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- The Forecaster
SOUTH PORTLAND—South Portland hosted a basketball doubleheader Saturday afternoon and both the boys’ and girls’ teams came away with pivotal victories.
The boys started things off against Westbrook and thanks to a 3-point barrage, held off the Blue Blazes, 66-53, to improve to 12-4 on the season.
The girls came alive in the fourth quarter to pull away from and defeat Bonny Eagle, 53-44, their sixth win in seven outings, which improves the Red Riots to 11-5.
No one will be able to accuse the 2010-11 Red Riots boys of lacking mental toughness. So far this winter, South Portland has overcome four straight road games, consecutive multiple overtime affairs and Thursday through Saturday, the squad had battle three playoff-bound teams in just over 40 hours.
The Red Riots had no trouble with visiting Deering Thursday night (rolling, 86-64), but they laid an egg at Bonny Eagle Friday (a 70-43 setback). The best thing about that loss is South Portland returned to action Saturday afternoon against a dangerous Westbrook squad which ended its 2009-10 season and Keegan Hyland’s career in agonizing fashion with a 72-66 overtime decision in last year’s regional semifinals.
This time around, another Hyland, Keegan’s younger brother Tanner, a sophomore, helped deliver a dose of revenge.
The Red Riots got the jump off the opening tip when senior Vukasin Vignjevic raced in for a layup just four seconds in. The visitors answered to take the lead on a layup from senior Trevor Bates and a Bates free throw, but Hyland heated up with a 3-pointer. After a Bates layup tied the score, Vignjevic drained a 3 to put his team on top to stay, junior Logan Gaddar had a steal and fed Hyland for a layup and with 1:11 to go in the opening eight-minute period, Hyland made a layup after a steal for a 12-5 advantage. Bates answered with back-to-back layups, but with 3.2 seconds to go in the first, Gaddar made a layup to give South Portland a 14-9 lead.
Bates opened the second period with yet another layup, but Hyland buried a baseline jumper, then stole the ball and made a layup to make it 18-11. After the Blue Blazes got a layup from senior Zach Gardiner, Gaddar answered with a layup for the hosts. The layup-fest continued when junior Nguot Nguot made one for Westbrook, but with five minutes to go in the half, the Red Riots began to heat up.
First, sophomore Ben Burkey (who was stellar off the bench) hit a 3 from the wing. The next time down, Vignjevic buried a 3 and with 4:08 to go before halftime, Vignjevic sank another bomb from behind the arc, giving South Portland three 3s in 52 seconds and a 29-15 advantage.
“Anytime you have a game like we did last night, you want to immediately play,” said South Portland coach Phil Conley. “I’m glad it wasn’t a 7-o-clock game, it was 1-o-clock. I told the guys in the locker room that we didn’t have time to dwell. Westbrook’s a very good team. We had a chance to show what South Portland basketball is all about.”
A layup from Gardiner momentarily stemmed the tide, but with 2:37 to go, Hyland got back in the act with another 3-ball. At the other end, Blue Blazes’ senior sharpshooter Sean Murphy knocked down his first 3, then hit another, but with just over a minute to go before the break, Vignjevic knocked down one more from behind the arc for a 35-23 lead.
“I think we just got in the flow,” Hyland said. “We started out slow and weren’t hitting our shots, but we settled down and started hitting them and got going, got the lead and kept it. My shots starting falling and I got more confident.”
Considering its tired legs, South Portland played nearly a perfect half, turning the ball over just six times, while forcing 12.
Things wouldn’t come as easily in the second half, however.
An old-fashioned three-point play (layup, foul and free throw) from junior Ian King got Westbrook back within nine in the opening minute, but Hyland responded with another 3-ball. After senior Edwin Grant made a foul shot for the Blue Blazes, Hyland was fouled while shooting a 3, but only made his third of three free throw attempts. Bates then got back in the act with a layup and Murphy added a 3 to cut the deficit to seven, 39-32.
After senior Steven Hodge hit two foul shots for the hosts, Grant knocked down a jumper. Vignjevic then made a driving layup after a pretty move, but Bates scored on back-to-back layups to make it a 43-38 contest. Single free throws from Hodge and Burkey pushed the lead back to seven, 45-38, heading for the fourth.
There, the Blue Blazes would fight to the finish, but eventually, South Portland would pull away.
After Gaddar made two foul shots and senior Matt Russell scored on a putback to make it 49-38 early in the fourth, Gardiner cut the deficit to nine with a layup. Hyland made his final 3 with 5:43 left, but 23 seconds later, Murphy answered fro way downtown and with 4:36 to play, Murphy connected for another 3 to suddenly make it 52-46.
Hodge fed Russell for a layup with 4:21 remaining, but Gardiner made a layup after a steal and with 3:43 showing, Gardiner scored again on a layup to bring Westbrook within four, 54-50, the closest it had been since 14-11.
That would prove to be the Blue Blazes’ high-water mark, however.
With 3:01 to go, Hyland hit a pullup jumper in the lane. After a Westbrook miss, Hodge made two foul shots with 2:09 to play and the lead was back to eight. With 1:51 left, however, Murphy hit his sixth and final 3 to make it 58-53, but the visitors wouldn’t score again.
Nineteen seconds later, Hyland fed Russell for a layup. With 1:07 to go, after Murphy had missed a 3 at the other end, Vignjevic was fouled and sank two free throws. After a Blue Blazes turnover, Hyland was fouled and hit both and with 22.7 seconds left, Hyland went back to the line and capped his stellar afternoon with two more free throws that gave South Portland the 66-53 victory.
“We had a team breakfast this morning,” Gaddar said. “We stick together and stay strong after a tough loss. We kept fighting. It worked out.”
“We’ve had three tough games against three tough teams, back-to-back-to-back,” Conley added. “I didn’t know what to expect coming in today, but these kids proved to me again that we have good character.”
Hyland, who had 23 points against Deering, topped that performance by scoring 27 points, adding four rebounds, four steals and even blocking a shot.
“I thought Hyland had a tremendous game,” Conley said. “It was more than just points with him. Our offense flowed because he ran the show. He didn’t force anything. That’s the sign of a good point guard.”
Vignjevic had his usual productive game, scoring 18 points, while adding six boards. Russell (five rebounds, two steals and a block) and Gaddar (seven rebounds, three steals) both had six points.
“I just try to get good position and fight as hard as I can,” Gaddar said. “I did what I could.”
Hodge had five points and Burkey four (along with four boards). South Portland finished with only 11 turnovers and was an impressive 15-of-19 from the foul line.
“I thought Logan, on the glass, was a big-time battler,” Conley said. “He came back strong. We had good contributions from Burkey and (junior Shawn) Shannon. They gave us some energy. They played hard. They haven’t gotten a lot of minutes this year, but they’ve worked their tails off in practice.”
Westbrook (10-4 and currently fifth in the hotly contested Western Class A Heal Points standings) was paced by Murphy, who made six of his 16 3-point attempts for 18 points (he also had seven rebounds). Bates added 17 points.
“Bates is a big-time player,” Conley said. “He’s strong. Westbrook has strong, athletic kids. With Murphy, you have to always recognize where he is. He shoots well beyond NBA range and he’s right on.”
Gardiner had 10 points, Grant (five rebounds) and King three apiece and Nguot two. Senior Jake Gardiner didn’t score, but had three blocks.
The Blue Blazes close with games at Bonny Eagle Tuesday and at home versus Gorham.
South Portland is fourth in the region and will have a tough time moving up. The Red Riots hope to avenge an early triple-overtime loss to Portland when they host the Bulldogs Tuesday. The regular season ends Friday at undefeated Cheverus.
“We have to practice hard and come strong,” said Gaddar. “We want to keep going.”
“We’ve come together as a group well,” said Hyland. “We started out shaky, but we’re a family. We’ve got to get Portland back. They got us in overtime. We have a big one against Cheverus. If we can win that, we can get up in the Heal Points. We have to play aggressive and tough and we can’t let them scare us at all.”
“It’s a big week,” Conley added. “We have two of our rivals. I know our guys will be ready against Portland. I’m proud of where we’re at. They’ve worked really hard and it shows with a 12-4 record. The kids are tough. They want to win badly. They never give up. You saw that today. They were a tired bunch and they pulled through.”
Due to the unexpected success and dramatic games produced by the South Portland boys’ team this year, the girls haven’t gotten the recognition they’re due. In truth, the Red Riots have quietly put together a superb season and have gone toe-to-toe with everyone, even league favorites Deering and McAuley. South Portland entered Saturday’s game 10-5, needing a win to stay in contention for a top six spot in the Heal Points.
Visiting Bonny Eagle entered at 7-8, fighting for a playoff berth.
This one was a battle most of the way, but down the stretch, the Red Riots turned it on and went on to the victory.
As was the case in the boys’ game, the girls broke to a 2-0 lead four seconds in when senior Danielle DiBiase made a layup off the opening tip. The Scots tied the score on a jumper from sophomore Samantha Campobasso, but senior Abby Hasson gave the hosts a 4-2 advantage with a hook shot.
After Bonny Eagle senior standout Sarah Assante got on the board with a layup, senior Stephanie McDonough hit a jumper for the hosts, but Campobasso made two free throws, junior Alicia Hoyt did the same and Assante made a layup after a steal for a 10-6 Scots’ lead.
Hasson got a point back with a foul shot and in the final minute, Hasson made a layup to pull South Portland back within a point, 10-9, after one quarter.
Early in the second, the hosts regained the lead as Hasson and McDonough both scored on putbacks, but a runner from Assante ended a 7-0 run and a 4 minute, 41 second drought, Hoyt hit a leaner and with 3:50 to go in the half, Assante made a layup after a steal to put Bonny Eagle on top, 16-13.
Hasson tied the score with an old-fashioned three-point play and freshman Brianne Maloney made it 17-16 Red Riots with a free throw, but a pair of foul shots from Assante gave the Scots an 18-17 lead at the break.
The game remained nip-and-tuck in the third period.
A free throw from sophomore Danica Gleason tied the game, but Bonny Eagle went back up, 20-18, behind junior Jessica MacDonald’s two foul shots. After McDonough tied the score with a layup, Hoyt converted a three-point play and Campobasso made a layup to give the visitors their biggest lead, 25-20.
DiBiase answered with a layup, Maloney made two free throws and Gleason made a layup after a steal to give the Red Riots the lead, but with 13.5 seconds to go in the third, a layup by Assante made it 27-26 Scots heading for the fourth.
The offense came fast and furious in the final stanza and South Portland (which was hindered by 22 turnovers to that point) had more of it.
One minute, one second into the fourth, the Red Riots took the lead for good (it was the eighth lead change of the contest) when junior Libby Grant, who hadn’t scored, calmly swished a 3-pointer.
“I didn’t think about it and just went for it,” Grant said. “It felt so nice.”
“Libby was huge,” Hasson said. “She’s grown so much this season. I’m so proud of her. She knocked her shot down.”
Thirty seconds later, McDonough canned a 3-ball and it was 32-27.
“Steph McDonough isn’t always recognized, but she can hit them,” said Hasson.
After Bonny Eagle got two points back on a hook shot from sophomore Shannon Sanborn, Gleason sank a foul shot and DiBiase hit a backbreaker of a 3 for a 36-29 lead. With 3:58 to go, Gleason hit a runner to push the lead to nine.
The Scots answered when MacDonald sank a baseline jumper, but Hasson calmly hit two free throws. After Assante hit a jumper in the lane to make it a seven-point contest, 40-33, McDonough fed Hasson for a layup and Gleason hit a leaner off the glass to push the advantage to 44-33.
An Assante layup was answered by two Grant free throws. After Assante hit a leaner, Grant made a foul shot to make it 47-37 with 1:02 to go. South Portland hit six of its final eight free throws and Bonny Eagle never got closer than eight points as the Red Riots improved to 11-5 with the 53-44 win.
“We knew we had to come out ready to play in the fourth quarter. We’re getting better,” Hasson said. “We know we’ll have some sort of a great quarter in the game. We stick together and don’t quit on each other. That’s the key. We’re doing a nice job getting the ball inside. When we do, we do a good job. We can finish. This week was a rough week. We had back-to-back games and had three games without practice.”
“It was scary for a little bit, but we came through,” Grant said. “I think we all stopped thinking about it and our confidence shone through. We were overthinking in the beginning. We always have a point in the game when we have the intensity and it makes the difference. I think we’re an underestimated team. We have so many players who put their heart out every game. We love each other like sisters.”
“Two games in a row we came alive when we had to come alive,” Red Riots coach Mike Giordano added. “I thought we dominated the last eight minutes. There was no separation. Credit to Bonny Eagle. They were playing for their tournament life. We knew we’d get their best effort. We had two big 3s and that gave us some space. From that point on, I thought we did a good job finishing. Bonny Eagle plays physical all the time, to their credit. We had to match their intensity to win today. If you don’t, they’ll beat you.”
Hasson had another solid game, scoring 18 points, grabbing eight rebounds and adding four steals.
“Abby’s having a great year,” Giordano said. “She’s what you want a senior captain to be for you. She’s such a leader on and off the floor. She can finish inside and is great from the line.”
McDonough and DiBiase each had nine points (and three steals), Gleason eight (and four steals), Grant six (along with four boards and two thefts) and Maloney three. After giving the ball away 22 times in the first 24 minutes, South Portland committed just one fourth quarter turnover.
“I’m trying to figure out why we’re turning the ball over,” Giordano said. “They’re adding gray hairs to my head. We have to play through bad decisions.”
The Red Riots wound up 15-of-24 from the line.
Assante led the Scots with 20 points. She also had four rebounds and four steals.
“We didn’t do a good job getting on Assante,” Giordano said. “She’s creative. A heck of a player.”
Hoyt (four rebounds) and MacDonald both had seven points, Campobasso six and Sanborn (five boardsd) finished with four.
Bonny Eagle (7-9 and eighth in the latest Heals in Western A, where the top nine teams qualify for the playoffs) finishes up at Westbrook Tuesday and Windham Friday.
South Portland (seventh in Western A) is at Portland Tuesday and closes the regular season Friday at home versus Cheverus, in a game rife with Heal Points implications.
“You can’t be overconfident, but we know we can play with anybody,” Hasson said. “We won’t back down. Cheverus is a monumental game. I know our team will be hungry for a win after our loss at Cheverus. We’ll be ready for them.”
“I think we need to win both to get out of the seventh spot,” Giordano said. “We’d love to get out of the seven, but we’ll play them one at a time and see what happens. I’m pleased. We’ve been in every game we’ve played all year.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected] You can follow him at twitter.com/foresports