By Eric Carson
SOUTH PORTLAND — Despite missing one very important piece of the puzzle, the South Portland boys’ basketball team picked up the pieces and found a way to hold off the Portland Bulldogs 57-49 in Western Class A action Tuesday night at Beal Gymnasium.
After learning that one of the league’s top players, junior forward Matt Lee, will miss the rest of the season after undergoing surgery to repair a torn meniscus, the Red Riots leaned extra hard on junior guard Keegan Hyland and got contributions from some unlikely sources to pull away from the Bulldogs late in the final quarter.
As usual, Hyland got his work done, pouring in a game-high 25 points, but what the Bulldogs didn’t see coming were clutch 3-pointers from junior guard Jon DiBiase and some serious work down low from juniors Connor Hasson and Ryan Curit.
In the much-anticipated return of Ed Bogdanovich, Portland’s 6-foot-7 senior center who transferred from South Portland after his sophomore season, Hasson and Curit dominated the backboards and limited their former teammate to just eight points on the night.
Hasson went to work, finishing with 12 points, including a pivotal three-point play late in the fourth, while Curit spent most of his time rubbing elbows with Bogdanovich in the paint. That is when Bogdanovich (who could have teamed with Hyland and Lee this year to present one of the more formidable trios in all of Maine basketball) wasn’t on the bench in foul trouble that has plagued the talented and physical center for much of the season.
“(Curit) did a great job tonight,” said Hasson. “We put him on Bogdanovich from the start and he was unbelievable. We knew it would be tough without Lee. That’s 15 points a game that has to come from someone else. Tonight it came from everybody. We found a way to make up for those points.”
DiBiase, for his part, dropped nine points, all on 3-pointers, including a long bomb from the corner just inside the fourth quarter that gave the Red Riots a 41-40 lead they would never relinquish.
Curit followed DiBiase’s 3-pointer with a pair of free throws, and just prior to taking a seat with five fouls, DiBiase drilled another 3. Hyland capped a nine-point run with a free throw, and South Portland led 47-40 with five minutes left in the final quarter.
Portland junior guard Wally Stover sandwiched a pair of 3-pointers around a bucket from Hyland, but it was too little too late for the Bulldogs.
Hasson added a pair of free throws and his three-point play, and the Red Riots took home a 57-49 win to improve to 13-2 on the season.
“That was a great high school basketball game between two very good teams,” said South Portland coach Phil Conley. “We had a lot of guys on this team step up and contribute tonight. We hit some big shots when we needed them. The key for us was defense and rebounding. (Hasson) and (Curit) played outstanding inside. They limited them to one shot and that was the difference. This was a big win for us, but we have three big games left to play.”
South Portland jumped out to a 13-4 lead on the strength of three quick hoops from Hyland and DiBiase’s first 3-pointer, but the Bulldogs fought back and closed the gap to 15-12 after one quarter with a pair of 3-pointers from junior guard Koang Thok and freshmen Will DeFanti, and a sneaky layup on an inbounds play with one-second left in the quarter by senior Joe Violette (12 points).
After a pair of free throws by Hyland with 44 seconds left in the first, Portland held the Red Riots scoreless for the next five minutes while chalking up 14 points of their own to take a 21-15 lead.
South Portland junior forward Spencer Bowring snapped the drought with one free throw and Hyland added a pair to pull within three, 21-18, with four minutes left in the second quarter.
Bogdanovich followed with a hoop, but the Red Riots outscored Portland 6-2 before the half on two Hyland free throws and a pair of buckets in the paint by Hasson to pull within one at the intermission, 25-24.
As was the case in the first quarter, Hyland went off to start the third, hitting a 3-pointer and a jumper at the foul line, before shocking a pair of Portland defenders with a pull-up 3 on the fast-break that pulled the Red Riots ahead for the first time since the early moments of the second quarter, 34-33.
On South Portland’s next possession, another unlikely contributor, junior reserve center Greg Reinhold, found himself alone behind the arc, and surprised everyone by calmly sinking a 3-pointer to stretch the lead to 37-33.
In the face of a constant double-team, and often triple-team, Hyland showcased his full game against the Bulldogs, featuring tricky dribbling through pressure and often stopping on a dime to rise and hit jumpers that had the packed crowd nudging each other with “I told you so.”
“My teammates did a good job setting screens for me,” said Hyland. “It was tough. I had to work hard to get open and get the ball. It was a tough win. Hasson and Curit were unbelievable tonight. They shut down Bogdanovich and controlled the boards and nobody thought that would happen. That’s the type of team we are when we’re clicking on all cylinders. That’s what we need to be successful. It was a big statement game for us after finding out we lost Lee for the season.”
Hasson added a free throw, and Portland answered with a hoop from Violette, two free throws from Bogdanovich and one from Thok to render the first three quarters virtually useless, tying the game at 38-all to start the fourth.
South Portland won the fourth quarter 19-11 to earn the win, 57-49.
The Red Riots (fourth in the Western Class A Heal Points standings) welcome the undefeated Cheverus Stags (15-0 and No. 1 in the Heals) to Beal this Friday at 7 p.m. in a rematch of last Friday’s game won decisively by the Stags, 60-41. Hyland was held to 17 in that game.
It doesn’t get any easier to close out the season, as the Red Riots travel to Deering (11-4) on Wednesday. South Portland handled Deering 79-65 at home back on Dec. 23. For the regular season finale, South Portland travels to the Expo for another tilt with the Bulldogs (11-4) on Feb. 6.