SOUTH PORTLAND—It’s still the Cheverus Stags and everybody else.

Friday evening, at a raucous Beal Gymnasium, the Cheverus boys’ basketball team, defending a state title and without a blemish in the 2010-11 campaign, turned aside yet another challenge with relative ease, downing the feisty and entertaining South Portland Red Riots, 63-46.

This time, the top-ranked Stags broke it open in the second quarter and never led by less than 11 down the stretch as they improved to 12-0, dropping the Red Riots to 10-3.

Cheverus got its usual balanced attack as eight different players scored and its defense gave South Portland fits as the Stags garnered their 16th successive victory, dating back to last year.

“We played so hard for 32 minutes,” said Cheverus coach Bob Brown. “I thought we played well tonight for the most part. We got frazzled a couple times, but we got back together and attacked and got back to where we should.”

Too much everything

Cheverus and South Portland are two of the state’s storied programs, combining for 20 championships (11 for the Red Riots, nine for the Stags). They’ve met seven times in the playoffs in the past half century, with Cheverus triumphing on five occasions (the most recent was a 68-48 win for the Stags in the 2004 quarterfinals).

In addition to a similar pedigree, the programs also have in common one of the state’s most storied coaches, Bob Brown, who led South Portland to the 1979 and 1980 Class A titles and is now in his 10th season with Cheverus, guiding the Stags to the 2008 and 2010 Gold Balls.

So far this winter, both teams have impressed, albeit in different fashion.

Cheverus, despite losing standout Indiana Faithfull to graduation, returned a superb group and as the preseason favorite hasn’t faltered, opening with a 102-29 home victory over Noble and cruising from there. The Stags had a close call against visiting Kennebunk (which played a slowdown style) in a 31-25 victory Dec. 17, but passed tests against top contenders Westbrook (52-35), Portland (49-28), Thornton Academy (52-37), Bonny Eagle (63-34), Scarborough (63-48) and Deering (61-51). Tuesday, Cheverus (which has boasted seven different top scorers this winter) downed host Biddeford, 55-41.

South Portland, conversely, wasn’t expected to do much in 2010-11 after graduating virtually all of its varsity experience, but the Red Riots have won and won dramatically. They captured all four of the games on the 2010 portion of their schedule, then, after a 57-40 loss at Marshwood on Jan. 4, South Portland turned it up again, downing visiting Noble by 13 before embarking on a four-game road trip, which produced a series of thrills.

After dominating Scarborough (48-33), the Red Riots led from start to finish at Deering in a 50-39 triumph, then rallied from a 19-point halftime deficit to edge highly touted Thornton Academy, 82-78, in double overtime Jan. 15. Four nights later, South Portland trailed Portland by 14 with seven minutes to go, but fought back again and was denied victory only by an improbable pair of tying buzzer-beaters by the Bulldogs. Finally, in triple overtime, the Red Riots’ four-game win streak ended, 80-71. South Portland got back on track this week with home victories over Kennebunk (52-46) and Gorham (69-46).

Last year, the teams split, both winning at home. The Stags rolled, 66-44, but in the regular season finale, the Red Riots got a measure of revenge with a 53-43 triumph at Beal. South Portland benefited in that game from the absence of Faithfull, who at the time appeared to have used up his eligibility.

Friday, Brown continued his decades-long success in South Portland, improving to 18-2 against the Red Riots in his Cheverus tenure.

South Portland managed to avoid the traditional Stags’ early knockout blow, hanging close for the first period, but late in the quarter, Cheverus made its move.

Junior Louie DiStasio opened the scoring with a 3-ball 37 seconds in. Sophomore Tanner Hyland answered with a 3 for the Red Riots, senior Matt Russell hit two foul shots and senior Steve Hodge added another for a short-lived 6-3 lead.

A 3 from senior Connor O’Neil tied the score for the Stags and they went up, 8-6, on a short hook shot from senior Griffin Brady. South Portland’s leading scorer, senior Vukasin Vignjevic, answered with a bank shot from a difficult angle, but Brady made a layup.

With 2:19 to go in the first quarter, Hyland took a pretty pass from Vignjevic and made a layup to force the last tie of the game, 10-10. Twenty-five seconds later, Cheverus went ahead to stay on a layup by sophomore Matt Cimino. Senior Peter Gwilym (bringing his usual unparalleled energy off the bench) scored on a scoop shot for a 14-10 advantage. After Russell made a layup just inside the final minute, DiStasio made a 3-ball with 32.8 seconds remaining to give the visitors a 17-12 lead after one.

In the second period, the Red Riots managed just four points (without a single field goal) and the Stags made them pay.

After junior Jordan Muller made a foul shot to start the period for South Portland, Cheverus ripped off 10 straight points to take command. A long jumper from DiStasio got the run going. Gwilym added a layup after a steal, Cimino scored on a putback, DiStasio made a short hook shot and Gwilym fed junior Shawn Grover for a layup and a 27-13 bulge.

“Against a good team, it’s always hard to come out quick, especially in their building, but we were able to pick up our momentum as time went on and extend the lead to a pretty good margin,” Gwilym said.

The Red Riots stemmed the tide with two Hyland free throws, but DiStasio made yet another 3. A free throw from Muller pulled South Portland back to 30-16 at the break.

“I thought the second quarter was the difference in the game,” said Red Riots coach Phil Conley. “We missed our shots. We only had four points.”

South Portland had faced previous halftime deficits, but coming back against Cheverus is nowhere near as easy a task as rallying versus Thornton Academy or Portland and the Red Riots weren’t able to get any closer than 13 in the third period.

A fourth DiStasio 3-pointer pushed the lead to 33-16 to start the quarter. After Vignjevic answered with a floater (for just his third and fourth points), Brady converted an old-fashioned three-point play (basket and free throw), junior Cam Olson scored on a putback and Cimino launched a long jumper just inside the 3-point stripe that was nothing but net for a 40-18 lead.

To its credit, South Portland finally came to life and went on a 9-0 run to create hope.

Hodge got it started with a steal and a layup. Russell added a dunk and Muller made back-to-back layups to make it 40-27 with 1:38 to go in the third.

Undaunted, the Stags closed the quarter on a 7-0 run as DiStasio made yet another 3, Brady sank two free throws and O’Neil added two more for a 47-27 advantage.

A steal and layup by senior Joey Savino pushed the lead to 22 to start the fourth. Russell answered with a dunk and sophomore Ben Burkey sank two free throws, but Gwilym answered with a layup. After Vignjevic made his first 3 of the game, Gwilym again responded, this time with two free throws, to make it 53-34 with just over six minutes to go.

“Vu’s a great shooter,” Gwilym said. “He got off at the end a little bit. We lost our focus a little bit. He and Tanner Hyland are good shooters. We have to contest them all the time.”

A layup from Burkey and back-to-back 3s from Vignjevic momentarily made things interesting at 53-42, but a layup from Brady, a reverse layup putback from Gwilym and a Brady 3-ball ended the competitive phase of the contest. A Russell layup and two Hyland foul shots sandwiched around an O’Neil 3 accounted for the 63-46 final score.

“We love to play in this environment,” Gwilym said. “It’s always fun to play in a big game. The fans were pretty rowdy, but we played as a team and came out with a victory.”

“(South Portland’s) good,” Brown said. “They have good players and they play hard. They played very physical. I didn’t expect it would be easy.”

DiStasio led all scorers with 19 points (spearheaded by five 3s). Brady had a solid game with 14 points and seven rebounds. Gwilym’s whose impact simply can’t be quantified, had 10 points. O’Neil added eight, Cimino six, Grover, Olson and Savino two apiece.

“Anyone’s shot can fall on any given night,” Gwilym said. “Everyone plays with energy. We send people in and expect great defense and hustle out of them.”

“Some guys have really started to come along,” said Brown. “Cimino’s coming along. Joey Savino has really helped us. I thought he played well tonight, keeping us under control. O’Neil’s playing like a man. Everybody is contributing and picking up the pace. We play against good competition in practice and we don’t let up.”

South Portland simply couldn’t match the Stags over 32 minutes.

“Cheverus made the shots, they played very good defense and rebounded the ball very well,” Conley said. “I tip my cap to Cheverus. Coach Brown is a great coach. He does a wonderful job with his program. They had a better night tonight.”

The Red Riots had a game-high 13 points from Vignjevic, nearly six below his average. Russell added 10 points, seven rebounds and a block. Hyland finished with nine points, Muller seven, Burkey four and Hodge three.

“What I take out of this game is that Cheverus is No. 1 in our league and undefeated for a reason,” Conley said. “Going in, everyone thought they’d be the number one team, but my guys in that locker room never, ever gave up. They played as hard as they could. That’s a positive going into Bonny Eagle Tuesday.

“I thought my point guard, Tanner Hyland, did a magnificent job tonight under pressure. That’s another positive. He had a very, very good game running the show. Vu made some shots late. He’s a big-time player in our league. I know he’ll rebound from this.”

Stretch run

The Red Riots (now third in the Western Class A Heal Points standings behind Cheverus and Thornton Academy) play at Bonny Eagle (in a game pivotal for Heal Points) Tuesday and host Deering in another crucial contest Thursday. Home games with Westbrook and Portland and a trip to Cheverus (Feb. 11) to wrap up the regular season also await.

“This is a minor speed bump,” said Conley. “We’re still 10-3. We still have work to do. We have a tough week next week, Bonny Eagle, Deering and Westbrook. With the character I have in the locker room, they’ll come ready to practice and go from there. We have no games off the rest of the way. We’ll prepare ourselves for the tournament. There’s never an easy game in the tournament. Hopefully this stretch of games will prepare us for when we get to the tournament.”

Cheverus is back in action Saturday (7 p.m.) against visiting Portland, in a makeup of last Friday’s snowed out contest. Tuesday, the Stags host Gorham. Thursday, they welcome Marshwood. The final week of the regular season brings a trip to Deering and the finale at home versus South Portland.

“(Going undefeated) is definitely a goal, but if we lose it’s not the end of the world,” said Gwilym, who hasn’t lost a game this school year on the gridiron or hardwood. “A couple years ago, we ran the table and lost to TA in the playoffs and we learned our lesson. That’s definitely not going to happen with this team. Our goal’s a state championship. That’s what we’re striving for. We have a lot of big games coming up. The end of our schedule’s tough. We have some tough tests down the road.”

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

Cheverus junior Cam Olson has his path to the basket impeded by South Portland senior Matt Russell.

South Portland senior Steve Hodge drives to the hoop for one of his team’s few easy looks.

Cheverus senior Connor O’Neil shoots over South Portland sophomore Tanner Hyland, while senior Steve Hodge looks on.

South Portland senior Vukasin Vignjevic drives on Cheverus senior Connor O’Neil. Vignjevic was held in check most of the night and ended up with 13 points, nearly six below his average.

Cheverus’ senior sparkplug Peter Gwilym soars to the hoop for two of his 10 points.

South Portland senior Matt Russell tosses a shot over Cheverus senior Joey Savino. Russell ended up scoring 10 points.

Sidebar Elements

Cheverus junior Louie DiStasio launches a shot Friday night at South Portland. DiStasio finished with a game-high 19 points and propelled the Stags to a 63-46 win at the Red Riots.

More photos below.

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