SP boys rally to edge TA in OT, set up state final rematch with Portland

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South Portland juniors Noah Malone, left, and Riley Hasson hug at the conclusion of the Red Riots’ epic 71-61 come-from-behind overtime win over Thornton Academy in Friday’s Class AA South Final. South Portland will face defending champion Portland in a state game rematch Saturday night in Augusta.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.

There’s something about the Cross Insurance Arena that brings out the best in the South Portland boys’ basketball team.

And causes grey hair and heart palpitations for its coaches and fans.

Friday evening, the defending Class AA South champion Red Riots added another thrilling chapter to their tournament legacy when they rose off the deck and rallied for an epic victory over Thornton Academy in a regional final that won’t soon be forgotten.

South Portland fell behind by three points after one quarter and trailed, 30-21, at halftime, but the Red Riots settled down in the locker room and came out strong in the third quarter, setting the stage for a dramatic finish.

South Portland erupted for 24 third quarter points to pull within 46-45 and took a 51-49 lead on a layup from senior Ansel Stilley with 5:37 to play, but the Golden Trojans responded and led, 58-54, behind senior Avery McKenzie’s 3-pointer with 2:37 remaining.

Again, the Red Riots had to rally and thanks to a free throw from senior standout Ruay Bol, a jump shot from junior Riley Hasson and a free throw from Hasson, they pulled even.

South Portland almost won the game late in regulation, but a lob to Hasson was just off target and Thornton Academy caused Red Riots’ fans’ hearts to skip a beat when junior David Keohan’s long prayer at the horn barely missed its mark, sending the game to overtime.

Where the Red Riots finally put it away.

A Hasson 3-pointer put South Portland on top to stay and the Red Riots gradually pulled away at the foul line and repeated as regional champions, 71-61.

South Portland improved to 17-3, ended the Golden Trojans’ season at 17-3 and advanced to the Class AA state final Saturday at 9 p.m. at the Augusta Civic Center where the Red Riots will face defending champion Portland (18-2) in a delicious rematch of last year’s epic, which the Bulldogs won in double overtime.

Good as advertised

Since the season began, South Portland and Thornton Academy were expected to square off in the regional final and neither team disappointed.

The Red Riots won 15 of 18 games to earn the top seed in Class AA South. After earning a bye into the semifinals, South Portland ousted No. 5 Scarborough, 78-53 (see sidebar, below, for links to previous game stories).

The Golden Trojans went 16-2 in the regular season, losing only to South Portland and Portland and as the number two seed, after earning a bye into the semifinals, Thornton Academy beat No. 6 Gorham, 56-49, to advance.

The Red Riots won the regular season meeting, 68-58, Jan. 20 in Saco in a victory that ultimately gave them the one seed over the Golden Trojans. Bol had 15 points, Stilley 14, junior Noah Malone 12 and Hasson 11, while Keohan led all scorers with 20.

South Portland had won four of the previous six playoff meetings dating back to 1970 (see sidebar, below). Last year, the Red Riots upset top-ranked Thornton Academy, 39-36, in the semifinals.

Friday, South Portland prevailed again, but it had to dig deeper than ever.

The Golden Trojans scored first, as senior John Fogg made a layup and after Bol hit one of two free throws, Fogg made another layup for a 4-1 lead.

Junior Liam Coyne answered with a layup for the Red Riots, but Keohan made a foul shot.

A tip-in by senior Moses Oreste and a jumper from Hasson gave South Portland its first lead, 7-5, but McKenzie drained a 3, Keohan made consecutive layups, then Keohan hit a jumper to complete a 9-0 run which produced a 14-7 lead.

Stilley got two points back at the line and Bol’s layup cut the deficit to 14-11 after one quarter.

Keohan’s seven points and the Red Riots’ 4 of 12 field goal shooting helped Thornton Academy get out to the early lead.

The Golden Trojans, emboldened by their start, didn’t let up in the second period.

A Bol layup started the scoring in the new stanza and pulled South Portland within a point, but Keohan made a layup, senior Austin Boudreau drained two free throws and McKenzie sank another 3-ball for a 21-13 advantage with 5:54 left in the half.

Bol countered with a 3-pointer, but senior Evan Christensen made a jumper and Boudreau buried a 3 to make it 26-16.

South Portland got the next five points, as Stilley made a layup, Hasson sank a free throw and Oreste tipped in a miss, but Keohan and senior Johnny Rosario made layups to give Thornton Academy a 30-21 advantage at the half.

Keohan had 11 points to lead all first half scorers. Bol helped keep the Red Riots in the game with eight points.

At the half, South Portland regrouped, thanks to some inspiration from injured senior Deandre White.

“We just came out and didn’t communicate like we usually do,” Hasson said. “We didn’t play our game. We’re known for outworking teams. We came out flat, but we knew at halftime that we could come out, get our energy up and grind the rest of the game. Deandre told us we weren’t playing as hard as we could have. We want to get him one more game and he might be able to play in the state game, so we came out and played hard for him.”

“We didn’t have a lot of adjustments to make at halftime, it was just grind and play hard,” said South Portland coach Kevin Millington. “We knew our run was coming.”

Just seven seconds into the second half, Bol made a layup, but Boudreau countered with a 3.

Bol then made a 3, but again Boudreau answered by draining a 3 of his own.

After Oreste hit a jumper, Christensen made a jump shot to restore the 10-point lead, 38-28.

Hasson tried to spark a rally with a 3, but Fogg made a layup.

After junior Connor Buckley made a 3 for the Red Riots, Boudreau made another 3, but the next six points went to South Portland, as Coyne made a layup, Bol hit two free throws and with 1:36 left, a Stilley layup made it a one-possession game, 43-40.

Boudreau again countered with a 3, but Stilley made one of his own and two Stilley free throws with 39 seconds to go pulled the Red Riots within 46-45 heading for the fourth period.

Where nothing was decided.

After Keohan opened the final stanza with a layup, Buckley tied the game, 48-48, with a 3 with 6:34 to play in regulation.

Twenty-four seconds later, Stilley made a free throw for South Portland’s first lead since 7-5, but Keohan tied the game with a foul shot of his own.

With 5:37 left, Stilley made a layup, but Keohan answered with a layup, Keohan made a free throw and Keohan made another layup for a 54-51 advantage with 4:21 to go.

Bol countered with a jumper, but Christensen made a free throw.

With 3:38 remaining, Stilley went to the line with a chance to tie it, but he only made one attempt and a minute later, McKenzie’s 3 put the Red Riots on the brink of elimination, down four.

Instead of buckling, however, South Portland tightened up on defense, not allowing another point, and managed to catch up.

With 2:18 left, Bol made one of two free throws.

With 1:28 to go, Hasson hit a jumper to make it a one-point game.

Hasson was then fouled and had a chance to put the Red Riots ahead, but he only made one of two shots to make it 58-58.

Both teams then had a chance to win it in regulation, but failed to do so.

Boudreau was fouled, but he missed the front end of a one-and-one. Fogg kept possession with an offensive rebound and with 24 seconds remaining, Rosario had a chance to put Thornton Academy ahead, but he missed the front end of a one-and-one.

Stilley got the rebound and South Portland milked the clock looking to win it.

After a timeout, as time wound down, with the Golden Trojans expecting Bol to get the ball, Stilley instead lobbed it to Hasson, but the pass was just inches too far and Keohan grabbed the ball and dribbled to halfcourt before launching a shot that almost resulted in the game-winner.

The ball hit the backboard, hit the front of the rim, then hit the backboard again before falling off and the game went to overtime.

“We ran the play for me since they thought Ruay would get the ball,” Hasson said. “It was a tough throw. I fell on the stanchion. I watched from the stanchion as the final seconds went off and that shot was on line. It hit the backboard and bounced off the rim. I was so glad that it didn’t go in.”

“We haven’t run that play at all,” Millington said. “We worked on it in practice. TA does a great job on help-side defense. I thought our best option was running a sideline play to Riley, who they may not have thought would get the ball. They thought it might have gone to Ruay or someone else. They did a good job defending it. We probably should have gone to a secondary option there. I thought it was low risk. We had a good shot at it but it didn’t work out.”

In Maine high school basketball, teams play an additional four minutes and the Red Riots saved their best for last.

Just 18 seconds into OT, Hasson was true on a 3 and the Red Riots were ahead to stay.

“I felt good about it,” Hasson said. “Early in the season, Coach didn’t want to play me that much since I didn’t shoot when I was open. Since then I have. I was open, I fired it and it went in.”

Keohan answered with a layup with 3:06 to go, but after Buckley missed a 3, Stilley put home the rebound for a 63-60 lead.

After Thornton Academy turned the ball over, Hasson made a layup with 2:01 left to make it a two possession game.

At the other end, Keohan missed a jumper and Rosario got the rebound and was fouled, but he missed two free throws.

With 1:25 left, Hasson made two foul shots to bring South Portland closer to victory.

Six seconds later, senior Austin Robinson made a free throw for the Golden Trojans, but Hasson countered with one, then with 37 seconds remaining, Stilley hit two foul shots.

After Boudreau missed a 3, Buckley was fouled and with 13 seconds left, Buckley made one free throw to bring the curtain down on the Red Riots’ 71-61 triumph.

“All season, Coach Millington has talked to us about playing as a team and not getting down on ourselves,” Hasson said. “We didn’t and we wound up pulling it out. We knew they were a great team. We knew Christensen, Boudreau and Keohan were great players. We wanted to make other players step up. Others did and that’s why it went to overtime, but we were able to get the win. It feels great.”

“They’re an awesome team with awesome players,” Millington said. “We knew it wouldn’t be easy. It was a grind. A nice character win. We chipped away and when we got the lead, we felt good. We have a lot of depth. As the game went on, they got tired and got in foul trouble. We beat them in the regular season because we worked hard. We have to work harder than other teams. That’s our m.o. We had to play even harder this time. We knew they’d come at us. We got off to a slow start, but we kept fighting.”

South Portland was led by Stilley, who had 19 points, 10 rebounds and two steals.

“Ansel stepped up big with a double-double,” Millington said.

Bol added 18 points and four rebounds was named the regional tournament’s most outstanding player.

“Getting Ruay the ball helps a lot,” Hasson said. “He’s tough to guard and so athletic. He’s also a great defender.”

Hasson had 17 points, six rebounds and two assists before fouling out.

“Riley and Ruay’s experience really helped,” Millington said. “They’re very level-headed. They never really panicked. Ruay’s a unique player. Riley is so tough to defend.”

Buckley added seven points and three assists.

“Buckley handled the pressure well and got our offense going,” Hasson said.

Oreste had six points (and seven boards) and Coyne finished with four (to go with four rebounds and three steals).

“Liam came out and shut down Boudreau better than anyone on our team could have,” Hasson said.

“Moses is another energizer bunny for us and Liam Coyne was awesome tonight,” Millington said. “He did an awesome job on Boudreau in the second half. He made him tired. Buckley hit big 3s. We have to fill in for Deandre.”

Speaking of which, South Portland could be bolstered by the return of White next week. White suffered a serious elbow bruise, but not a break as was originally feared, late in the season. Millington said that White has been cleared to practice and if that goes well this week, he could see some playing time Saturday.

The Red Riots shot 23 of 55 from the floor, including 7 of 23 from 3-point land and made 18 of 25 free throws. South Portland outrebounded Thornton Academy, 35-26 and only committed 11 turnovers.

The Red Riots led for less than five minutes, but saved their best for last.

The Golden Trojans got a game-high 21 points from Keohan, who also had seven rebounds. Boudreau added 17 points, McKenzie had nine (to go with six rebounds) Fogg six, Christensen five (as well as five rebounds and four assists), Rosario two and Robinson one.

Thornton Academy made 23 of 51 field goals, including 8 of 21 3s, but missed eight of 15 free throws. The Golden Trojans turned the ball over 13 times.

The rematch

The Bulldogs and Red Riots are well acquainted, not just producing a state game for the ages last year (Portland won, 52-50, in double OT), but also playing two close games this winter, with each squad winning on the road (the Bulldogs, 61-54, in South Portland, and the Red Riots, 74-69, in Portland).

South Portland holds a 15-14 all-time postseason edge against Portland. The teams first met in the playoffs way back in 1923.

Expect another thriller.

“We’re not done yet,” Hasson said. “We remember losing last year in double overtime and we want the Gold Ball this time.”

“We wanted to play Portland,” Millington said. “If you want to get a ring, you have to beat the best team. It’s been fated since the start of the year. It’s great to get another chance. We knew we had something special this year. It’s very satisfying to beat the teams we’ve beaten and then to beat TA.

“Beating (Portland) last time might have nudged a sleeping giant. (Portland coach) Joe (Russo) will be exploring all game long. His teams are always one of the best defensively. They make it so hard to get into an offense. It’s so hard to score on them and they never stop attacking on offense. Hopefully we can take away a couple of their players. We have players who are tough matchups for them.

“We know each other well. We played three times last year and since then, we played three or four times over the summer and twice during the season. There’s a lot of familiarity. We should have a large South Portland contingent and Portland will too. I’m looking forward to it.”

Adam Birt contributed to this story.

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

South Portland senior drives past Thornton Academy senior Johnny Rosario for a layup.

South Portland junior Liam Coyne shoots over Thornton Academy senior Austin Boudreau.

South Portland senior Ruay Bol goes up for a shot as Thornton Academy junior David Keohan defends.

South Portland senior Riley Hasson drives on Thornton Academy senior John Fogg.

South Portland senior Moses Oreste launches a shot.

South Portland junior Noah Malone, left, and seniors Deandre White and Moses Oreste cheer during the waning seconds of the victory.

South Portland junior Riley Hasson cradles the ball in celebration as his teammates rush the court following the final horn.

South Portland senior Ruay Bol waves the net in jubilation during the postgame celebration.

South Portland seniors Ruay Bol, left, and Deandre White show off the championship trophy.

Previous South Portland stories

Season Preview

Portland 61 South Portland 54

South Portland 68 Thornton Academy 58

Cheverus 60 South Portland 55

South Portland 74 Portland 69

South Portland 78 Scarborough 53

Previous South Portland-Thornton Academy playoff results

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

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