Red Riots survive scare and hold off Portland; Scarborough next
By Eric Carson
SOUTH PORTLAND-The seventh-ranked South Portland girls’ basketball team jumped out to a commanding 16-point halftime lead over the 10th-ranked Portland Bulldogs, survived a 15-4 run to start the second half, then did just enough down the stretch to advance with a 56-50 win Wednesday night in a Western Class A preliminary round game at Beal Gymnasium.
South Portland junior guard Danielle McCusker pumped in a team-high 18 points on the night, none bigger than her long 3-pointer with four minutes left in the fourth quarter that restored a double-digit advantage for the Red Riots that proved insurmountable.
After dismantling the Bulldogs’ full-court pressure in the first half to open a 19-9 first quarter lead that swelled to 35-19 at the half, the Red Riots watched the Bulldogs trim the lead to five points, 39-34, over a four-minute span to begin the third quarter.
Portland owned the opening minutes of the second half, winning the third 20-9, but Red Riots’ senior captain Brianna Hawkins returned from a long stint on the bench with three fouls to score the first five points of the fourth quarter, and McCusker delivered her dagger in front of her team’s bench to ultimately end the Bulldogs season at 7-12.
With the win, South Portland advances to the quarterfinal round Monday at 3:30 against the second-ranked Scarborough Red Storm (16-2) at the Portland Expo.
“We always talk about the first three minutes of the second half being important and they owned it,” said South Portland coach Mike Giordano. “They came out and hit their first five shots and turned a 16-point lead into a basketball game. There were a lot of fouls in the first half but they let us play in the second. (Hawkins) had three fouls but she didn’t pick up another one. I think our zone in the fourth quarter was very good. We did a great job of rebounding off of that. We’re going to the quarterfinals. From this point on we’re expected to lose. The heat’s on everyone else. We’ve got nothing to lose.”
South Portland never trailed in this one, jumping out to a 6-0 lead on a baskets by Hawkins, McCusker and sophomore center Abby Hasson (five points), before Portland answered with a 3-pointer from senior guard Kimmie Preston.
Hawkins added a foul shot to make it 7-3, before Portland’s top player, senior guard Nyachuol Biliew, began to light up the scoreboard with her first 3-pointer to make it 7-6.
South Portland ran off eight-straight points to take 15-6 lead before Biliew could stop the run with another basket and a free throw to make it 15-9.
The Red Riots’ senior captain Kelsi Conley added a long jumper for two, and Hasson managed to muscle in an offensive rebound as the buzzer expired to help the hosts build a comfortable 19-9 lead after one quarter.
The second quarter was much of the same, with South Portland turning the Bulldogs pressure into easy layup opportunities and Hawkins and Hasson combining to dominate the backboards inside. McCusker scored six of her 18-points in the second, and Conley added five as the Red Riots extended their lead to 35-19 at the half.
But the Bulldogs stormed out of the locker room after the intermission, ripping off a 15-4 run in just four minutes on the strength of Biliew’s seven points, five points from senior Alisa Sweet and deep 3-pointer from guard Mariah Callender that pulled them within five points at 39-34 before Giordano whistled for a timeout to end the drought.
“We just knew that we had to keep playing hard and keep it together,” said Hawkins. “We had to keep our composure. Portland is a good team. They have some good shooters and they made some big shots in the second half. It was a physical game. We expected that, but maybe not that physical. We ended up getting into some foul trouble and that hurt us for a stretch, but we adjusted to it and pulled it out in the end.”
Biliew, the game’s top scorer, scored 12 points in the first half and seven more in the decisive third quarter run on her way to a 22-point effort. But asked to cover Hawkins for most of the night, she ran into foul trouble after the South Portland timeout and was forced to watch from the bench for the next six minutes of action. Without her presence on the floor, the Bulldogs lacked a go-to scorer and the Red Riots were able to steadily regain control. Biliew did not score again until the final seconds of the game when her last 3-pointer accounted for the final 56-50 score.
“I told the team at the half that we had three starters out most of the way and we were still within 16 points,” said Portland coach Jan Veinot. “We came out confident. (Biliew) got in foul trouble and we tried to give her some time on the bench and hang on to that five-point deficit. I don’t know, maybe we should have left her in there. You never know. But I’m very happy with the way we played tonight. We played a great game. They played a great game. Nothing wrong with that.”
South Portland heads to the quarterfinal round on Monday as one of the team’s that nobody wants to play. Under Giordano they have consistently been in the mix come playoff time, and with plenty of size down low with Hawkins, Hasson and Conley, and the scoring touch of McCusker and junior guards Stephanie McDonough and Esther Palmieri on the perimeter, the Red Riots could quite easily make a run in the tournament.