SP boys roll over Sanford in quarterfinals

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South Portland senior Jack Fiorini goes up for a shot and draws a foul during the Red Riots’ 62-44 win over Sanford in Thursday’s Class AA South quarterfinal. Fiorini led all scorers with 21 points as South Portland advanced to meet top-ranked Thornton Academy in Tuesday’s semifinal round.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

South Portland 62 Sanford 44

S- 8 9 13 14- 44
SP- 15 23 10 14- 62

S- Laviolette 8-0-19, Belanger 3-2-10, Emard 1-2-5, Veino 2-0-5, Romano 0-3-3, Bouchard 1-0-2

SP- Fiorini 9-2-21, Jackson 4-4-12, Bol 3-1-7, DePaolo 2-0-6, White 2-0-6, Pelletier 1-1-3, Coyne 0-2-2, Hasson 1-0-2, Kilmartin 1-0-2, Abramson 0-1-1

3-pointers:
S (7) Laviolette 3, Belanger 2, Emard, Veino 1
SP (5) DePaolo, White 2, Fiorini 1

Turnovers:
S- 6
SP- 7

Free throws
S: 7-10
SP: 11-19

PORTLAND—It hasn’t been an easy season for the South Portland boys’ basketball team.

The Red Riots underwent a highly publicized and controversial coaching change last spring when Kevin Millington replaced Phil Conley and despite a solid first half this winter, they struggled down the stretch and entered the playoffs with a .500 record.

But South Portland’s encouraging performance in last week’s buzzer-beating loss at powerhouse Deering in the regular season finale gave it confidence entering Thursday’s Class AA South quarterfinal against Sanford at the Portland Exposition Building and the Red Riots quickly demonstrated they’re capable of saving their best for last.

The persistence of 6-foot, 5-inch senior Jordin Jackson helped fourth-ranked South Portland start fast against the fifth-seeded Spartans, as Jackson grabbed four offensive rebounds in the early going, scored twice on putbacks and made two free throws after being fouled on another to put the Red Riots ahead to stay.

By the end of the first period, South Portland had a 15-8 lead and the Red Riots dominated the second quarter as well, riding seven straight points from senior Jack Fiorini to a 38-17 halftime advantage.

While Sanford hung around, thanks in large part to the play of senior Tye Laviolette in his final game, the Spartans never drew closer than 14 points and South Portland went on to a 62-44 victory.

The Red Riots won a quarterfinal for the third time in four seasons, improved to 10-9, ended Sanford’s season at 6-13 and advanced to meet top-ranked Thornton Academy (16-2) in the AA South semifinals Tuesday at 8:30 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Arena.

“I don’t think we ever didn’t believe, but there’s been a lot of noise about us,” said Millington. “We like each other. I like them, they like me and the coaching staff. That’s what makes it fun to come to practice. We’ve said all year that we’re, ‘thisclose.’ We knew we should win tonight.”

New season

South Portland expected to be a top contender in the new Class AA South, but was inconsistent in Millington’s first season. The Red Riots went 7-2 in the first half of the season, but lost seven of nine in the second half to wind up with the No. 4 seed in the region. South Portland did close with a two-point loss at powerhouse Deering and treated that as a positive.

“I think everyone saw what we could do when we went to Deering,” Fiorini said. “We were a completely different team. We came away with a loss, but it was our best game until now.” 

“I think the Deering game helped,” Millington said. “We were down and we came back and tied it.”

Sanford started 1-6 but pulled it together to finish 6-12 and fifth.

In the lone regular season encounter, Dec. 30 at Sanford, South Portland prevailed, 63-53, behind 20 points from junior Ansel Stilley.

The Red Riots entered Thursday’s game having won all seven previous tournament games against Sanford dating to 1975 (see sidebar, below).

This time around, South Portland did it again, with impressive ease.

Jackson put on a show in the game’s early minutes, grabbing two offensive rebounds and finishing to open the scoring, then, after another offensive board, getting fouled and making two free throws, then, the next time down, after a miss, Jackson put it home again for an early 6-0 lead.

The Spartans broke the ice with 5:43 to play in the period, off an inbounds pass from Laviolette, which junior Frank Veino laid up and in. Laviolette added a 3 to pull Sanford within a point, but South Portland senior Sam DePaolo countered with a 3 and after a DePaolo steal, DePaolo fed Bol for a resounding dunk and an 11-5 lead.

The Spartans countered with a 3 from sophomore Ethan Emard, but Bol fed sophomore Riley Hasson for a layup and Bol set up Fiorini for a short leaner and a 15-8 advantage after one quarter.

A Laviolette jump shot started the second period scoring, but Fiorini hit a jumper, then got a pass from Bol in the corner and buried a 3  and added a bank shot to make it 22-10.

South Portland kept pouring it on, as Bol scored on a putback and Jackson added a pair of foul shots. After Veino ended the 11-0 run with a 3, Red Riots junior Deandre White countered with a long 3, Jackson made a layup, Jackson fed Fiorini on the break for a layup and White added another 3 for a commanding 36-13 lead.

A 3 from Spartans junior Ethan Belanger ended the surge, but Bol and senior Matt Pelletier each made a free throw before a foul shot from Sanford freshman Matt Romano made the score 38-17 at halftime.

“We got off to a good start tonight and we played really unselfish,” Millington said. “We talked before the game that we wanted them to match us and we had to take advantage of our size. Getting the ball inside to Jordin and Jack early set the tone. Then we had guys hit perimeter shots.”

While Fiorini had 11 points and five rebounds and Jackson had 10 points and five boards in the first half, the biggest reason for the Red Riots’ big lead was a staggering 18-2 advantage in rebounds.

South Portland continued to excel in the second half.

After the Spartans got the first four points of the third period, on a runner from Belanger and a floater from Laviolette, DePaolo set up Fiorini for a layup and DePaolo canned a 3 for a 43-21 lead.

Laviolette tried his best to single-handedly keep Sanford alive, scoring on a runner off the glass and on a pretty scoop shot before Fiorini made a free throw. Romano got two points back at the line, but DePaolo fed Fiorini for a layup (he tried to dunk but came up just an inch short) and Pelletier finished a feed from Hasson with another layup. A 3 from Laviolette made it 48-30 Red Riots heading for the final stanza.

There, South Portland punched its ticket to the semifinals.

Bol got the first basket of the frame, taking a pass from DePaolo and going up for a layup (he actually grazed the rim on a dunk attempt). Junior Brad Bouchard hit a jumper after a steal for Sanford, but Fiorini made a fastbreak layup from White and Fiorini scored on a putback to make it 54-32 with 5:31 remaining.

The Spartans played hard until the end, getting two free throws from Belanger and a steal and layup from Laviolette. Jackson answered with a third-effort layup and Fiorini sank a free throw. After two foul shots from Emard, Red Riots senior Drew Abramson made a free throw. Laviolette scored his final points from 3-point land, but South Portland sophomore Liam Coyne made two foul shots and a layup from senior Mike Kilmartin brought the curtain down on the Red Riots’ 62-44 triumph.

“A fast start tonight was important,” Fiorini said. “We wanted to send a message. It was good to have a big lead at the half. We sustained it in the second half. We knew they were young and scrappy and they have a good coach and they have good shooters. We knew we had to stay out on them. Coach stressed inside touches and working from the inside out. That’s basically what we did. We cleaned up the glass and made layups and our shooters made shots from the outside.”

“We looked at Sanford on tape and prepared for them,” Millington said. “We had a really tough schedule down the stretch, but we knew we were going to play Sanford, so that took the pressure off.”

Fiorini had 21 points and nine rebounds in a most impressive performance.

“When Jack’s in that frame of mind, he’s as good as anybody,” said Millington. “He’s a smart athlete. He took what was there and he was a force on the boards too.”

Jackson had 12 points and grabbed eight rebounds (six on the offensive glass).

Bol had seven points (to go with five boards, three assists and a steal), DePaolo six (to go with four assists), White six, Pelletier three, Coyne, Hasson and Kilmartin two apiece and Abramson one.

South Portland took terrific care of the ball, considering the setting, only committing seven turnovers, shot 11 of 19 from the free throw line and had a commanding 32-13 advantage on the glass. 

For Sanford, Laviolette bowed out with 19 points. Belanger had 10 points, Emard and Veino five apiece, Romano three and Bouchard two. The Spartans only gave the ball away six times and made 7 of 10 foul shots. 

TA awaits

Next up is Thornton Academy, the top seed, which beat South Portland, 52-42, Jan. 20 in Saco, in a game the Red Riots had a legitimate chance to win.

The Golden Trojans won three of five previous playoff meetings dating to 1970, with a 58-47 triumph in the 2008 Western A semifinals the most recent.

South Portland has nothing to lose as it heads back to the site of last year’s agonizing playoff ouster against Falmouth and has reason to believe it can prevail.

“I think it’s going to be another good game,” Fiorini said. “It’s great to get back to the Civic Center. A lot of the kids from last year think we have unfinished business there. We played TA earlier and we were up in that game. We feel like that one was stolen from us. We’ve learned how to close out games. We’ve grown as a team and we’ve bonded. All the selfishness is gone. We’re here for the long haul. People have written us off and that got to us. We knew the season was never over. Nobody thinks we can make a run. It’s written all over the place, but I think we’ve saved our best for February.”

“We have to play our best game against Thornton,” Millington said. “They’re a very well coached, good team. They have as good a backcourt as anybody. They shoot and defend well. We think we match up well, but we’ll need a good effort to beat them.”

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

South Portland junior Deandre White knocks down one of his two 3-pointers in the win.

South Portland senior Sam DePaolo drives up the floor as Sanford senior Tye Laviolette gives chase.

South Portland senior Jordin Jackson puts home a missed shot.

South Portland junior Ruay Bol brings the house down with a dunk.

South Portland senior Matt Pelletier looks for a shot.

South Portland junior Ruay Bol (23) is congratulated by senior Jordin Jackson late in the Red Riots’ victory.

Previous South Portland-Sanford playoff results (since 1964)

2013 Western A quarterfinal
South Portland 60 Sanford 47

1993 Western A Final
South Portland 71 Sanford 55

1985 Western A quarterfinal
South Portland 54 Sanford 45 

1982 Western A quarterfinal
South Portland 75 Sanford 50

1980 Western A Final
South Portland 73 Sanford 54

1978 Western A quarterfinal
South Portland 66 Sanford 49

1975 Western A quarterfinal
South Portland 79 Sanford 53 

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