PORTLAND—No one was expecting this.

The Portland boys’ basketball team, seemingly out of the playoff mix just three short weeks ago, is now two wins from an improbable regional championship after punishing South Portland in the Western Class A quarterfinals Friday night at the Portland Exposition Building.

The Bulldogs led almost the whole way, got great production from some of the youngest players on their roster and improved to 12-7 with a 69-45 victory over the Red Riots (12-7), a team that played them very close in two regular season meetings.

Junior Mike Herrick led the way with 19 points, but sophomores Nate Smart and Nick Volger and freshmen Jayvon Pitts-Young and Justin Zukowski were huge components throughout as Portland moved on to meet undefeated, defending Class A champion Cheverus in Wednesday’s semifinal round (7:30 p.m.), at the Cumberland County Civic Center.

“This gives us confidence,” said Smart. “We’re peaking at the right time. We’ve clicked. We’re a young team and we know that, but it’s coming together.”

Brash baby Bulldogs

Portland, which was ousted, 65-34, by Westbrook in last year’s quarterfinal round, wasn’t expected to do much this winter and despite early close calls against the likes of Thornton Academy and Westbrook, found itself 2-4 on Jan. 7. The Bulldogs then came to life by winning four straight, but a three-game skid followed and when Portland lost back-to-back games at Deering, 65-42, and at Cheverus, 70-43, in late January, the young Bulldogs were 6-7 and appeared out of playoff contention. Then, they roared to life, winning their final five games, capped by wins over South Portland and Deering to wind up 11-7.

South Portland graduated Keegan Hyland and several other top players from last year’s team, which dropped an agonizing overtime decision to Westbrook in the semifinals, so expectations were tempered this winter, but the Red Riots have been one of the feel-good stories of the season. South Portland won eight of its first nine, capped by wins at Scarborough, Deering and Thornton Academy The Red Riots weren’t as strong in the second half of the year, beating just Deering and Westbrook in their final six games, but still wound up 12-6, the fifth year in a row they’ve posted double-digit victories.

The Bulldogs beat South Portland twice this winter, an epic 80-71 triple overtime victory on Jan. 19 and a 59-54 triumph at South Portland on Feb. 8.

Two years ago, Portland lost both regular season meetings with the Red Riots, then won handily in the third meeting (72-49), in the quarterfinals.

Since 1923, the teams had met 24 times in the playoffs, with each team winning on a dozen occasions.

The Bulldogs took the all-time lead Friday.

South Portland actually grabbed a quick lead, its only lead as it would turn out, when junior Jordan Muller sank a 3-pointer from the wing, but it didn’t take long for Portland to seize control.

A jumper from Volger and a 3-ball from senior Matt McInnis put the Bulldogs ahead to stay. After Herrick made a layup to extend the lead, junior Logan Gaddar made a foul shot for the Red Riots and a bank shot from sophomore Tanner Hyland pulled South Portland within a point.

Portland answered as Smart scored on a putback and Volger sank a jump shot. The Red Riots battled back to 11-10 on a layup from Gaddar and a leaner from Muller, but Zukowski hit a bank shot. After a layup from senior Vukasin Vignjevic made it a one-point game again, the Bulldogs closed the first on a 4-0 run as Herrick scored on a putback and Zukowski made a layup for a 17-12 advantage.

By halftime, Portland was firmly in command.

A 3 from Muller 26 seconds into the second quarter pulled South Portland within two, but it would never get any closer.

Pitts-Young made his presence felt when he spun to his left then banked home a shot. Seconds later, he made a free throw. With 5:11 to go in the half, Herrick buried a 3 for a 23-15 lead.

After Hyland converted an old-fashioned three-point play (leaner, foul, free throw), McInnis scored on a putback. Vignjevic made a layup with 3:48 to go in the half to cut the deficit to 25-20, but Portland would score nine straight.

A layup from Pitts-Young got it started. Junior Pete Donato made a jumper in the lane, Herrick scored on a leaner and with 6.9 seconds to go, Pitts-Young fed Herrick for a layup and-one and Herrick sank the free throw to make it 34-20 at the break.

Seven different Bulldogs scored in the first half and South Portland was further hindered by seven turnovers and 2 of 8 foul shooting.

South Portland had been able to overcome halftime deficits in the regular season, including being down 19 in the double-OT win at Thornton Academy and being down 14 in the triple-overtime loss to Portland.

This time around, however, the Red Riots had no answer.

Vigjnevic got the second half started in promising fashion with a leaner, but Herrick made two foul shots, Herrick made a bank shot, Volger scored on a layup, made another and Smart hit a baseline jumper for a 44-22 lead with 4:48 left in the third quarter.

South Portland answered with a 7-0 run as sophomore Ben Burkey made a foul shot, senior Matt Russell scored on a putback, Vignjevic made a layup and Burkey scored on a putback to make it 44-29, but Portland came right back with seven straight as McInnis made a free throw, Smart scored on a putback, Donato converted a reverse layup and Smart sank a jumper for a 51-29 advantage with 1:44 to play in the period.

“(South Portland) made a nice run and we knew they had the shooters to come back,” Portland coach Joe Russo said. “Before the game I wanted the kids to remember to play tough defense and control the boards. They responded and played hard. I reminded them they’d come out with pressure. We had to handle their pressure.”

Vignjevic made a free throw and scored on a leaner after a steal, but Pitts-Young answered with a layup. Late in the quarter, Muller made two free throws to make it a 53-34 game heading for the fourth.

South Portland turned the ball over seven times in the third as its deficit grew from 14 points to 19.

“Fast breaks killed (the Red Riots),” said Pitts-Young. “They couldn’t do it with their press this time.”

“We were down 14, but we’ve had comebacks this year and I thought we could do it,” said South Portland coach Phil Conley. “I know we have competitors who will fight until the end. It just didn’t happen.”

The fourth period proved to be academic although South Portland did get within 14 before the Bulldogs put it away.

A Muller leaner was countered by a Zukowski layup. Red Riots senior Steve Hodge then hit a 3-ball and a pair of free throws to make it 55-41 with 6:32 remaining, but Portland closed on a 14-4 run.

Pitts-Young made a layup, Herrick did the same, Pitts-Young sank a 3-pointer and after Hyland was called for a technical foul, Herrick made a foul shot. Pitts-Young followed with two free throws and a layup and with 3:16 to go, Zukowski made two foul shots for a 69-41 lead.

After both coaches cleared the bench, Red Riots sophomore Conner MacVane made a free throw to end a 5 minute, 14 second drought and with 13.9 seconds to play sophomore Calvin Carr hit a 3 to account for the 69-45 final score.

“Coach told us to just make this a good season and end strong,” Smart said. “We were very focused in the second half. Our guards did a great job. The freshmen broke the press with ease. Mike Herrick kept knocking down shots and we kept it going.”

“We expected another great game with South Portland since we always play each other tough,” Russo said. “We focused tonight on defensive pressure and trying to control the ball. We knew we couldn’t dominate since we’re not big. We wanted to put pressure on the ball and tried to get our share of rebounds, play scrappy. When we did that, good things happened.”

Herrick led all scorers with 19 points. He also had five points and two steals.

“We just played defense for 32 minutes,” Herrick said. “We didn’t let their scorers score many points and we blocked out.”

While Herrick’s production was expected, the rise of his supporting cast was not.

Pitts-Young had a dazzling 16 points (and two steals).

“It was fun,” said Pitts-Young. “I liked it. It was nice to play in front of a big crowd.”

Smart (six rebounds, two steals and a block), Volger and Zukowski all had eight points.

McInnis added six points (along with seven boards, two blocked shots and two steals) and Donato had four (to go with five rebounds and a block).

“Every night a different kid steps up,” Russo said. “Nate Smart had a great game tonight. Jayvon had a great game tonight. They all seem to help each other. Our camaraderie is carrying us. There’s no secret what we do. Tonight, the kids picked each other up. Everybody seems to help each other. The freshmen stayed composed tonight. The kids believe in themselves. We’ll try to keep it going.”

Portland had 11 turnovers and made 9 of 13 foul shots.

South Portland was simply left shell-shocked.

“It was a tough night for us overall,” Conley said. “They beat us in all aspects of the game tonight. It just wasn’t our night, but give credit to Portland. One positive tonight is that the kids didn’t give up. I thought we’d rebound better. Especially in the first half, we got hurt on the glass. (Portland’s) playing really good basketball. They peaked at the right time. They have good guard play. Herrick’s a big-time scorer.”

The Red Riots were led by Muller with 12 points. Vignjevic, who returned from injury to enjoy a stellar senior campaign, added 11 points (four rebounds and a steal). Hyland had eight points, Hodge five, Carr and Gaddar (who had six rebounds and a steal) three, Russell two and MacVane one.

South Portland turned the ball over 15 times and made just 9 of 24 free throws.

“We didn’t shoot the ball well, particularly at the foul line, which didn’t help,” said Conley.

South Portland loses Hodge, Russell, Vignjevic and Mike Kennedy to graduation, but returns the likes of Burkey, Gaddar, Hyland, Muller and Shawn Shannon and should be back in the mix in 2011-12.

“We have guys in (the locker room) who are hurting,” Conley said. “Four seniors gave me everything they had. They really worked hard. It’s tough for them to go out this way. Once this settles, and they look back at their career, I think they’ll be happy with their record and some of their individual accomplishments.

“We’ll build on this. We have guys like Gaddar, Muller, Hyland and Burkey and others who will be back. The taste they have right now isn’t a good taste. I expect they’ll work and not want to put the ball down. They’ll want to have a good summer and get back next year and make it to the Civic Center.”

Nothing to lose

Portland will next take on the 19-0 defending Class A champion Stags of Cheverus. The Bulldogs were humbled twice this year by Stags, 49-28 at home Dec. 23 and 70-43 on the road Jan. 29. Portland has lost seven straight to Cheverus. Its last victory was Feb. 5, 2008 (37-31, at the Expo).

The teams have met 21 times in the postseason dating back to 1932, with the Bulldogs holding an 11-10 edge. The last meeting was in the 2008 semifinals, a 63-49 Cheverus victory. Portland last beat the Stags in the tournament in the 2007 regional final (62-44).

“We’ll come out and do what we’ve been doing, working hard and making our shots,” said Smart.

“Coach has a good record against (Cheverus) in the playoffs,” Pitts-Young said. “We didn’t give up in the regular season, but they beat us. I think we can do it this time.”

“ My main concern with (Cheverus) is us handling the pressure,” Russo added. “If we do, we’ll hang in there.”

The semifinal winner advances to the regional final Saturday at 9 p.m., at the Civic Center.

The Class A state final is Saturday, March 5 at 7 p.m., at the Augusta Civic Center.

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @foresports

Portland freshman Jayvon Pitts-Young drives past South Portland junior Logan Gaddar. Pitts-Young, and fellow freshman Justin Zukowski, helped lead the Bulldogs to the win.

South Portland junior Jordan Muller fades away in an attempt to shoot over Portland freshman Justin Zukowski.

South Portland sophomore Tanner Hyland soars to the hoop.

Portland sophomore Nick Volger goes up for two in the early going.

Portland freshman Justin Zukowski plays smothering defense on South Portland junior Jordan Muller.

Sidebar Elements

Portland junior Mike Herrick goes up for an easy two points during Friday night’s Western Class A quarterfinal round game versus South Portland. The Bulldogs continued their stunning late-season resurgence with a surprisingly one-sided 69-45 victory over the Red Riots.

More photos below.