SOUTH PORTLAND—The South Portland boys’ basketball team saw its 10-game, Keegan Hyland-less win streak to open the season come to a sudden halt courtesy of an old friend on Tuesday night when the near-starving Portland Bulldogs swept on through and picked up a much-needed 56-49 upset victory in an overheated as usual Beal Gymnasium.
Portland senior guard Koang Thok hit a pair of 3-pointers in the first half and calmly sank 7-of-8 foul shots in the closing moments to post a game-high 26 points in a crucial win to help the Bulldogs re-emerge on the Western A scene at 6-4 with only eight games left to play in the regular season.
In an oddball of a contest, Portland blasted out of the gate with a 13-2 first quarter run, put together another 11 straight in the third and led by as many as 10 points on five different occasions. But each time South Portland fought its way back in the game, pulling to within three points five different times, including twice in the fourth quarter with under three minutes left to play.
The Bulldogs managed to escape when sophomore Will DeFanti added to Thok’s icy foul shooting down the stretch with five makes in six tries on a night the Blue displayed uncommon accuracy from the charity stripe with 20-for-25 shooting. Thok scored Portland’s first and only field goal of the fourth quarter and then combined with DeFanti to go 12-for-14 from the line the rest of the way.
“I would be lying if I said this win doesn’t help us incredibly at this point,” said Portland coach Joe Russo. “It’s a nice boost of morale. On the other hand, this is what I thought this team could be this year. We played as a team tonight. I thought we played hard and fair. We showed some patience and I thought our defense did a nice job of focusing on their key players. Foul shooting has been our nemesis most of the season so we’ve been coming in before school just for extra shooting the last few weeks. There is still a long way to but this does give us some breathing room. South Portland is a great team. I’m very impressed with them. But just beating them isn’t going to get us where we need to be.”
South Portland senior forward Matt Lee poured in a team-high 20 points, 10 in the fourth quarter alone, but it wasn’t enough to overcome an early deficit or the Bulldogs’ 11-0 run that stretched a modest 25-20 lead at intermission to 14 points, 36-22, with 2:44 left in the third.
The Red Riots trailed from the get-go in this one and fell behind 42-29 after three quarters before Lee sparked one last comeback bid when South Portland went on an 8-0 run in the latter stages of the fourth. Lee finished a spectacular layup in the open court when he gathered himself and out-leaped a Portland defender while getting fouled at the rim for a 3-point play, then drilled one of his two long 3-pointers to make it a two-possession game at 49-45 with two-minutes left. But on this night there would be no late-game magic for a South Portland team still anxiously awaiting any news on Hyland’s return.
“Portland shot the ball extremely well,” said South Portland coach Phil Conley. “Rebounding has been on of our strengths all season long and I think we didn’t do as good job as we’ve doing on the boards tonight. On a positive note I’m proud of how we competed. We were down 12 or 13 points a few different times and managed to cut it down to three or four late in the game. Our shots didn’t fall but after 10-straight wins this is just a minor setback. We’ll regroup and be ready to go again on Friday.”
The Red Riots got another outstanding effort from unsung senior center Greg Reinhold who came off the bench to drop six points in the second quarter and seven more in the third to finish with 16. Reinhold and Lee combined for 36 of South Portland’s 49 points in the losing effort, 22 of 29 in the second half.
“We didn’t come out with any intensity tonight and fell behind early,” said Reinhold. “Rebounding has been a big key for us all season but I think tonight we got out-rebounded for the first time. We need to be much more aggressive on both ends of the floor. I still think we’re a great team. Tomorrow is a new day and we’ll be ready to practice and hopefully start a new win streak on Friday.”
Freshmen guard Tanner Hyland played significant minutes and contributed five points with the Red Riots’ first bucket of the game midway through the first quarter and a wild 3 high off the window late in the fourth that made it a three-point game for the last time at 51-48 before the Bulldogs closed with five free throws to seal the win.
Thok scored Portland’s first points and only field goal of the fourth quarter on a soft, one-handed jumper in the lane with six-minutes left, then closed out the game with seven foul shots as he and Defanti combined to go 12-for-14 from the line over the final 2:30.
Portland featured a more balanced offensive attack with senior Wally Stover adding eight points and senior Joe Zukowski seven to match DeFanti’s output. Cheverus transfer Jake Cummings, a 6-foot-4 senior center, had his best night in a Bulldogs’ uniform with seven points while providing a physical presence in the paint.
For a team that’s largely dominated the glass to boast a 10-1 record to start the year, South Portland fared marginally at best on the boards against an equally athletic and active Bulldogs team and it showed in the scoring column as four often productive seniors piled up just eight total points. Connor Hasson, Ryan Curit, Spencer Bowring and reserve forward Brian McHugh each chipped in two points with second-chance opportunities hard to come by against a scrappy Bulldogs team that gobbled up loose balls in bunches to limit South Portland.
The Bulldogs jumped out to a 5-0 lead to start the game on Thok basket, one free throw from Cummings and deep jumper from Stover. Hyland stepped into the paint and scored the Red Riots first points to make it 5-2, but Portland scored the next points on consecutive 3-pointers from Thok and Zukowski and a steal and layup from DeFanti to take a 13-2 lead with 1:50 left in the first.
Lee scored his first points on three foul shots after being fouled in the act of shooting behind the arc. Stover answered with a pair from the line for Portland, before Lee added three-more points when he was fouled after a thunderous power-dribble and layup on the baseline to close out the first quarter with the Bulldogs leading 15-8.
“We came out flat and they jumped out to a big lead and never really looked back,” said Lee. “Portland’s a quality team that’s very athletic. They played us tough on defense and stopped us from getting into a flow. We battled right to the end but they made their foul shots and we didn’t. This is the first time we’ve faced any adversity all season but I expect this team to bounce back. I have a lot of confidence in all the guys on this team.”
South Portland managed to trim three-points from the deficit in a second quarter they won 12-10 on the strength of Reinhold’s six points that included a sweeping sky-hook in the lane, a transition basket on a sweet pass from Lee and a layup that just barely beat the buzzer and sent the ancient rivals to the half with Portland still in control at 25-20.
Lee hit three more foul shots for the very same reason to start the second half, but Thok scored four points in the Bulldogs’ 11-0 run that extended the Bulldogs lead to 36-22.
Reinhold ended the slide with a wild hoop in the paint to with 2:40 left in the third, but the Red Riots could only match baskets the rest of the quarter and trailed 42-29 before Thok and DeFanti’s fourth quarter foul-shooting exhibition knocked South Portland from the land of the unbeaten where only Cheverus still remains.
“We’ve been putting extra work in shooting foul shots this week,” said Thok. “I had to just step up and make them for us. The press that we got into after the half really helped us to put pressure on them and it slowed down their offense. We showed that we have improved and we can get better. We can go far this year if we play together as a team like we did tonight.”
Portland will have another chance to gain some serious ground when they host the Cheverus Stags Friday evening with a special 5 p.m. tipoff as the first half of a double-header before the Maine Red Claws take over the new parquet floor at the Expo in the nightcap.
South Portland will look to return to its winning ways Friday night on the road against the Kennebunk Rams. That game begins a brutal season-ending stretch for the Red Riots as they prepare to next visit Cheverus on Tuesday (Jan. 22) before hosting Bonny Eagle on Jan. 25 and closing out the regular season with Deering at home, travel for two games at Westbrook and Portland and then finish at home with Cheverus on Feb. 5.