South Portland junior Meghan Graff, left, and senior Lydia Henderson, with Coach Lynne Hasson in the background, receive the runner-up plaque following the Red Riots’ palpitating 46-44 loss to defending state champion in Friday evening’s Class AA South Final.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.

South Portland’s girls’ basketball team put forth a championship effort Friday evening at the Cross Insurance Arena, but unfortunately for the Red Riots, they fell two painful points shy of earning a right to play for a Gold Ball.

Meeting seemingly unbeatable powerhouse Gorham in the Class AA South Final, South Portland led for over 14 minutes, was on top after the first period and at halftime and had multiple chances to get a go-ahead basket in the final minutes, but couldn’t convert and for the second year in a row, lost to the Rams in the regional final despite a valiant effort.

Two free throws from unheralded junior Michelle Rowe with 44 seconds to play gave Gorham the lead for good and senior standout Emily Esposito added a layup, so when junior Eva Mazur made two foul shots for the Red Riots with five seconds remaining, it was too little, too late and the Rams held on for a 46-44 victory.

South Portland has its win streak snapped at 13 and its season ended at 17-3 as Gorham improved to 20-0, won its 41st consecutive game over two seasons and advanced to face Oxford Hills (19-1) in the Class AA state final Saturday at 6 p.m. at the Augusta Civic Center.

Thirty-two thrilling minutes

After beating South Portland, 37-30, in last year’s regional final, Gorham dispatched Edward Little, 46-36, to win the inaugural Class AA championship.

This winter, behind Esposito, sophomore post standout Mackenzie Holmes and a superb supporting cast, the Rams were heavy favorites to repeat and didn’t disappoint during a decisive 18-0 regular season.

As the top seed for the Class AA South tournament, Gorham earned a bye into the semifinals where it overcame a slow start to down No. 4 Maine Girls’ Academy, 53-23, Tuesday.

The Red Riots started the 2016-17 season 4-2, then hit their stride with 12 straight victories to earn the No. 2 seed in the region, which also came with a bye. In its semifinal Tuesday, South Portland pulled away to oust No. 3 Scarborough, 43-27.

Last year’s meeting was the first ever between the teams in the playoffs.

Back on Dec. 15, in the third game of the regular season, host Gorham beat the Red Riots, 44-31, behind 13 points from senior Kaylea Lundin and a dozen from Esposito. South Portland was done in by 21 turnovers.

This time around, the Red Riots played much better and almost shocked the local basketball world.

Esposito hit a jumper seven seconds in to break the ice, but at the other end, junior Meghan Graff knocked down a 3-pointer to give South Portland confidence.

Gorham answered on another jumper from Esposito, but the next nine points went to the Red Riots.

A 3-ball from senior Lydia Henderson put South Portland on top, freshman Maggie Whitmore made a layup, sophomore Bela Cloutier knocked down a jump shot and with 2:35 left in the opening stanza, Mazur’s layup after a steal made it 12-4 South Portland.

The Rams settled down and rallied back within three behind a 3-ball from Esposito and a layup from Holmes, but with 43 seconds to go, Mazur made a layup for a 14-9 Red Riots’ advantage after eight minutes.

Gorham turned the ball over five times in the first period.

The second quarter would be nip and tuck, but South Portland managed to keep the lead at its conclusion.

A layup by Holmes started the new period and that sparked a 6-0 run for the Rams to go on top. Holmes followed with a jumper, then she made two free throws to make it 15-14 Gorham with 6:53 left in the half.

Back came South Portland when sophomore Katie Whitmore made a layup, but with 5:58 left, Holmes made another layup for a 17-16 Rams’ advantage.

The Red Riots then rattled off eight straight to retake control, as Maggie Whitmore hit a 3, Mazur buried a 3 and Katie Whitmore converted a layup with 2:40 remaining for a 24-17 lead.

Lundin countered with a 3, but Mazur made two free throws.

Then, with 9 seconds remaining, Esposito made a layup and that pulled Gorham within 26-22 at the half.

In the first 16 minutes, Mazur had nine points for South Portland, which made 4 of 10 3-pointers. The Rams were paced by 10 points from Holmes and nine from Esposito, but they turned the ball over an uncharacteristic 10 times.

Gorham would open up a five-point lead in the third period, but the Red Riots came right back.

The Rams started the second half quickly as Lundin hit a 3 and Esposito followed with another to make it 28-26. After Graff tied the game with two free throws, Katie Whitmore added one, but an Esposito 3 made it 31-29 Gorham.

With 5:03 left in the quarter, Graff finished a feed from Mazur and made a layup to tie it, but with 3:48 showing, sophomore Courtney Brent put the Rams on top with two free throws and 51 seconds later, Brent canned a 3 for a 36-31 lead.

The Red Riots got a layup from Graff after a steal, but Holmes countered with a layup to restore the five-point advantage.

With 1:07 left, Whitmore made a layup while being fouled, then added the free throw for the old-fashioned three-point play, sending the game to the fourth quarter as close as close can be, with Gorham clinging to a 38-36 lead.

The Rams never trailed in the fourth quarter, but South Portland took them to the final horn before they could finally exhale.

After nearly two scoreless minutes to start the frame, Lundin made a layup and with 5:04 to play, Lundin made another layup for a 42-36 advantage.

Gorham appeared on the verge of victory, but back roared South Portland to tie.

With 4:03 to play, Henderson made a jumper to snap a 5 minute, 4 second drought.

With 3:42 left, Mazur hit two free throws and after Mazur stole the ball, she was fouled and with 3:09 to go, Mazur tied the game, 42-42, with two more free throws.

Out of a timeout, the Rams turned the ball over, but Esposito stole it back. Gorham then gave the ball away again, but the Red Riots did the same.

South Portland got yet another chance to take the lead when the Rams gave the ball away, but the Red Riots didn’t get a shot off and turned the ball over as Rowe stole it with 49 seconds left and was fouled five seconds later on a layup attempt.

“The pass Michelle intercepted was the difference in the game,” Red Riots coach Lynne Hasson said.

Out of a timeout, Rowe went to the free throw line and calmly sank both shots for a 44-42 lead with 44 seconds to go.

“Michelle had some critical plays at the end of the game,” Lundin said. “The free throws and steal. She really stepped up. Without her, it would have been a different outcome.”

South Portland tried to answer, but Mazur missed a shot and Holmes snared the rebound for Gorham.

Then, out of a timeout, Rowe fed a wide open Esposito for a layup and with 23 seconds to play, the Rams had a 46-42 lead.

“Michelle made three championship plays at the end,” Berthiaume said. “She stole the ball and made two free throws dead center, then she threw the out of bounds pass out of a timeout for a layup. She did a number of different things at the end to help us win that game. Most people would call her a role player, but I don’t think she is. She understands what she needs to do for the team and she does it.”

Now desperate, the Red Riots looked to get a 3 from Graff, but it was off target. Katie Whitmore got the rebound, but couldn’t finish and with 5.6 seconds to go, Mazur got the offensive rebound and drew the foul.

Mazur kept hope alive with two foul shots, but South Portland was unable to get the ball back for an attempt to tie it or win it.

The Red Riots gave a pair of fouls, but time ran out and Gorham had survived and advanced, 46-44.

“I feel amazing,” Lundin said. “It’s a huge win for us. I’m really proud of the team. I think we played really well. Overall, we could have done things better, like rebounding, but we took it possession by possession. Coach told us not to panic. Hearing that planted in our head allowed us to play calm and we slowly whittled our way back into the game. Had they gone ahead (late), it probably would have been a different outcome. We ran our stall at the end. Once we settled in that’s pretty much it for the other team. We have strong ballhandlers.” 

“We haven’t been down very much this year, so it was a concern how the team would respond climbing out of a hole,” Berthaume said. “It’s cliche, but it was one play at a time and having a big defensive stand each time. We needed better ball movement. We reversed the ball and everyone got involved.” 

Gorham was led by 17 points from Esposito, who suffered a knee injury on the final play of the game, but is expected to be available in the state final.

Holmes had 12 points, seven rebounds and two blocks. Lundin added 10 points and two assists. Brent had five points and Rowe added two (to go with three rebounds, a steal and an assist).

The Rams shot well from the field (17 of 35 overall, 6 of 13 on 3s) and made all six of their free throws. Gorham did commit 19 turnovers.

“Turnovers were a concern,” Berthiaume said. “We had a few the other day against MGA too. We’re continuing to work on that, but it’s a credit to South Portland. They’re active. Mazur is long. She’s a great defender. I thought everybody on South Portland played an exceptional game. Credit to them.”

Gorham will have its hands full with Oxford Hills (which survived Deering in overtime in its regional final) in the state game Saturday, but if the Rams take care of business, they’ll cut down the nets and cradle another Gold Ball.

“Early in the season, everybody expected we’d make a run back to the state game, but you can’t look too far ahead,” Berthiaume said. “We’re finally at that last game. We’ll prepare as hard as we can this week and we’ll go out and give it our best credit.”

Try, try again

South Portland was led in scoring by Mazur, who had 15 points. Mazur also grabbed seven rebounds and had five steals.

“Eva had a great game defensively,” Hasson said. “We switched her on to Espo after Meghan got in foul trouble. She had some great steals and tips.”

Graff added nine points, Katie Whitmore had eight, Maggie Whitmore and Cloutier two.

Then there was the underappreciated Henderson, who capped her career with five points, three rebounds and a steal.

“Lydia is really underrated,” Hasson said. “She’s a great leader. She was so important to our team. She’s been the backbone of the defense for four years. We’ll miss her. I so badly wanted to win it for a kid like that.”

The Red Riots made 12 of 13 foul shots, outrebounded the Rams, 19-16, and committed 16 turnovers. They shot just 35 percent from the floor (14 of 40), including 4 of 13 from the 3-point stripe.

South Portland led for 14 minutes, 22 seconds, while Gorham held the lead for 13:07.

In a game that was tied four times and saw 10 lead changes, the Rams barely found a way to prevail.

“It couldn’t have been much closer,” Hasson said. Someone had to make a play at the end and unfortunately, it wasn’t us. We certainly had our chances. It felt like we were tentative on offense at the end. At crunch time, we needed someone to step up and take a shot. We had open looks and we didn’t take them. We just needed a big play.

“We ended up with more rebounds and fewer turnovers, but we didn’t shoot well. They made more 3s than we did. All year, we’ve come up big in the first three minutes of the second half, but this game, they did and it made a difference. Still, we hung tough. Gorham has good players, but so do we.”

The Red Riots’ 17 wins tied last year’s mark. The program’s two-year total of 34 is the most in a two-year span since the 2005-06 teams combined for 36 victories.

“We’ll look back and appreciate what we did,” Hasson said. “We had some great moments. People had a lot of respect for us. We played our best at the end. The way it ended was disappointing, but I’m proud of the girls and the season we had.”

Henderson is the lone player to depart the program, so South Portland projects to be excellent in 2017-18, perhaps the favorite considering that Gorham will graduate Esposito.

“Hearing that next year is our year is getting old,” Hasson said. “We were so close. I know the juniors are very hungry. We had some big contributors off the bench like Bela and (sophomore) Jena (Leckie) who will be back. Our freshmen will step up even more and we have good eighth grade players and JV players ready to fill in. We’ll want it badly next year.”

Adam Birt contributed to this story.

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

South Portland junior Meghan Graff shoots over Gorham sophomore Courtney Brent.

Gorham sophomore Mackenzie Holmes battles South Portland freshman Maggie Whitmore for a rebound.

South Portland junior Eva Mazur goes up for a basket.

South Portland sophomore Katie Whitmore fights Gorham sophomore Courtney Brent for the ball.

Gorham sophomore Mackenzie Holmes jumps for joy at the final horn as the Rams hold on to advance.

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Season Preview

South Portland 58 MGA 29

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Previous Gorham stories

Gorham 58 Scarborough 26

Gorham 50 Deering 23

Gorham 53 MGA 23