turnaround jumper to make it 21-16 Thornton Academy. Vignjevic answered with a pair of free throws, but Ek made two foul shots to put the Golden Trojans up 23-18 after an action-packed initial eight minutes.
The first quarter featured 10 3-pointers.
“(Thornton Academy) hit some unbelievable shots,” said Muller.
The hosts kept the good times rolling in the second stanza, while the Red Riots went cold and dug a huge hole.
Shaw started the period with seven straight points, sandwiching a pair of layups around a 3-ball for a 30-18 lead. After South Portland sophomore Tanner Hyland canned a long jumper, Ek made a layup and Shaw made yet another 3 to push the lead to 15, 35-20.
Gaddar made a free throw for the Red Riots, but Shaw drained yet another 3-pointer from behind the arc for Thornton Academy’s biggest lead to date, 38-21. After Hodge converted an old-fashioned three-point play (a layup and subsequent foul shot), Shaw made two free throws, then drained two more. Hyland answered with a 3, but Ek made two foul shots and Shaw broadened his repertoire with a reverse layup to give the Golden Trojans a seemingly insurmountable 46-27 advantage at the break.
Needless to say, South Portland was on the ropes, but the Red Riots didn’t panic in the locker room.
“Coach just said to keep working,” Vignjevic said.
“We came in at halftime and just talked about coming out and having good possessions, not making it all up at once,” Conley said. “I told them we’d see what kind of team we are. Would we hang our heads and lose this game or take each possession at a time? We answered that question.”
From the opening whistle of the second half, the Red Riots, behind a fullcourt pressure defense, were a different team and it didn’t take long for them to get right back in it.
Hyland led the initial charge with a baseline jumper and a 3-pointer to cut the deficit to 14, 46-32. After a layup from Shaw, Hodge got in on the long distance act, canning a 3 to make it 48-35. Senior Josh Woodward answered with a jumper for the hosts, but Gaddar made a free throw, Hyland converted a layup, Vignjevic hit two foul shots and Hodge made a layup after a steal to give the visitors life and pull them within eight, 50-42.
The Golden Trojans got two points back on a pair of free throws from Shaw, but Vignjevic made a layup, then calmly buried another 3 to make it a 52-47 contest.
“We got the rebounds and capitalized,” Muller said. “The press was a big help. That pushed the tempo of the game. They couldn’t respond.”
“We had to change it up a little bit, so we went to our trapping fullcourt defense and it caused numerous turnovers that resulted in some nice, easy baskets that got us into the flow,” Conley added.
An Ek free throw was countered by a layup from Russell, but late in the period, the hosts regained a little breathing room as Shaw made a 3 and a layup and a 3-point bid from South Portland junior Shawn Shannon did everything but go in before rimming out.
With eight minutes to play, Thornton Academy was up nine, 58-49.
Most, but not all (the Red Riots’ small, but vocal throng of rooters never lost the faith) thought that only eight minutes remained and that the Golden Trojans would prevail, but instead, the fun was just beginning.
A jumper from Woodward put the Golden Trojans up 11, 60-49, 29 seconds into the fourth, but South Portland erupted for 12 consecutive points to take the lead for the first time since the opening period.
Muller finally made his offensive presence felt with 7:16 remaining when he made two free throws for his first two points of the game. After Vignjevic made two foul shots, the senior erupted for back-to-back 3s to pull the Red Riots within a point.
Then, with 4:53 to go, Vignjevic was fouled after a steal and made two free throws to put South Portland ahead, 61-60, its first lead since 16-15.
After Shaw made two foul shots or the Golden Trojans’ final lead of the afternoon, Vignjevic sank another 3, but Thornton Academy senior Alex Newton tied the score when he made a layup with 3:27 remaining. After Vignjevic missed the front end of a one-and-one and Newton did the same, Muller hit a pair of free throws with 2:20 remaining for a 66-64 lead.
When Muller made two more with 2:01 left, the Red Riots appeared as if they’d prevail, but with 1:18 to go, Vignjevic missed both free throw attempts, keeping the Golden Trojans alive.
Sure enough, Ek made a leaner and with 53.7 seconds left, Pollard made a layup (his first points since the first period) to tie the score.
South Portland (benefited by a pair of timeouts) managed to retain possession and hold for a last shot. Gaddar got a good look on a baseline fadeaway, but his shot hit one side of the rim, bounced off the other side of the iron and the horn sounded, signifying overtime.
The Red Riots hadn’t played a regular season overtime game since splitting a pair in the 2007-08 season. The program that played arguably the most famous extra session contest in state history (a five OT triumph over Bangor in the 1992 Class A Final), would have to play on for an extra eight minutes, but kept answering the bell.
Shaw managed to beat Russell to win the tip at the start of overtime. Shaw then had a shot to put the hosts ahead, but it was off the mark and Gaddar grabbed the rebound.
With 3:20 to go in the four-minute OT, Muller got himself back to the line and sank two free throws for a 70-68 lead. Ek then drew Hyland’s fifth foul and made both of his attempts to tie the score anew.
After the teams traded turnovers, South Portland went back on top 72-70, when Russell laid home a Vignjevic miss with 1:43 showing.
Ek and Pollard missed shots at the other end and Gaddar secured the rebound. With 56.3 seconds to go, Muller went to the line. He made the first free throw, his ninth in a row, but missed the second and Thornton Academy still had hope, down three.
The Golden Trojans had three looks at the hoop at the other end and the third time proved to be the charm. First, Ek missed a shot, but he grabbed his own rebound. Then, Pollard took a 3, but the shot was off the mark. The rebound bounced out to Shaw, however, and with 24 seconds showing, Shaw attempted a 3 that appeared off the mark.
Instead, it kissed the glass, dropped through the net and tied the score at 73-73.
As they did at the end of regulation, the Red Riots had an opportunity to win it on offense, but after Vignjevic drove to the hoop against traffic, his shot just rolled off no good and it was on to a second extra session.
After twice giving up momentum-swinging, game-tying shots, South Portland could have been excused for failing to rise off the canvas yet again, but to their everlasting credit, the Red Riots came out and took care of business once and for all.
“Shaw made some big-time shots, but we didn’t fold,” Conley said. “Some teams might have folded after being tied up, but we did our job.”
Just nine seconds into the second OT, Russell gave South Portland the lead for good, when he put back a missed shot. Both teams then had chances to score, but failed to do so.
After Ek missed a 3 and Vignjevic got the rebound, Gaddar missed a shot, Vignjevic followed and missed and the ball went back the other way. At the other end, Shaw missed a shot and Muller grabbed the board. After Vignjevic missed a 3, Gaddar managed to come down with an offensive rebound and the ball came to Muller, who was fouled. He hit one of two attempts, but at the other end, Shaw made a layup (his 42nd and 43rd points of the afternoon), to make it 76-75.
South Portland then turned the ball over and the hosts had a chance to take their first lead since the fourth quarter, but Pollard missed a shot and Vignjevic cleaned the glass.
With 44.3 seconds remaining, Muller went back to the line and calmly made both attempts to make it 78-75. Shaw then looked to tie the score with a long 3, but Gaddar’s stellar defense altered the shot and forced an airball.
With 14.1 seconds to go, Muller went back to the line and hit both shots to seemingly put it away, giving the Red Riots an 80-75 lead, but with 6.9 seconds left, Shaw made one last 3, from way downtown, to give the Golden Trojans faint hope and pull them within two, 80-78.
After a timeout, Vignjevic was able to inbound the ball to Muller, who was quickly fouled. The junior went to the line with 5.5 seconds remaining, knowing if he made both free throws, the game would essentially be iced.
Muller managed to drain the first attempt, then did the same on the second.
“I didn’t really feel much emotion,” said Muller. “I knew I had to hit the shots. I hit them in practice all the time. It was just me and the hoop, basically.”
Ek raced down for one final 3-point attempt, but it was off the mark. Even if it had gone, it wouldn’t have been enough.
South Portland 82 Thornton Academy 78.
“We made some shots,” Conley said. “It was an unbelievable team effort. These guys have played three tough games on the road. They’ve accomplished so much. We came into the season with no varsity experience. Every game, we’ve gotten better. It will be a heck of a bus ride back.”
The Red Riots got a team-high 31 points from Vignjevic.
“I played my hardest,” Vignjevic said. “The whole team did. This team works hard every practice and every play. These wins build character. We went and pressed and got it back little by little.”
Muller wound up 16-of-18 from the line, good for his 16 points.
Hyland scored 12 points before fouling out, Hodge had 11 points, Russell eight and Gaddar four.
For the Golden Trojans, Shaw had a career game, 46 points, including eight 3s, but he wasn’t quite as unstoppable in the second half and the overtimes.
Credit Gaddar’s defense for that.
“Logan did a really good job on Shaw,” Conley said.
The hosts also got 14 points from Ek, 11 from Pollard, four from Woodward, two from Newton and one from Smith.
Thornton Academy (still third in the Western Class A Heal Points standings) is at dangerous Westbrook Tuesday and hosts underrated Marshwood Friday.
More fun to come
The Red Riots (second to Cheverus in Western A) hope to avoid a letdown Tuesday night when they go to upset-minded Portland.
After this win, you’ll have a hard time convincing South Portland there’s anything it can’t do.
“We have to keep practicing, stay together and keep playing like we’ve been playing, playing as a team,” Muller said. “Everyone said we weren’t going to far this year and that it would be a rebuilding year. We’re turning heads. We’re a young, scrappy team. We go after it. Not many have figured that out yet.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com
South Portland junior Jordan Muller (No. 3) and his teammates celebrate during Saturday’s memorable 82-78, double-overtime, come-from-behind win at Thornton Academy.
South Portland senior sharpshooter Vukasin Vigjnevic, who scored 31 points (including seven 3-pointers), drives into the lane Saturday.
South Portland senior Steve Hodge, who quietly had a stellar game, drives to the hoop during the Red Riots’ jawdropping victory.