SOUTH PORTLAND – A year ago, all Vukasin Vignjevic (VU-ka-sin Vig-NEV-itch) could do was sit and watch as his South Portland boys’ basketball teammates went 15-5 and made it to the Western Class A semifinals.

Vignjevic tore the ACL in his left knee in the first preseason game last season and missed the entire season.

” By far, the worst experience of my life,” he said.

After a year of rehabilitation and countless hours of practice, “Vu”, as his teammates and coaches call him, is close to the form he had before the injury. A natural shooter, he is averaging 16.9 points and 8.4 rebounds for the Red Riots (8-2). The 6-foot-2 senior has made 21 3-pointers.

Vignjevic, who shoots left-handed, scored 31 points on Jan. 15 in a double overtime win over Thornton Academy.

He wears a brace on his left knee and black tights to prevent the brace from bruising the back of his leg.

“My knee is perfectly fine,” said Vignjevic. “It feels great. The knee brace helps me more mentally than it does physically.”

Vignjevic describes himself as an “energetic player” who is active at both ends of the floor. But there’s one thing he likes to do more than anything else.

“I love to shoot the ball,” said Vignjevic. “I’m getting good looks. My teammates are setting great screens and our point guard, Tanner Hyland, is getting me the ball.”

Opponents know he can shoot and adjust their defenses accordingly.

“Teams look to stop him first,” said Coach Phil Conley.

As the season has gone along, the Riots have become more balanced, so it’s harder to concentrate on Vignjevic. Last week, though, Portland made it tough on him in the first half.

“They were face guarding me, but I finally took it to the basket and got some free throws. That got me going,” he said.

Vignjevic finished with 13 points, with seven coming in the fourth quarter. His free throw with 41 seconds left in regulation tied the game. After Portland was called for a backcourt violation, Vignjevic’s basket on a baseline drive with nine seconds left looked like the winner until Peter Donato of Portland scored at the buzzer to send it into overtime. The Bulldogs pulled away in the third overtime for an 80-71 win.

“It was definitely a tough loss,” said Vignjevic. “We struggled in the third quarter and lost it. But those types of games build character and will make us a better team.”

Vignjevic was slated to be the Riots’ sixth man last season before his injury. South Portland had an all-senior starting lineup even without Keegan Hyland, whose groin injury sidelined him for all but the last three games. Talking to Hyland, as both were on the bench, helped his state of mind, said Vignjevic, who believed it had the same effect for Hyland.

“Vu is huge for us and has carried us at times,” said Matt Russell, the starting center. “He brings a lot of intensity and emotion. He was bummed last season when he couldn’t play. He’s a great 3-point shooter, but he can drive to the basket and he’s a very good passer. He wants to make the most out of this season.”

That includes leading the Riots to a state title. It’s a long shot, but don’t tell Vignjevic and his teammates.

“Everyone comes to work at practice and in games,” said Vignjevic. “If we stay focused, we have a good chance to go for it in the tournament.”

Vignjevic said the one difference from before his knee injury is his speed.

“I’m slower than I was before. I’ve noticed it and a lot of people have noticed it. It’s tough for me on defense,” he said.

Vignjevic still manages to play strong defense with savvy and desire.

“To be able to come back from his injury and play the way he has shows you Vu’s work ethic,” said Conley. “He’s a special player who has worked extremely hard to get to where he was. Besides being a very good shooter, he’s also a strong rebounder.”

Vignjevic moved to the United States from Croatia with his family when he was 4. He lived in Portland until he was 11, then moved to South Portland. He was a soccer player through the seventh grade before switching to basketball.

“My father was a great soccer player, but my parents always told me to do what I loved and I loved basketball right from the start,” he said.

Staff Writer Tom Chard can be contacted at 791-6419 or at:

[email protected]