PORTLAND – Eugene Spates knows that, on a team with the talent the Maine Red Claws have, he isn’t going to get a lot of minutes every game. “So when you’re in,” he said, “you have to maximize your minutes.”

Thursday night, he maximized every second. Spates scored a season-high 21 points — in just over 24 minutes — to spark the Red Claws to a 120-107 victory over the Erie BayHawks at the Portland Expo.

“Who’s the dumb coach who doesn’t play him more?” said Austin Ainge, coach of the Red Claws.

Spates is OK with his minutes. He knows this is a talented team, one that’s just starting to show just how good it really is.

“It’s all coming together,” he said. “Coach is preaching defense a lot. If we can make defensive stops, the offense will come. We know we can play offense, we just have to stop teams on defense. Once we do that, we’re going to win our share of games.”

The win, Maine’s fifth consecutive at home, pushed the Red Claws above .500 (8-7) and helped ease some bad memories of a trip to Erie just 20 days ago, when the Red Claws lost by 49 and 20 to the BayHawks.

“Any time you get your butt whupped like that, you have no choice but to come back, or you’re going to bow down again,” said guard Mario West. “We had our mindset that we were going to come out and be physical and be aggressive and let them know that the team they saw down there was not the team that we are.”

Erie was never able to use its size advantage as the Red Claws exploited holes in the perimeter defense. For the second consecutive game, Maine hit 14 3-pointers (Jamar Smith had four, Spates three) and again worked the ball effectively, getting 26 assists on their 40 baskets.

“We’re sharing the ball better,” said Ainge.

“With all our shooters, when we share the ball, we’re hard to guard.”

DeShawn Sims had 21 points and seven rebounds, Tiny Gallon 19 and nine. Smith scored 17 points with five assists and West had 10 points and four assists.

“That’s the thing about this team,” said guard Champ Oguchi, who hit two huge 3-pointers late in the second quarter. “There are a lot of guys who, on any given night, can explode. Tonight was Eugene’s night.”

Spates, who averages 19.2 minutes per game, entered with the game tied at 15, and hit back-to-back 3-pointers to give the Red Claws a 24-18 lead. They would never trail again. “The first couple of shots went in and gave me confidence,” said Spates. “And when the guys have confidence in you, the shots are a little easier.”

When Erie pulled within one, 36-35, in the second quarter, the Red Claws went on an 8-0 run and held an eight-point lead at the half.

Maine took a 93-76 lead into the fourth when Kenny Hayes fed Matt Janning for a fast-break alley-oop dunk.

A 3-pointer by Smith gave the Red Claws a 20-point lead with 3:17 remaining and many of the sellout crowd of 3,045 started to leave.

Ainge said the victory showed just how far the Red Claws have come since that lost weekend in Erie.

“It’s amazing how much things can change that much,” he said. “We’re just playing so much better, so much better. When we went out there to play them, it was the first time we ever had to play small ball (without any big men inside). And we weren’t used to it. Now we’ve had some experience with it.

“But also, it’s just nice when guys hit shots. Sometimes we make this game harder than it has to be. Guys just made shots.”

Now, said West, the team has to keep it going.

“We have a lot of work to do,” he said.

“We have moments, but we still haven’t put a full game together. There’s an awful lot of positives we can take away from the games that we’re winning, but this team can get better.”

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

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