South Portland boys shock the South, take regional crown

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South Portland’s boys’ basketball team erupts with joy after holding off Massabesic, 62-60, Friday night to win the Class AA South title. The Red Riots meet powerhouse Portland in the inaugural Class AA state final Saturday night in Portland.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.

Nobody saw this coming.

Check that, a handful of coaches and players did, but South Portland emerging as the Class AA South champion Friday night by virtue of a palpitating regional final victory over Massabesic caught most of the basketball-loving populace of Maine by surprise.

A mere two weeks after finishing the regular season at .500 after they dropped seven of their final nine contests, the Red Riots (12-9) have punched their ticket to the Class AA state game, where they will meet powerhouse Portland (19-1) Saturday at 9 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Arena.

South Portland, ranked fourth for the tournament, began to show promise by virtue of a 62-44 quarterfinal round win over No. 5 Sanford a week ago Thursday. In Tuesday’s semifinals, the Red Riots continued to surge, upsetting top-ranked Thornton Academy, 39-36.

South Portland was viewed as the underdog coming into Friday’s contest at the Cross Insurance Arena. Third-ranked Massabesic had beaten No. 6 Scarborough and No. 2 Gorham to advance and handled the visiting Red Riots, 64-47, back on Jan. 22.

The teams had no playoff history.

They sure do now.

The Mustangs took a quick 3-0 lead, but South Portland overcame some early jitters and got on the board with 3:47 to go in the opening stanza, when unheralded sophomore Riley Hasson, who has provided some key minutes off the bench for the team all season, knocked down a 3-pointer.

With 2:02 remaining, senior Jack Fiorini first made his presence felt with a layup, giving the Red Riots their first lead.

Massabesic got a pair of free throws from senior Ryan Gullikson to tie it, but South Portland senior Sam DePaolo countered with a layup. After Mustangs senior Dan Amabile tied the score with a jumper, Fiorini’s 3-pointer with just five seconds remaining gave the Red Riots a 10-7 lead heading for the second period.

Where the contest remained neck-and-neck.

The Mustangs retook the lead by starting the frame with six successive points, as Amabile hit a jumper, senior Tyus Sprague-Ripley made a layup and Gullikson did the same.

Fiorini got two points back with a layup, but Sprague-Ripley made two foul shots.

With 6:10 to go before halftime, an old-fashioned three-point play from Fiorini tied the score, but Massabesic went back ahead, 17-15, on senior Weston Bergeron’s layup.

After senior Matt Pelletier pulled South Portland even with a layup, Gullikson made a layup and Amabile hit two free throws to make it 21-17 Mustangs.

After Fiorini made a jumper, the Red Riots heated up from 3-point land, as first senior Matt Pelletier, then Hasson, drained long-range bombs to make it 25-21 South Portland.

The lead wouldn’t hold, as the Mustangs got a jumper from Sprague-Ripley and a layup from senior Josh Daigle with 20 seconds to go to forge a 25-25 halftime tie.

In the first half, the Red Riots turned the ball over 10 times, but hit 63 percent of its shots from the floor, made 4 of 7 3-pointers and got 12 points from Fiorini and six from Hasson.

“Our advantage is our size, so with Ruay and (6-foot-5-inch senior Jordin Jackson) out with foul trouble, we needed Jack to carry us and for our guards to take care of the ball,” said South Portland first-year coach Kevin Millington. “Matt and Riley hit some big threes. We played good defense and rebounded well.”

Massabesic shot 53 percent from the field and was paced by eight points from Gullikson, seven from Sprague-Ripley and six from Amabile.

The third quarter featured four ties and three lead changes and resolved absolutely nothing.

Jackson made a free throw and Fiorini hit a jumper to get South Portland started, but the Mustangs tied the game on a Sprague-Ripley 3, then went ahead, 30-28, when Gullikson made a layup.

Jackson tied the game with a jump shot, but Gullikson answered with a jumper.

With 4:41 remaining in the third, junior Ruay Bol made a layup for the Red Riots and he was just warming up.

Massabesic grabbed a five-point lead, as Gullikson hit a 3 and Daigle made a layup, but South Portland got a jumper from Pelletier, then tied the score on a three-point play by Jackson with 2:21 left.

Twenty seconds later, Bol made a transition layup for the layup and with 1:46 to go, Bol made another layup to make it 41-37 Red Riots.

Sprague-Ripley made a layup for the Mustangs, but with 1:06 left in the third, Hasson lobbed a pass to Bol, who slammed it home, sending the South Portland bench and cheering section into delirium, and the lead was back to four.

“That was incredible,” Fiorini said. “That’s a set play we have. It was amazing.”

The Red Riots couldn’t hold it, however, as Gullikson countered with a clutch 3 and at the horn, Amabile’s jumper put Massabesic back on top, 44-43.

The fun was just beginning.

The fourth quarter would remain taut, but South Portland would find a way to be the last team standing.

Forty-three seconds in, Bol made a three-point play to give the Red Riots the lead, but Gullikson tied the score with a layup. Bol continued to carry his team with a layup, but an Amabile 3 with 5:54 left made it 49-48 Mustangs and Sprague-Ripley added two foul shots for a three-point lead.

South Portland then went on a 9-0 run to take the lead for good.

A jumper from Bol with 4:56 left got the surge started. With 4:02 remaining, Bol’s layup put the Red Riots ahead to stay. Fiorini then broke Bol’s 15-point scoring run with a layup and with 2:43 left, Fiorini tipped home Bol’s miss. A free throw from Bol with 2:19 remaining made it 57-51 Red Riots.

“In the first half, we just wanted to keep it close, but in the second half, it was all heart,” said Fiorini.

Massabesic wasn’t done, however, and Sprague-Ripley made a layup with 1:48 to play. Bol tipped in his own miss and after a Sprague-Ripley layup, Bol made one of his own with 55 seconds to play, making it 61-55 South Portland.

The Red Riots then had to hold on for dear life in the final minute.

With 38 seconds left, Daigle converted a three-point play to make it a one-possession game.

DePaolo hit one of two free throws 12 seconds later, but with 12 seconds remaining, Sprague-Ripley’s layup cut the South Portland lead to 62-60.

When Hasson missed a free throw, the Mustangs had a chance to win it, but the Red Riots turned up the defense and didn’t allow a shot and were at last able to celebrate the palpitating 62-60 victory.

“We got back on defense and set up and Gullikson drove at me,” Fiorini said. “I think he wanted to pull up and shoot, but he got the ball to Tyus and he didn’t have time. When the horn sounded, we went crazy. It was pretty exciting. It was great that we had such a huge crowd. South Portland took up one whole side of the Civic Center.

“Our intensity was different tonight. The team has taken a turn for the best. Beating Sanford got us our confidence back. It was big for us to be able to close out TA. That was something we hadn’t done all year. (The regional final) was our last chance as seniors. We’ve hard for this since our freshman year when we saw those seniors go to states. We wanted to follow in their footsteps.”

“We weren’t going to win easily,” Millington said. “They’re relentless. We made just enough free throws and took just good enough care of the ball. They just ran out of time. It was so exciting. There was such a big crowd there. I’m so happy for the kids. It was a genuine celebration.”

Millington pointed to the Deering game to close the regular season (a two-point loss on a buzzer beater) for the impetus for this regional title run.

“That game was so crucial because we had an awful habit of being in close games in the fourth quarter, then losing by double digits, but we found a way to fight in that one and that gave us momentum,” Millington said. “We knew the four teams in the South were good, but that we could beat them. I was pleased with how we played against Sanford. We knew we’d have to win ugly against TA and we made plays when we had to down the stretch.

“The first time we played Massabesic, the first eight possessions, we threw the ball away. They didn’t create our turnovers, we did, and we got down early. I didn’t feel like we couldn’t beat them. We also switched to a zone last time and they had trouble against it. We learned from that first game.”

Bol had a game-high 22 points, in a clutch performance that will long be hailed.

“Ruay came out in the second half and was unbelievable to watch,” Fiorini said. “We all just sat back and watched him do his thing.”

“You never know what you’ll get from a player in foul trouble, but fortunately for us, Ruay came out and played with the eye of the tiger,” Millington said. “He was amazing.”

Fiorini had 18 points, a game-high eight rebounds, three assists, three steals and two blocked shots and was named the regional tournament’s Most Valuable Player.

“It’s a tremendous honor,” said Fiorini, who already has two regional and one state boys’ lacrosse championship under his belt. “I wasn’t really paying attention during the announcement until everyone told me to go up there. It was awesome to receive it, but my teammates have everything to do with me getting it.”

“Jack is at his best on the big stage and the bigger the stage, the better he’ll play,” Millington said. “He was our steady scorer and played good defense and he rebounded better than he has all year.”

Pelletier added seven points, Hasson and Jackson each finished with six and DePaolo finished with three. 

South Portland turned the ball over 13 times, but had a 21-17 rebounding advantage, shot a sizzling 55 percent from the floor and made 6 of 10 free throws.

Massabesic was paced by 20 points apiece from Gullikson and Sprague-Ripley. Amabile added 11, Daigle had seven and Bergeron two.

The Mustangs committed 14 turnovers, shot 56 percent from the floor and sank 10 of 13 free throws as their best season this century came to an end at 16-5.

Herculean task

South Portland will be a decided underdog in the state final Saturday when it takes on an absolute juggernaut of a Portland squad, which decimated Edward Little (70-43) and Deering (70-39) in its two tournament games and had its way with the Red Riots during the regular season.

The Bulldogs opened the year with a 75-56 home victory over South Portland Dec. 4, then rolled at the Red Riots, 68-38, Feb. 2.

South Portland has won 15 of the 28 previous playoff meetings, dating to 1923. South Portland won the most recent, 49-41, in the 2013 Western A semifinals.

After losing a close game to Hampden Academy in the 2013 state final, the Red Riots have wanted nothing more than to earn another shot at cutting down the nets for the first time since 1992.

They’ll need nothing short of a tremendous effort from everyone on the roster next weekend to make that happen.

“We just have to believe,” said Fiorini, who will attend and play lacrosse at Syracuse University next year. “Our whole mindset has changed these past couple weeks. I think we’re as talented as anyone. Another week of practice will help us out. I’m happy we get to go another week. I’d love to end my high school basketball career with a ‘W.'” 

“We have to play our game, which won’t be easy against Portland,” Millington said. “We can’t play their game. We’ve talked about playing Portland in the state final since the first day this year. We wouldn’t have it any other way. It’s going to be fun.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

South Portland junior Ruay Bol brings down the house with this second half slam dunk.

South Portland senior Matt Pelletier leans in for a shot as Massabesic senior Weston Bergeron defends.

South Portland senior Jordin Jackson tries to block Massabesic senior Ryan Gullikson’s shot.

South Portland senior Jack Fiorini, who was named the regional tournament’s MVP, screams with joy late in the contest.

South Portland senior Jack Fiorini waves the net in the postgame ceremony.

South Portland’s seniors show off the regional championship plaque.

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Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at theforecaster.net. I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.