SOUTH PORTLAND—Let’s face it. It’s fun to be good.
When South Portland senior Matt Lee officially punched out with Thursday night’s 62-50 win over Deering all but secure late in the fourth quarter and proceeded to literally, bark like a dog, shuffling his way down the bench toward refreshment, something about it just seemed real and well-deserved even.
This genuine moment merely a reflection of the swagger emanating from the once proud-program that looked every bit the part of top contender against the Rams. The good-time vibrations at Beal Gymnasium indicating perhaps this team and city have finally adjusted to the very real absence of Keegan Hyland, the centerpiece of a senior group considered quite scissor-worthy when this long, grinding Western Class A season got underway back in December.
In fact, from the minute Small Elementary School fifth-grader Emma Jones snatched the microphone half her size and stunned the crowd by delivering a chill-sending rendition of the Star Spangled Banner, the old building shook with that late-season energy socked away by the legends and ghosts of champions past.
South Portland simply looked bigger, stronger, faster and somehow even far more content, racing out to a 17-4 lead after one quarter with a workmanlike focus that saw six players score at least two points while only sophomore Jon Amabile managed a pair of buckets for the Rams.
With a balanced score sheet fueled by complete domination in the category of rebounding, four different Red Riots hit for double-digits against the Rams, none of them named Lee or Hyland. In a welcome development, senior Jon DiBiase had the breakout game South Portland’s been waiting for with 15 points (and seven rebounds), including a pair of big 3-pointers late to hold off the final Deering push and improve to 13-2 on the season.
The captain, senior Connor Hasson, powered South Portland’s effort on the glass and was rewarded with 12 points (and grabbed 10 rebounds). Newly anointed starting center, senior Greg Reinhold, tossed in 11 on five hoops and one free throw. And senior Spencer Bowring further proved he just might be the X-factor down the stretch with 11 points on a spectacular display of soaring, hanging finishes at the rim. Bowring bundled all his scoring into the first half, including seven big points in the second quarter to help the Red Riots stay comfortably in control at intermission leading 29-20.
“I thought we were able to attack the hoop and get great looks tonight,” said South Portland coach Phil Conley, looking like he just hopped out of a log-flume ride. “We won the battle of the boards. In games when we’ve been successful we’ve done a good job on the glass. I’m proud of how we played. These kids have worked very hard.”
Deering came out complacent not 48 hours removed from a monster win over a surging Windham team at home on Tuesday, victimized by a juiced up South Portland crowd and a sleepy first half. Amabile was the only player to get off the bus in time for tipoff, leading all scorers with 18 points including 16 of Deering’s 20 before intermission.
Amabile collected the game-opening tap and took five dribbles before rising for a short jumper in the paint for the Rams’ first points and only lead of the game at 2-0. South Portland ran off the next nine before Amabile hit again on a jumper in traffic, then watched the Red Riots reel off another eight-straight to take a commanding 17-4 advantage.
Bowring hit one foul shot and buried a 3 from the deep corner for a 4-2 lead, Reinhold dropped in an easy two under the basket, and Hasson hit one free throw and scored on the baseline after clearing space with the power-dribble for a 9-2 South Portland lead.
After Amabile’s second hoop made it 9-4, Reinhold added another easy deuce, DiBiase scored his first with a clever bank shot, and senior Brian McHugh followed Lee’s first hoop with a pair of foul shots to close out the first.
South Portland extended its 8-0 run to 12 when Hasson pulled down one of several offensive rebounds and scored. Bowring accepted a sweet backdoor feed from Lee slashing toward the basket on the left side, hung in the air when confronted by a Deering defender and finished on the other side of the rim to give South Portland its largest lead of the game at 21-4 with 5:38 left in the second quarter.
“This win was all about the team,” said Bowring. “All the big guys got on the boards and we locked them down on defense. Against all the city teams we know there going to make a run at some point. They were about to lose two games to us and that’s not a good feeling. We had to continue to match their intensity and I think we all did a good job with that tonight.”
Amabile sprang back into action with six straight points on his way to 12 in the quarter to keep the Rams close enough to entertain a comeback. With the score now 21-10, Bowring dropped in another soaring layup, colliding with a defender but staying airborne long enough for him to go away. Amabile answered back, and after a stop the first other player from Deering finally scored when junior Dennis Ross connected with senior Jamie Ross with 3:20 left in the first half to make it 23-14.
The hoop from Ross was the second in an 8-0 run for Deering that helped close the gap to 23-18 after senior Eddie Tirabassi (five points) scored and Amabile followed with a steal at halfcourt and coast-to-coast layup to suddenly get within five.
But Bowring hit his second 3-pointer from Lee (seven points), this one in the other corner, and the Red Riots scored six straight on a McHugh foul shot and layup from DiBiase.
Amabile closed out his red-hot second with a slick layup on the give-and-go from Jamie Ross and despite trailing by as many as 17 points the Rams had a second half to play for now at 29-20 after two quarters.
“We don’t play hard enough,” said Amabile. “They were bigger and stronger than us tonight. When they got out to the big lead we lost some confidence. I tried to step it up and get something going for us. We started to get some stops and convert on the offensive end. But overall we didn’t play hard enough and need to focus more.”
Things looked even better for Deering after they outscored the home team 17-11 in the third to get within three points, 40-37 to start the fourth. Amabile cooled off, but his backcourt mate junior Nick Colucci finally connected from 3 and finished with five points in the third on his way to an eight-point showing. Tirabassi converted a three-point play and Jamie Ross began to assert himself with six of his 10 points in the quarter on an array of powerful layups in the paint to make this one suddenly quite interesting.
Midway through the third when Dennis Ross (nine points) once again found Jamie Ross for a high-banking layup the Rams had actually fought back to within a single point, 33-32.
But at just the right time, DiBiase came through for South Portland and drained a pair of 3-pointers to close out the quarter and help survive his team survive a valiant comeback effort by the Rams after a lackluster start put them in a deep hole on the road to the league’s third-ranked team.
“They got out to a big lead and that was the story,” said Deering coach Dan LeGage. “We talked about being able to rebound and stop them from penetrating with the dribble. But we weren’t able to do that for most of the night, especially early. When we did we made some runs on offense and we’re able to get back in the game. They just killed us on the glass. Their big and strong and that’s what they do. We showed some guts coming back but we never got over that hump.”
The 40-37 score after three would be as close as this game would get, when Reinhold sandwiched a pair of layups around another hoop from DiBiase in a 6-0 run that gave the Red Riots a 46-37 edge. Jamie Ross added another bucket and Dennis Ross hit one foul shot, but Lee’s crow-hopping layup on the left block found the bottom of the net to finish off a 10-3 stretch and put South Portland on top 48-39 with four minutes left to play.
Lee matched another 3 from Colucci one-minute later and Hasson sank 5-of-8 from the line to go with DiBiase’s 3-for-4 in the final stages as the South Portland train kept rolling along with a 62-50 win.
“(DiBiase) was terrific tonight,” said Conley. “Like all good point guards do, he ran the show and was able to get us set up in our offense. It was nice to see.”
For South Portland, that tough stretch of schedule to end the season has finally arrived. In what could easily be a late-round playoff preview the Red Riots will travel to a hostile Warren Centennial Gymnasium Saturday night for a showdown with the second-ranked Blue Blazes. To finish out the season, they’ll go on the road to the Expo seeking revenge against a Portland Bulldogs’ team that handed South Portland its first and only home loss of the season.
However, the prospects of closing out strong and even getting it done in the regional final for the first time since 1993 just got a whole lot better looking with the recent developments at Cheverus. With the Red Riots suffering through Hyland’s ordeal all season, the Stags just received a dose of news with similar ramifications. Indiana Faithfull, the Stags three-year starting point guard, has been ruled ineligible for the remainder of the season after it was discovered he has exhausted his eight semesters of eligibility by virtue of some odd timing relative to his 2006 transfer from his native Australia. Just in the nick of time for the Red Riots, who welcome the top-ranked Stags to Beal for the regular season finale next Friday night (Feb. 5).
“For the most part we’ll just continue to work in practice like we normally would,” said Conley. “We’ll be focused and ready but stay in our routine. We’re 13-2 so we’ll go with what’s been working for us all along.”
Deering will be looking to get ready for the tournament when it faces Marshwood Saturday night. The Rams should know more about where they fit into the regional puzzle when they close out the season with big games at Cheverus next Tuesday night and Portland on Saturday.