South Portland stifles Scarborough in semis

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South Portland sophomore Bela Cloutier defends Scarborough senior Brooke Malone as Red Storm senior Jordyn Cowan looks for a pass during the Red Riots’ 43-27 win Tuesday in a Class AA South semifinal. South Portland will meet defending state champion Gorham in the regional final Friday night.

PORTLAND—When the South Portland girls’ basketball team lost at Scarborough back on Jan. 3, its season could have gone one of two ways.

It could have down the drain, or the Red Riots could have used that loss as motivation and rebounded.

It’s safe to say that South Portland has responded like champions and now, the Red Riots are in fact, two victories away from being crowned as such.

Tuesday afternoon at a chilly Cross Insurance Arena, South Portland and Scarborough met up again, in a Class AA South semifinal, and the Red Riots, thanks to a stellar defensive effort and a key contribution from a secret weapon, put their earlier loss to bed once and for all.

South Portland took the lead for good midway through the first quarter, but only was up, 9-7, after eight minutes, as a late 3-pointer from Red Storm senior Brooke Malone closed the gap.

The Red Riots tried to pull away in the second period, as freshman sensation Maggie Whitmore scored a couple baskets, but Scarborough junior standout Sophie Glidden, who was the difference in the teams’ first meeting, kept her team in it and South Portland was up by a mere three points, 19-16, at halftime.

The Red Riots then found another gear to start the second half, forcing four straight turnovers and scoring eight consecutive points to take their biggest lead, 27-16, on a jumper from junior Eva Mazur with 5:42 to go in the third quarter.

The Red Storm came back and pulled within five late in the frame on a putback by Glidden, but that proved to be Scarborough’s final points and a jumper from junior Meghan Graff gave South Portland a 34-27 advantage heading for the final quarter.

There, the Red Riots slammed the door by not allowing a single point and when sophomore Bela Cloutier, the aforementioned secret weapon, opened the period with a 3-pointer, South Portland was well on its way.

The Red Riots scored the game’s final six points from there and went on to a 43-27 victory.

Graff had 13 points, Whitmore added 11 and Cloutier finished with seven as South Portland won its 13th straight game, improved to 17-2, ended Scarborough’s season at 16-4 and advanced to meet top-ranked, defending Class AA champion Gorham (19-0) in the regional final Friday at 6 p.m., in Portland.

“We believe if we play our best defensive game, that we’re tough to beat and we did that tonight,” said Red Riots coach Lynne Hasson. “We’ve been very good defensively the past couple years. If we bring defense, everything else works itself out.” 

Gorham chasers

While defending state champion Gorham entered the tournament as the heavy favorite to repeat, both Scarborough and South Portland believed they had what it takes to dethrone the Rams.

The Red Riots closed the regular season on a 12-game win streak to earn the No. 2 seed and earned a bye into the semifinal round (see sidebar, below, for links to previous game stories).

The Red Storm started 15-1, then lost their final two games and dropped to the No. 3 seed in Class AA South before holding off No. 6 Thornton Academy, 42-38, in the quarterfinals last Thursday.

Scarborough took the regular season meeting, 46-40, Jan. 3 at home, as Glidden led the way with 18 points and Malone had 13, which was more than enough to counter Graff’s 16.

“For whatever reason, we just didn’t play well in that game,” Hasson said. “We were tentative. We missed a lot of shots, couldn’t catch the ball. Credit to Scarborough. They played tough defense. That was a long time ago. We knew we were better than we were that game. We knew we had the ability to play better this time.” 

The teams had met four previous times in the playoffs (see sidebar, below), with Scarborough holding a 3-1 edge. Last year, the Red Riots held on for a 49-41 victory in the Class AA South quarterfinals.

Tuesday, South Portland made an impressive statement.

It took Glidden all of 20 seconds to open the scoring with a jumper, but Whitmore scored on a putback and Graff did the same.

With 4:21 to go in the first quarter, Malone leaned in and banked home a shot to tie the score, but the Red Storm didn’t score again until late in the frame.

A leaner from sophomore Katie Whitmore put South Portland on top and Cloutier added her first 3-pointer for a five-point lead.

The final seconds weren’t kind to the Red Riots, however, as Mazur was whistled for her second foul with 14 seconds to go and with 2.6 seconds showing, Malone knocked down a 3 to cut the deficit to 9-7.

In the second period, South Portland again threatened to pull away, but again, Scarborough came back.

Putbacks from Graff and Maggie Whitmore extended the lead to 13-7 early in the frame.

After Glidden answered by driving for a layup, Whitmore scored on a putback with a circus scoop shot.

The Red Storm then pulled within one, as sophomore Josie Couture hit a jumper and Glidden drained a 3.

After sophomore Jena Leckie answered with a driving layup for the Red Riots, Mazur picked up her third foul and after blocking a shot at the defensive end, Glidden hit a jumper on offense, but as time expired, Graff knocked down a jumper and South Portland took a 19-16 lead to halftime.

In the first half, Glidden led all scorers with nine points, but a dozen turnovers hindered Scarborough’s effort. Graff and Whitmore both had six points for the Red Riots.

In the third period, the Red Storm started with consecutive turnovers and South Portland made them pay, as Graff set up Mazur for a layup and Mazur returned the favor, feeding Graff for a layup and a 23-16 lead, forcing Scarborough coach Mike Giordano to call timeout.

It didn’t help, as Graff stole the ball and while she missed her shot, Whitmore was there for the putback.

After another turnover, Giordano took timeout again and again it didn’t help, as a Mazur jumper gave the Red Riots their biggest lead, 27-16.

“We know how important the first three minutes (of a half) are, especially against a team that had beaten us and thought they could beat us again,” Hasson said. “So much of it is confidence. It can slip away from you in the second half.”

“Being down 11 felt like 25,’ Giordano said. “Credit to their defense. Their defense was really good today. Much better than last time. They played well as a group.” 

With 5:28 to go in the frame, a leaner from freshman Madison Blanche ended South Portland’s 10-0 run and 18 seconds later, Mazur picked up her fourth foul, but Graff set up Whitmore for a layup and a 29-18 lead.

Freshman Bella Dickinson countered with a long jumper for Scarborough, but with 3 minutes remaining, a Graff bank shot again put the Red Riots up by 11.

With their hopes fading, the Red Storm again countered.

First, off an inbounds set, Blanche passed to Malone for a layup. After Graff made a free throw (the first foul shots of the game came with 2:14 to go in the third period), Malone got a 3 to rattle home and after a steal, Glidden scored on a putback while being fouled to cut the deficit to 32-27.

Glidden couldn’t complete the old-fashioned three-point play, however, and her team wouldn’t score another point.

In the final minute, a jumper from Graff gave South Portland a 34-27 lead with eight minutes to go.

In the fourth, the Red Riots salted it away, thanks to a perfect defensive effort.

Cloutier made her second big 3 just 30 seconds in to restore a double-digit lead.

Neither team then scored for nearly three minutes until Mazur returned with 4:48 to play and she made an immediate impact, coming up with a steal and passing the ball ahead to senior Lydia Henderson, who made a layup to make it 39-27 with 3:56 to play.

With 2:45 to go, Whitmore sank one free throw and 14 seconds later, after a steal, Cloutier was fouled by Glidden (who fouled out in the process) and did the same for a 41-27 lead.

After both coaches substituted liberally at the end, freshman Kaleisha Towle fed sophomore Grace Rende for a layup, which closed the door on the 43-27 victory.

Scarborough didn’t score in the fourth quarter, was held scoreless the final 9 minutes, 21 seconds and South Portland closed on an 11-0 run. 

“Since we lost to Scarborough in the regular season, this was a revenge game and we wanted it badly,” Cloutier said. “I thought we played really well.”

“The most motivation we had today was losing to them earlier,” Graff said. “We didn’t play our best game offensively or defensively the last time. Every time we come out of the locker room, Coach tells us the first three minutes is the most important. Obviously, we did that in the second half.”

South Portland was paced by Graff’s 13 points, eight rebounds, three assists and two steals.

Whitmore continued to emerge as a star with 11 points and five boards.

Then there was Cloutier, who not only scored seven points, but also grabbed five rebounds and registered two steals.

“I focused in on the game,” Cloutier said. “I didn’t even notice the fans around. I felt confident shooting the ball. I just zoned in on the basket.”

“I’m so happy for Bela,” Graff said. “She works so hard in practice. Bela came out in her first game on the Civic Center floor, she got significant minutes and handled it perfectly.”

“Bela has a huge heart,” Hasson added. “She comes in and gives us energy off the bench and does something good, hustle plays. She has defensive intensity like Lydia Henderson. She always makes something happen.”

Mazur was limited by foul trouble and finished with four points, four steals and two assists and Henderson, Leckie, Rende and Katie Whitmore all had two points.

The Red Riots forced 25 turnovers and played great defense on the stage.

Stopping Glidden was the focal point.

“Glidden got her points, but we did well as a team trying to shut her down,” Cloutier said. “We had great help defense.”

“It was tough when Eva, our best defender, got in foul trouble,” Graff said. “Maggie stepped up on her. We focused on forcing Glidden left, because she’s great with her right hand.”

“We were missing Eva, we were missing (junior) Sarah Boles, who has been sick for two weeks, and we missed Katie for a stretch of time when she hit her head, but we talk about mental toughness, that things will happen in a game that will test you,” Hasson added. “Eva got in foul trouble and we knew she’s really important to us, but we showed mental toughness and found someone to step in and pick up the slack. I thought Bela did a great job and Jena Leckie did a nice job off bench. We started out with Eva on Glidden, then Maggie and Katie. We had multiple people we knew we could play on her. She’s a great player and she had a great year. We wanted to take away her drive. We knew we had to stop her.”

South Portland made just 19 of 47 shots (2 of 9 from behind the 3-point stripe) and hit 3 of 7 free throws, but only turned the ball over 13 times.

End of something great

Scarborough was paced by 11 points (as well as a game-high 15 rebounds and three blocked shots) from Glidden and 10 points from Malone.

“Sophie and Brooke tried to will us to victory without a lot of help,” Giordano said.

Blanche, Couture and Dickinson all had two points. 

The Red Storm only attempted one free throw all day (and missed it). They shot 12 of 41 from the floor (3 of 6 from 3-point land) and were doomed by their long drought to end the contest.

“We couldn’t get comfortable on the offensive end,” Giordano said. “They make you work to do anything on offense and we struggled. We just couldn’t get the ball to drop. The kids competed. It was still a game in the fourth quarter thanks to our defensive effort. I was pleased with that.

“We had a great year. I don’t think anybody had us at 16-4. I was hoping for twice as many wins as losses and the girls exceeded my expectations. We’ll build on it.”

Scarborough has returned to the upper echelon of the region and despite losing Malone, Jordyn Cowan, Kaylee Emma and Jillian Ware to graduation, plans to compete again in 2017-18.

“We lose four core seniors,” Giordano said. “Brooke played the most. I thanked the seniors for being the team who turned it around. I’m really proud of that group. We return a lot of kids, but we’ll have to get through South Portland because they get everyone back.”  

Underdog

South Portland lost, 44-31, Dec. 15 at Gorham. In last year’s regional final, the Rams held off the Red Riots, 37-30, in the lone prior playoff encounter.

Gorham has won 40 games in a row and most pundits will like its chances to make it 41 Friday, but South Portland begs to differ.

“We want it really bad,” Cloutier said. “We’ll mentally prepare ourselves. We have the skill. We’ll be ready.”

“I don’t think anyone believes we can do it, but I love this team,” Graff said. “If anyone can do it, I think we can. Our main focus is Espo (the Rams’ Villanova University-bound senior Emily Esposito), shutting her down defensively and we have to shut down (sophomore post standout) Mackenzie Holmes as well. We have five players who can score. That will make it difficult for them.”

“We want another shot at Gorham,” Hasson added. “Last year, we were in the game and had a chance. This year, we were down four in the fourth quarter and it slipped away. We believe we have a chance. We know how good their players are, but on a given night, anything can happen. We look at what the South Portland boys did last year against Portland (in the Class AA state final) when no one gave them a chance and they came within a basket of a great upset. We’re not out of (Gorham’s) league. If we bring our best defensive game, we’ll see what happens. We have nothing to lose.”

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

Previous South Portland stories

Season Preview

South Portland 58 MGA 29

South Portland 57 Deering 46

South Portland 51 Cheverus 44

South Portland 64 Cheverus 40

Previous Scarborough stories

Season Preview

Scarborough 53 Portland 35

Gorham 58 Scarborough 26

Scarborough 55 Cheverus 37

Scarborough 42 Thornton Academy 38

Previous South Portland-Scarborough playoff results

2016 Class AA South semifinal
South Portland 49 Scarborough 41

2013 Western A quarterfinal
Scarborough 45 South Portland 32

2010 Western A quarterfinal
Scarborough 40 South Portland 22

2009 Western A quarterfinal
Scarborough 53 South Portland 26 

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