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South Portland junior Livvy Cloutier, left, sophomore Cora Boothby-Akilo, sopohomore Maria Degifico, freshman Hylah Owen and sophomore Fiona Stawarz cheer on their teammates during the Red Riots’ 58-35 victory over Bonny Eagle in a Class AA South semifinal Tuesday.
Shawn Patrick Ouellette / Portland Press Herald photos.
More photos below.
PORTLAND—One year after failing to score in the first quarter of an agonizing semifinal round playoff loss to Gorham, South Portland’s top-ranked girls’ basketball team wasn’t about to allow history to repeat itself.
And while it took them awhile to hit their stride, the Red Riots managed to make quick work of No. 5 Bonny Eagle in a Class AA South semifinal at the Cross Insurance Arena, grabbing the lead in the first quarter and behind a balanced attack, going on to a 58-35 victory.
South Portland got 16 points from junior Maggie Whitmore, 12 from junior Kaleisha Towle and 11 from senior Jena Leckie as it extended its win streak to 17, improved to 19-1 on the season, ended the Scots’ campaign at 13-7 and in the process, advanced to meet No. 2 Scarborough (18-2) in the Class AA South Final Friday at 3:45 p.m., at CIA.
“Many of us took last year personally,” Whitmore said. “We didn’t score a point in the first quarter last year. A good start helped us today. We’re more confident this year. Everyone plays their role. We all had something to prove today.”
Last winter, South Portland’s first game at the Cross Insurance Arena saw it shut out by Gorham in the first quarter en route to an agonizing, upset loss.
This season, other than an early loss at powerhouse Greely, the Red Riots have had their way with everyone. South Portland won its final 15 games, then opened the tournament with a 66-33 home victory over Thornton Academy in the quarterfinals Wednesday.
Bonny Eagle quietly put together a strong campaign and a four-game win streak to end the regular season left the Scots 12-6. In Thursday’s quarterfinal round, the Scots went to Noble and pulled away for a 56-35 win.
The teams only met once this year and it was way back on Dec. 7, in the season opener, when the Red Riots won, 59-28, at Bonny Eagle, behind 14 points from Whitmore.
The squads had quite a playoff history, meeting seven times between 1977 and 2001. South Portland won four of those meetings, with a 51-50 victory in the 2001 Western A third round the most recent.
Tuesday, the Red Riots remained on target in their quest for an overdue Gold Ball.
Just 14 seconds in, Whitmore drained a 3 to ensure South Portland wouldn’t have a goose-egg next to its name for long.
The Scots countered with a jump shot from junior Emma Abbott and a layup from senior Samantha Averill, but a Whitmore jumper made it 5-4 Red Riots.
With 3:07 left in the opening stanza, Bonny Eagle took the lead for the final time, 6-5, as Averill drove and banked home a shot, but 14 seconds later, a 3-ball from senior Bela Cloutier put South Portland on top to stay.
Whitmore followed with a layup after a Cloutier steal and after Averill made a pair of free throws, Whitmore countered with a 3 and just before the horn, Whitmore set up junior reserve extraordinaire Ashlee Aceto for a 3-pointer and a 16-8 advantage.
Whitmore had 10 points in the frame and the Red Riots forced seven Scots’ turnovers.
A 3-pointer from Abbott started the second period in auspicious fashion for the Scots, but Towle countered with a jumper and Leckie scored on a putback for a 20-11 lead.
After Averill made a layup, Towle hit a jumper in the lane.
Senior Mackenzie Emery made two foul shots for Bonny Eagle, but Leckie made a 3, then Cloutier did the same, Whitmore made a leaner in the lane and Towle sank two foul shots to extend the lead to 17.
With 19.1 seconds left, a 3-pointer from junior Avianna Rath pulled the Scots within 32-18 at the half.
Whitmore led all first half scorers with 12 points.
Bonny Eagle momentarily made things interesting in the third period before South Portland ended all doubt.
A jumper from Averill, followed by an Averill 3 cut the deficit to nine, but Towle set up Whitmore for a layup, Cloutier scored on a putback and Leckie set up Towle for a layup and a 38-23 lead.
Senior Taylor Johnson answered with a 3 for the Scots, but Leckie hit a jumper, Aceto scored on a leaner with her left hand, Aceto made a layup, then Towle made a layup and Leckie scored on a putback for an insurmountable 48-26 advantage.
After Emery ended the run with two free throws, Towle’s jumper restored the 22-point lead heading for the fourth quarter.
Where both teams’ reserves saw plenty of action.
Leckie made a layup to start the final stanza and after an Emery free throw, Whitmore scored her final points on a jumper.
After sophomore Cora Boothby-Akilo scored on a putback for the Red Riots, sophomore Spring Parsons hit a long jumper for Bonny Eagle.
Sophomore Fiona Stawarz and junior Livvy Cloutier added foul shots for South Portland’s final points and a runner from Averill and an Emery layup accounted for the 58-35 final score.
“We all worked together and that was a big key for us,” said Whitmore. “Everybody took confident shots and they went our way. Our defense led to offense. When our offense isn’t there, we can rely on defense. Bela guards the other team’s best player and we feed off her.”
“We knew what (Bonny Eagle) would do and we executed pretty well offensively,” Red Riots coach Lynne Hasson said. “At the beginning of the game, we got beaten a little bit in transition because we didn’t get back and match up. We fixed it, then we played our defensive game.”
Whitmore, despite playing just three quarters, led all scorers with 16 points. She also had five assists and five rebounds.
Towle added 12 points, six rebounds and three steals and held Bonny Eagle’s 6-foot-5 center Emily Bartash without a point.
“Kaleisha played great today,” said Whitmore.
“Kaleisha is a good matchup on all the top kids,” Hasson said. “She’s done it all year.”
Leckie finished with 11 points and 11 rebounds, Bela Cloutier had eight points and Aceto finished with seven off the bench.
“Ashlee is a big contributor in a lot of ways,” Hasson said. “She hits shots and she’s great defensively.”
Boothby-Akilo added two points and Livvy Cloutier and Stawarz each tallied one.
“The big thing for us is we’re confident to go deep and have those kids take shots and get us rolling,” Whitmore said. “They’re a big part of why we’ve been successful.”
“One of our strengths is balance,” said Hasson. “You can’t take someone away because a lot of kids can score. That’s who we are.”
South Portland enjoyed a commanding 40-23 rebounding advantage and overcame 4 of 8 foul shooting and 17 turnovers.
For Bonny Eagle, Averill bowed out with 15 points and four steals. Emery had seven points (and three assists), Abbott five, Johnson and Rath three apiece and Parsons two.
The Scots committed 21 turnovers and hit 7 of 13 foul shots.
Friday’s regional final figures to be a compelling one.
On Dec. 18, South Portland handled visiting Scarborough, 55-36.
The Red Riots are 2-3 all-time versus the Red Storm in the postseason, in a series which dates to 2009, with a 43-27 victory in the 2017 Class AA South semifinals the most recent.
South Portland is seeking its first state game berth (and state title) since 1986 and these Red Riots are far from satisfied.
“Scarborough is a very good team,” Whitmore said. “They shoot well. They’re confident. If we keep up our defensive intensity, it’ll be an interesting, good game. We’re very excited. It would mean everything to get to states. We’re playing for our seniors who lost three years in a row to Gorham. Some of us wanted to play Gorham to get that revenge, but we’re in the regional final and that’s what important.”
“We’ll have our work cut out for us Friday,” Hasson said. “(Scarborough’s) a perimeter shooting team. We have to communicate and get out and defend their shooters. I think it’ll be a heck of a game. We’ve had a tough time getting by Gorham and now we don’t have to, but it doesn’t matter. I think we have a chance against anyone if we play well. For these kids and the kids from the past couple years, it’s everyone’s dream to win states. We’ve been so close and we’ve had heartbreak. To get over the hump and win a Gold Ball after 33 years would mean so much. The opportunity is there.”
Bonny Eagle senior Samantha Averill passes the ball away from South Portland junior Ashlee Aceto.
South Portland junior Ashlee Aceto defends Bonny Eagle senior Samantha Averill.
Bonny Eagle junior Emma Abbott gets South Portland senior Katie Whitmore airborne.
South Portland senior Bela Cloutier knocks over Bonny Eagle senior Samantha Averill.