By Eric Carson
PORTLAND — Legend has it that one good team can’t beat another three times in a row. The old adage, based largely on common observation, earned its staying power by authenticating itself just enough times to find a place in the vernacular of the sporting world.
And while it’s hardly a mathematical truism, the South Portland boys’ basketball team ran head-first into that old proverb on Saturday night, falling short against the sixth-seeded Portland Bulldogs after edging them twice in 10 days in the last weeks of the regular reason.
Playing on the road as the home team, the Red Riots built a 31-26 halftime lead, but couldn’t adjust to the Bulldogs’ aggressive box-and-one zone defense designed to limit Keegan Hyland, watched as two starters fouled out within minutes of each other in the fourth quarter, and lost the one game they truly wanted against the Bulldogs, 72-49, in Western Class A quarterfinal action at an electric Portland Expo.
And no, that’s not a typo.
Despite beating the Bulldogs twice in the regular season and finishing third in the final Heal Point standings, the Red Riots wore white uniforms but were hardly the home team in the gym where Portland practices each day.
South Portland refused to use that as an excuse, before or after the game, but it was a popular topic floating around the Expo Saturday night. Beating a good team twice to earn at least one home playoff game, and then facing that very team again in the tournament, seeded three spots higher but on their home court, just seems at best – unlucky.
Hyland, the league’s top scorer in this his junior year, dropped 25 in the Red Riots’ home win over Portland on Jan. 27, and pumped in another 39 points, including his 1,000th, on the road in a 56-51 win on Feb. 6, but managed just 18 in the third game in the face of a constant double-team.
The 6-foot-4 junior looked like he might have another big night in the quarterfinal with 14 points in the first half, but the Bulldogs’ constant harassment and slightly different defensive scheme in the second half all but destroyed his rhythm. Hyland got free for one 3-pointer in the second half and hit one free throw to record just his fourth game of the season under the 20-point threshold.
Further complicating matters for the Red Riots was the almighty whistle, as both juniors Connor Hasson and Ryan Curit fouled out with the game still very much a contest early in the fourth quarter.
Hasson, a captain, already missed the entire second quarter after picking up two early fouls in the post defending Ed Bogdanovich, the Bulldogs’ 6-foot-6 senior center, who ironically enough transferred from South Portland to Portland after his sophomore season.
Curit picked up his last two fouls in a 30-second span at the start of the fourth quarter. His fourth infraction was a double-foul as he and Bogdanovich battled for position. His final foul was on the very next play when he hit Bogdanovich as he scored to stretch the Bulldogs’ lead to 46-39 with seven minutes left to play.
Portland hit just two more field goals the rest of the way, but ran away at the charity stripe for the 72-49 win.
Already thinned by the loss of their second leading scorer (junior Matt Lee) to a knee injury, the Red Riots just didn’t have enough on either end of the floor to hold off the Bulldogs down the stretch, exiting the tourney with a 14-5 record on the season.
“(Playing at the Expo) was not a factor at all,” said Hasson. “There is no doubt in my mind that if we played that team 10 times we’d beat them 10 times. Credit Portland, they outplayed us tonight, but a big part of that was foul trouble. That definitely thinned us out. We struggled on the offensive end at times but we couldn’t get a stop on defense so it didn’t really matter. It’s hard to catch up that way.”
South Portland, leading by five at the half at 31-26, could not find a way to slow Portland guard Wally Stover in the third quarter. Stover, a senior, scored 13 of his game-high 20 points in the frame, almost single-handedly helping the Bulldogs’ re-take the lead for the first time since the first quarter at 41-39 to start the fourth.
Stover flipped in a spinning finger roll in the lane to start his barrage, floated in a soft runner on the baseline, notched a three-point play, hit one foul shot and then tied the game at 39-39 with his lone 3-pointer of the night with 2:18 left in third. His final basket of his run, a short jumper in the lane, gave Portland a lead they would never relinquish.
The Bulldogs would go on to score 31-points in the fourth quarter, more than doubling their output for any of the first three, knocking down 21 points from the free throw line by shooting an impressive 91 percent in the quarter. Portland went 21-for-23 from the line to close out the game, 13-for-14 over the final three minutes, to cap off a most impressive 26-for-32 effort from the line on the night.
South Portland, in contrast, scored only 18 points the entire second half, including a head-scratching 5-for-14 from the charity stripe in a game in which they struggled mightily at the line throughout (10-for-24).
“Portland is a good team,” said Red Riots’ coach Phil Conley. “We’re a good team. They hit shots in the second half and we didn’t. We didn’t come down and answer their makes and that was the difference. Another big factor was foul shooting. We missed a lot of foul shots. There are a lot guys hurting in that locker room tonight. But in another week we’ll look back and see that we went 14-5 with no seniors on the team. We lost our second leading scorer with four-weeks left. There were a lot of positives this season.”
South Portland junior Connor Hasson looked to muscle his way to the hoop during his team’s 72-49 loss to Portland in the Western A quarterfinals Saturday night. (Jason Veilleux photo).