By Michael Hoffer
SOUTH PORTLAND — The Scarborough girls’ basketball team continued to emerge as the top threat to defending state champion Deering Tuesday night by beating rival and neighbor South Portland for the first time in program annals.
It didn’t come easily, but the host Red Storm got clutch performances from junior Christy Manning and senior Reegan Brackett down the stretch, forced three critical turnovers in the final minute and closed the game on an 8-2 run to eke out a 45-41 victory over the Red Riots.
“We knew it wouldn’t be easy,” said Scarborough third-year coach Jim Seavey. “Every time we play, it’s knock down, drag out. We’re kind of opposites. They’ve got a lot of size. We’ve got a lot of perimeter. Fortunately for us, the perimeter came through in the clutch. It’s not only a big win in our season, but it’s a big win for the program.”
The closest the Red Storm had come to beating the Red Riots were 12-point setbacks each of the past two seasons, but Scarborough has clearly caught its neighbor as a top contender.
Last winter, the Red Storm won 13 games and reached the Western A quarterfinals. South Portland won 16 games and made it to the semifinals.
So far this winter, Scarborough has passed every test but one, beating Marshwood, Sanford, Gorham, Massabesic, Biddeford and Westbrook and losing at Windham.
The Red Riots opened with victories in three of their first four contests (downing Massabesic, Sanford and Marshwood and losing to Biddeford). Five days before Christmas, South Portland lost by a point at home to Windham. After reaching the finals of the Fairpoint Communications Holiday Classic in Gorham where they lost to York, the Red Riots were humbled by 22 points by visiting defending Class A champion Deering last Friday.
Tuesday’s showdown would be a battle throughout.
South Portland opened the scoring when junior Esther Palmieri hit a 3-pointer. The hosts soon heated up, however, and threatened to pull away. The Red Riots clung to a 7-6 lead before the Red Storm got seven quick points on a 3-ball from junior Jenn Colpitts, a jumper from junior Brittany Ross and a jump shot from junior Sarah Moody. South Portland senior Brianna Hawkins stemmed the tide with a rebound putback, but Manning made a free throw and Ross hit another jumper for a 16-9 lead after one.
Hawkins opened the second period with a jumper, but Scarborough took a 20-11 lead (its largest) on a Ross jumper and a runner from Colpitts.
South Portland then bounced back with a vengeance. A jump shot from sophomore Danielle DiBiase got the rally started. After the Red Storm went up 21-13 on a free throw from freshman Emily Kothman, Red Riots’ junior Tayla Genesio made a layup, Hawkins followed with a layup, then, with 2:54 to go in the half, sophomore Abby Hasson converted a rebound layup to make it 21-19.
Ross momentarily halted the run with a jump shot and Kothman added another foul shot, but a layup from senior Kelsi Conley, a rebound putback from Hawkins and one free throw apiece from DiBiase and Hasson gave South Portland a 25-24 halftime lead.
“I told the kids I don’t know if (Scarborough) missed a shot the whole first quarter,” said Red Riots’ coach Mike Giordano. “Brittany Ross was making shots you don’t expect. I told them they couldn’t shoot that way all night. I told them to continue playing good defense and it would come back to us and it did.”
Manning gave the Red Storm the lead back with a leaner 14 seconds into the third period. Palmieri answered with another 3-ball, but Manning made back-to-back layups for a 30-28 lead. After Hawkins tied the score with a layup, Brackett calmly buried a 3-pointer for a 33-30 advantage. With 43.8 seconds to play in the quarter, Genesio made a jumper, cutting Scarborough’s lead to one, 33-32, heading for the fourth.
After Manning pushed the Red Storm’s lead to three with two foul shots to start the final period, Hawkins made a layup and Palmieri buried another 3 to put South Portland ahead 37-35 with 5:15 remaining.
“Esther’s been a pleasant surprise consistently for us this year,” Giordano said.
Manning tied the game with a layup, but Hawkins scored on a layup while being fouled with 2:07 to go to put the Red Riots ahead for the final time, 39-37.
Seven seconds later, Brackett sank two free throws to tie the score. Then, with 1:24 remaining, Manning scored on a layup while being fouled by Hawkins and hit the ensuing foul shot for a 42-39 advantage. DiBiase then cut the lead to one with a layup 15 seconds later.
After the teams traded turnovers, Brackett was fouled with 37.9 seconds to go and she made both shots to push the lead back to three. After another South Portland turnover, Brackett was fouled again. She missed both attempts, but the Red Riots promptly threw the ball away and with 2.9 seconds to go, Brackett hit one more free throw to bring the curtain down on Scarborough’s historic 45-41 victory.
“The kids are starting to believe,” Seavey said. “A year ago, I think we might have shied away and played not to lose instead of to win. We played to win in the fourth quarter tonight. We executed some nice situations. We got layups and got to the foul line. I thought we rebounded very well in the first quarter and in the second half. We lost the momentum in the second quarter when we had three starters with two fouls.
“We knew (South Portland) would be ready. Mike does a great job. His kids are always well prepared to take our strengths away. We tried to take their strengths away.”
Manning led all scorers with 18 points. Brackett and Ross wound up with eight apiece.
The Red Riots (now 3-4 and seventh in the initial Western A Heals) were paced by 16 points from Hawkins and nine from Palmieri.
Instead of being disappointed in the wake of defeat, Giordano was upbeat.
“We were up a basket late and I thought we might get an upset,” he said. “(Scarborough) finished coming down the stretch and we turned it over a few times. Growing pains. I thought overall the kids played well.
“This is the first game we’ve had our whole team. We lost by four to the second best team in our league. I’m pretty pleased. From this point on, I think we’ll see some really good things. Other than Deering, there isn’t anyone else on the schedule we can’t compete with and have a chance to beat.”
South Portland is home with Westbrook Friday and hosts Cheverus Monday.
Scarborough (7-1 and second in the Heals) faced a huge test Thursday (too late for this edition) when it hosted Deering.
“They’re heads and shoulders above everyone else,” Seavey said, of the Rams. “I almost feel like everyone else is playing for second place. You don’t play games on paper or on your record going in. You play on the floor for 32 minutes. We have to handle their pressure. They’re so well balanced, inside and outside. We play similar styles. The first two years we were very intimidated against them. I think we’re starting to play with a bit of an edge. I mean that in a good way.
“We have an x factor that we’ll just get stronger. (Senior) Abbey Pelletier hasn’t played since game two. We’re biding our time, developing some depth and confidence and experience. In the long run, we’ll be that much better. We’re heading in the right direction. We’re happy.”
The Red Storm go to Thornton Academy Friday and play host to Noble Tuesday.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com