PORTLAND—It’s time to start taking the South Portland boys’ basketball team seriously.
The Red Riots, essentially starting from scratch this winter after being decimated by graduation, continued their stirring run Thursday evening with a 50-39 victory at Deering, improving to 7-1 in the process.
South Portland raced to early leads of 7-0 and 14-2 and never looked back, fending off every Rams’ challenge behind a superb team-wide effort, which snapped Deering’s four-game winning streak and left the hosts 5-3 on the season.
“This was a total team win,” said Red Riots coach Phil Conley. “If you look at the scoring, it was pretty balanced. What I’m most proud of, is the past two games, we’ve held good teams below 40 points. Deering’s very well coached and they’re a very good team.”
In the mix
Entering the 2010-11 season, Deering was viewed as a top contender, while South Portland was expected to rebuild.
Instead, the Rams struggled early, losing two of their first three to visiting Bonny Eagle and host Scarborough. Deering appeared to hit its stride, however, winning four straight, including an inspirational 50-48 home victory over Thornton Academy Friday. Tuesday, the Rams rolled at Kennebunk, 54-34.
The Red Riots, who not only graduated standout Keegan Hyland (who announced earlier this week that he’s coming back to New England to attend and play basketball at the University of Vermont), but also several others who saw a ton of playing time a year ago, won their first four contests. After losing at Marshwood, South Portland bounced back and downed visiting Noble, 63-50. Tuesday, the Red Riots raced to a 28-8 halftime lead en route to a 48-33 triumph at Scarborough.
South Portland entered Thursday’s contest full of confidence, not only by virtue of its success this winter, but also by having won five of the past six meetings against Deering, including all three a year ago, capped by a 63-36 pounding of the Rams in the Western A quarterfinals.
This time around, the Red Riots raced to a fast start and never looked back.
Fifty-five seconds in, South Portland took the lead for good when senior sharpshooter Vukasin Vignjevic, who missed last season with a knee injury, made a layup. Vignjevic followed with a 3-ball and junior Logan Gaddar made a layup off an inbounds set for a quick 7-0 advantage.
“We had to make sure to get off to a fast start,” Gaddar said. “We knew they’d come out hard. We knew if we got in their heads and they got off their game we could take it from there.”
The hosts broke their ice when senior Jackson Frey made a layup with 4:15 to play in the opening stanza, but the visitors ripped off seven points in succession as senior Steve Hodge made a layup, Vignjevic sank another 3 and with 2:16 to go in the first, Vignjevic made a layup to give South Portland a 14-2 bulge.
“(South Portland) got off to a quick start with Vu,” lamented Deering coach Dan LeGage. “We just played catch up from there. We didn’t do a good job. Credit South Portland. They hit shots and got off to a good start and sat on it.”
LeGage substituted senior Riko Augustino and sophomore Labson Abwoch into the game and the hosts closed the first on a 6-2 run as Abwoch scored on a putback and after Gaddar made a layup, Rams senior Jamie Ross made a layup and Augustino scored on a layup after a steal to make it a 16-8 contest.
Both teams went cold in the second quarter and had to feel like they missed out on a golden opportunity as Deering could have pulled closer and South Portland could have pulled away.
The Rams got within six on a layup from junior Jon Amabile, but Gaddar made a foul shot, hit a layup, junior Jordan Muller made one of two free throws and Gaddar converted another layup for a 22-10 lead.
After senior John Hughes sank a 3 for Deering, Muller converted an old-fashioned three-point play to make it 25-13. The Rams got hoops from Abwoch and Frey to pull within 25-17 at the break.
The visitors continued to show their poise in the second half as every time Deering threatened to make a run, South Portland countered.
Early in the third period, Amabile found his range and sank a 3-ball, but at the other end, Red Riots senior Matt Russell (who continued his season-long inside dominance on this night) scored on a putback. After the Rams got within 27-22 on a layup from junior Pat Green, sophomore Tanner Hyland calmly sank a 3 to push the lead to eight. Amabile countered with another 3, but Muller made a layup and followed with a jumper to give the visitors a 34-25 advantage. After a jumper from Amabile made it a seven-point game, Gaddar converted a layup in the waning seconds of the quarter for a 36-27 lead after three.
“We adjusted on Vu, but Muller and Gaddar came out of nowhere and made shots for them,” LeGage said. “Credit those guys.”
In the fourth, the Red Riots put it away.
Gaddar got things started with a layup. After Frey made one of two free throws, Vignjevic sank a 3, his first basket since the first quarter, and Russell made a free throw for a 42-28 lead. Augustino drained a jumper, but Muller made a foul shot, Gaddar converted yet another layup and with 1:28 to go, Muller hit a layup to push the lead to 17.
Deering got a bank shot from Hughes and a 3-ball from Green, but in the final minute, Hyland made two free throws and Muller one. The Rams got a dunk and a putback from Abwoch, but it was far too little, too late and South Portland slammed the door on its emphatic 50-39 victory.
“This summer and fall, we all made sure we all worked hard,” Gaddar said. “It’s paying off now. We work well together and everyone gets along. We have great chemistry.”
“We play really well as a team,” Russell said. “We come together every game. We’re a good road team. There’s no pressure. No one really expected us to be this good. It’s great we’ve won as many games as we have so far. I feel like we’re doing a good job.”
“I’m so proud of my kids,” Conley added. “They’ve worked so hard all year. Coming into the season, we were inexperienced. I told them to be patient, that they’d get that experience. They’ve gotten better and better.”
South Portland was paced by 15 points and seven rebounds from Gaddar, 13 points and eight boards from Vignjevic and 12 points from Muller.
Hyland played a solid game at the point, scoring five points and adding seven assists.
“Tanner didn’t get any rest,” Conley said. “He and Vu didn’t come out at all. They maintained their composure. They did their job.”
Russell finished with three points, eight boards and two blocks, but his presence was evident from start to finish as the Rams altered shot after shot to avoid his long reach.
“Rebounding and defense wins games,” Russell said. “I do what I can and hopefully we win.”
Hodge added two points.
“We rebound the ball very well,” Conley said. “We were very balanced. We’ve preached all year to be patient on the offensive end and we got some easy looks at the basket tonight. Each game we play, the kids get more experience. We’re such a team. Even the guys on the bench pulled for us. It was a great team effort tonight.”
Deering was paced by Amabile’s 10 points, which was far below his average. Abwoch added eight points, Frey, Green and Hughes had five apiece, Augustino four and Ross two.
“We didn’t attack their zone,” LeGage said. “We settled for jump shots, didn’t rebound well and turned the ball over. That combination won’t win games. We took ill-advised shots trying to get back in the game. We need our guys to give a consistent high-energy, high-enthusiasm effort every game. It’s a long season. We have to stop having inconsistency. We were 1-for-8 at the line and maybe 4-for-14 on 3s. We couldn’t buy a basket. It’s like there was a lid on the basket. We just didn’t finish. We got close, but they made shots and that created separation again.”
Long way to go
Deering (eighth in the Western A Heal Points standings) goes to Massabesic Saturday.
“We’re eight games in,” said LeGage. “The biggest thing is getting consistent.”
The Red Riots (who shot to second behind Cheverus in the Heals) has another huge road test against Thornton Academy Saturday at 1 p.m. While South Portland has dazzled all, save perhaps themselves with its play, there is still a long way to go.
“Our offense has been good and our zone defense has been pretty good, but I feel like when we’re pressed, our guards need to work on getting the ball up the floor strong,” said Russell. “Rebounding could be better. “
“(Thornton will) be a tough one, but these guys won’t back down,” Conley said. “They’ll work hard in practice and we’ll give it our best shot. We need to maintain good defense, rebounding and being patient on the offensive end. We’ll get better. We take it one game at a time. We don’t get too high or too low. It’s a very difficult league.”
One in which South Portland is now firmly a factor.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com