PORTLAND—When you make fewer than half your free throws, turn the ball over two dozen times and trail most of the way, you have no business winning a game on the court of one of the most talented and athletic teams around, but good luck telling the South Portland boys’ basketball squad what it can and cannot do.
Tuesday evening, the Red Riots and host Deering brought down the curtain on 2014, hinting that they expect to be in the title hunt in the new year by producing an absolutely memorable affair.
The Rams clearly came to play early, opening up leads of 5-0 and 18-9 as their defensive intensity and offensive opportunism flustered South Portland.
Deering took a nine-point lead, 34-25, to halftime, despite missing 10 of 17 free throws and committing an abundance of fouls.
In the second half, the Rams remained in control and when they went up by 11, 45-34, in the third period, a signature victory was within reach, but there was still a long way to go.
The Red Riots crept back within seven entering the fourth quarter, then put on a clinic in the final stanza, holding Deering to a mere four points and just one field goal.
When it mattered most, South Portland’s inside game came to life, as junior Jack Fiorini came off the bench to spark the rally before getting into foul trouble, junior Jordin Jackson continued his ascendance with clutch play and senior Jaren Muller rose to the occasion at a most optimal time.
After knocking at the door for several minutes, the Red Riots took their first lead of the game, 57-56, when Muller took a pass from senior Kam Harper and made a layup with 1:58 remaining. Harper set up Muller again for a layup 37 seconds later, but a putback from junior Ben Williams drew the Rams back within a point, 59-58, with 1:10 left.
After neither team could shoot a respectable percentage from the foul line for 31 minutes, South Portland suddenly found its form when it mattered most, as first Jackson, then Harper each coolly sunk a pair of free throws and the Red Riots, who closed on a 21-4 surge, went on to a 64-58 victory.
South Portland got 19 points from Fiorini, 14 from Jackson and 10 more from Muller as it improved to 6-2, dropping Deering to 5-2 in the process.
“First of all, I thought both teams played extremely hard, but the character my kids showed late, down 11, to come back and beat a very good team, tells me a lot about this group,” said Red Riots coach Phil Conley. “Each and every game, these guys come ready and I couldn’t be happier.”
In a season which features great parity, the Rams and Red Riots both have the ability to do special things.
South Portland won its first four contests: 47-31 at Noble, 63-54 over visiting Sanford, 52-43 at Westbrook and 55-46 over visiting Thornton Academy. After falling at defending Class A champion Portland at the horn, 45-43, the Red Riots lost at Bonny Eagle (64-57), but Saturday, they got back on track with a 66-43 home win over Scarborough.
Deering held off visiting Bonny Eagle in its opener (64-59), then won at Thornton Academy (63-58) and at home over Noble (67-42). After letting a lead slip away in a 45-34 home loss to Cheverus, the Rams bounced back with a 66-52 win at Westbrook and really impressed with a 71-49 victory over Gorham Saturday in a game played at the Portland Exposition Building.
Since the start of the 2001-02 season, Deering held a 14-13 edge in the series (see sidebar, below), thanks to a sweep a year ago (81-71 in overtime at South Portland and 63-53 at home).
Tuesday, the Rams hoped to make it three in a row, but instead, the Red Riots somehow found a way to overcome foul trouble to sneak away with a crucial Heal Points-rich victory.
Both teams wound up in the bonus in a foul-plagued first quarter.
Deering got the jump when Williams took a pass from junior Malik White and made a layup 46 seconds in. A Williams three-point play (leaner, foul, free throw) gave the Rams a quick 5-0 bulge, but South Portland answered on a 3 from junior Matt Pelletier and a Muller layup to tie the score, 5-5.
The hosts went back on top as White made two free throws. After Harper tied the score on a layup, Deering senior Garang Majok made a baseline jumper, but a Jackson layup made it 9-9.
Late in the first quarter, the Rams embarked on another 5-0 run, as Williams made a free throw, Williams set up sophomore Raffael Salamone for a layup and Salamone added another layup to make it 14-9 Deering after eight minutes.
The teams combined to go 4 of 9 from the foul line as the tone was set.
The fun was in fact, just beginning.
When senior Stephen Ochan scored on a putback and Salamone did the same with 6:42 left in the first half, the Rams had doubled up the Red Riots, 18-9.
“Raffael got in some early foul trouble, but was effective,” Deering coach Todd Wing said. “He’s our biggest player.”
Seconds later, Fiorini came into the game (he was unavailable in the first period) and quickly made his presence felt with a putback. After a Salamone layup pushed the lead back to nine, Pelletier hit a baseline jumper. Senior Jacob Coon made a free throw for Deering, but Jackson set up Fiorini for a layup and Jackson made a layup seconds later to cut the deficit to 21-17.
After South Portland junior Ruay Bol made it a one-possession game with a foul shot, White began heating up with a 3. Pelletier answered with a 3-ball, but White hit another deep shot from behind the arc for a 27-21 lead.
“Malik did a little of everything tonight,” Wing said. “He hit 3s, scored in transition.”
After senior Jacob Brown hit two free throws for the Red Riots, White’s third 3 in 77 seconds, followed by a Coon layup, made the score 32-23. Jackson scored on a putback, but sophomore JeanClaude Nzenza made two foul shots to give the Rams a 34-25 halftime advantage.
In the first 16 minutes, the teams combined to go 10 of 31 from the line (South Portland was especially gruesome at 3 of 14). White’s 11 points led the way, but the Red Riots hung tough, thanks in large part to eight points from Pelletier and six from Jackson.
After turning South Portland over nine times in the first half, Deering forced eight giveaways in the third period as it threatened to pull away, but the Red Riots refused to buckle.
After Fiorini started the second half with a jumper, Majok made two free throws, White buried another 3 and junior Jason Thach made a free throw for a 40-27 advantage.
Fiorini followed with an old-fashioned three-point play (layup, foul, free throw), but Thach set up White for a layup and a 42-30 lead.
Jackson hit a baseline jumper, but with 4:41 left in the third, Majok put home a missed shot, was fouled and made a free throw for a 45-32 advantage.
South Portland kept coming, as Fiorini scored on a putback and junior Sam DePaolo buried a 3. Majok put home a miss, but Fiorini scored on a layup after a spin move and a Fiorini putback cut the deficit to six, 47-41, with 2:32 left in the frame.
After Majok scored on a putback and Ochan went coast to coast for a layup, Fiorini scored on a putback, but with 57.1 seconds showing, a three-point play from White gave the Rams a 54-43 lead.
Little did anyone suspect that the hosts had only four points (and a mere one field goal) left in them.
Before the end of the third, Jackson set up Fiorini for a layup and Brown made a layup after a steal to cut the deficit to 54-47.
Suddenly, the Red Riots tasted life and they would dominate the fourth quarter.
Just nine seconds in, Jackson scored on a putback.
With 7:19 to play, Muller, who had been quiet offensively almost all night, hit a bank shot and the Deering lead was only 54-51.
After White missed the front end of a 1-and-1, Jackson’s putback with 6:55 remaining made it a one-point game.
South Portland wasn’t able to go ahead, however, as Williams made a free throw and after both Muller and Harper missed shots to tie, Williams buried another foul shot for a 56-53 lead with 4:46 left.
Williams missed two free throws which could have given the Rams a bigger lead, but both DePaolo and Pelletier missed open 3s at the other end.
With 3:35 to play in the game, Muller scored on a reverse layup. He was fouled on the shot, but couldn’t make the free throw, allowing Deering to stay on top for nearly two more minutes.
After Salamone missed two free throws, the Red Riots turned the ball over, but Ochan was called for charging and the visitors got another chance.
Finally, with 1:58 left, Harper, broke the press and got the ball to Muller, who made a layup for a 57-56 lead, South Portland’s first of the contest.
“We practiced their press all week and we knew that the backside was always open,” Muller said. “Kam had the right look at the right time. We’ve played together since fourth grade. We have chemistry.”
“I look for whoever’s hot,” Harper said. “Muller’s usually my first choice because he can get easy layups or draw a foul.”
“Kam Harper had a very nice game and got us some easy looks off the fastbreak on the pressure that Deering brings,” Conley added.
After White missed a 3, Muller got the rebound, but the visitors turned the ball over.
The Rams couldn’t capitalize, however, as Majok was tied up by Harper and the possession arrow went the Red Riots’ way.
After breaking the press, Harper set up Muller for a layup and with 1:21 showing, South Portland was on top, 59-56.
Deering roared back and got its only field goal of the stanza when Williams scored on a putback with 1:10 to go.
Ochan then stole the ball, giving the Rams a chance to take the lead, but Muller stole it right back, calling timeout while falling to the floor.
The Red Riots clung to a one-point lead and got a break when a Pelletier miss was snared by Harper, who passed to Jackson, who was fouled with 25.7 seconds to play.
Jackson then stepped to the line for a 1-and-1.
If it wasn’t enough that South Portland couldn’t buy a made free throw all night. Jackson was shooting in an enemy gym, with the home crowd at full throat.
All signs hinted against success, but Jackson calmly made the first free throw, then hit the second to extend the Red Riots’ lead to 61-58.
“We came in the locker room and Coach told us to forget about (the 3 for 14),” Jackson said. “I was just trying to help my team win. I was confident.”
Deering then turned the ball over.
With 16.2 seconds showing, Harper was fouled and went to the line and taking a cue from Jackson, he too came up huge, sinking both attempts for a two-possession lead.
“I went up there with a lot of confidence that I would make them,” Harper said.
“When we had to, in the fourth quarter, we knocked down our foul shots,” Conley said. “We addressed it at halftime. We said, ‘Guys, relax from the foul line. You all can make them.’ We were tight. I thought we did a much better job at the line in the second half. Jordin and Kam hit some huge shots at the end.”
After White’s bid for a 3 was off target, Pelletier got the rebound and was fouled. He made the first free throw. While Pelletier’s second attempt was off target, the Rams couldn’t answer and the clock ran out.
South Portland 64 Deering 58.
“It was a lot of persistence,” said Harper. “We know we’re a good team. We had to keep going at them and we knew we’d break the barrier.”
“It was ugly basically the whole game,” Muller said. “It was a slow game with all the fouls. It was all about who was going to make a run at the right time and we did. We had to be confident no matter what. We win together. It’s part of basketball. You make some, you miss some.”
“It’s our biggest win of the season,” Conley added. “We worked for two days on their pressure. We had eight guys on the court in practice. We had to work on coming to the ball, which I think we did tonight. Even our bigs did a good job handling the ball.”
The Red Riots’ offense was paced by Fiorini, who had 19 points and nine rebounds in limited action.
Jackson finished with 14 points, 13 boards, three assists, a block and a steal.
“Jaren’s a big force for us and Jack can step up as well,” Jackson said. “I come off the bench and try to make the most of it and help the team as much as I can.”
“We give Jordin crap in practice, but he uses his body to get offensive rebounds and shoots well for his size,” Muller said.
“Jordin came off the bench and was huge,” Conley added. “This is two games in a row now. “
Muller was quiet much of the night, but still had 10 points, eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block.
“Jaren came up big at the end,” Conley said. “He couldn’t get into a flow with his foul trouble, but he came through for us.”
Pelletier added nine points, Brown had four, Harper four (to go with four rebounds, four assists and two steals), DePaolo three and Bol one.
South Portland only made 14 of 35 free throws and committed 24 turnovers, but found a way to prevail, thanks in large part to a 45-39 edge on the glass (which included 23 offensive rebounds).
“We didn’t box out,” Wing lamented. “That’s obvious. Their three bigs dominated us on the glass. We did a lot of rebounding drills in practice yesterday. It looks like we have to do more tomorrow.”
For Deering, White (who sank four 3s) had 19 points. Majok finished with 11 points, eight boards and three steals. Williams wound up with 10 points, four rebounds and two steals. Salamone had eight points and six boards off the bench. Ochan added four points (six rebounds and three steals), Coon three, Nzenza two and Thach (three assists, three steals) one.
The Rams gave the ball away 19 times and ultimately were doomed by missing 21 of 35 free throws.
“It was free throws,” Wing lamented. “You go 14 for 35 from the line, you don’t win games. That’s how you close out teams. We had an opportunity to extend our lead. Games like this, the pace is what we like to force. We did everything right except for executing at the line. We went to the rim, but we didn’t finish it off. South Portland’s good. They’re a top team for a reason. They did what they had to do to be successful.
“It’s without question glass half full. It’s a bump in the road, just like Cheverus. We came back from that game and we executed well.”
Expect to hear a lot from both teams in the new year.
Deering (third in the latest Western Class A Heal Points standings) welcomes Marshwood in its first 2015 contest Friday night. It’s a rematch of last year’s quarterfinal thriller which the Rams won in overtime. Deering goes to Windham and Massabesic the following week.
“This is another one of those bumps and it’s one we’re expecting,” Wing said. “We’re replacing five starters. We’re still a work in progress. We’re finding guys who are playing better in spurts. Marshwood came in as a number 12 seed in the playoffs last year and they took us to overtime. They’ll be ready. They’ll throw us multiple looks and we’ll have to execute a lot better.”
South Portland (now first in the standings) opens the new year Saturday afternoon at home versus Massabesic. A trip to Scarborough follows Tuesday.
This is a team with a huge upside, which should frighten the rest of the league.
“This shows we have what it takes,” said Muller. “It’s a wide open league. Any team can win on a given night.”
“We knew we’d be a good team this year,” Harper said. “We have to keep working as a team. That’s the biggest thing.”
“I think this gives us great confidence,” Conley added. “We still haven’t peaked.”
South Portland junior Ruay Bol tries to block the shot of Deering senior Garang Majok.
South Portland junior Jack Fiorini, who had a team-high 19 points in limited action, drives past Deering senior Jacob Coon for a first half basket.
South Portland senior Jacob Brown finds himself flying sideways after colliding with Deering senior Garang Majok.
South Portland senior Kam Harper has his path to the basket obstructed by Deering sophomore Moses Oreste.
Deering junior Jason Thach drives past South Portland junior Matt Pelletier en route to the basket.
Deering sophomore Raffael Salamone defends South Portland senior Silas Zechman.
Deering junior Malik White drives to the hoop for two of his team-high 19 points.
Deering 81 @ South Portland 71 (OT)
@ Deering 63 South Portland 53
Deering 58 @ South Portland 52 (OT)
South Portland 53 @ Deering 38
Deering 40 @ South Portland 29
@ Deering 49 South Portland 38
South Portland 50 @ Deering 39
@ South Portland 86 Deering 64
South Portland 62 @ Deering 58
@ South Portland 62 Deering 50
Western A quarterfinals
South Portland 63 Deering 36
@ South Portland 79 Deering 65
@ Deering 69 South Portland 50
Deering 58 @ South Portland 50
South Portland 45 @ Deering 42
@ Deering 52 South Portland 47
@ South Portland 54 Deering 53
Deering 77 @ South Portland 35
@ Deering 82 South Portland 38
@ Deering 63 South Portland 44
@ South Portland 58 Deering 55
Western A preliminary round
@ South Portland 44 Deering 42
South Portland 51 @ Deering 47
@ South Portland 56 Deering 51 (OT)
Deering 77 @ South Portland 47
@ Deering 88 South Portland 61
Western A preliminary round
@ Deering 81 South Portland 46
South Portland senior Jaren Muller drives to the basket during the Red Riots’ palpitating 64-58 come-from-behind win at Deering Tuesday night.
Joe Carpine/365digitalphotography.com photos.
More photos below.
SP- 9 16 22 17- 64
D- 14 20 20 4- 58
SP- Fiorini 9-1-19, Jackson 6-2-14, Muller 5-0-10, Pelletier 3-1-9, Brown 1-2-4, Harper 1-2-4, DePaolo 1-0-3, Bol 0-1-1
D- White 6-3-19, Majok 4-3-11, Williams 3-4-10, Salamone 4-0-8, Ochan 2-0-4, Coon 1-1-3, Nzenza 0-2-2, Thach 0-1-1
SP (3) Pelletier 2, DePaolo 1
D (4) White 4