SP girls outlast Portland to keep perfect record intact

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South Portland freshman Maria Degifico, left, sophomore Olivia Cloutier, sophomore Ashlee Aceto and sophomore Kaleisha Towle cheer near the end of the Red Riots’ 47-38 win at Portland Thursday evening.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

South Portland 47 Portland 38

SP- 14 12 5 16- 47
P- 2 12 11 13- 38

SP- Graff 2-9-13, M. Whitmore 4-5-13, Mazur 3-3-11, K. Whitmore 2-1-5, B. Cloutier 1-0-3, Leckie 1-0-2

P- A. Kabantu 3-3-10, Motema 4-1-9, S. Eubanks 4-0-8, Brown 2-2-6, Walsh 2-0-4, D. Kabantu 0-1-1

3-pointers:
SP (3) Mazur 2, B. Cloutier 1
P (1) A. Kabantu 1

Turnovers:
SP- 22
P- 19

Free throws
SP: 18-30
P: 7-12

PORTLAND—South Portland’s girls’ basketball team knew that nothing would come easily Thursday evening when it took on the resurgent Portland Bulldogs at the Portland Exposition Building.

And that’s exactly how it played out as the Red Riots got their biggest scare of the 2017-18 season to date.

But South Portland, despite being pushed the brink, demonstrated once again that they’re the favorite for a reason and like the champion they aspire to be, the Red Riots did what it took to preserve their undefeated record.

South Portland shot to a 14-2 lead after one quarter and held a 24-7 advantage late in the first half, before the Bulldogs finally got their pressure defense going.

By the end of the second period, Portland was back within a dozen points, 26-14, and the Bulldogs would make things very interesting in the second half.

After turning the ball over nine times in the first half, the Red Riots coughed it up nine times in the third quarter as Portland crept within three points before South Portland pushed its lead back to six, 31-25.

The Bulldogs made things even more interesting in the fourth period, as with 4:33 to go, sophomore standout Gemima Motema made a layup after a turnover to cut the deficit to 34-33, but the Red Riots got off the canvas and finished strong.

With the game on the line, senior Meghan Graff set up junior Katie Whitmore for a layup, Graff sank two free throws and sophomore standout Maggie Whitmore drove for a layup to turn a one-point game into a seven-point contest.

Then, down the stretch, Graff, Whitmore and senior Eva Mazur hit clutch free throws as South Portland prevailed, 47-38.

The Red Riots improved to 9-0, ended Portland’s win streak at three games and dropped the Bulldogs to 6-3 in the process.

“(Portland’s) so good,” Maggie Whitmore said. “It came down to leadership in the end. It came down to who wanted the ball. It’s a huge win for building our team to the future.”

Sit back and enjoy

Portland and South Portland each entered the 2017-18 season highly touted and neither squad has disappointed in the first half of the campaign.

The Red Riots  opened with wins over visiting Bonny Eagle (61-41), Cheverus (49-31) and Greely (63-53), host Scarborough (40-32) and visiting Oxford Hills (49-32). South Portland then opened the new year by dispatching visiting Sanford (62-26) and winning at Massabesic (49-26) and Windham (50-28).

The Bulldogs opened with a 39-30 win at Thornton Academy, then downed visiting Windham, 49-40. After falling, 57-38, at Oxford Hills, Portland responded with a 48-32 home win over Massabesic. After a 48-43 home loss to rival Deering, the Bulldogs took the next step with a last-second, 43-41 victory at two-time defending Class AA champion Gorham, then rattled off wins over visiting Edward Little (57-42) and host Sanford (48-36).

Entering play Thursday, South Portland dominated the rivalry in recent years, winning 22 of 28 meetings dating back to the start of the 2001-02 season (see sidebar, below, for previous results).

Portland was seeking its first win over the Red Riots since Dec. 20, 2013, but instead, South Portland made it six straight in the series and remained undefeated.

Barely.

Maggie Whitmore drove for a layup to open the scoring and Bulldogs coach Gerry Corcoran immediately called a timeout.

It didn’t help, as the Bulldogs had trouble holding on to the ball and Graff made a free throw before driving for a layup with 5:13 remaining in the opening quarter, forcing Corcoran to call timeout again.

Again, Portland couldn’t respond, as after a steal at one end, Mazur got a pass from junior Bela Cloutier and sank a jump shot.

With 3:03 on the clock, the Bulldogs finally got on the board when junior Reagan Brown set up freshman Amanda Kabantu for a layup, but Cloutier countered with a 3-point shot from the corner, Mazur added two free throws and with 41.3 seconds remaining, sophomore Ashlee Aceto set up junior Jena Leckie for a layup in transition to extend the lead to 14-2 after one quarter.

Portland turned the ball over eight times in the first eight minutes.

Things didn’t get much better, at least not initially, for the hosts in the second quarter.

Maggie Whitmore made a layup to get things started. After Whitmore added a foul shot, the Bulldogs ended a 4-minute, 11-second scoring drought when Motema banked home a shot, but Mazur countered with a 3.

The hosts tried to go on a run, as Brown made a free throw, then sank a jumper in transition to make it 20-7, but Graff answered with a jumper and Mazur, in transition, fed Katie Whitmore for a layup and a 24-7 lead.

The Bulldogs then showed some life late, as Kabantu made two free throws and after Graff answered with a  pair, junior Nettie Walsh got a runner to roll in and Kabantu sank a 3 to cut the deficit to 26-14 at the break.

Graff and Mazur each had seven points to pace the Red Riots, while Kabantu led Portland with seven.

In the third period, the Bulldogs continued to rally.

Portland first got a free throw from Brown and forced a couple quick turnovers, forcing South Portland coach Lynne Hasson to call timeout.

It didn’t help, as Davina Kabantu set up Motema for a layup, senior Shayla Eubanks banked home a runner, Eubanks made another jump shot and with 4:26 left, after a steal by Davina Kabantu, Walsh made a layup to cut the deficit to just three, 26-23.

South Portland appeared to right the ship when Graff set up Maggie Whitmore for a fastbreak layup to end the 14-0 Portland run and a 5:27 drought and Graff added a pair of free throws, but Motema stole the ball and made a layup. A Graff foul shot then made it 31-25 Red Riots heading for the final stanza, where things got very interesting.

Bulldogs freshman Davina Kabantu started the frame with a free throw, but with 6:42 on the clock, Graff set up Mazur for a corner 3 and a seemingly safe 34-26 lead.

But it wasn’t safe.

Brown hit a leaner in the lane, Motema made a free throw, Amanda Kabantu stole an inbounds pass and made a layup and with 4:33 to go, after a Walsh steal, Motema’s layup pulled the Bulldogs within a single point, 34-33.

That’s as close as they would get.

With 4:12 on the clock, Graff set up Katie Whitmore for a pivotal layup.

Twenty-nine seconds later, Graff made two free throws to make it a two-possession game.

With 2:56 to play, Maggie Whitmore weaved through the defense and finished with a layup to make it 40-33.

“I have faith in myself,” Whitmore said. “If they key on Eva and Meghan, I take the contact.”

Portland got two points back on a Eubanks bank shot, but with 1:52 remaining, Maggie Whitmore made two foul shots.

After Eubanks sank a long jumper with 1:37 on the clock, Graff made a free throw 15 seconds later and with 42 seconds to go, Mazur made one of two free throws.

Amanda Kabantu kept the Bulldogs’ hopes alive with a free throw with 35.6 seconds remaining, followed by an offensive rebound, but she missed and Maggie Whitmore got the rebound and was fouled.

Whitmore added a free throw with 28.9 seconds to play and with 14.4 seconds showing, Whitmore made another to bring the curtain down on South Portland’s 47-38 victory.

“We had that run at the beginning and then they came back,” Mazur said. “They were a huge challenge. It was good for us to have adversity and overcome it. They’re so quick and athletic. I’m really proud of us. We got more stressed than other games, but we still managed to work it out.”

“Every game is different,” Maggie Whitmore said. “It’s awesome to win and it’s a relief. We collected ourselves after their big run and we closed it. It was hard to take care of the ball, but we got it done at the end. You have to hit free throws if you want to win.”

“I think this says when we have to gut it out, we can be mentally tough,” Hasson added. “Portland’s good and very athletic and their fullcourt pressure bothered us. We couldn’t handle it and we started to panic. We didn’t do what we needed to do. We played too fast at times. We weren’t very good at the foul line. We need to get better. That’s what this game was about. These girls aren’t used to playing 32 minutes. That was an adjustment.”

Graff and Maggie Whitmore shared top-scoring honors with 13 points apiece. Graff also had five assists, while Whitmore had five rebounds and three steals.

“Maggie is a key scorer, but her presence on the team is really positive,” Mazur said. “She beats up herself, but she never gets on anyone else.”

Mazur added 11 points, to go with eight rebounds, four steals, two assists and two blocked shots.

Katie Whitmore had five points (four boards and three steals), Cloutier three and Leckie two (to go with seven rebounds).

The Red Riots overcame 22 turnovers and 18 of 30 foul shooting.

Portland was led by Amanda Kabantu, who had 10 points (eight rebounds and two steals). Motema added nine points and five steals, Eubanks had eight points, Brown six (and nine boards), Walsh four and Davina Kabantu one (to go with six rebounds and five assists).

The Bulldogs had a 40-33 rebounding advantage, turned the ball over 19 times and made 7 of 12 free throws.

“This was a state game for us,” Corcoran said. “It was an awesome game. Everything I expected. It’s awesome for our team to realize how hard we have to play. We’re still getting over the hurdles of the past and you could see that right away. The second half is who we are and what we do.

“I’m a huge fan of South Portland. They’re the best team in the state for a reason. We had good shots, but they didn’t go in. If we made five of those layups and we made simple little plays, we’d win by 10. I can’t wait to see them again.”

Growth potential

The rivals square off again in the penultimate game of the regular season, Feb. 6, in South Portland, and both teams will face several stern tests in the interim.

Portland looks to get back on track Saturday at Noble. The Bulldogs then host Lewiston Monday and welcome dangerous Maine Girls’ Academy Jan. 19.

South Portland, meanwhile, has a key test at MGA Saturday.

“We have to work on our offense against pressure defense, especially going against MGA,” said Mazur, who played for the Lions as a freshman and sophomore.

“(MGA’s) defense is unreal,” said Maggie Whitmore. “Playing our game will be huge. Playing such a good defense will only make us better.”

“I’m excited,” Hasson added. “Their gym is hard to play in. It works to their advantage. We’ll try to go over there, play a good game and see what happens.”

The Red Riots then host Deering Jan. 19 and Thornton Academy the following evening.

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

South Portland senior Eva Mazur fights past Portland freshman Amanda Kabantu, left, and freshman Davina Kabantu.

Portland senior Shayla Eubanks shoots as South Portland sophomore Maggie Whitmore defends.

Portland sophomore Gemima Motema goes up for a layup as South Portland junior Jena Leckie defends.

Portland freshman Amanda Kabantu fights past South Portland senior Sarah Boles.

South Portland sophomore Maggie Whitmore battles Portland junior Reagan Brown, left, and freshman Amanda Kabantu for a rebound.

South Portland senior Meghan Graff has a shot blocked by Portland sophomore Gemima Motema.

Portland junior Reagan Brown goes up for a shot in traffic.

Recent Portland-South Portland results

2016-17
@ South Portland 65 Portland 28

2015-16
South Portland 60 @ Portland 29

2014-15
South Portland 65 @ Portland 55
@ South Portland 63 Portland 48

2013-14
Portland 50 @ South Portland 46
South Portland 48 @ Portland 35

2012-13
South Portland 55 @ Portland 41

2011-12
@ South Portland 49 Portland 30

2010-11
@ South Portland 63 Portland 54
@ Portland 60 South Portland 52

2009-10
South Portland 58 @ Portland 56 (OT)
@ South Portland 46 Portland 38

2008-09
South Portland 58 @ Portland 47
Western A preliminary round
@ South Portland 56 Portland 50

2007-08
@ South Portland 56 Portland 35

2006-07
South Portland 61 @ Portland 49
South Portland 40 @ Portland 28

2005-06
@ South Portland 55 Portland 38
South Portland 46 @ Portland 33

2004-05
@ South Portland 81 Portland 52
South Portland 36 @ Portland 35

2003-04
@ Portland 62 South Portland 55
Portland 67 @ South Portland 62

2002-03
South Portland 37 @ Portland 32
@ South Portland 65 Portland 47
Western A quarterfinals
Portland 57 South Portland 50

2001-02
@ South Portland 55 Portland 47
Portland 56 South Portland 49

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