SOUTH PORTLAND—The secret is out.
What’s been known for awhile inside the locker room of the South Portland girls’ basketball team and around the city is now public knowledge.
The Red Riots are something special.
With the start of the tournament just days away, South Portland confirmed its status as a top contender Tuesday evening with a palpitating comeback victory over a talented foe at an electric Beal Gymnasium.
The Red Riots, who entered the game on a six-game win streak, were staggered early by Cheverus’ inside tandem of senior Cassidy Grover and sophomore Jess Willerson, who helped the Stags rush to a 9-0 lead, an 18-6 advantage after one period and eventually, a seemingly commanding 28-10 bulge midway through the second quarter.
But as it turned out, the Red Riots had the Stags right where they wanted them.
South Portland senior Brianne Maloney demonstrated why she has to be on the short list of top players in the league by spearheading the comeback, helping the Red Riots crawl back within nine points, 32-23, at halftime, then come all the way back to lead, 37-35, after three.
When South Portland scored the first seven points of the fourth period to go ahead, 44-35, it looked like it was going to roll to an easy win, but proud Cheverus mustered a final rally and drew even at 46-46, when Willerson banked home a shot with 3:14 to go.
After expending so much energy to rally in the first place, the Red Riots weren’t about to let this one slip away and with 2:38 to play, freshman Lydia Henderson took a long pass from sophomore Maddie Hasson and made a layup which put the hosts ahead to stay.
As the Stags were frustrated down the stretch by missed shots, turnovers and disputed calls, Henderson added a foul shot and when Cheverus junior Jillian Libby’s desperation 3 at the horn fell short, South Portland escaped with a thrilling 49-46 victory.
Maloney led all scorers with 20 points, junior Holly Black added 12 and the Red Riots improved to 14-3 on the season, dropping the Stags to 12-5 in the process.
“Honestly, it was our heart,” said Maloney. “We don’t give up. Ever. No matter how down we are, we don’t stop competing. Even if we’re the only ones in the gym believing, we’ll come out and fight and win and that’s what we did tonight.”
In a year where three-time defending state champion McAuley is mortal and parity is evident throughout the Southwestern Maine Activities Association, both the Red Riots and Stags have found themselves near the top of the heap.
Cheverus, a regional finalist last year, opened by downing visiting Windham (46-33) and host Bonny Eagle (68-29) before stumbling at Thornton Academy (47-42). After a 75-29 home romp over Massabesic, the Stags won at Deering (65-42), then couldn’t hold a halftime lead and lost at Portland (62-60) and fell just short despite a valiant effort at McAuley, 47-39. Cheverus then bounced back with a vengeance, winning at Gorham (42-40), at home over Noble (75-38) and Sanford (51-39) and at Westbrook (39-19) before losing at home to South Portland, 72-56. A late rally got the Stags back on track in a 48-41 home win over Marshwood. They then won at Scarborough (50-41) and handled visiting Biddeford (63-22) and Deering (44-29).
South Portland, which lost in the quarterfinals last winter, underwent many changes before the start of the 2013-14 campaign. For starters, the program graduated standout Danica Gleason (who now plays at St. Joseph’s College). Longtime coach Mike Giordano stepped down and his assistant, Lynne Hasson, took over. Mix in some players in new roles and a few key additions and the Red Riots were an enigma when the season dawned, but they believed they had what it took to compete and have they ever proved it.
South Portland opened with victories over host Noble (66-14), visiting Sanford (54-46) and host Westbrook (39-35) before falling from the unbeaten ranks with a 53-43 home loss to Thornton Academy. A 50-46 home loss to Portland followed before the Red Riots bounced back with wins at Bonny Eagle (47-31), at home over Deering (50-48), at home over Massabesic (80-43) and at Scarborough (54-46). A 41-36 loss at McAuley followed, but that strong effort propelled South Portland to victories over visiting Biddeford (57-24), host Cheverus (72-56) and Marshwood (52-37), at home over Windham (51-33) and at Gorham (64-53, in overtime) and Portland (48-35).
South Portland beat Cheverus in the first 11 meetings between the schools (please see sidebar, below), most of them by decisive margins, but starting in the 2009-10 campaign, Cheverus began a six-game win streak over the Red Riots which didn’t end until South Portland won on the Stags’ floor back on Jan. 17, when Hasson went off for 25 points and Henderson added 16.
Tuesday, South Portland somehow, some way found a way to rise off the deck and hand Cheverus an agonizing defeat.
The tone for the Stags’ sizzling start was set off the opening tip, when the ball came to senior Georgia Ford, who made a 3 just five seconds in.
The next time down the floor, Grover scored her first points, taking a pass from Ford and making a layup for a 5-0 advantage just 36 seconds in.
Willerson, the league’s leading scorer, who had a team-high 15 points in the first meeting, then made consecutive putbacks and with the game barely three minutes old, Cheverus was up, 9-0, and the Red Riots called timeout to regroup.
While Maloney did manage to get South Portland off the schneid with a free throw out of the timeout, Grover and junior Laura Holman both made jump shots (both were assisted by senior Sadie Lyons) and the Stags had a 13-1 lead.
“Our defense wasn’t on point early,” Maloney said. “We were a little slow.”
Black made a layup for the Red Riots’ first field goal and Maloney added a foul shot, but Grover scored on a putback while being fouled and added the free throw for the old-fashioned three-point play. After Henderson countered with a long jumper, a Willerson layup gave Cheverus an 18-6 advantage after a dominant first quarter.
In the first eight minutes, South Portland turned the ball over nine times, made just two shots from the floor and had no answers for Grover (seven points) or Willerson (six).
The second period began just as inauspiciously for the Red Riots as Ford fed Grover for a leaner and Willerson scored on a putback to make it 22-6, just 50 seconds in.
After Black made a putback for the hosts, Maloney hit a jumper to cut the deficit to 22-10, but Ford set up Grover for a layup, Holman scored on a putback and with 3:50 to go in the half, sophomore Lodia Ismail scored on a driving layup and the Stags were ahead, 28-10, and threatening to end the competitive phase of the contest by halftime.
Instead, South Portland showed its heart, pride and talent and by the break, we suddenly had ourselves a game.
The rally began innocently enough with two Maloney free throws. Maloney added a jumper, unheralded senior Mackenzie Bowring made a layup after a steal and with 2:33 to go before halftime, Hasson made a free throw to cut the deficit to a manageable 11, 28-17.
Ford got two points back for Cheverus at the line, but Black made two free throws, Maloney somehow managed to score after a pretty spin move and Maloney set up Bowring for a baseline jumper to make it a seven-point game.
Ford then restored order somewhat for the visitors by making two free throws with 5.2 seconds left, ending a 13-2 Red Riots’ run and giving the Stags a 32-23 lead at halftime.
While Cheverus had a 24-18 rebounding advantage (half of them came on the offensive glass) and Grover and Willerson combined for 19 points inside, South Portland managed to stay within hailing distance, thanks in large part to 10 points from Maloney and six from Black.
The third quarter was even kinder to the Red Riots, who not only came all the way back, but actually took their first lead.
Just 10 seconds in, Maloney hit a leaner. Willerson countered with a putback with 7:25 left in the third, but that would prove to be the Stags’ only field goal of the frame. A free throw from Maloney and a Maloney jumper cut the deficit to six. After Willerson made a foul shot with 4:23 left in the third, Maloney sank and a 3 and Black scored on a putback and just like that, South Portland was within two, 35-33.
Cheverus then turned the ball over, but Bowring missed a jumper which could have tied the score. After the teams traded turnovers, the Stags missed a shot and the Red Riots had a look to go ahead, but junior Lillian LaRochelle’s 3 was off target.
Finally, with 1:14 remaining, Hasson set up Black for a baseline jumper and an 18-point deficit had disappeared.
After a Cheverus miss, Hasson grabbed the rebound and went coast-to-coast for a layup which put South Portland ahead for the first time, 37-35, capping a 12-1 run to end the quarter.
“At halftime, we knew could come back from down nine if we came back from 18,” Maloney said.
“We kind of laid an egg in the middle periods,” said Cheverus coach Richie Ashley. “We only had three points in the third. We had some good looks. We just didn’t knock down shots.”
The Red Riots stayed hot the start the fourth, as Henderson sank a long jumper.
“We shoot the ball well,” Lynne Hasson said. “We don’t always do it in the game, but in practice, I see that the kids can really shoot. I want them to have fun and shoot when they’re open. That freedom to just be a player is important.”
Then, South Portland twice inbounded the ball under the basket and twice got easy layups as first, Bowring passed to Hasson for a layup (who was fouled and added the free throw for the three-point play), then Bowring set up Maloney for another layup and a 44-35 lead.
“I’ve run that play since middle school when my Dad put it in,” said Maloney. “You set a screen and get open.”
That basket capped a 34-7 surge over roughly a 14-minute span dating back to the second period, but just when the Stags appeared cooked, they showed their deep reservoir of heart and pride and pushed the game to the limit.
A driving layup from Willerson with 5:53 to go proved to be Cheverus’ first field goal in 9:32 and cut the deficit to seven.
Libby, who once again did so many key little things in quiet fashion, scored on a pullup jumper.
Lyons found Willerson for a layup and with 4:42 still to play, Libby made a free throw and the Stags were only behind by two, 44-42.
One more time off an inbounds set, Bowring set up Maloney for a layup with 4:21 left and South Portland stretched the lead back to four, but Grover hit a jumper and with 3:14 left, Libby passed to Willerson, who banked home a shot to tie the game anew, 46-46.
Suddenly, the tension was akin to something you’d experience at the Expo or Civic Center in the tournament.
Both teams had given the other their best shot and someone had to dig deeper to pull it out.
In the end, that would be the team that so few believed in just a few weeks ago.
After the Stags missed a shot to go ahead, Hasson got the rebound, started to bring the ball up the left baseline, then noticed Henderson running free ahead of the defense. Hasson sent a perfect pass ahead to Henderson, who laid the ball in to put the hosts ahead for good, 48-46, with 2:38 remaining.
“I just had to make the layup,” Henderson said. “That’s it.”
While Cheverus wouldn’t score again, it would have several chances to answer.
First, Hasson blocked a Libby shot.
After South Portland turned the ball over, Cheverus did the same, but the Red Riots gave it right back.
With 30 seconds left, Willerson drove to the hoop and lost the ball out of bounds. Many in the crowd were waiting for a foul call, but it never came and making matters worse for the Stags, the ball was ruled to have gone off Willerson, giving the Red Riots possession.
Henderson would take the inbounds pass and be fouled with 26.3 seconds remaining and she went to the line for a one-and-one. Henderson calmly sank the first foul shot.
“We practice free throws all the time in practice,” Henderson said. “You have to keep your composure. That’s something I look up to in older players. I just had to keep calm and realize they were big foul shots.”
Henderson missed the second free throw, however, and Willerson rebounded.
Cheverus, needing a 3 to tie, never got a shot off, as it turned the ball over with 14.4 seconds to go.
South Portland hoped to run out the clock, but Ford stole the ball from behind and as time wound down, Libby took a pass at midcourt, took a couple dribbles, then let loose from well behind the 3-point line.
The shot momentarily appeared on target to fittingly send the game to overtime, but instead, it came up just short.
South Portland 49 Cheverus 46.
“We’ve been in this situation a lot,” said Henderson. “We know we can come back. It’s all about heart and we had that. I don’t think we get worried.”
“I believed,” said Lynne Hasson. “This team just won’t quit. Ultimately, our goal’s to play to our potential for four quarters. They find a way. It’s special. I don’t know how we pulled it out, but we did. The kids really believe that no one can beat them. That’s important. It probably started with the McAuley game. We keep working hard and figure out what we need to do better. We’re pretty athletic and tough.”
Maloney led the way with 20 points and five rebounds. She also had two steals and a pair of assists.
“I was just strong and finished in the post,” Maloney said.
“Bri is as tough as they get,” Hasson said. “She’s coming on strong. She’s a senior leader. She’s a tremendous post player who’s a little undersized. She has great post moves and can get the defense to react. She’s been a strong defensive player and rebounder all year. Now, she’s adding the offense.”
Black added 12 points, seven boards and two steals.
Henderson, who plays like anything but a freshman, had seven key points.
Hasson added six points (and seven rebounds) and Bowring finished with four (to go with a team-high eight rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks). Junior Paige Carter didn’t score, but had five key rebounds and helped neutralize Cheverus’ inside play during the comeback.
The Red Riots, who were dominated on the glass early, wound up only losing the rebounding battle by one, 35-34.
“We knew what we wanted to do defensively and that it would be important to box them out because they’re big and strong, but we weren’t boxing out (early),” Hasson said. “They wanted it more than we did in the first half. I had to remind (the girls) at halftime that we’re a pretty good rebounding team.”
South Portland overcame 24 turnovers and made 10 of 15 foul shots.
For Cheverus, Willerson had 17 points and a game-high nine rebounds. She also blocked a shot. Grover had 13 points and eight boards, Ford seven points and a game-high five steals, Holman four points, Libby three (to go with five boards) and Ismail two. Lyons didn’t score, but had four assists.
The Stags were hindered by 21 turnovers. They made 7 of 9 free throws.
It proved to be an agonizing loss for a team that appeared to be peaking (and still may be).
“It’s just one game,” said Ashley. “We battled. I thought (South Portland) made some plays and knocked down some shots. I’ll publicly say that I think that it was a poorly officiated game both ways. Not just towards Cheverus. But it wasn’t the determinant in the outcome. South Portland won and deserved the credit, but it was pretty sad to see that.
“I’m proud of the girls that when we were down nine, we could have folded the tent and we didn’t. The girls scrapped. They have nothing to hang their heads about. All you can ask for in that (end) circumstance is get a steal and a look to tie it up. It’s a learning experience. It was a playoff-type atmosphere. I never want to lose, but I’d rather lose and get this kind of experience.”
Both teams hope to improve their playoff seeding as they play their respective regular season finale Friday.
Cheverus has history on its mind as it hosts a top-ranked, 16-1 McAuley squad it’s never beaten.
“I think we have character kids who will bounce back,” Ashley said. “They’re obviously sad, but sometimes you can learn a lot more from a loss. Friday will be a good game. A great atmosphere for girls’ basketball. We’ll prepare for McAuley, but more important than that, we’ll have a celebration for our five seniors. They mean a lot more to me than one team or one game.”
The Stags are sixth in the Western Class A Heal Points at press time, but with an upset of the Lions could move up and possibly even avoid a preliminary round game.
South Portland (third in Western A behind McAuley and Thornton Academy) will host No. 8 Scarborough as it seeks to post its best record since 2007-08.
The good times keep on rolling for this group and the Red Riots believe that they’re not finished.
“We’ll stay confident and play hard,” said Maloney. “We knew from the beginning, that we had the potential to beat whoever. That’s what we’ve believed all season.”
“It’s going to be a wide-open tournament,” Lynne Hasson said. “It will be tooth and nail. We’ll have to make foul shots, have key possessions and box out. That’s where guts, character and mental toughness come in. All we can do is give our best effort, play hard and be focused and ready to play. The tournament’s tough because good teams lose. We’ll keep playing to win and we won’t play not to lose. The score will take care of itself.”
Cheverus junior Laura Holman affects the shot attempt of South Portland junior Holly Black.
South Portland senior Mackenzie Bowring defends Cheverus junior Jillian Libby.
Cheverus senior Georgia Ford stumbles over South Portland senior Mackenzie Bowring as they battle for possession.
Cheverus senior Georgia Ford brings the ball up the floor.
Cheverus senior Cassidy Grover, who had a sensational first half, looks for a shot as South Portland senior Brianne Maloney defends.
South Portland sophomore Maddie Hasson goes up for a shot.
South Portland freshman Lydia Henderson, who made some huge plays late, looks for an open teammate.
Cheverus sophomore Lodia Ismail is fouled by South Portland junior Paige Carter.
Cheverus junior Jillian Libby drives on South Portland sophomore Maddie Hasson.
South Portland senior Brianne Maloney, who scored a game-high 20 points and helped rally the Red Riots from an 18-point deficit, goes up for a shot.
Cheverus sophomore Jess Willerson shoots over South Portland junior Holly Black.
South Portland 72 @ Cheverus 56
Cheverus 43 @ South Portland 33
@ Cheverus 52 South Portland 41
Cheverus 52 @ South Portland 41
Cheverus 46 @ South Portland 42
@ Cheverus 48 South Portland 35
@ South Portland 43 Cheverus 33
South Portland 52 @ Cheverus 25
@ South Portland 48 Cheverus 35
South Portland 58 @ Cheverus 28
South Portland 57 @ Cheverus 28
@ South Portland 55 Cheverus 34
South Portland 65 @ Cheverus 33
@ South Portland 78 Cheverus 36
@ South Portland 53 Cheverus 28
South Portland 85 Cheverus 44
@ South Portland 88 Cheverus 35
South Portland coach Lynne Hasson congratulates Red Riots junior Paige Carter during the late stages of the Red Riots’ stirring 49-46, come-from-behind victory over Cheverus Tuesday evening.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.
C- 18 14 3 11- 46
SP- 6 17 14 12- 49
C- Willerson 8-1-17, Grover 6-1-13, Ford 1-4-7, Holman 2-0-4, Libby 1-1-3, Ismail 1-0-2
SP- Maloney 7-5-20, Black 5-2-12, Henderson 3-1-7, Hasson 2-2-6, Bowring 2-0-4
C (1) Ford 1
SP (1) Maloney 1
C (35) Willerson 9, Grover 8, Libby 5, Holman, Ismail, Lyons 4, Ford 1
SP (34) Bowring 8, Black, Hasson 7, Carter, Maloney 5, Henderson 2
C (11) Ford 5, Libby 2, Grover, Ismail, Lyons, Willerson 1
SP (9) Bowring 3, Black, Maloney 2, Hasson, LaRochelle 1
C (3) Grover, Libby, Willerson 1
SP (5) Bowring 2, Carter, Hasson, Henderson 1