South Portland sophomore Maggie Whitmore lines up a shot as Maine Girls’ Academy sophomore Jill Joyce defends during Wednesday’s battle between two top Class AA South contenders. Whitmore led all scorers with 16 points as the Red Riots stayed undefeated with a 62-40 victory.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.
SP- 27 8 15 12- 62
MGA- 11 5 14 10- 40
SP- M. Whitmore 8-0-16, Boles 3-0-9, Graff 4-0-8, Towle 4-0-8, B. Cloutier 3-0-6, Leckie 3-0-6, Mazur 2-0-5, Aceto 1-0-2, K. Whitmore 1-0-2
MGA- Reid 6-1-14, Joyce 2-5-9, Olson 3-0-7, Fitzpatrick 1-4-7, Weisser 1-1-3
SP (4) Boles 3, Mazur 1
MGA (3) Fitzpatrick, Olson, Reid 1
PORTLAND—There might be someone in Class AA this season capable of beating the South Portland girls’ basketball team, but two-thirds of the way through the schedule, it’s looking more and more as if the Red Riots have no peer.
Wednesday evening, South Portland visited one of its top challengers, the resurgent Lions of Maine Girls’ Academy, but in a highly-anticipated and twice-weather delayed contest, the Red Riots left no doubt that they’re the team to beat.
For many reasons.
South Portland senior Eva Mazur, a former Lion, made a 3-pointer 33 seconds in to put the Red Riots on top to stay and senior Sarah Boles added another shot from downtown for a quick 6-1 lead. MGA pulled within 6-5, but a 10-0 run, sparked by superb defense and sharpshooting, allowed South Portland to go up, 22-7, and it led eventually by a whopping 27-11 margin after one quarter.
The Lions settled down in the second period and slowed the Red Riots’ attack, but they weren’t able to cut into the deficit and South Portland took a 35-16 advantage to the break.
In the third quarter, MGA got as close as 15, but the Red Riots, thanks to strong play from sophomore Maggie Whitmore, as well as several reserves, pushed the lead to 50-30 heading for the final stanza.
There, the Lions never made a serious run and South Portland closed out its 62-40 victory.
Whitmore led all scorers with 16 points, nine different Red Riots got in the scoring column and South Portland made it 12 wins in a row as it improved to 12-0 on the year, handing MGA its second straight loss and dropping the Lions to 9-2 in the process.
“It might be our best team effort in a couple years, certainly in 12 games,” said Red Riots coach Lynne Hasson. “It was a total, complete game for us, which we’ve been waiting for. There was a lot of hype around it and a great atmosphere.”
This contest was eagerly anticipated for awhile.
South Portland, which took two-time champion Gorham to the wire in last year’s Class AA South Final, has completely lived up to preseason expectations, winning its first 11 games by an average of over 16 points.
The Red Riots opened with wins over visiting Bonny Eagle (61-41), Cheverus (49-31) and Greely (63-53), host Scarborough (40-32) and visiting Oxford Hills (49-32). South Portland then opened the new year by dispatching visiting Sanford (62-26) and winning at Massabesic (49-26) and Windham (50-28). After holding off host Portland in a thriller, 47-38, the Red Riots downed visiting Deering (49-40) and Thornton Academy (55-46) last weekend.
Maine Girls’ Academy faced its share of obstacles a year ago, but still managed to make it to the semifinals, where it lost to Gorham. This winter, the Lions have returned to their accustomed spot near the top of the standings.
MGA opened with a 52-44 win at Noble, then downed visiting Sanford (48-41), Westbrook (54-37), Bonny Eagle (59-40) and Biddeford (57-34). The Lions then won at Windham (68-62), Massabesic (39-37), Gorham (50-41) and Kennebunk (64-35) before finally falling from the unbeaten ranks with a 42-39 setback at Portland Friday.
This one was originally scheduled to be played Jan. 13 and again last Wednesday, but Mother Nature had other ideas.
Had the teams meet on either of those dates, the game would have been a battle of unbeatens, but while the Lions came in with one blemish, it was still a very compelling matchup between two very talented squads.
Last year, South Portland beat MGA in both meetings: 58-29 at home and 47-34 in Portland to make it three in a row in the series (see sidebar, below).
Wednesday, in front of a turn-back-the-clock, energetic, nearly-full house, the Lions looked to turn the tables, but the Red Riots continued to show off why they’re setting the pace so far this winter.
The game began inauspiciously for South Portland, as it won the opening tip, but immediately threw the ball back over the midcourt stripe for a turnover.
MGA then got the game’s first point, as after an offensive rebound, sophomore Jill Joyce made a free throw, but the Red Riots hinted at big things to come, as first Mazur, then Boles sank 3-pointers for a 6-1 lead.
For Mazur, who starred for then-McAuley as a freshman and sophomore, her final game on the court brought mixed emotions.
“It was so sentimental in the beginning,” Mazur said. “I still can remember running out here as a freshman. Then the game started and I focused on winning.”
The Lions pulled back within one on a free throw from sophomore Katie Ftizpatrick and a 3 from Fitzpatrick which banked in, but off an inbounds set, Mazur fed Whitmore for a layup, senior Meghan Graff set up Whitmore for a layup in transition and after a steal, Mazur made a layup to extend the lead to 12-5.
“Eva’s such a great player,” Hasson said. “And she’s such an unselfish player. She sees the court well and makes great passes.”
MGA got two points back on a layup after a steal from junior Catherine Reid, but South Portland erupted for 10 straight points to break it open.
After Whitmore got the run started with a jumper in the lane, junior Katie Whitmore stole the ball and made a layup, Maggie Whitmore hit another jumper, Mazur set up Graff for a fastbreak layup and with 2:04 to go in the opening stanza, a Graff putback extended the lead to 22-7.
Out of a timeout, the Lions got a long jumper from Reid, but Graff countered with a jump shot.
After MGA sophomore Hope Olson banked home a shot, Boles made a 3 and South Portland had a commanding 27-11 lead after eight minutes.
“Getting out to an early lead was great and everything just came together,” Maggie Whitmore said.
“Defensively, this was by far our best game of the year and to put up 27 points in the first quarter was key,” Hasson said. “The way we ran the floor was the difference.”
“They were amazing,” said Lions coach Billy Goodman, of the Red Riots. “They made every shot. They played great. They played team basketball, they made every shot they took. They get all the credit. That was probably the best quarter I’ve seen in high school basketball.”
In the first quarter, Maggie Whitmore led the way with eight points, while Boles and Graff each added six and Mazur had five points, four assists, four rebounds and a pair of steals.
MGA managed to slow down the Red Riots’ offense in the second period, but couldn’t cut into the deficit.
A 3 from Olson got things started, but South Portland junior reserve extraordinaire Bela Cloutier made her presence felt by stealing the ball and making a layup.
“Coach told us the other day to make the most of our minutes,” Cloutier said. “My mindset was to do the best I can. I try to play good defense, make hustle plays.”
After a pair of Joyce free throws, Maggie Whitmore hit a jumper in the lane and junior Jena Leckie added a pair of putbacks in the final minute to extend the South Portland lead to 35-16 at the break.
The Red Riots forced 13 Lions’ turnovers in the first half, while Maggie Whitmore had 10 points, thanks to her intermediate jumpers.
“Just the flow of the game, that was the shot that was open for me and I had to take it,” Whitmore said.
MGA showed life to start the second half, as Joyce scored on a putback and Reid got a runner to rattle home, but Graff set up Maggie Whitmore for a layup, Whitmore hit a short jumper and a corner 3-pointer from Boles extended the lead to 42-20.
Reid got three points back, senior Emily Weisser scored on a putback, then Fitzpatrick made two free throws to cap a 7-0 run, but Maggie Whitmore ended the surge with a runner.
After Reid hit a floater, sophomore Ashlee Aceto made a jumper and Graff hit a jump shot from just inside the 3-point line to push the lead to 19. After Fitzpatrick made a free throw for the hosts, a transition jump shot from sophomore Kaleisha Towle gave South Portland a 50-30 advantage heading for the fourth quarter.
There, the Red Riots salted away their 12th straight win.
Reid started the final stanza with a free throw, but off an inbounds pass, Mazur passed to Towle for a layup.
Weisser made a foul shot for the hosts, but Towle sank another jumper to make it 54-32.
Joyce countered with a jump shot, but Leckie hit a jumper, Graff set up Towle for a layup and with 4:30 on the clock, Cloutier made a jump shot for a 60-34 lead.
The Lions got a putback from Reid, a reverse layup from Olson and two foul shots from Joyce, but with 1:01 on the clock, Cloutier hit a long jumper to bring the curtain down on South Portland’s 62-40 victory.
“Our focus coming in was defense,” said Maggie Whitmore. “They have a really good defense, so we had to match their intensity.”
“We were really worried about our offense because they’re so good on defense,” Mazur said. “In the huddle before the game, we talked about shutting them down and that the offense would come to us. We had a great start. We always do a good job of not letting runs get in our heads.”
Maggie Whitmore led the way with 16 points and seven rebounds.
“Maggie made a lot of good decisions with the ball,” said Hasson. “She’s a great jump shooter. She doesn’t always need to go to the basket. She’s as consistent in that shot as with layups.”
Boles had three 3-pointers for nine points, Graff (five rebounds, five assists) and Towle had eight points apiece, Cloutier and Leckie (five boards) added six each, Mazur had five (to go with nine rebounds, six assists and four steals) and Aceto and Katie Whitmore both wound up with two.
“Ashlee comes out and doesn’t make a mistake, Bela is an amazing shooter, Kaleisha was doing so well finishing and Jena is an unbelievable rebounder,” said Mazur.
“We push each other so hard in practice,” said Maggie Whitmore. “That makes us so much better. It shows on the court. When the reserves come in, they’re comfortable to pick up their role.”
“Players off the bench made a difference,” added Hasson. “Jena came in and scored on putbacks and Bela came in and got steals. Ashlee hit a shot and Kaleisha hit a couple great shots. We’ve got a lot of pieces to the puzzle and kids who can play.”
The Red Riots enjoyed a 35-26 rebounding advantage, overcame 15 turnovers and in a statistical anomaly, didn’t attempt a free throw.
MGA was paced by 14 points from Reid, who also had seven rebounds, five steals and a pair of assists.
“Catherine has been consistently our best player,” Goodman said. “She’s one of the most coachable kids I’ve had. She gives 120 percent. I’m very lucky to coach her.”
Joyce added nine points (and eight rebounds), Fitzpatrick and Olson each had seven points and Weisser finished with three.
The Lions made 11 of 16 free throws, but turned the ball over 17 times.
Class AA South is arguably the best and deepest region in the state. In addition to South Portland and MGA, you have still-dangerous Gorham, surging Scarborough and Bonny Eagle and Thornton Academy squads that no one will want to face in February.
In light of that, both teams really want to finish as high as possible in the final standings.
MGA (third in the Class AA South Heals) looks to bounce back Friday at Sanford. Next week brings home games against Thornton Academy, Massabesic and top AA North contender, Cheverus. The Lions then finish the regular season on the road, with tests at Deering, Marshwood and Scarborough.
“I need to coach better and we have to get back to basics,” Goodman said. “I have to find new ways to get through to the team.”
South Portland (which appears to have a stranglehold on the top spot in AA South) returns to action Friday at home versus Falmouth. Monday brings a makeup game at Noble and Tuesday brings a trip to Edward Little. The Red Riots will look to avenge their last two playoff ousters when they go to Gorham Saturday, Feb. 2, before closing with games at home versus Portland and at Cheverus.
“We have really good chemistry as a team,” Cloutier said. “We all work together. We’re very close on and off the court. That really helps. We’re a team of 12 amazing players. Our goal is the Gold Ball. We have to keep working hard in practice. We know it won’t be handed to us. There’s always pressure, but it’s also fun with this team.”
“We have confidence and we keep our composure during games,” said Mazur. “This was a good game, but we have to maintain this and improve. We haven’t played this way the whole season.”
“We have to keep getting better and finish the season strong and get ready for February,” said Maggie Whitmore.
“This was a lot of fun, but it’s not the state championship,” Hasson added. “Hopefully this wasn’t our best game of the year tonight. I think we’re still a work in progress. Tonight was a great game for us, but we can still get better. As long as we continue to improve, we’ll be fine. There’s a lot of good teams out there. It’s exciting.”
South Portland senior Eva Mazur, who was a Lion her freshman and sophomore years, drives past MGA sophomore Hope Olson.
South Portland junior Jena Leckie goes up for a layup.
MGA sophomore Jill Joyce is defended by South Portland sophomore Maggie Whitmore.
MGA sophomore Hope Olson lofts a shot over the South Portland defense.
MGA sophomore Serena Mower drives on South Portland senior Meghan Graff.
MGA sophomore Katie Fitzpatrick is hounded by South Portland senior Eva Mazur.
MGA junior Catherine Reid takes a long shot as South Portland senior Sarah Boles arrives too late. Reid led the Lions with 14 points in defeat.
South Portland senior Sarah Boles blows past MGA freshman Madison StoreySmith.
@ South Portland 58 MGA 29
South Portland 47 @ MGA 34
McAuley 75 @ South Portland 48
@ McAuley 53 South Portland 11
McAuley 43 @ South Portland 39
Western A quarterfinals
McAuley 52 South Portland 27
@ McAuley 55 South Portland 24
McAuley 51 @ South Portland 32
@ McAuley 47 South Portland 31
McAuley 51 @ South Portland 45
South Portland 41 @ McAuley 37 (OT)
South Portland 42 @ McAuley 26
@ South Portland 48 McAuley 41
@ South Portland 36 McAuley 28
@ McAuley 44 South Portland 38
Western A semifinals
South Portland 39 McAuley 29
@ South Portland 55 McAuley 47
South Portland 68 @ McAuley 56
@ McAuley 61 South Portland 46
McAuley 65 @ South Portland 28
McAuley 47 @ South Portland 37
@ McAuley 73 South Portland 42