SOUTH PORTLAND—After a decade lost in the basketball wilderness, the Portland girls’ team, which once upon a time was the state’s gold standard, has returned to form.
And is turning heads.
The Bulldogs, who were expected to be improved and contend this winter, have taken it a step further and Friday evening at Beal Gymnasium, continued their hottest start since at least the turn of the millennium.
Portland, behind the play of dynamic junior Elizabeth Donato, raced to an early lead over talented host South Portland, but the Red Riots, led by sophomore Maddie Hasson, responded, and the first half was back-and-forth, before the hosts opened up a 26-21 lead at the break.
South Portland was still on top, 31-27, late in the third period, but consecutive hoops from Donato tied the score and sparked an 11-0 run which put the Bulldogs ahead to stay.
Down the stretch, as the Red Riots dominated the glass, but couldn’t take advantage of free throw opportunities, Donato, senior Brianna Holdren and junior Gabby Wagabaza all made clutch shots and with the game on the line, Donato came up with a pivotal blocked shot and Holdren made two free throws to ice a 50-46 victory.
Donato led Portland with 18 points and Holdren added 15, which was just enough to negate Hasson’s 24 and the Bulldogs improved to 5-0 and dropped the Red Riots to 3-2 in the process.
“I don’t know if I’d call this fun, but it was a good, hard fought game,” said Portland coach Jan Veinot. “Defense kept us in it. We have 10, 11 kids who can play. They know their roles. They do what they have to do to help us win. We’re not perfect, but we have faith things are going to work for us.”
Portland once enjoyed 20 straight winning seasons (every year from 1980-81 through 1999-2000), but the Bulldogs have fallen on lean times most of this century. Portland went 6-12 last winter and missed the playoffs for the seventh time in eight seasons, but this year, the Bulldogs have turned heads in a big way, winning their first four contests for their best start in at least a decade. Portland opened by downing visiting Massabesic (59-36) and Noble (78-29), host Marshwood (76-55) and most impressively, visiting Gorham (63-50).
South Portland, which made it to the quarterfinals last season before losing to Scarborough, then welcomed longtime assistant (and one-time standout player) Lynne Hasson as its new coach this winter, opened with victories over host Noble (66-14), visiting Sanford (54-46) and host Westbrook (39-35) before falling from the unbeaten ranks Wednesday with a 53-43 home loss to Thornton Academy.
Entering the game, South Portland had won 17 of the past 22 meetings (please see sidebar, below), dating back to the start of the 2001-02 season, including 14 of the last 15. In last year’s meeting, the Red Riots pulled away late to beat the Bulldogs at the Expo, 55-41. Portland last beat South Portland, 60-52, Feb. 8, 2010.
Friday, it took the full 32 minutes, but the Bulldogs were able to keep the good times rolling.
Donato got the scoring started with two free throws 57 seconds in. After Hasson tied the score with a layup, Donato made a layup after a steal and after a steal from senior Mariana Angelo, Donato made another layup to make it 6-2.
South Portland senior Brianne Maloney countered with a free throw, but Holdren got on the board with a driving layup for an 8-3 advantage.
Back came the Red Riots as Hasson banked home a shot and after Portland sophomore Cierrra Burnham hit a leaner off the glass, Hasson scored on a putback while being fouled and hit a free throw for an old-fashioned three-point play and senior MacKenzie Bowring tied the score, 10-10, with a jumper, which is how the first period ended.
South Portland was hampered by 14 turnovers in the first eight minutes.
The Red Riots took their first lead when Hasson made a free throw 70 seconds into the new quarter. After Holdren scored after a nice spin move, Hasson converted another three-point play. Wagabaza tied the score with a driving layup, but two Maloney free throws gave South Portland a 16-14 advantage.
After Holdren made a free throw, she took a pass from Angelo and made a transition layup to put the Bulldogs back on top.
Hasson answered with another three-point play, but two Holdren foul shots tied the game, 19-19.
Holdren added a driving layup, but a putback from South Portland junior Holly Black, who was a rebounding machine, tied the score. Black then hit a free throw after being fouled on an offensive rebound, sophomore Casey Loring scored on a driving layup and Hasson made a layup just before time expired to put the Red Riots ahead by five, 26-21, at halftime.
South Portland, which got 16 points from Hasson, could have had an even healthier lead at the break were it not for seven missed free throws and a whopping 22 turnovers.
Portland, which committed 18 turnovers of its own in the first 16 minutes, hung around thanks to 11 points from Holdren.
The Bulldogs would answer in the third period and take the lead for good.
After Donato started the second half the way she did the first, with a layup, Hasson made a layup for the hosts. Holdren made a layup, but freshman Lydia Henderson hit a free throw for the Red Riots. A Donato leaner was countered by two Black free throws to make it 31-27 South Portland with 2:46 to go in the stanza.
That would prove to be the Red Riots’ highwater mark.
A runner from Donato and a Donato driving layup tied the score, 31-31, with 1:29 remaining.
After Henderson missed the front end of a one-and-one, Portland’s sparkplug freshman Abi Ramirez banked home a shot high off the glass to give her team the lead for good with 52.2 seconds to go. A leaner from junior Sydney Fredrick pushed the advantage to 35-31 heading for the fourth period.
Burnham opened the final stanza with a free throw and Fredrick hit a baseline jumper to make it 38-31.
With 6:03 to play, South Portland ended the 11-0 Bulldogs’ run and a 4 minute, 43 second drought as Bowring made a free throw. She missed the second, but Black again came down with the rebound and was fouled. She also made one of two free throws to cut the deficit to five.
After Burnham countered with a free throw for the Bulldogs, Black hit one for the Red Riots. Wagabaza then hit one for the visitors, but Hasson answered with two and South Portland was within four, 40-36, with 4:55 still to play.
Donato then drove for a layup pushing the lead back to six.
Back came the Red Riots as Black scored on a putback, but with 3:48 to go, Donato got free in the lane, stopped and popped and sank the shot to make it 44-38.
“I want the ball in my hands,” said Donato. “I’m not shy.”
A driving layup from Hasson with 3:08 to play cut the deficit back to four, 44-40, but with 2:17 remaining, Wagabaza made a layup and the lead was back up to six.
A baseline jumper from Black and a Maloney layup pulled South Portland within two, 46-44, with 1:33 to play and seconds later, Henderson had a look at a 3 for the lead, but it was off target.
Then, with 50.8 seconds remaining, Angelo set up Wagabaza for a layup and a smidgen of breathing room.
With 35.9 seconds left, Hasson made two free throws to again pull her team within two, 48-46, but Holdren was immediately fouled and made the front end of a one-and-one before missing the second to push the lead back to three.
Donato, who had been so huge on offense all night, then made the defensive play of the game, blocking a Hasson layup attempt from behind and grabbing the rebound before being fouled.
Donato missed the front end of a one-and-one, however, keeping South Potland’s hopes alive, but Hasson was off on a runner and with 10 seconds to play, Holdren was fouled.
Holdren, who suffered through so many losses her first three seasons, wasn’t thrilled to find herself on the big stage, but she calmly made the first attempt to ice the win.
“I was really nervous,” Holdren said. “I was shaking. It was a win or lose situation. I pulled through on one and felt good.”
Holdren missed the second free throw, but Portland was able to run out the clock on its palpitating 50-46 victory, its first in South Portland in nearly a decade.
“My freshman year, we only won two games,” said Donato. “We struggled really hard. Last year, I feel like it was better. We were getting there, building. This year, we’ve stepped it up a lot. South Portland didn’t give it to us. We had to work for it.”
“I personally didn’t think we were going to do it,” said Holdren. “At halftime, I said, ‘Guys, we have to get it together and stop Maddie.’ We tried to shut her down and we pulled it out on defense. Going through three losing seasons was a lot. Ending on this good note is an amazing feeling. Throughout fall ball, we did really well. We have strong players and I thought with the freshmen we had coming up, everything would work out. The chemistry’s a lot better this year. We’re more of a family. We bond better. That gives us a good vibe. This is a huge win. This feels good.”
“We stopped going at (Hasson),” added Veinot. “Our job is to get people to the sideline. If we go at people, they go by us. (South Portland) did a good job getting us out of our game, but we got back in it. “
Donato had a team-high 18 points, six steals and three blocked shots. She also grabbed four rebounds.
“She’s playing a really big role this year,” said Holdren. “She’s stepped up a lot.”
“Donato was huge,” said Veinot.
Holdren scored 15 points, Wagabaza added seven (with a team-high seven boards and five steals), Burnham and Fredrick four apiece and Ramirez two.
The win was truly a team effort.
“We don’t have a lot of bigs, so we have to use our speed and defense,” said Donato. “We’ve had a lot of trouble with fouls. We want to play a really aggressive game, but fouling comes in. People who come off the bench help us so much. We get tired, so when they come in it’s really big.”
Portland finished with 20 steals, which helped counter its 27 turnovers. The Bulldogs shot just 10-of-24 from the line.
For South Portland, Hasson led the way with her game-high 24 points.
“With Maddie, she has such a desire to compete and win,” Lynne Hasson said. “She’s a competitor. She’ll do whatever it takes.”
Black had 11 points and a game-high 17 rebounds.
“Holly came along on the glass, which was helpful,” Hasson said.
Maloney added five points, Bowring had three, Loring two and Henderson one.
The Red Riots outrebounded the Bulldogs by a whopping 47-26 margin. Junior Paige Carter had nine off the bench and Maloney seven. Bowring had four of the team’s 13 steals.
South Portland made just 18-of-34 free throw attempts, however, and was doomed by 38 turnovers.
“We had way too many turnovers,” Hasson lamented. “We missed too many foul shots. Games are won and lost at the foul line. We knew the type of game (Portland would) play. We didn’t handle it at times. We knew they’d play physical and I think at times we backed off. The officials called a lot of fouls, but you have to make free throws. Jan has something good going on there. They’re playing hard. They’re athletic. We’ve struggled to play four quarters well with intensity, but I’m proud of how the girls played. I thought we played pretty good defense on them.”
In a statistical oddity, neither team made a 3-point shot.
South Portland is back in action Monday when it goes to Bonny Eagle. On Dec. 30, the Red Riots host Deering.
South Portland should be in the hunt all season.
“We didn’t expect to go undefeated,” Hasson said. “I still think we’re in the mix. Two losses isn’t a huge deal. We can play with every team. We have to make the little plays that make a difference. Bonny Eagle will be ready to play Monday. There’s not a lot of love lost. We had team camp together. All in all, I’m pretty happy. The difference this year is that I don’t have to sell it. (The girls) believe they’re good. They’re confident we’ll be in the mix when it counts.”
Portland plays at Thornton Academy Monday and plays host to Cheverus in a key city battle Dec. 30.
The Bulldogs are seeking their first winning season since 2004-05 and are well on their way, even if there is still work to be done.
“We have to work on our defense,” Donato said. “By the end of the season, I feel we’ll get it down.”
“Now we go against TA,” said Holdren. “We still have 13 games left. I think our defense will only get better.”
“Every day is a test,” added Veinot. “Teams will try to take us out of our game. It will only get bigger and bigger. We have Thornton on Monday and they’re literally bigger.”
@ South Portland 49 Portland 30
@ South Portland 63 Portland 54
@ Portland 60 South Portland 52
South Portland 58 @ Portland 56 (OT)
@ South Portland 46 Portland 38
South Portland 58 @ Portland 47
Western A preliminary round
@ South Portland 56 Portland 50
@ South Portland 56 Portland 35
South Portland 61 @ Portland 49
South Portland 40 @ Portland 28
@ South Portland 55 Portland 38
South Portland 46 @ Portland 33
@ South Portland 81 Portland 52
South Portland 36 @ Portland 35
@ Portland 62 South Portland 55
Portland 67 @ South Portland 62
South Portland 37 @ Portland 32
@ South Portland 65 Portland 47
Western A quarterfinals
Portland 57 South Portland 50
@ South Portland 55 Portland 47
Portland 56 South Portland 49
P- 10 11 14 15- 50
SP- 10 16 5 15- 46
P- Donato 8-2-18, Holdren 5-5-15, Wagabaza 3-1-7, Burnham 1-2-4, Fredrick 2-0-4, Ramirez 1-0-2
SP- Hasson 8-8-24, Black 3-5-11, Maloney 1-3-5, Bowring 1-1-3, Loring 1-0-2, Henderson 0-1-1
P (26) Wagabaza 7, Donato 4, Burnham, Frederick, Holdren 3, Angelo, Lobor, Ramirez 2
SP (47) Black 17, Carter 9, Maloney 7, Bowring, Hasson 5, Henderson 4
P (20) Donato 6, Wagabaza 5, Angelo 3, Burnham, Ramirez 2, Holdren, Lobor 1
SP (13) Bowring 4, Hasson, Maloney 3, Black, Carter, Henderson 1
P (4) Donato 3, Angelo 1