SOUTH PORTLAND — The difference, said South Portland Coach Phil Conley, between now and the team that lost to Portland a month ago, is defense.
“We played much better defense than we did the first time we played them,” he said.
That’s certainly true.
But also figuring in the Red Riots’ improvement to the No. 1 seed is fast-maturing sophomore Jaren Muller, the continued excellence of point guard Tanner Hyland and the solid contributions of Hyland’s senior classmates.
Tuesday night, South Portland started fast and finished fast in beating Portland 52-42 in an SMAA boys’ basketball game before a packed Beal Gym.
South Portland (15-2) and Portland (14-3) were ranked Nos. 1 and 2 in Western Class A entering the game. The Red Riots moved a step closer to securing the top seed for the regional tournament.
“We have to take care of business on Friday,” said Hyland, referring to the regular- season finale against Cheverus.
South Portland asserted its superiority from the start.
“In the first game against Portland, we came out a little rattled because it was our first big game of the season,” said Hyland. “This time we came out and really took care of business because we knew it was for the No. 1 seed.”
The Red Riots, who have won seven straight since losing to Portland, took a 13-3 lead, withstood a rally in the third quarter, then outscored the Bulldogs 12-5 in the fourth.
Muller, a 6-foot-5 forward, led the Riots with 14 points. His three-point play with just under a minute remaining sealed it.
Moments earlier, Portland still had a chance when a 3-pointer by Jayvon Pitts-Young made it a four-point game. But South Portland closed with an 8-2 run.
Hyland was the playmaker throughout with pinpoint passes. He scored 12 points and had 12 assists. Ben Burkey, a 6-5 forward, controlled the boards in the fourth quarter, finishing with 11 rebounds.
“When Tanner has that many assists, that means he’s getting us into our offense and getting good looks for our guys,” said Conley.
One of those benefiting was Muller.
His emergence has made the Riots the team they hoped to be when the season started.
“Jaren has a very soft touch around the basket,” said Conley. “He gets his hands on the ball for offensive rebounds and put-backs. He had some big points and rebounds. Jaren has had a wonderful season and he’s getting better. I thought everyone played their role.
“I thought our 2-3 zone was very effective against them. I thought our big men did a good job limiting the number of touches Portland got down low. Defense and rebounding won it for us.”
Muller credited his teammates for making it easy to adapt to his first Class A season.
“The guys got me involved in the offense starting in preseason and on the way up,” he said. “I’ve gained confidence from making plays. Portland played up on me so I just went by. We played physical.”
The Bulldogs focused on Hyland, leaving the other Riots open. That was particularly true in the first quarter when South Portland took an 18-8 lead.
“Our big men were open and they were finishing,” said Hyland.
Portland came out misfiring and with the exception of 3-point shooting by Justin Zukowski and Pitts-Young, it didn’t change, although the Bulldogs made a nice comeback in the third quarter. They cut it to 38-37 after a Pitts-Young 3-pointer.
South Portland had its eight-point halftime lead cut to three after three quarters. In Portland’s three losses, a poor fourth quarter has been its downfall.
Pitts-Young’s 3 and a late basket by Zukowski were the Bulldogs’ only points in the fourth quarter.
“You can’t shoot 24 percent and expect to beat anybody,” said Coach Joe Russo. “We got some nice outside shots but not enough of them. The good thing is the kids came back.”
Conner MacVane added 10 points and six rebounds for South Portland. Pitts-Young led Portland with 13 points; Zukowski added 12.
Staff Writer Tom Chard can be contacted at 791-6419 or at: email@example.com