PORTLAND—In just his second game back from a lengthy injury, South Portland senior standout Keegan Hyland reminded everyone at the Portland Exposition Building Saturday night that while he may be far from 100 percent, he is still a very, very dangerous player.

Hyland scored 17 points in the final three quarters and senior sidekick Matt Lee buried a couple clutch 3-pointers early in the third period, which allowed the Red Riots to break open a close game and go on to an easy 63-36 triumph over Deering in front of a huge crowd in a Western Class A quarterfinal.

Third-ranked South Portland led by just four points at the half, but dominated the final 16 minutes as it advanced to a showdown with No. 2 Westbrook Wednesday evening.

“It wasn’t my best night, but we played really well as a team and stepped it up defensively in the second half,” said Hyland. “Everybody contributed.”

Teams on the rise

Deering and South Portland each had reason for optimism entering Saturday’s tilt.

The Rams hadn’t been able to get over the hump against a top foe until rallying for an improbable and dramatic 49-48 home win over Portland in their finale, Feb. 4. That gave Deering an 11-7 mark and moved it up to the No. 6 spot.

That victory paled in comparison, however, to the Red Riots’ 53-43 home win over previously undefeated Cheverus the night after. In that one, Hyland finally made his long-awaited return from a stress fracture and as if scripted by Hollywood, scored 18 points, to give the Red Riots their third straight 14-4 mark and their third consecutive No. 3 seed.

South Portland beat Deering twice during the regular season, 62-58 on the road Jan. 7 and then again at home, 62-50, Jan. 28. The teams last met in the tournament in the 2004 preliminary round, when the Red Riots rallied to win, 44-42. Since 1963, South Portland has faced the Rams 10 times in the postseason. The Red Riots have won eight of those games.

Saturday, South Portland got off to a slow start, but never dug a deep hole.

A putback from Deering junior Nick Colucci started the scoring. Senior Eddie Tirabassi added a foul shot and junior Jamie Ross hit a jumper for a 5-0 lead. With 4:02 to go in the opening stanza, a 3-pointer from senior Jon DiBiase got the Red Riots on the board. After Rams sophomore Jon Amabile made a foul shot, senior Greg Reinhold made a jumper to make it 6-5. After Colucci hit a long jump shot, senior Connor Hasson countered with a layup to pull South Portland within 8-7. A pair of Tirabassi layups gave Deering a 12-7 advantage, but a layup from senior Brian McHugh and a layup from DiBiase after a steal again made it a one-point contest, 12-11, afer one period.

Senior Spencer Bowring fed teammate Connor Hasson for a layup 22 seconds into the second quarter for South Portland’s first lead. Junior Dennis Ross answered with a bank shot for the Rams, but Hyland got in the scoring column with 6:16 left in the half with a jump hook. After Colucci sank a jumper, Hyland tied the score at 16-16 with a foul shot. A bank shot from Hasson made it 18-16 Red Riots with 4:50 to go in the half. After Tirabassi tied the score with a layup, Hyland sank two foul shots, but an Amabile jumper again tied it up.

With 2:18 remaining before halftime, Hyland hit a floater, but a layup from sophomore Patrick Green tied it one last time at 22-22. A pair of DiBiase foul shots with 1:24 left put the Red Riots up for good, 24-22. Then, with 50.4 seconds remaining, Hyland made two more free throws and it was 26-22 South Portland at the break.

It didn’t take long in the third quarter for the Red Riots to break it open.

Thirty-two seconds in, Lee canned a long 3. A minute, 10 seconds later, he did it again and suddenly the lead was 10. After Tirabassi made two foul shots, Hyland made a layup after a steal. Reinhold followed with a leaner for a 36-24 advantage. After senior John Hughes hit a leaner for Deering, Lee made two foul shots, DiBiase canned a jumper and DiBiase made a spinning layup to cap a 16-4 surge and give South Portland a commanding 42-26 lead.

“Personally, I just tried to find a rhythm in (second half) warmups since I shot poorly in the first half,” Lee said. “I just connected. It was just confidence. I missed my first couple and got down on myself. My teammates and coaches reminded me to keep my head. As a team, we picked up the intensity on the defensive end and were a lot more patient on the offensive end and had a big run.”

“We came in at halftime and weren’t satisfied with how we were playing defensively, we were kind of getting pushed around by them,” Hyland said. “Offensively, we weren’t hitting shots. We came out in the second half and wanted to put away and get it to double-figures and sail the rest of the way and we did. Matty hit some shots and Jon hit some shots and we put it away.”

A third Lee 3 to start the fourth lengthened the divide. After Tirabassi made a layup, Hasson made a foul shot. Tirabassi answered with a layup before he and Hasson traded free throws. A Dennis Ross jumper got the Rams back to within 14, 47-33, but Hyland scored on a putback. Hyland then converted a reverse layup and Bowring made a layup to make it 53-33. Deering got no closer than 18 the rest of the way and South Portland enjoyed its second quarterfinal round win in three seasons, 63-36.

“I thought our game plan was pretty solid,” said Rams coach Dan LeGage. “We got the kids ready to play as best we could. We missed some assignments at the start of the third quarter and (Hyland and Lee) got free and made shots. It just rolled from there. They got confident. We lost confidence and struggled to score. They controlled the tempo. That’s what 10 seniors should do. They make you pay.”

In the end, the Red Riots just had more depth and talent.

“I think we were a little bigger,” DiBiase said. “We manned up and played tough D and boxed out. We limited their second-chance shots.”

“I thought defensively we really picked it up in the second half and limited them to one shot which helped us on the offensive end,” said South Portland coach Phil Conley, who was recently named the league’s Coach of the Year. “Matt and Keegan made some big baskets for us, but this was a team win tonight. Ten different players scored. We held a strong team to 14 points in the second half. I’m really proud of the guys.”

Hyland ended up with a game-high 17 points.

DiBiase and Lee had 11 apiece.

“In the first half, we had some jitters,” DiBiase said. “It was a big crowd out there. We got back in a groove in the second half and played like we did all year. Matt was our scorer when Keegan was out, but having two top scorers takes the pressure off everyone else. Our chemistry’s already back.”

“Matt struggled in the first half shooting, but I told him he’s a good shooter and to keep taking open looks and they’d fall,” Conley said. “He gave us some breathing room. Keegan had some great drives to the basket. It’s great to see him back on the floor. Jon DiBiase was tremendous defensively, to hold Amabile to three points. He’s done that all year for us. He made some big baskets too. It’s just one step to our goal.”

Hasson tallied eight, Reinhold had four, junior Stephen Hodge and freshman Tanner Hyland three apiece and Bowring, McHugh and junior Michael Kennedy all had two.

Afterwards, the theme was, “thank goodness Keegan’s back.”

“Having Keegan back means a lot to me as a coach,” Conley said. “I’ve seen how hard he works. To see him sit on the bench the first 17 games was tough. I’m so glad he’s playing for us. He opens it up for us offensively. He gets other people good looks. I’m glad he’s out there.”

Hyland feels that his best is yet to come.

“I’m all right,” he said. “It’s kind of frustrating since my legs still aren’t there. I’m getting better day by day. My shot’s not where I want it to be, but I’m working on it every day. It’s a great time of the year. It was awful missing the regular season, but this is the most important part. We really want that state championship. We haven’t been to the Civic Center since my sophomore year. We want to win three games there.”

For Deering, Tirabassi, in his swan song, led the way with 13 points.

“I thought Eddie played his guts out,” LeGage said. “People don’t realize he’s been playing hurt.”

Dennis Ross added seven, Colucci had six, Amabile finished with three, Green, Hughes and Jamie Ross all had two and senior Justin Ross scored one.

“(South Portland) did a good job on Amabile and Colucci, making sure they didn’t get free looks,” LeGage said. “Those guys are our scorers. Tonight, they were the better team. They made the shots and the plays. They have a veteran team. They can sub senior for senior. They’ve been here before. Those guys had big minutes and you add Keegan into the mix, it makes them that much better.”

Deering finished 11-8 and has reason to believe that it will be a top threat by this time next year.

“We did some good things this year,” said LeGage. “It was certainly up-and-down. Other than Eddie, most of the guys who garnered playing time are back. I expect better things. We have a nice, young group coming up. The JV and freshmen teams played well. We have size and skill there. I’m excited about the future, hopefully the kids are too. Next year, we’ll be a veteran team and the expectation will be to produce. I hope they’ll have a good offseason.”

Semifinal showdown

Wednesday at 6 p.m., at the Civic Center, South Portland (15-4) and Westbrook (18-1) will meet in a highly-anticipated semifinal round contest. Just a couple weeks ago, on Jan. 30, the host Blue Blazes drubbed the Red Riots, 66-46. The teams haven’t met in the tournament since the 2000 regional final (a 46-41 Westbrook win).

This one could be a classic.

“I think our chances are great,” DiBiase said. “We’re a family. We’re a really close group. Westbrook’s a great team, but we didn’t have Keegan the first time. I think we match up a lot better with him.”

“Westbrook is a very, very good team,” Conley added. “We’ll have to play our best to beat them. I looked at the tape of that first game and we had one bad quarter. Other than that, we played well. They hit their shots. They’re well-coached, a very good team.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]