By Michael Hoffer
The South Portland boys’ basketball team picked the worst possible time to embark on its lone losing streak of the season.
With the playoffs right around the corner, the Red Riots dropped a hard-fought 52-39 home decision to undefeated Cheverus last Friday, then really struggled Wednesday night at Deering, falling 69-50.
South Portland is now 13-4 on the season and closes the regular year Friday night at Portland, no easy task.
“We’ll take it one game at a time like we’ve done all year and get back at it,” said Red Riots’ coach Phil Conley.
SUBHEAD-Close against Cheverus
South Portland had lost 60-41 at Cheverus a week prior and kept things much tighter in the rematch last Friday in front of a raucous and capacity crowd at Beal Gymnasium.
Trailing 11-3 early, the Red Riots responded. After junior Connor Hasson scored on a rebound layup, junior standout Keegan Hyland hit a 3, then made a layup to pull his team within a point, 11-10. With time winding down in the first, Stags’ senior star Mick DiStasio made a 3-pointer to give the Stags a 14-10 lead after one.
The teams went back-and-forth in the second. A layup from junior Jon DiBiase gave South Portland its first lead, 20-19, with 3:48 to go in the half, but the Red Riots wouldn’t score again and with 52.2 seconds to go, DiStasio converted an old-fashioned three-point play for a 22-20 Stags’ lead at the break.
South Portland continued to go toe-to-toe with the champs after halftime and late in the third quarter led by two, 29-27, but Cheverus did what it does like no other: turned up the defensive intensity, got contributions from everyone on the floor, and rode the individual poise and brilliance of junior Indiana Faithfull on a 13-0 run which broke it open.
Faithfull had six points in the final 2 minutes, 11 seconds of the third period, punctuated by a circus, falling-out-of-bounds shot that sucked the life out of the hosts.
“It was just lucky,” Faithfull said. “It bounced to me and I just threw it up. I’m not sure it will ever happen again, but it was nice.”
Cheverus then scored the first five points of the fourth period and South Portland never got closer than eight down the stretch as the Stags went on to a 52-39 win.
DiStasio led the Stags with 17 points. Faithfull added 16.
“(South Portland) played really well,” said Faithfull. “They played hard the whole game. That’s what we expected. They’re a good team.”
Conley wasn’t the least bit discouraged after the loss, feeling his kids put forth a great effort against the champs.
“I thought defensively, we played a very good game,” he said. “They scored a couple baskets at the end of the third and we didn’t counter. They made a couple at the start of the fourth and we didn’t counter. That was the difference in the game. Cheverus is a very good team. They’re number one in our conference and undefeated for a reason. I liked the way my guys played, their intensity. I think we can build on this.
“We were right there with them. This was a game where we missed some shots. We had some opportunities to score and they didn’t fall for us tonight. We won’t make a major adjustment offensively. Keegan had two or three guys on him all game and still had 20 points. I thought he had a very good game.”
SUBHEAD-Disaster at Deering
South Portland had to like its chances entering Wednesday night’s contest at Deering.
The Red Riots boasted not only the most prolific individual offensive force in the Southern Maine Activities Association in Hyland, but also had the top-ranked team offense in the conference and they were going up against a squad ranked just seventh in team defense.
Which explains why everyone (including those taking part on the court) were in shock and awe when with eight minutes to go, Hyland had all of four points and South Portland trailed the Rams 42-26.
Despite Hyland’s 15 points down the stretch, the Red Riots never drew closer than 12 and Deering went on to earn a huge dose of confidence with a stunning 69-50 victory.
The Red Riots surged past Deering 79-65 at home Dec. 23 and hoped to earn the sweep, but after a slow start, the Rams simply took control and didn’t let up.
South Portland would shoot to a 10-4 lead and appeared to be in good shape. Hyland got the scoring started with a 3-pointer 49 seconds into the game (he wouldn’t score again in the first half). After Deering got on the board on a bank shot from sophomore Riko Augustino, Hasson made a leaner for the visitors. Rams’ senior Ronald Abwoch made a layup for the Rams, but the Red Riots got a rebound putback from junior Ryan Curit and a 3-ball from DiBiase.
Then, Deering asserted itself.
Trailing 15-14 early in the second, junior Eddie Tirabassi put Deering ahead to stay with a jumper. Abbas followed with a jumper. After Bowring made two free throws, sophomore Jackson Frey and Abbas made 3-pointers for a 24-17 Rams’ lead. Curit responded with a leaner, but Abbas made two foul shots, then hit another 3-ball. Then, with 4.8 seconds left before the half, Ross scored on a layup after a steal for a commanding 31-19 lead.
“It started out 10-4 and I thought we’d be in good shape, but we went on a little bit of a drought,” said Conley.
Things didn’t improve in the third period. With time winding down, Ross made a layup to cap a period-ending 9-0 run for a 42-26 advantage. The Red Riots got no closer than 12 from there and Deering cruised home to the emphatic victory.
Abbas led all scorers with 21 points. Ross added 18 and Abwoch had 13.
For the Red Riots, Hyland led the way with 19.
“We played great defense for the whole game,” Deering coach Dan LeGage said. “Keegan’s probably the best player I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen quite a few players. Our focus was all about him. We tried to keep him from going crazy and scoring 40 points. I thought if we did that, we’d have a good chance.”
“We doubled Keegan,” added Ross. “He’s tough to defend. He’s the best player in the state by far. We did well. We knew we had to come in and double team him and make every shot contested and just be his biggest nightmare. We did that.”
DiBiase and Hasson both chipped in with 11.
“I thought Deering outplayed us in all aspects of the game tonight,” Conley said. “This is the first game where that has happened. I know my guys will get to practice tomorrow and we’ll be ready Friday for Portland. It was just a tough game overall, both offensively and defensively. Deering played a very good game tonight.”
The Red Riots were third in the latest Western Class A Heal Points standings, but aren’t guaranteed that finish. Winning at Portland in the finale Friday would sure help.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com