SOUTH PORTLAND—Tuesday evening at Beal Gymnasium, the South Portland boys’ basketball team began one of the most daunting schedule stretches of any team in the state when Bonny Eagle, a regional finalist last winter, paid a visit.
The Red Riots now have an idea just how tough the next two weeks will be.
After South Portland held the explosive Scots to a mere four points in the first quarter, Bonny Eagle came to life and forged a 20-20 tie at halftime. Thanks to heroics of sophomore Dustin Cole, the Scots took the lead for good late in the third period and held on down the stretch for a 56-49 victory, improving to 11-2 on the season.
The Red Riots hung close, but could never get over the hump and fell to 9-4.
“There are positives we take out of this,” said South Portland coach Phil Conley. “We’re not happy we lost this game, but on a positive note, we were right with them.”
Both Bonny Eagle and South Portland have been very impressive this season.
The Scots, who dropped a 30-27 decision to Cheverus in last year’s Western A Final, have remained formidable behind Cole and senior Cole Libby. Bonny Eagle opened with decisive wins at Sanford (68-47), at home over Massasbesic (70-37) and at Thornton Academy (58-36) before suffering a 66-47 loss at home to Portland. After a 69-35 romp at Gorham, the Scots fell at home again, this time in a painful overtime decision to Deering, 57-55. Bonny Eagle bounced back by upsetting visiting Cheverus, 46-39, starting a six-game win streak. After downing the Stags, the Scots disposed of host Noble (70-38), visiting Westbrook (54-50), host Marshwood (68-67), visiting Windham (46-28) and visiting Kennebunk (69-50).
The Red Riots, who were upset in last year’s quarterfinals by Portland, got off to a great start in 2011-12 with victories over host Windham (44-32), visiting Biddeford (65-53) and host Westbrook (57-51). After a 43-41 home loss to Thornton Academy, South Portland bounced back by winning at Kennebunk, 57-42, handled host Massabesic (80-55) and visiting Scarborough (60-39). The Red Riots were then beaten at home by Deering (40-29), but won at Sanford, 54-46, before falling at home to Portland, 61-57. Last week, South Portland bounced back with a hard fought and much needed 66-60 victory at Marshwood and held off Gorham’s upset bid, 38-37.
Over the past decade, the schools have squared off 13 times, which includes a playoff encounter (a 57-51 Scots’ triumph in the 2007 quarterfinals), with the Red Riots holding a 7-6 advantage. Last year, Bonny Eagle romped at home, 70-43.
This time around, the game was closer, but the end result was the same.
Both teams scored on their first possession, as South Portland junior Jack Tolan took a pass from Conner MacVane and made a layup and Cole hit a bank shot, but the squads then went cold for over four minutes before the Red Riots got an old-fashioned three-point play from senior Jordan Muller, who scored on a putback, got fouled and sank the free throw. After Libby set up classmate Evan Amell for a layup, Muller made a driving layup and Red Riots junior Ben Burkey converted a three-point lead for a 10-4 lead after one period.
When senior Logan Gaddar took a pass from junior Tanner Hyland and made a layup 13 seconds into the second period, South Portland had a 12-4 advantage, but the visitors would soon roar back.
A 3-ball from junior C.J. Autry got the rally started. After Burkey answered with a leaner, Libby made a layup, then fed Amell for a layup in transition to make it 14-11, forcing Conley to call timeout.
It didn’t help as Libby made a jump shot and with 4:47 to go before halftime, Cole buried a 3 for the Scots’ first lead, 16-14. Cole added a jumper before Tolan’s spinning bank shot ended a 5 minute, 2 second drought and an 11-0 run. MacVane tied the score with a layup and two Tolan foul shots put the Red Riots back on top, but as time expired, Bonny Eagle junior Jon Thomas scored on a putback and the game was deadlocked, 20-20, at the break.
The pace remained frenetic and the game stayed close throughout the third quarter.
South Portland scored the first six points of the second half as Muller made two foul shots, Tolan took a pass from Burkey and made a layup and Hyland made a layup after a steal for a 26-20 advantage.
Bonny Eagle roared back as Amell made a free throw (the Scots’ first foul shot attempt of the game), Cole kept a possession alive with an offensive rebound before feeding freshman Ben Malloy for a 3 and after Autry was fouled and had to come out of the game due to bleeding, junior Travon Dandridge came in to shoot the free throws and made one of two to cut the deficit to a point.
After MacVane passed to Muller for a layup, Cole took a pass from Libby and buried a 3 to make it 28-28. A floater off the glass from Gaddar put the Red Riots back on top, 30-28, but at the other end, Cole was fouled while shooting a 3 and sank all three subsequent free throws to give Bonny Eagle its first lead of the half, 31-30.
With 1:36 remaining in the third, Scots coach Phil Bourassa was called for a technical foul and Muller made both free throws, but that would prove to be South Portland’s final lead. After a steal, Autry passed to Libby for a dunk that put Bonny Eagle ahead to stay.
“After Cole Libby’s dunk, we knew we had momentum for the rest of the game,” Cole said.
Libby added a 3 and even though Hyland answered with a 3-ball, the Scots had a 36-35 lead heading for the fourth.
In the first minute of the final stanza, Cole fed Autry for a layup, which led to a three-point play. A highlight reel layup from Cole pushed the lead to 41-35.
“I have to think to myself I”m going to make the next shot,” Cole said. “I knew once the lane was clear, I’d have a wide open layup. I took advantage of it. I didn’t want anyone to strip the ball from me. Now everyone knows who I am. It’s more challenging.”
A great individual effort from Gaddar led to a layup from Burkey to cut the deficit to four, but Cole made two free throws and Autry did the same. Burkey set up Hyland for a layup and Muller made a layup with 3:07 remaining to make it 45-41, but Cole rose to the occasion again, driving hard to the basket, making a layup while being fouled and hitting the free throw.
Gaddar answered with two foul shtos, but Libby got one back. Tolan made it a 49-45 contest when he made a layup with 1:57 showing, but with 1:30 to go, Cole calmly sank two free throws to push the lead back to six.
With 1:01 left, MacVane made a layup while being fouled, but he couldn’t convert the three-point play.
With 34.9 seconds to play, Dandridge made the second of two free throws. Out of a timeout, South Portland hoped to answer, but Muller’s 3-point attempt drew air.
“It’s a set either for the two guard or point guard,” Conley said. “He was trying to draw contact to get to the foul line. We didn’t hit that one shot to get within a basket.”
With 15.6 seconds remaining, Cole made two foul shots to make it 54-47. A putback from MacVane kept the Red Riots’ hopes alive, but with 7.1 seconds left, Cole buried two free throws and that brought the curtain down on the Scots’ 56-49 triumph.
Cole stole the show with 26 points, five rebounds and two assists. Libby added 10 points, three assists, two rebounds and a steal. Autry had eight points, six rebounds, three steals and an assist. Amell finished with five points, six boards, a steal, assist and blocked shot. Malloy had three points. Dandridge and Thomas finished with two points and three rebounds apiece.
Bonny Eagle finished with just 10 turnovers and made 19 of 22 foul shots, all coming in the second half.
“We made free throws,” Bourassa said. “That’s why we pulled away. We had a slow start. We didn’t warm up hard enough. Their ability to play together as a team worried me. They’re well coached. Tanner Hyland’s an elite player, but we have the best man-to-man defender in the state, Cole Libby.”
For South Portland, Muller was the leading scorer with 13 points. Tolan had 10 points (along with six boards and two blocks). Burkey (three rebounds) and Hyland (three boards and three steals) each had seven points. Gaddar and MacVane had six points apiece. Gaddar led everyone with 12 rebounds.
“Gaddar held Cole Libby to 10 points,” Conley said. “He played a terrific game. It was Tanner’s best complete game, offensively and defensively. He got pressured and made smart decisions. He got our post players involved.”
Nineteen turnovers helped seal the Red Riots’ doom. They were 10 of 11 from the charity stripe and outrebounded Bonny Eagle, 28-26.
“(Bonny Eagle’s) a very good high school basketball team and I think we’re a very good high school basketball team,” Conley said. “For the most part in the second half, it was a four- or five-point contest. The Cole kid made big shots and got to the foul line. That was the difference in the game. I think we’re right there with that team. With a defensive stop or a good possession, we’re right in that game. Physically, we matched them.”
Bonny Eagle (third behind Cheverus and Portland in the Western Class A Heal Points standings) has a favorable remaining draw, beginning Friday at home versus Gorham. The Scots also play at Biddeford, Westbrook and Windham and host Scarborough.
They’ll be in the mix all the way.
“We have a shot,” Cole said. “If we keep playing like this, we can beat anybody.”
“We haven’t put it together yet,” Bourassa said. “We have a lot of work to do. We have to work harder in practice. Our offense still needs work. We can’t just show glimpses. To beat great teams, we have to play together for 32 minutes. We’re trying to play every game like it’s our last.”
South Portland’s story is just the opposite. If Bonny Eagle wasn’t enough of a challenge, Friday, the Red Riots (now sixth in the Heals) visit a Cheverus team coming off a home loss.
“It’s never easy to go against Cheverus,” Conley said. “Coach (Bob) Brown’s the best coach in the state, in my opinion. They’re always well prepared. I think we can compete with them and I think we can beat those guys.”
Next Tuesday brings a trip to Deering and after an ostensible breather of a home game versus Noble, South Portland closes at Portland and at home with Cheverus.
“I feel no game in the SMAA is an easy game,” Conley said. “We’ve got the top three or four teams the rest of the way. We want to win those games and stay competitive and hopefully it will make us stronger for the playoff push. I still have confidence in my guys. We’re 9-4, not 4-9, and know we can play with the guys right ahead of us. We have to put someone away down the stretch. I think we can.”
BE- 4 16 16 20- 56
SP- 10 10 15 14- 49
BE- Cole 6-12-26, Libby 4-1-10, Autry 2-3-8, Amell 2-1-5, Malloy 1-0-3, Dandridge 0-2-2, Thomas 1-0-2
SP- Muller 4-5-13, Tolan 4-2-10, Burkey 3-1-7, Hyland 3-0-7, Gaddar 2-2-6, MacVane 3-0-6
BE (5) Cole 2, Autry, Libby, Malloy 1
SP (1) Hyland 1
BE (26) Amell, Autry 6, Cole 5, Dandridge, Thomas 3, Libby 2, Malloy 1
SP (28) Gaddar 12, Tolan 6, Burkey, Hyland 3, Muller 2, DiBiase, MacVane 1
BE (6) Autry 3, Amell, Dandridge, Libby 1
SP (4) Hyland 2, Gaddar, Muller 1
BE (1) Amell 1
SP (3) Tolan 2, Burkey 1