PORTLAND—South Portland’s second-ranked boys’ basketball team was sluggish during the first half of Monday’s quarterfinal against No. 7 Cheverus at the Portland Exposition Building, but once morning turned to afternoon, the Red Riots hit their stride.
In scintillating fashion.
The Stags never trailed in the first half, racing to a 15-10 lead after one quarter and a 20-11 advantage early in the second period, but South Portland, behind its dynamic inside quartet of senior Jaren Muller, juniors Jack Fiorini and Jordin Jackson and sophomore Ruay Bol, began to chip away and the Red Riots trailed by only two, 24-22, at the break.
With 4:26 to go in the third quarter, South Portland junior Matt Pelletier made two free throws and the onslaught began.
The Red Riots would close the quarter on a 19-2 run, capped by a 3 from junior Sam DePaolo, and were in command, up, 45-30, heading for the final stanza.
There, Cheverus got as close as nine, 51-42, but two more 3s from Pelletier ended all doubt and South Portland went on to a 65-45 victory.
Pelletier had 22 points, all in the second half, Muller added 13 and Bol finished with 11 as the Red Riots improved to 16-3, ended the Stags’ season at 11-9 and advanced to face third-ranked Falmouth (16-3) in the semifinals Friday at 8:30 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Center (formerly the Cumberland County Civic Center).
“The first playoff game’s always the toughest, I don’t care what seed you are,” said South Portland coach Phil Conley. “We beat them twice (in the regular season), but it was close. My kids rose to the challenge. Cheverus is a very good, well coached team. It’s a great win.”
In a wide-open season in the Southwestern Maine Activities Association, both Cheverus and South Portland had their moments of greatness this winter.
The Stags, who lost to Falmouth in last year’s quarterfinals, opened with a 63-55 home win over Windham and after falling at Bonny Eagle by two (41-39), beat host Thornton Academy (59-51) and visiting Massabesic (49-32). After rallying for a stirring 45-34 victory at Deering, Cheverus closed 2014 with a closer-than-the-final-score-indicated 57-45 home loss to defending Class A champion Portland. The new year began with a 55-44 home win over Noble, but the Stags then stumbled at Gorham (58-47) and at home versus Thornton Academy (52-40). Cheverus got back on track with a 53-28 home win over Sanford, but then fell, 44-35, at Westbrook and lost at South Portland, 61-50. Cheverus hit its stride with home victories over Biddeford (61-47) and Marshwood (56-53) and after a 70-67 win at Scarborough, earned its biggest win of the year, snapping Portland’s 37-game win streak, 55-44, at the Expo. The Stags weren’t able to carry that momentum, however, as they lost two games at home in the final week: 69-64 to Deering and 58-46 to South Portland. Cheverus earned the No. 7 seed and had to host No. 10 Marshwood in a preliminary round contest Tuesday, which the Stags won, 56-50.
The Red Riots, the 2013 Western A champion, missed the playoffs last winter, but have been a force this season from the get-go. South Portland won its first four contests: 47-31 at Noble, 63-54 over visiting Sanford, 52-43 at Westbrook and 55-46 over visiting Thornton Academy. After falling at Portland at the horn, 45-43, the Red Riots lost at Bonny Eagle (64-57). South Portland got back on track with a 66-43 home win over Scarborough, then closed on a 21-4 run to stun host Deering, 64-58. After handling visiting Massabesic, 88-68, the Red Riots won, 60-54. at Scarborough. South Portland then dispatched visiting Biddeford, 69-53, won at home over Cheverus (61-50), at Marshwood (68-65) and at home over Windham (76-59) before its eight-game win streak was snapped at Gorham (57-42). The Red Riots finished strong, holding off visiting Deering (71-66), beating visiting Portland in overtime (20-16) and closing with a 58-46 victory at Cheverus.
While the Red Riots won both games this winter, the Stags had taken five of the seven playoff meetings over the past half century. The teams hadn’t played in the postseason since the 2004 quarterfinals (a 68-48 Cheverus win).
Monday, South Portland’s strong second half was better than the Stags’ first and the Red Riots beat Cheverus in the tournament for the first time since the 1986 quarterfinals.
Stags senior Derek Hammond got things going with a 3. After a sluggish start (three turnovers and an errant 3), South Portland got on the board when senior Kam Harper set up Muller for a layup, but Cheverus junior Luca Napolitano drove for a layup and sophomore Austin Boudreau set up junior Andrew Roberts for a layup and a 7-2 lead.
Play was then halted as a double technical was assessed to both Muller and Stags senior Zordan Holman after a mild altercation.
“We’ve had a rivalry since fifth grade, playing in rec basketball,” said Muller. “We’ve always been the biggest kids. This is really the first year I’ve felt I’ve had the upper hand. We’re just competitors going at it. I’m willing to get two fouls to get fouls on him.”
Jackson then came in and took a pass from Fiorini and made a layup, but Boudreau answered with a 3. After a Bol layup, Boudreau answered with one for a 12-6 advantage.
After Fiorini set up Jackson for a layup, freshman Jesse Matthews hit a 3 to make it a seven-point game, but with time winding down, Bol stole the ball and raced in for a layup to make it 15-10 Stags after one period.
In the second quarter, Cheverus remained tough.
Bol started the frame with a free throw, but Boudreau hit a 3 and Matthews set up Napolitano for a layup and the Stags’ biggest lead, 20-11.
The Red Riots crawled back behind a free throw from Muller, a layup from Bol, a foul shot from Muller and a Muller layup.
After Roberts hit a jumper, then scored on a putback, South Portland closed strong with a 3 from Harper and a Muller putback, making it 24-22 at the break.
Everything changed in the third period.
Boudreau got things started with a jumper, but 20 of the next 22 points would go to the Red Riots.
A Muller jumper and a Muller left-handed layup after a nice spin move tied the score, 26-26.
Cheverus retook the lead for the final time when sophomore Jack Casale made two foul shots, but Bol tied it with a hook shot.
Then, with 4:26 to go in the third, Pelletier was fouled while shooting a 3 and he made the first and third of his free throw attempts to put South Portland ahead for the first time and as it would turn out, to stay.
After a Harper steal led to a Fiorini layup, Cheverus coach Dan Costigan called timeout, but it didn’t stem the tide, as Harper set up Pelletier for a layup. Pelletier was fouled on the play and hit the free throw for the old-fashioned three-point play.
With 2:40 remaining, Pelletier sank a rainbow 3 from up top and Holman was given his fourth foul on the play. Forty seconds later, Jackson fed Bol for a layup. DePaolo then set up Harper for a layup off an inbounds set and South Portland was up, 42-28.
Casale ended the run with two free throws, but a late 3 from DePaolo made it 45-30 Red Riots heading for the final stanza.
There, the Stags tried to make things interesting, but ultimately, South Portland put it away.
After Casale hit a 3, Pelletier countered with a long-range bomb. Hammond drove for a layup and Matthews made a layup after a Holman steal, but Fiorini scored on a putback to make it 50-37.
After Matthews hit a 3, Muller made a foul shot, but with 3:37 to go, Hammond made two free throws and Cheverus was only down nine, 51-42, but it would get no closer.
Pelletier started the closing surge with a corner 3, then hit two free throws. After a Hammond foul shot, Harper made one and Pelletier buried another 3 to make it 60-43 with 2:01 left.
“I was trying to get the ball to the bigs because we have such a big height advantage, but they were dropping off, so I was able to hit some 3s,” Pelletier said. “I like shooting here. I wasn’t nervous. Once we got going in the second half, it was easier to play. We’re mentally tough. Cheverus was a good team. We knew we’d have to play well to beat them three times.”
“(Matt’s) just an unconscious shooter,” said Muller. “He airballed his one shot in the first half, but we told him to keep shooting no matter what. He showed what he can do.”
“Matt Pelletier hit some huge shots, which opened it up for our bigs,” Conley added. “When he’s on, it really helps our bigs. All year, he’s had the green light. He’s a terrific shooter. He did a great job hitting nice shots.”
Boudreau answered with a layup, but Pelletier scored three more, this time on an old-fashioned three-point play (leaner, foul, free throw) and a Fiorini putback slammed the door on South Portland’s 65-45 triumph.
“We started running and we held them off the glass,” Muller said. “We came out flat for a Monday morning game. It’s tough to roll out of bed and get in the mindset to play your first playoff game. I’m the only one with playoff experience. I knew it would take awhile for us to get acclimated. We got settled down and we got the crowd into it. I know we have four guys who can play down low. No other teams can do that. We had the upper hand. We just turned it on and got the crowd going. We feed off the energy we feel in the gym.”
“We said at halftime we had to push the ball up the floor,” Conley added. “We didn’t dictate the pace in the first half and they were. We had to make smart decisions and the last thing I told them was there was no way (Cheverus) should be getting an offensive or a defensive rebound. We should be controlling the glass. I thought we did that in the second half.”
The Red Riots were led by the sizzling Pelletier, who was a non-factor in the first half and a gunslinger in the second, finishing with 22 points, including four 3-pointers. Muller had 13 points (and six rebounds), Bol 11 (seven boards), Fiorini and Harper (six assists) six apiece, Jackson four (to go with nine boards and two steals and a block) and DePaolo three (to go with four assists and three rebounds).
“We got in foul trouble and they got in foul trouble, but our big kids kept their composure, which was key,” said Conley. “Ruay was active on the glass. He’s tough on the wing. He’s tough off the dribble.”
South Portland enjoyed a 36-20 rebounding advantage, committed 14 turnovers and made 11 of 20 free throws.
Cheverus was paced by 12 points from Boudreau, who also had three assists. Hammond and Matthews both had eight points, Casale finished with seven, Roberts had six and Napolitano added four.
The Stags made just 7 of 15 free throws and turned the ball over on 14 occasions.
“(South Portland’s) very good,” Costigan said. “They have a lot of weapons. They do a lot of nice things. They came at us and played physical. We have to take our hat off to them. They beat us three times and we’re done. We had to control certain things and we couldn’t. Zordan being in foul trouble was tough. They’re big and physical and we’re not. When you take our big and physical guy out, we had to do things we don’t like to do. We wanted to try and attack and make them foul us in the second half, but we struggled to do that. Pelletier started hitting. They’re a handful inside. If you don’t have bigs against them, you’ll be in trouble. Muller can pass it or score from the high post. Fiorini’s a good player. Jackson can play and Bol can run around and be an athlete. They’re just a handful and they wore us down.”
While the loss was disappointing, Cheverus did make strides this year.
“We came a long way,” Costigan said. “To start the year, we were very inexperienced. We only had two guys who had played. We got better as the year went on. It’s a good opportunity for the returning kids. They got experience. That’s good for our future.”
Falmouth will be a challenging opponent for South Portland, as the Yachtsmen (who escaped No. 11 Westbrook, 48-47, in overtime, in their quarterfinal Monday) hit 3s as well as anyone and also feature a slashing scorer in senior Jack Simonds. The Red Riots have no history with Falmouth.
“I think we have the potential to make that run again,” said Muller. “We’ve beaten everyone in the league. Falmouth is tough, but they’re not deep. If we can get them in foul trouble, they won’t be able to do what they did today.”
“The coaching staff has told us from Day One we had an opportunity to win a state championship,” Pelletier said. “We just had to play well. We’ve had a lot of success. I think we have to get our bigs going. Once we do that, it’s hard to stop us.”
“Falmouth’s really good,” Conley added. “They have three kids who can score from the outside and Simonds can score inside. We know we have our work cut out, but I like my team. I know they’ll come ready. It’s a great turnaround for this team to get back to the semifinals after missing the playoffs last year. I’m proud of my kids.”
South Portland sophomore Ruay Bol goes up for a layup.
Cheverus sophomore Austin Boudreau races up the floor.
Cheverus sophomore Jack Casale shoots over South Portland junior Jordin Jackson.
South Portland junior Luca Napolitano (14) and senior Derek Hammond swarm South Portland senior Kam Harper.
South Portland senior Kam Harper finds a path to the basket.
South Portland junior Jordin Jackson gets Cheverus freshman Jesse Matthews in the air before passing the ball.
South Portland senior Jaren Muller gets position on Cheverus senior Zordan Holman.
Cheverus junior Luca Napolitano goes up for a shot.
Cheverus junior Andrew Roberts shoots over South Portland sophomore Ruay Bol.
South Portland junior Matt Pelletier leans in for a shot during Monday’s Western Class A quarterfinal round game against Cheverus. Pelletier had 22 points, all in the second half, to lead the Red Riots to a 65-45 victory.
Jason Veilleux photos.
More photos below.
C- 15 9 6 15- 45
SP- 10 12 23 20- 65
C- Boudreau 5-0-12, Hammond 2-3-8, Matthews 3-0-8, Casale 1-4-7, Roberts 3-0-6, Napolitano 2-0-4
SP- Pelletier 6-6-22, Muller 5-3-13, Bol 5-1-11, Fiorini 3-0-6, Harper 2-1-6, Jackson 2-0-4, DePaolo 1-0-3
C (6) Boudreau, Matthews 2, Casale, Hammond
SP (6) Pelletier 4, DePaolo, Harper 1
2004 Western A quarterfinals
Cheverus 68 South Portland 48
1997 Western A semifinals
Cheverus 52 South Portland 43
1987 Western A semifinals
Cheverus 70 South Portland 69
1986 Western A quarterfinals
South Portland 66 Cheverus 48
1984 Western A semifinals
South Portland 51 Cheverus 50
1982 Western A semifinals
Cheverus 64 South Portland 53
1976 Western A semifinals
Cheverus 79 South Portland 61