SP girls make defending champion EL their latest victim

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South Portland’s bench erupts during the Red Riots’ 46-38 home win over Edward Little Tuesday night.

Derek Davis / Portland Press Herald photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

South Portland 46 Edward Little 38

EL- 10 4 12 12- 38
SP- 8 10 10 18- 46

EL- Chaput 5-4-16, Ouellette 3-1-8, Fontaine 2-0-4, Perry 2-0-4, Alexander 1-1-3, Hammond 1-1-3

SP- M. Whitmore 7-4-20, B. Cloutier 3-0-9, Towle 4-0-8, K. Whitmore 2-0-4, Leckie 1-1-3, Aceto 0-2-2

3-pointers:
EL (3) Chaput 2, Ouellette 1
SP (5) B. Cloutier 3, M. Whitmore 2

Turnovers:
EL- 17
SP- 14

Free throws
EL: 7-12
SP: 7-9

SOUTH PORTLAND—South Portland’s girls’ basketball team found itself in a close game Tuesday evening for the first time in a month.

And the Red Riots responded like the champions they hope to become, against the team currently wearing the crown.

Hosting defending Class AA champion Edward Little at Beal Gymnasium, South Portland struggled to get its offense in gear in a first half which ended with the Red Riots holding an 18-14 lead.

The Red Eddies hung tough in the third period, tying the score at 18-18 and 21-21, but a 3-pointer from senior Bela Cloutier gave South Portland the lead for good and junior Maggie Whitmore sparked a 6-0 run to start the final stanza to put the Red Riots up, 34-26.

Edward Little drew within three, 36-33, on a pair of free throws from junior Hannah Chaput with 3:30 to go, but Cloutier and Whitmore made successive 3-pointers and that was enough to allow South Portland to hold on and prevail, 46-38.

Whitmore led all scorers with 20 points as the Red Riots won their 12th game in a row, improved to 14-1 and in the process, dropped the Red Eddies to 9-6.

“That was the biggest team win we’ve had all season,” Whitmore said. “The biggest thing we had to do was keep our composure. We knew if we stuck together, we’d dig it out. We had to dig deep, but it’s a good win.”

Upper echelon

Edward Little won the Class AA state title that many expected would be South Portland’s last winter.

This season, the Red Eddies have found the going tough in their title defense, while the Red Riots appear poised to finish what last year’s team started.

Edward Little opened with a 37-35 home loss to Oxford Hills and was 4-4 at one point, but the Red Eddies captured five of their next six games, capped by home wins over Gorham, in a state game rematch (61-56) and rival Lewiston (51-28).

South Portland enjoyed a 59-28 victory at Bonny Eagle Opening Night, then downed host Cheverus, 58-42. After a 66-50 setback at defending Class A champion Greely, the Red Riots started a win streak by beating visiting Scarborough (55-36). South Portland then defeated host Thornton Academy (52-23), host Oxford Hills (62-56), host Sanford (56-22), visiting Massabesic (47-18), visiting Windham (58-29), visiting Portland (57-35), host Deering (47-33), visiting Deering (58-17), host Falmouth (63-18) and visiting Noble (72-27).

Last year, in a sign of things to come, Edward Little shocked South Portland and handed the Red Riots their lone regular season loss, 45-44, in Auburn. That game marked the first countable meeting between the teams in 15 years. 

Tuesday, the Red Eddies hoped to stay undefeated against South Portland this century, but the Red Riots kept the good times rolling, even if it didn’t come easily, as they got pushed for four quarters for the first time since downing Oxford Hills three days after Christmas.

Junior Kaleisha Towle had a huge first quarter for the hosts and she opened the scoring 22 seconds in, taking a pass from senior Katie Whitmore and making a layup.

Edward Little drew even on a leaner from senior Grace Fontaine and after Towle scored on a putback, Chaput made a free throw and a Fontaine jumper gave the Red Eddies their first lead, 5-4.

Maggie Whitmore scored her first points, on two free throws, but Fontaine fed seniro Jade Perry for a layup and a 7-6 lead.

After Maggie Whitmore scored on a putback, Chaput drove and scored on a runner and Chaput hit a free throw to put Edward Little up, 10-8, after one quarter.

In the first eight minutes, Towle scored four points and had five rebounds and a pair of blocked shots.

The Red Eddies took a big blow just 11 seconds into the second period when Fontaine went up for a rebound and landed awkwardly and painfully. She left the game with an ankle injury and wasn’t able to return.

The remainder of the first half was an offensive struggle as neither team was able to open up much of a lead.

After Maggie Whitmore tied the score with a layup, ending a 5-minute, 6-second drought in the process, a free throw from senior Jena Leckie put South Portland ahead.

A layup from junior Caroline Hammond, which snapped a 3:54 dry spell, put Edward Little back in the lead, but Katie Whitmore countered with a leaner before a layup after a steal by Chaput allowed the Red Eddies to take a 14-13 advantage.

“We were definitely frustrated,” South Portland coach Lynne Hasson said. “We were getting some shots. It felt like we couldn’t get anything to drop for awhile, even when we got decent shots. We weren’t really in the flow of things. We were out of position. We lost focus a little bit.”

In the final minute of the second quarter, junior Ashlee Aceto hit two free throws to give the Red Riots the lead and just before the horn, after Towle kept possession alive with an offensive rebound, Maggie Whitmore’s 3-point shot put South Portland up, 18-14, at the half.

Whitmore’s nine points and six rebounds allowed the Red Riots to lead, while Chaput’s six points kept Edward Little close.

The Red Eddies came out strong to start the second half, as junior Chantel Ouellette drove for a layup and freshman Brooklyn Alexander made a jump shot, but the visitors couldn’t grab the lead.

Cloutier’s first 3 put South Portland back in front, but Chaput countered with a 3-ball from the corner to tie the score for the final time, 21-21.

With 3:34 remaining in the frame, Cloutier got a 3-pointer from the top of the key to rattle in.

“Bela hit some huge shots that really got us going,” Maggie Whitmore said. “That’s part of the game we’ve been working on.”

After Hammond made a free throw for the visitors, Maggie Whitmore’s leaner made it 26-22 Red Riots.

A Chaput 3 cut the deficit to one, but Leckie drove for a layup before an Alexander free throw cut South Portland’s advantage to two, 28-26, heading for the final stanza.

Where, at last, the Red Riots got some breathing room.

Maggie Whitmore put her team on her back to start the fourth period, taking a pass from Towle and making a layup and after she set up Katie Whitmore for a layup, Maggie Whitmore’s putback put South Portland up, 34-26, with 5:19 to play.

“Obviously, Maggie is a very talented player,” Hasson said. “When it comes to crunch time, she’s ready to take over. Other teams know that she’s going to try and take over and they try to take her out of the game. They know she’s talented and they try to defend her. She’s going to get that fire in her eyes. She’ll do whatever it takes, a great pass, something defensively. She’ll make a difference.”

An old-fashioned three-point play (runner, foul, free throw) from Ouellette ended a 3:41 drought and after Towle hit a short jumper in the lane, Chaput banked home a runner, then with 3:30 on the clock, Chaput’s two foul shots made it a one-possession contest, 36-33.

With the game hanging in the balance, the Red Riots turned to their outside shooting to open it up.

With 3:06 remaining, Cloutier got a pass from Towle and she coolly drained a 3 to make it a six-point game.

“I’ve learned to keep shooting because sometimes they go in and sometimes they don’t,” Cloutier said. “I just hope it goes in. Coach called it a gutsy shot. I saw my opportunity and I just took it. I felt when I released it that it was going in.”

“Bela has had a great year defensively and she’s not afraid to shoot it,” Hasson said. “She’s hit big shots for us this year. She’s a good shooter. That’s a huge shot and she didn’t hesitate. She’s got confidence and she’s not afraid of taking a big shot.”

After Perry’s 3-pointer went in-and-out at the other end, Cloutier got the rebound and set up Maggie Whitmore for a dagger of a 3-pointer with 2:38 left, pushing South Portland’s lead to 42-33.

“In transition, you have to take some of those,” Maggie Whitmore said. “We got out in transition which is a big key for us. We got the pace up, which really helps us.”

After a Leckie steal, Towle made a layup and while Ouellette countered with a 3-ball, it only cut the lead to eight, 44-36.

With 55.1 seconds remaining, Maggie Whitmore made two foul shots for the Red Riots’ final points and with 16.3 seconds showing, a finger roll from Perry accounted for the 46-38 final score.

“We don’t want anyone to beat us on our home court,” Cloutier said. “Edward Little beat us by one last year and we had a chip on our shoulder from that.”

“We haven’t had a game like this in awhile,” said Hasson. ‘They’re really aggressive, really quick, they drive the ball well, they’re a really good team.”

Maggie Whitmore continued her terrific season with 20 points, 10 rebounds and three steals.

Cloutier made just three shots, but she had nine points, to go with four rebounds, three steals and a pair of assists. 

Towle had eight points, nine rebounds, two assists and two blocks.

Katie Whitmore finished with four points, Leckie had three (as well five rebounds, three assists and three steals) and Aceto two (to go with four rebounds and two assists).

South Portland enjoyed a 36-33 rebounding advantage, overcame 14 turnovers and hit 7 of 9 free throws.

Edward Little was led by Chaput’s 16 points. Ouellette (six rebounds) had eight points, Fontaine added four before leaving with injury, Perry scored four (to go with 11 boards), Alexander three and Hammond three (to go with five rebounds and three steals).

The Red Eddies made 7 of 12 free throws and turned the ball over 17 times.

“This really gives us a good indication of what some kids can do down the stretch,” said Edward Little coach Chris Cifelli. “South Portland just shoots so well and they have so many weapons. We haven’t seen a team that shoots that well in a long time. We had to hold our breath because we knew at some point, the shots were going to drop, but I thought we did a really good job getting to the shooters. We gave them some second chances too. We had to play defense another 20 seconds and that’s tiring.” 

Three left

Edward Little (fourth in the Class AA North Heal Points standings at press time) is battling Bangor the third seed and is hoping to match last year’s squad by winding up in that spot and going on a deep playoff run. The Red Eddies return to action Friday at home versus Messalonskee. They go to Brunswick Tuesday of next week, then close on the road next Thursday at Bangor.

“Mentally, we’re in a much better spot,” Cifelli said. “The Oxford Hills game (a 50-32 road loss Jan. 18) turned things around. We had some soul searching and since then, the coaches have made some strategic decisions and the kids have really gotten on the same page. That’s a big part of it. This helps.

“February vacation is when we want to play our best basketball. We know we’re in (the tournament) and we want to play well. It’s a lot about matchups.”

South Portland is hoping to overtake Scarborough for the top spot in Class AA South and has an opportunity to gain some valuable Heal Points Friday night when it hosts Gorham.

The Red Riots (second behind the Red Storm at press time) have their first shot at avenging last year’s agonizing playoff ouster, but it’s just another game on the regular season schedule.

“Gorham is always a big game,” Cloutier said. “It’s nice to have it on our home court. We’ll play like we’ve been playing. Our team chemistry is different this year. We have unfinished business.”

“Gorham is certainly a big one,” Hasson said. “They’ve been up and down, but they’ll be fired up to play here. They have the pieces in place and a great coach.”

South Portland closes with a trip to Portland Tuesday of next week and a home game next Thursday against Cheverus.

“It’s crunch time, so people need to keep stepping up as they are,” said Maggie Whitmore. “There’s a spark in the locker room this year. We’re ready.”

“We’re in the mix,” Hasson added. “There are several good teams out there and it won’t be an easy road. There’s a lot of parity. It’s going to take a little bit of luck. Whichever team can stay healthy is key. We’re deep, but an injury can be a difference maker. It’s one game at a time right now. If we win out, there’s a good likelihood we go 1 and that’s a good spot for us. We are more balanced this year. The kids off the bench, I don’t hesitate to put them in and I don’t think there’s a drop-off. We’re unselfish to a fault. They’re in it for each other. They don’t care who scores. They just want to win. We’re balanced. Everyone has the capability of contributing.”

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

South Portland junior Maggie Whitmore shoots over Edward Little junior Chantel Ouellette. Whitmore had a game-high 20 points.

South Portland senior Jena Leckie lunges for the ball as Edward Little senior Jade Perry looks on.

South Portland junior Maggie Whitmore is sandwiched by Edward Little senior Mikaela Scott, left, and senior Grace Fontaine.

South Portland senior Bela Cloutier defends Edward Little senior Jade Perry.

South Portland senior Jena Leckie battles Edward Little senior Grace Fontaine for a loose ball.

South Portland junior Kaleisha Towle blocks the shot of Edward Little senior Jade Perry.

Edward Little junior Chantel Ouellette ties up South Portland junior Kaleisha Towle.

South Portland junior Ashlee Aceto shoots over Edward Little junior Hannah Chaput.

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