SP bounces back from loss, finally solves Gorham

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South Portland senior Sarah Boles knocks down a 3-pointer over Gorham freshman Adele Nadeau during the Red Riots’ 54-44 win Saturday afternoon.

Joe Carpine / 365digitalphotography.com photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

South Portland 54 Gorham 44

SP- 17 15 16 6- 54
G- 11 4 14 15- 44

SP- Graff 5-2-13, M. Whitmore 6-0-13, K. Whitmore 4-1-9, Boles 2-0-6, Leckie 3-0-6, Mazur 1-0-3, Aceto 1-0-2, B. Cloutier 1-0-2

G- Holmes 12-4-28, Desjardin 2-0-5, Rowe 2-0-5, Michaud 1-1-3, Nadeau 0-3-3

3-pointers:
SP (5) Boles 2, Graff, Mazur, M. Whitmore 1
G (2) Desjardin, Rowe  1

Turnovers:
SP- 15 
G- 16

Free throws
SP: 3-6
G: 8-11

GORHAM—South Portland’s girls’ basketball team has played second fiddle to Gorham the past two seasons, but this winter, the Red Riots are in a class by themselves, something they were happy to remind their recent nemesis Saturday afternoon at Dean Evans Gymnasium.

South Portland, four days removed from its first loss of the season, paid a visit to the two-time defending Class AA state champions and while the early moments of the game were a celebration of Rams junior post standout Mackenzie Holmes, it wasn’t long until the Red Riots took control and went on to a therapeutic victory.

After South Portland senior captain Sarah Boles hit a 3-pointer to open the scoring, Holmes, the state’s premier post player, scored four quick points, including a jumper with 5:48 to go in the first quarter, to give her 1,000 points for her career.

After play resumed, the Red Riots went ahead to stay on two free throws from junior Katie Whitmore and thanks to the spark of senior captain Meghan Graff, who had six points in the first eight minutes, South Portland held a 17-11 lead.

Consecutive 3-pointers from senior captain Eva Mazur and Boles capped a 12-0 run and the Red Riots took a 32-15 advantage to halftime.

South Portland hung tough throughout the third period and took a 48-29 lead to the fourth quarter where Gorham rallied within 10 points, but couldn’t get any closer and the Red Riots prevailed, 54-44.

Graff and Whitmore each had 13 points to help South Portland improve to 15-1 and drop Gorham, which got 28 points from Holmes, to 9-7 in the process.

“This means a lot, it really does,” Whitmore said. “We’ve had them on the ropes for two years, but we finally followed through.” 

Eagerly anticipated

Gorham and South Portland have garnered their share of headlines the past several seasons.

In 2015-16, the Rams held off the Red Riots, 37-30, then won the inaugural Class AA state title.

Last winter, South Portland took Gorham to the wire before the Rams eked out a 46-44 victory. Gorham then went back-to-back.

This winter, as the favorite, 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), host Maine Girls’ Academy (62-40), visiting Falmouth (67-20) and host Noble (70-43) before finally falling from the unbeaten ranks Tuesday at Edward Little, 45-44.

Gorham knew that defending its successive state titles wouldn’t be easy this year after being hard-hit by graduation (including the departure of reigning Miss Maine Basketball, Emily Esposito, who is now at Villanova), but the Rams managed to win their first five outings. Losses to visiting Portland, at Greely, at Cheverus and at home to MGA followed before Gorham took four of its last six.

Last year, the Rams took the regular season meeting, 44-31, in Gorham, then held on in the regional final.

Saturday, South Portland turned the tables, beating the Rams for the first time since Jan. 28, 2014 (64-53, in overtime), snapping a five-game skid in the series in the process.

After Senior Day ceremonies honoring players and their families from both schools, the action came fast and furious in the first quarter.

A 3-pointer from Boles put the Red Riots up 49 seconds in, but Holmes soon took center-stage, making a layup, then, with 5:48 to go in the first quarter, draining a jumper from the wing for her milestone basket.

“It’s important to me because we’ve had a lot of team success, but this is the first milestone I’ve had,” Holmes said. “Obviously, I couldn’t do it without great teammates. I give credit to them. I’ve worked hard and there’s still a lot I can do.”

“I’m really proud of her,” said Gorham coach Laughn Berthiaume. “She’s been consistent her whole high school career. She scored 309 (points as a freshman), 377 (as a sophomore) and passed 314 today. It’s not like she just exploded, she’s been really consistent.”

Freshman Adele Nadeau added a free throw for the Rams, but sophomore Maggie Whitmore tied it with a jumper.

After Gorham went back on top on a leaner by Holmes, Whitmore banked home a shot to make it 7-7.

A Holmes reverse layup in traffic gave the Rams their final lead with 3:33 remaining in the first before Graff tied it with a jumper and with 2:01 on the clock, Mazur fed Katie Whitmore for a layup and the lead. 

After Graff banked home a runner, Holmes countered with a leaner, but late in the quarter, Graff drove and finished with a finger roll and junior Jena Leckie knocked down a jump shot to make it 17-11 South Portland after eight minutes.

In that first period, Holmes had 10 of her team’s 11 points, while Graff led the Red Riots with six, to go with unquantifiable defensive energy.

“We’re a good defensive team and we wanted to pick up the intensity,” Graff said. “When one person works hard on defense, it sets the tone and the other four pick it up too.” 

“Meghan plays so hard,” South Portland coach Lynne Hasson said. “I thought she played a great game.” 

South Portland then opened it up in the second quarter.

A jumper from Maggie Whitmore six seconds in set the tone and Mazur and Boles followed with 3-pointers to cap a 12-0 run.

Holmes countered with a pretty left-handed layup, but Graff knocked down a 3. After a layup from senior Michelle Rowe for Gorham’s final points of the half, sophomore Ashlee Aceto hit a jumper and Graff added two foul shots to make it 32-15 at the break.

In the first 16 minutes, Graff led the Red Riots with 11 points, while Boles and Maggie Whitmore each added six. Holmes had 12 for the Rams, but they couldn’t find much scoring elsewhere and a dozen turnovers hindered their cause.

In the third period, Holmes tried to rally Gorham, but South Portland didn’t let it get interesting.

Katie Whitmore started the second half with an old-fashioned three-point play (a layup off a pass from her sister, foul and free throw). After junior Brittany Desjardin hit a jumper for the hosts, Maggie Whitmore drained a 3 to make it 38-17.

Holmes got two points back at the line, but Katie Whitmore set up Maggie Whitmore for a layup, then Maggie Whitmore showed she could play nicely with her sister, feeding Katie Whitmore for a layup and a 42-19 lead.

“We always look for each other,” Katie Whitmore said.

Freshman Olivia Michaud countered with a three-point play for the hosts, but Graff set up Katie Whitmore on the fastbreak for another layup.

Holmes made a leaner, then a layup, but Maggie Whitmore made a jumper in the lane and Leckie hit a jump shot.

A late 3 from Rowe pulled Gorham back within 19, 48-29, heading for the fourth quarter.

There, the Rams did creep closer, but not enough to seriously make South Portland sweat.

After Holmes opened the final stanza with a layup, Katie Whitmore set up Graff for a layup.

Holmes put back a miss, but junior Bela Cloutier drove for a layup to put the Red Riots on top, 52-33.

After Holmes made a layup, Nadeau sank two free throws, Holmes made a layup with her left hand and with 59.6 seconds to go, junior Brittany Desjardin sank a 3 to cut the deficit to 52-42, but Leckie countered with a layup.

Two foul shots from Holmes with 28.5 seconds remaining then brought the curtain down on the Red Riots’ 54-44 victory.

“It’s awesome,” Graff said. “What makes it even better is that we played great and came back from a tough loss. This is just what we needed for a confidence-booster. There’s always bumps in the road during a long season. We didn’t complain about the loss. Being undefeated brings pressure and we tried to make it into a positive thing, losing now instead of tournament time. We focused on fixing what went wrong in that game to play better in this game and it worked.”

“Our start was important and we kept the pace going the whole game,” Katie Whitmore said.

“A loss never feels good, but I still think our attitude is one game at a time,” Hasson added. “We knew we’d have to come out strong and send a message at the beginning. We played very good defense and our running game got going and we took pretty good care of the ball. The last couple years it was a focus to beat Gorham because they were so good, but we’re so much more confident this year.”

Graff (seven rebounds, five assists and three steals) and Maggie Whitmore (three assists, three rebounds, two steals) led the way for South Portland with 13 points apiece.

Katie Whitmore added nine points, to go with five assists and three rebounds.

“People don’t always notice Katie, but she makes a huge difference,” Hasson said. “She’s played great for us. She plays great defense, rebounds, gets to the rim and finishes.”

“I set my mind to boxing Michelle Rowe out and not letting her get rebounds,” said Whitmore. “She’s a tough player.”

Boles and Leckie finished with six points apiece, Mazur had three and Aceto and Cloutier had two each.

South Portland’s reserves continue to play at a level where there is no dip in the team’s play when they’re on the court.

“Bela comes off the bench and I think she’s one of best defenders,” said Graff. “She makes key steals. Ashlee can knock down shots that make an impact. Jena is great rebounding. She’s there on the boards.”

“Bela provides a spark and plays great defensively,” Hasson said. “Ashlee is steady and doesn’t make mistakes. Jena hit nice shots. She usually tries to get to the rim, but she’s a really good shooter and that adds another dimension for us.” 

The Red Riots had a 28-26 rebounding advantage, overcame 15 turnovers and hit 3 of 6 free throws.

Gorham got another huge game from Holmes, who finished with a double-double of 28 points and 12 rebounds (she also had three steals and blocked two shots).

“I can confidently say (Mackenzie) is unstoppable,” Graff said. “Credit to her. Good thing for us, we were on offensively.”

“(Mackenzie) made some tough shots, but she was surrounded by three players,” Hasson said. “We made her work hard.”

Desjardin and Rowe added five points apiece, while Michaud and Nadeau both had three.

The Rams committed 16 turnovers and made 8 of 11 foul shots.

“(South Portland’s) just a great team,” Holmes said. “Their bench is great and they hit shots. They’re tough to play when they get rolling. They hit outside and inside shots and they’re tough on defense. Maybe we’ll see them again and we’ll be more prepared.”

“They pulled away in the second quarter when they were really hot,” Berthiaume said. “It didn’t seem like they missed many shots.”

Playoff tuneups

With two games remaining in the regular season, both teams hope to be at their best entering the playoffs.

Gorham (fifth in the Class AA South Heals Points standings at press time) goes to Windham Tuesday and finishes the regular season Thornton Academy Thursday.

“We want to get better every practice and game,” said Holmes. “They don’t hand out trophies in the regular season. We’ll keep working.”

“I feel like we’re really, really close to being successful,” Berthiaume said. “There isn’t a team we would go up against that I don’t think we’d have a chance against. We just have to put together a complete game.” 

South Portland will be the top seed in the region, but has two tough games remaining, at home versus Portland on Senior Night Tuesday, and at Cheverus Thursday.

“We have to keep playing good defense and keep shooting the ball well like we did today,” Katie Whitmore said.

“We don’t want to underestimate anyone,” Graff said. “They’re both great teams. We’ll work hard in practice and prepare for those games and the postseason.”

“We want to get better game to game,” Hasson added. “We have to maintain our momentum and get a little bit better. There are a lot of tough teams out there.”

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

South Portland senior Meghan Graff is surrounded by Gorham sophomore Jaqui Hamilton (24) and junior Courtney Brent.

South Portland junior Bela Cloutier gets a step on a Gorham defender.

South Portland sophomore Maggie Whitmore keeps the ball away from Gorham sophomore Jaqui Hamilton (24) and junior Mackenzie Holmes.

South Portland senior Meghan Graff leans in for two of her team-high 13 points.

South Portland junior Jena Leckie drives on Gorham junior Mackenzie Holmes.

Gorham junior Mackenzie Holmes is congratulated by her teammates after scoring her 1,000th career point early in the game. Holmes finished with 28 points.

Gorham junior Mackenzie Holmes poses with coach Laughn Berthiaume after scoring her 1,000th point.

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