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South Portland senior Connor Buckley drives on Thornton Academy freshman Payton Jones during the teams’ Class AA South semifinal Tuesday night. The Red Riots avenged a loss from earlier this winter with a 51-36 victory and advanced to meet Scarborough in Friday’s regional final.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.
TA- 12 8 4 12- 36
SP- 13 12 17 9- 51
TA- Chapman 2-4-8, Mitchell 3-0-6, Gaudette 1-2-4, Hart 2-0-4, LaBreck 1-2-4, Lovejoy 1-0-3, Webb 1-0-3, Bracamonte 1-0-2, Pyzynski 1-0-2
SP- Buckley 6-4-19, Malone 2-6-10, Fiorini 3-0-7, Lewis 2-3-7, Bijokta 1-2-4, Owen 1-0-2, Savidge 1-0-2
TA (2) Lovejoy, Webb 1
SP (4) Buckley 3, Fiorini 1
PORTLAND—One month ago, South Portland’s boys’ basketball team had its worst defensive performance of the 2017-18 season when it surrendered 76 points in a loss at rival Thornton Academy.
Tuesday evening at the Cross Insurance Arena, the two-time defending regional champion Red Riots got another crack at the Golden Trojans in a Class AA South semifinal and this time, they held them to less than half of that amount.
South Portland eliminated Thornton Academy from the playoffs for the third year in a row, thanks to a strong defense, combined with steady offense, as it moved a step closer to returning to the state final yet again.
The Red Riots led, 13-12, after a nip-and-tuck first period, but began to get some separation in the second quarter and when junior Shippen Savidge hit a late jumper, they took a 25-20 lead to halftime.
Senior Connor Buckley then started the second half with consecutive 3-pointers and South Portland dominated the third period to the tune of 17-4 to make the score 42-24.
From there, the Red Riots never let Thornton Academy make a run and they went on to an impressive and decisive 51-36 victory.
Buckley led all scorers with 19 points and injury-plagued South Portland got scoring from seven different players as it improved to 15-5, ended the Golden Trojans’ season at 9-11 and advanced to meet top-ranked Scarborough (16-4) in the Class AA South Final Friday at 8:15 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Arena.
“We kind of had a chip on our shoulders because of (the loss),” Buckley said. “We came to play tonight.”
South Portland went back-to-back the past two years in Class AA South, but couldn’t solve Portland in the state final.
This winter, the Red Riots had another strong season, but injuries have decimated the squad (seniors Liam Coyne and Riley Hasson are sidelined for the postseason). Regardless, they won 13 of 18 games (see sidebar, below, for links to previous stories) and finished second in the region before ousting No. 7 Massabesic, 70-40, in last week’s quarterfinals.
Thornton Academy won eight of 18 games, but earned the No. 3 seed in Class AA South and its quarterfinal, eliminated No. 6 Sanford, 64-40.
On Jan. 20, the Red Riots lost, 76-64, to the Golden Trojans in Saco.
The teams had met seven previous times in the playoffs dating back to 1970 (see sidebar, below), with South Portland taking five of those games. The most recent was last year’s thrilling 71-61 overtime victory for the Red Riots in the AA South Final.
Tuesday, South Portland frustrated Thornton Academy again.
A layup from Golden Trojans junior C.J. LaBreck opened the scoring before junior David Fiorini tied it for the Red Riots with a runner.
After a putback from Thornton Academy sophomore Will Mitchell, who had a huge game against South Portland back in January, Fiorini hit a 3 from the corner for the Red Riots’ first lead.
“I thought David’s plays at the beginning were just huge,” Millington said. “He had some games where he didn’t even play this year and he stayed mentally into it. Those baskets helped us get off to a good start and we’ve seen what happens down here when you don’t get off to a good start.”
Mitchell countered with a jump shot, but junior Scott Lewis scored on a putback and Buckley added his first 3 for a 10-6 lead.
The Golden Trojans pulled even on a layup from junior William Chapman and a pair of LaBreck free throws, but with 2.7 seconds to go in the first quarter, senior Noah Malone converted an old-fashioned three-point play (leaner, foul, free throw) and South Portland was ahead to stay.
As time expired, Thornton Academy got a putback from sophomore Jack Pyzynski to pull within a point.
Fioirni started the second period with a driving layup and after a nice spin move, Buckley finished with a layup.
After a turnaround jumper from Chapman, Malone set up Lewis for a layup and with 5:06 to go in the half, Lewis added a free throw for a 20-14 advantage.
The Golden Trojans got a jumper from senior Andre Hart and after Thornton Academy got a technical foul for having too many players on the court and Buckley made one of two free throws, a pair of Chapman free throws cut the deficit to 21-18.
After Buckley countered with a bank shot, Chapman made two more foul shots, but with 21.4 seconds to go, Savidge’s baseline jumper, his only points of the night, gave South Portland a 25-20 halftime edge.
In the first half, Buckley led the Red Riots with eight points, while Fiorini added seven. Chapman’s eight points paced the Golden Trojans.
South Portland then made a statement in the third quarter as it pulled away.
A 3-ball from Buckley 51 seconds in set the tone.
“I just tried to get in a rhythm,” Buckley said.
Buckley then drained a 3-pointer from NBA-range and Malone added a free throw to suddenly make it a 12-point game, 32-20.
After Hart answered with a driving layup, Malone sank two foul shots and after a steal, Buckley fed junior Tyree Bijokta for a layup and a 36-22 advantage.
Mitchell made a layup for Thornton Academy’s final points of the frame before Lewis sank two free throws, Buckley did the same and with 7.1 seconds on the clock, Buckley made a layup after a steal for a commanding 42-24 lead.
The Red Riots didn’t let up in the fourth period either and closed it out.
After Golden Trojans junior Anthony Bracamonte started the frame with a layup, Malone made a layup, then hit a free throw.
Senior Jack Webb made a 3 for Thornton Academy, but Bijokta hit two free throws and Buckley and Malone sank one apiece for a 20-point lead, 49-29.
Down the stretch, sophomore Kobe Gaudette hit a jumper, then made two free throws for the Golden Trojans and after sophomore Hunter Owen hit a layup for South Portland’s final points, a 3-pointer from Thornton Academy senior Adam Lovejoy accounted for the 51-36 final score.
“We kept them out of the paint,” Buckley said. “They got into the paint a lot last time. We pinched the middle.”
“It doesn’t matter who’s injured, everybody has to step up,” Lewis said. “We came out with more intensity in the second half. We limited their transition. That definitely helped.”
“We have a lot of good players in our program,” Millington added. “We have seniors out there who can ground us and they needed to a couple times tonight.”
Buckley’s 19 points led the way.
“Buckley made those 3s and that made it difficult for them to mount a comeback,” Millington said. “He’s such a competitor. He’s comfortable taking center stage.”
Malone added 10 points and eight rebounds, Fiorini had seven points and Lewis accounted for seven points, five rebounds and four blocked shots.
“I love blocking shots,” Lewis said. “That’s my favorite thing, even more than scoring.”
Bijokta added four points (and four steals) and Owen and Savidge had two apiece.
The Red Riots made 15 of 24 free throws, overcame 12 turnovers and had a stellar defensive performance.
“We felt Bracamonte was the key to their team,” Millington said. “He’s just so good and he dictates their offense and makes plays on the perimeter. We made them make perimeter shots. We had to limit their transition because they’re so good at it. We did a good job of playing defense in the halfcourt and the full court.”
Thornton Academy’s top scorer was Chapman, who had eight points, as well as seven rebounds and two blocked shots.
Mitchell added six points, Gaudette, Hart and LaBreck had four apiece, Lovejoy and Webb each had three and Bracamonte and Pyzynski finished with two apiece.
The Golden Trojans were 8 of 8 from the free throw line, but turned the ball over 16 times.
Each team finished with 27 rebounds.
The Red Riots return to the regional final Friday to play a red-hot, confident Scarborough squad that had no trouble with No. 4 Bonny Eagle, 61-35, in its semifinal Tuesday.
South Portland beat the visiting Red Storm back on Dec. 19, 60-46, but both teams have changed dramatically in the past two months.
In the only previous playoff meeting, South Portland beat Scarborough, 78-53, in last year’s semifinals.
“We have to come out and play defense like we did tonight,” Buckley said.
“We have to take it one game at a time,” Lewis said. “It doesn’t matter who we’re playing.”
“In a weird sense, we’re underdogs,” Millington added. “They’ve had a great year and we’re banged up, but we have a great opportunity.”
South Portland junior Tyree Bijokta goes up for a shot as Thornton Academy freshman Payton Jones, left, and junior CJ LaBreck defend.
South Portland junior David Fiorini tries to get the ball away from Thornton Academy senior Adam Lovejoy.
South Portland senior Noah Malone shoots over Thornton Academy junior William Chapman.
South Portland junior Jacob Milton lines up a shot.
South Portland senior Noah Malone is congratulated by a pair of injured teammates at the end of Tuesday’s victory.
2017 Class AA South Final
SP 71 TA 61 (OT)
2016 Class AA South semifinals
SP 39 TA 36
2008 Western A semifinals
TA 58 SP 47
2005 Western A prelim
SP 60 TA 45
1992 Western A semifinals
SP 75 TA 54
1972 Western A semifinals
TA 64 SP 56
1970 LL West semifinals
SP 81 TA 57