HIDALGO, Texas — If Saturday night’s game is any indication, there could be a tough playoff road ahead for the Rio Grande Valley Vipers.

It didn’t matter that the Vipers held on for a 98-97 victory against the Maine Red Claws to sweep their best-of-three series without their leading scorer, point guard Andrew Goudelock.

The biggest thing that stood out for Vipers Coach Nick Nurse?

The Vipers had 29 of them, and they contributed heavily to Maine rallying from an 18-point deficit in the fourth quarter to make it 92-92 with 49 seconds remaining. The Vipers made 6 of 8 free throws to barely hang on and win their 12th straight.

“The win’s important,” Nurse said. “I don’t want to take anything away from Maine, but we played really poorly. I’m really disappointed with the way we threw the ball around and how carelessly we played.
“I’m not disappointed with how we started. We built an 18-point lead two or three times, but I’m disappointed with how we finished for sure.”

Saturday’s game gave the Vipers a preview of what things will be like without Goudelock, who sat on the bench in street clothes. The Vipers declined comment on why the potential D-League MVP didn’t play, but he said he was going to get called up Sunday by the Los Angeles Lakers, who have a roster spot open because of Kobe Bryant’s season-ending injury.

For the first three quarters it didn’t appear the Vipers needed Goudelock. They coasted and carried a 77-60 lead into the fourth. Then things went dry around the middle of the quarter after Chris Daniels knocked in a 3-pointer that made it 90-72 with 7:40 remaining.

That turned out to be the last field goal for the Vipers.

Rio Grande Valley helped fuel a 20-2 Maine run with turnover after turnover.

“We turned it over almost every possession,” forward Glen Rice Jr. said. “They just got more shots at the rim.”

Saturday’s game mirrored Thursday’s Game 1 at the Portland Expo in which the Vipers nearly blew a comfortable lead.

“It’s been the same story for games,” said Maine Coach Mike Taylor, who was an assistant with the Vipers last season. “The Vipers played with great pace. (Nurse) does such a great job with the team. They got out to a big lead in both games.

“I’m really proud of our guys. We really fought back. There were a couple of times when we could have folded, but at the end of the day you’ve got to tip your cap.

“We threw everything we had at them. They were able to win both games to come out on top.”
Rice led the Vipers with 27 points and 12 rebounds. D.J. Kennedy had 20 points and 12 rebounds. Reserve Tyler Honeycutt added 18 points for the Vipers, who will play the winner of the Canton-Tulsa series in the semifinals. Canton and Tulsa will play a decisive third game Sunday night.

“It’s always nice to learn a lesson and still win the game,” Rice said. “We know we can’t turn it over like that. We almost cost us the game.”

The Red Claws were led by reserve Josh Selby, who had 22 points. Chris Wright scored 21 points and Curtis Jerrells had 19. Jermaine Taylor, a former Viper, scored 16 points.

“Good thing this is the playoffs and you just want to win,” Kennedy said. “Don’t matter how you win. You just have to win and advance.

“That was probably the worst fourth quarter we’ve played all season. We can blame it on a lot of things, but we didn’t execute well at the end.”