PORTLAND – The top-ranked South Portland boys took on No. 9 Sanford at the boisterous Portland Expo Friday night in the Western Maine Class A quarterfinals. The game, played immediately following a wide victory by Portland over close rivals Westbrook, probably shouldn’t have been quite the test for South Portland that it was. Sanford, however, hadn’t traveled north to hang up their shoes without a fight, and battled back to within a basket after South Portland gouged out a 12-point lead in the first half. But the Spartans couldn’t quite seize the lead, and ultimately fell, 60-47.
“I said [to the team] there were three things we need to do,” South Portland head coach Phil Conley said after the game. “We need to rebound, to come out with the same energy in both halves, and to share the ball on offense. I said, ‘Guys, if we do those three things, we’re going to be just fine.’”
The No. 1 Red Riots, now 16-3, will face Portland in the semifinals Wednesday, while Sanford goes home at 11-9.
“It’s a rivalry game,” Conley added. “But we’ll be ready.”
Sanford captain Alex Shain won the opening tip-off, but South Portland got on the board first, when senior Tanner Hyland went 2 for 2 from the line. A minute later, he assisted teammate Ben Burkey in scoring a two, and it began to look like the game might play out exactly as a game between the one-seed and the nine-seed typically does play out. But the Spartans scored the next three, one from the line and a two from the field. Then 6-foot-5 South Portland sophomore Jaren Muller, surrounded beneath the basket, shoved the ball way out to the three-point line, where Hyland was waiting to explode the long bomb. Sanford fought back again, however, and then a third time, on four successful free throws by Schroder, to end the quarter down by just one, 9-8.
To open the second, South Portland launched into an 11-point run that included four by Hyland, two by MacVane, and a three by senior Trevor Borelli. For the remainder of the half, the Spartans managed to contain the Red Riots, and even regained some lost ground. Senior Ryan Camire tallied two from the line and a three from way out, and junior John Morgan also sank a three. But continued strong play from Hyland and Muller kept South Portland on top, 29-21, going into halftime
“At this point, you throw the seeds out and just go out and play,” Conley said. “Tanner did a great job running the offense.”
In the third, the Spartans pulled as close as they would pull all night, giving the game its most tense moments. Nolette, Morgan, Shain, Schroder and Camire all contributed points for Sanford. For a few minutes, mid-quarter, South Portland’s tally slowed in the low 30s while Sanford’s clambered upward from the low 20s. Soon, a single basket was all that separated the No. 1 team from the distant No. 9. But Sanford couldn’t climb on top. South Portland closed the quarter strong on three points from MacVane, and went into the fourth up 39-33.
“Nolette and Camire can score,” Conley said. “So I never got comfortable when we were up 10 points, because of those kids. They’re very good basketball players.”
When Sanford closed the gap, Conley said he told his boys to relax. “[I told them] that we’re a good team. To be patient on offense, and on defense we can limit them to one shot and done. One shot and done and we’ll be fine.”
Morgan opened the final quarter with a two for the Spartans, but Hyland answered shortly thereafter with a two for the Riots. Camire then notched a three – the first three points of eight he would score during the remainder of the game. But Muller would also score eight in the last quarter, including the next two. The teams traded blows as the clock wound down, but South Portland dealt more than Sanford, increasing their lead and ultimately securing the victory.
“It was a gritty win,” Conley said. “We had to battle for 32 minutes, but I’m pleased with the performance. Any time you win and move on, it gives you confidence. And we were in a tough game – which I kind of like, because we know that semifinal game is going to be nip-and-tuck.”