PORTLAND—Saturday afternoon, the South Portland boys’ basketball team rallied from a 19-point halftime deficit to edge host Thornton Academy in double overtime.
After that, the Red Riots had to wonder what they could do for an encore.
Well, Wednesday night they found out.
This time, playing at up-and-coming Portland, South Portland was down 14 points with seven minutes to play, but again rallied and again went into overtime and then a second four-minute session.
There, the Red Riots appeared primed to steal another inspirational road win, only to run into Bulldogs junior Mike Herrick, who brought down the house at the venerable Portland Exposition Building, calmly burying a long 3-point attempt as the horn sounded, sending the contest into an improbable third overtime.
There, South Portland finally ran out of gas, Herrick capped his 32-point outing five points and Portland earned an exhilarating, much needed 80-71 triumph to improve to 5-4, propel itself into playoff consideration and drop the valiant Red Riots to 8-2.
“Wow!” said Portland’s longtime coach Joe Russo, who said afterwards he didn’t recall ever coaching in a triple overtime game. “I say wow because it was an exciting high school game. Fans got their money’s worth. Neither team quit. It was nice to see two teams go at it like that and the excitement.”
Wednesday’s meeting was the 208th between the schools (Portland now leads the all-time series, 110-98) and will go down as one of the best.
Not much was expected from either squad when the 2010-11 campaign began, but the Red Riots have stolen the headlines.
After winning its first four games, South Portland lost at Marshwood, then returned to form. Wins last week at Deering and Thornton Academy were most impressive. Last Thursday, the Red Riots led from start to finish in a 50-39 triumph at the Rams. Then, Saturday, in an instant classic, South Portland battled back from down 19 points at the half to eke out a palpitating 82-78 victory in double overtime.
Portland, basically starting from scratch on the varsity level this winter after losing to Westbrook in the quarterfinals a year ago, entered the game winners of two straight (71-46 over visiting Windham and 64-50 at Massabesic) to even its mark.
Last year, Portland won both meetings, 56-49 on the road and 49-48 at home. The Red Riots swept the Bulldogs in the 2008-09 regular season, but as the No. 3 seed in the quarterfinals, suffered a 72-49 loss to Portland, the Bulldogs’ fourth straight playoff win over South Portland.
Wednesday, Portland made it four straight over the Red Riots, but it took well over two hours of twists and turns to make it so.
For a game that wound up producing 151 points, offense was at a premium in the early going.
South Portland broke the ice on a layup from senior Steve Hodge 34 seconds in, but the Bulldogs got a jumper from Herrick, a layup from junior Pete Donato and a bank shot from Herrick for a 6-2 advantage.
A pair of foul shots from Red Riots senior standout Vukasin Vignjevic ended the run and a 5 minute, 30 second drought, but Herrick pushed the lead back to four, 8-4, with a pullup jumper.
South Portland came alive at the end of the first period, scoring the final seven points. Sophomore Tanner Hyland got things started by sinking a 3-pointer. Senior Matt Russell then scored on a layup and made another layup after a steal for an 11-8 Red Riots’ lead after eight minutes.
South Portland would struggle in the second quarter and Portland took advantage.
After Russell made his third consecutive layup 45 seconds into the period for a 13-8 lead, the Bulldogs got a free throw from freshman Jayvon Pitts-Young (who gave them solid minutes all night), a jumper from senior Dylan Goodman and a Goodman layup to tie the score. The Red Riots went back on top on a free throw from sophomore Ben Burkey, but Herrick made a layup after a steal to give Portland the lead back.
With 3:43 to play before halftime, South Portland went ahead, 16-15, its last lead for quite awhile, on a pair of Burkey foul shots.
The hosts would close the half on a 13-5 run.
An old fashioned three-point play from sophomore Nick Volger (a layup and foul shot) got the surge started. Donato made a free throw, then, after a steal, hit two more. After junior Jordan Muller answered with two foul shots for the Red Riots, sophomore Nate Smart made one for the Bulldogs (as Russell picked up his third foul and was forced to the bench for the rest of the half).
A layup by Burkey pulled South Portland within 22-20, but Volger made two layups in 35 seconds to push the lead to six. South Portland senior Mike Kennedy answered with a free throw, but with 2.1 seconds to go, Portland freshman Justin Zukowski made a layup, giving the Bulldogs a surprising 28-21 lead at the break.
Each team had seven different scorers in the first half.
Just four days after rallying from down 19 at halftime, the Red Riots weren’t about to panic, but they soon saw their deficit grow to 14.
South Portland started the second half with a Russell layup (he would play the whole third period without picking up his fourth foul), but Portland erupted for the next nine.
A bank shot from Herrick (who had a relatively calm first half with eight points) got things started. Smart added a layup, Herrick buried a 3, then, with 4:51 to go in the third, Herrick scored on a putback for a 37-23 lead.
Russell ended the run with a putback of his own, but at the other end, Donato hit a bank shot to push the lead back to 14, 39-25.
Then, the Red Riots awoke and got back in it.
An three-point play from Muller was answered by a Donato spinner, but Hyland banked home a jumper, Vignjevic finally found the range from 3-point land, Muller made two free throws and with 1:23 remaining in the quarter, Russell scored on a putback to cut the deficit to four, 41-37. Donato stemmed the tide with a layup in the waning seconds, but the never-say-die team in red and white was right back in it, down 43-37, with eight minutes (or so we thought) to play.
The fourth quarter would see Portland extend its lead back to 14 before another South Portland rally put it on the brink of winning, only to see the game extended (and then some).
A layup from Donato, a rare four-point play (a 3 and a foul shot) from Smart and a layup from Donato pushed the lead to 51-37 with 7:02 to go, but the game was far from over.
Again, the Red Riots dug deep and found a way to respond.
Hyland sparked the rally with a 3-ball. He then made two foul shots before Muller canned a 3. Layups from Vignjevic and Russell cut the deficit to two, 51-49, with 3:12 to play.
Twelve seconds later, momentum switched back to the hosts when Russell collected his fifth foul (a questionable one), just seconds after being whistled for his fourth, and his night was over.
Undaunated, South Portland tied the score with 2:45 to play when Vignjevic scored on a putback. Herrick put the Bulldogs back on top with a jumper with 2:34 remaining, but 13 seconds later, Hyland knocked down a 3-ball to give the Red Riots their first lead of the half.
The young, inexperienced Bulldogs were then at a crossroads, but to their credit, rose off the deck and retook the lead, 55-54, when Volger stole a pass and raced in for a layup.
At the other end, Hyland missed a 3 and Portland senior Matt McInnis grabbed the rebound, but he traveled and gave it right back. Hodge then missed a shot and Donato rebounded the ball, but Vignjevic stole it back and was fouled. With 41.8 seconds to play, he made his first free throw attempt and missed the second and the game was deadlocked, 55-55, the first tie since 15-15.
A Bulldogs turnover set the stage for another dramatic Red Riots victory and sure enough, with 10.4 seconds left, Vignjevic rattled home a leaner off the glass and South Portland was up, 57-55.
But Portland simply wouldn’t quit.
Inbounding, needing to go the length of the court, the ball came to senior Matt McInnis, who raced down the right wing while being closely guarded by Vignjevic, before giving it up to Donato. Donato dribbled into the lane and just before the horn sounded on what would have been a disheartening loss, he managed to steer home a tough leaner.
South Portland 57 Portland 57.
Both offenses went into hibernation in the four-minute extra session. The Bulldogs went ahead on a turnaround shot from Herrick 54 seconds in, but with 2:34 left, Muller put home Vignjevic’s miss to tie the game anew, 59-59. The rest of the overtime, both teams turned the ball over and missed shots and as time wound down, Muller drove into the lane, but lost possession.
South Portland 59 Portland 59.
OT number two.
Both teams rediscovered their offense this time around, setting the stage for one of the most memorable buzzer-beaters in recent memory.
The Red Riots got the jump when Muller fed Hodge for a layup 11 seconds in (Hodge’s first points since his layup to open the game). After Zukowski missed at the other end, South Portland made it 64-59 when Hodge converted a three-point play. Portland got a point back on a Volger free throw (Gaddar fouled out on on the play), but after the teams traded turnovers, Muller went to the line with a chance to extend the lead.
Saturday, Muller made 16-of-18 foul shot attempts in the win over Thornton Academy, but this time, both attempts were off the mark. The Bulldogs came down and made it a 64-62 game when McInnis made two foul shots (his only points of the night) with 1:28 to go.
Eight seconds later, South Portland went back up by four on a pair of Hodge free throws, but Herrick made a jumper to keep Portland alive, down 66-64, with just over a minute left.
Vignjevic went to the line with 21.9 seconds remaining, but missed both attempts. Kennedy kept the possession alive with an offensive rebound, however, and with 15.6 seconds to go, Muller hit two free throws for a 68-64 lead.
The Bulldogs, for all intents and purposes were cooked, but no one told Herrick, who with 5.5 seconds to play, knocked down an NBA-range 3-pointer to make it 68-67 and keep hope alive.
After a Portland timeout (where the officials somehow decided to put 6.2 seconds on the clock after it had gone down to 4.4), Muller was quickly fouled and as he did at Thornton Academy, made both shots to seemingly clinch the win.
But the Bulldogs still had time for a tying 3-ball. The inbounds pass came to Herrick just shy of midcourt. Herrick raced toward the 3-point line and just before time expired, fired a shot over Vignjevic.
Nothing but net.
“Driving in the car with my Dad before the game, we talked about depth perception and shooting,” Herrick said. “That’s all I was thinking about, concentrating on the rim and making that shot. It felt wonderful.”
“Coaches all have plays that we use,” Russo said. “We can design them, but the kids have to execute them. He took the extra dribble. When he took the shot, I knew.”
“The Herrick kid made an unbelievable shot,” Red Riots coach Phil Conley lamented. “He was guarded, but made a great shot.”
Portland 70 South Portland 70.
After four straight road games and 16 pressure-packed overtime minutes over five days. the Red Riots finally hit a wall in OT number three and the Bulldogs, riding a wave of ecstasy, brought matters to a conclusion.
Just 23 seconds into the third overtime, Donato put Portland ahead to stay with a little hook shot. After a South Portland turnover, Herrick hit the second of two free throws for a 73-70 advantage. With 2:46 left, Zukowski made a layup to push the lead up to five. After Muller scored the Red Riots’ final point, on a free throw, with 2:11 to go, Vignjevic had a chance to draw his team closer, but missed, then, with 1:37 remaining, Burkey was off on two foul shots.
With 1:21 to play, Pitts-Young made the second of two free throws. After Hodge was called for a charge, Herrick hit a layup with just over a minute to go. Then, with 49.4 seconds showing, Herrick ended all drama with two foul shots. Muller missed a pair of 3s in the waning seconds and finally, after 44 minutes of game action and over two hours of entertainment for those on hand, the ballgame was over.
Portland 80 South Portland 71.
“I could go forever,” said Herrick, just moments after the final horn. “We just focused on every quarter and playing hard.”
“Going into overtime, the kids had that look on their face, they looked disappointed and didn’t believe in themselves,” said Russo. “I said, ‘We came this far, don’t give it up.’ In the second overtime, I said, ‘We won’t give it away now, we worked too hard.’ The defense was really, really solid.
“Three good things happened tonight. We used every player and every scenario. We built a lot of experience. We built a lot of confidence. We built on our Heal Points. At least now, the seventh or eighth spot isn’t far-fetched.”
Herrick led all scorers with his career game, but he did spend a little time on the bench in the first overtime after a crucial turnover.
“He sat out a little time,” Russo said. “He did some things I didn’t like with the pressbreaker, but he hung in there and he was coachable.”
Donato finished with 19 points and let’s not forget, without him, there never would have been a single overtime, not to mention three.
“Donato’s shot was a huge shot too,” Russo said.
Volger also finished in double figures with 10 points, Smart added seven, Goodman and Zukowski four apiece and McInnis and Pitts-Young two each.
It’s safe to say this young squad has come of age.
“The kids get along great,” Russo said. “It’s a new bunch. They all know their roles. They cheer each other on. There’s no replacement for that. It’s been enjoyable with these guys.”
As for South Portland, it was paced by 17 points from Muller, 14 from Russell, 13 each from Muller and Vignjevic, nine from Hodge, four from Burkey and one from Kennedy.
“It’s a tough loss,” Conley said. “I think foul trouble hurt us. We basically played the overtimes without Gaddar and Russell and when Hyland went out (with a foot injury in overtime), we were down three starters, but you have to give Portland credit, they made the shots. I’m proud of how my kids battled back. We got back in it down 14. Obviously, right now, they’re hurting in the locker room, but they have nothing to be ashamed of. They gave us coaches all they have. We just fell short today. These kids are great kids for one. They never give up. They have that attitude. They always play hard.”
The Red Riots only made 22 of 41 foul shots.
“I think we were just tired,” Conley said. “I can’t remember ever having four road games in a row. I think for us to go 3-1 is a testament to the kids. It’s always hard to play on the road and we had to do it against four good teams.”
No rest for the weary
South Portland (second in the latest Western Class A Heal Points standings) finally returns home Friday to battle Kennebunk, then welcomes Gorham Tuesday.
“We’ll regroup,” Conley said. “We have to. I don’t think this will knock us out of second place. We have to prepare for Kennebunk. We’ll have some tired legs. We’ll regroup and be ready for Kennebunk.”
It doesn’t get any easier for Portland (which shot from 13th in the Heals to ninth by virtue of the victory). It goes to top-ranked, undefeated, defending state champion Cheverus Friday night. After visiting Kennebunk Saturday, the Bulldogs are home against Bonny Eagle Tuesday.
“(This is) only one game,” Russo said. “It helps us, but we have to move on. We have Cheverus and Kennebunk. If we get two of three this week, it would be a nice week. “
“It boosts our confidence way up,” Herrick said. “We have a lot of confidence going into Cheverus.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com