South Portland coach Lynne Hasson and several Red Riots cheer during Friday’s 55-43 home win over Gorham.

Derek Davis / Portland Press Herald photos.

More photos below.


South Portland 55 Gorham 43

G- 3 10 14 16- 43
SP- 15 11 18 11- 55

G- Holmes 9-4-22, Nadeau 4-0-11, Desjardin 4-0-10

SP- M. Whitmore 7-9-23, Leckie 7-2-18, Aceto 2-0-5, Towle 2-0-4, B. Cloutier 1-0-3, K. Whitmore 1-0-2

G (5) Nadeau 3, Desjardin 2
SP (4) Leckie 2, Aceto, B. Cloutier 1

G- 17
SP- 9

Free throws
G: 4-7
SP: 11-16

SOUTH PORTLAND—To say South Portland’s girls’ basketball team was fired up to host defending regional champion Gorham Friday night would be a major understatement.

After being upset by the Rams in last year’s regional semifinals, the Red Riots have been waiting for an opportunity at revenge and they certainly seized it.

Right from the get go.

South Portland set the tone right away as junior Kaleisha Towle helped neutralize Gorham senior standout Mackenzie Holmes, the Red Riots forced 11 Rams’ first quarter turnovers and thanks to eight points from junior Maggie Whitmore and five more from senior Jena Leckie, South Portland closed the first period on a 13-0 run to lead, 15-3.

The Red Riots would eventually extend their surge to 21-0 on a driving layup from Leckie, but Gorham crept back within 13 points, 26-13, at halftime.

The Rams drew within eight, 31-23, on a 3-pointer from senior Brittany Desjardin midway through the third quarter, but Leckie sparked an 8-0 run and South Portland took a 44-27 advantage to the final stanza.

There, Gorham made one final push behind Holmes, who produced a second half double-double.

A Holmes putback with 1:29 left made it 52-43, but that’s as close as the Rams would get and Whitmore and Leckie closed it out at the foul line as South Portland prevailed, 55-43.

The Red Riots were paced by 23 points from Whitmore and 18 from Leckie as they won their 13th game in a row, improved to 15-1 and in the process, dropped the Rams to 10-6.

“It feels really good,” Leckie said. “We’ve lost to them the past three years at the Civic Center and it feels great to beat them on our home court.”

Highly anticipated

This game has been circled on the schedule for some time, as South Portland and Gorham are again top contenders in Class AA South.

South Portland enjoyed a 59-28 victory at Bonny Eagle Opening Night, then downed host Cheverus, 58-42. After a 66-50 setback at defending Class A champion Greely, the Red Riots started a win streak by beating visiting Scarborough (55-36). South Portland then defeated host Thornton Academy (52-23), host Oxford Hills (62-56), host Sanford (56-22), visiting Massabesic (47-18), visiting Windham (58-29), visiting Portland (57-35), host Deering (47-33), visiting Deering (58-17), host Falmouth (63-18), visiting Noble (72-27) and visiting Edward Little, the defending Class AA champion, 46-38.

Gorham, meanwhile, started by downing visiting Massabesic, 82-55, host Noble, 69-46 and host Deering (49-35) before losing at home to Scarborough (50-36). The Rams got back on track with a 57-26 home victory over Sanford, then they won at Portland (49-43). After losing at home to defending Class A champion Greely, 57-51, the Rams bounced back and downed visiting Cheverus, 55-39. A 44-36 loss at Scarborough was followed by a 67-45 win at Lewiston. Following a 59-47 home loss to Oxford Hills, Gorham defeated host Thornton Academy (59-36). The one-step-forward-one-step-back continued with a 61-56 loss at Edward Little in a state game rematch and victories over visiting Bonny Eagle (59-56) and Westbrook (51-19).

Last year, in the regular season, South Portland won at Gorham, 54-44, behind 13 points from Whitmore and despite 28 points from Holmes, but in the semifinals, the Red Riots didn’t score in the first quarter and went down to a painful 53-42 defeat.

Friday, Gorham hoped to stymie South Portland for the seventh time in the last eight meetings, but the Red Riots managed to extend their win streak to 13 games thanks to an overwhelming start.

Nineteen seconds into the contest, Towle got a jump shot to rattle in to give South Portland an early lead.

The Rams’ highwater mark came with 6:12 to go in the first period, when Desjardin hit a 3, but 27 seconds later, a Leckie jumper bounced in and the Red Riots never looked back.

After Leckie made a layup after a steal, Whitmore scored her first two points, at the charity stripe, as Gorham coach Laughn Berthiaume had to call timeout in an attempt to stem the tide.

“You really can’t start like that, especially against a team that can close it out,” Berthiaume said. “We told the girls to be ready from the opening tip, that their defensive pressure was going to be there. It’s not something we didn’t know about, but we just weren’t ready. I have to do a better job getting them ready from the opening tip.”

The timeout didn’t help, as Whitmore hit a short jumper, Leckie made a free throw, Whitmore drove for a layup and with 31.2 seconds remaining, Whitmore drove for another layup and South Portland was in command, up, 15-3.

The Red Riots got eight points from Whitmore, five more from Leckie and they forced the Rams to turn the ball over 11 times in the game’s first eight minutes.

“It was important to get off to a fast start,” said South Portland coach Lynne Hasson. “These kids are confident enough that even if they didn’t come out like that, we would have survived it fine. It’s a different group of kids this year. They don’t get rattled.”

The Red Riots continued to pour it on as the second period began.

After Whitmore took a pass from senior Katie Whitmore and made a layup, junior reserve Ashlee Aceto hit a long jump shot for a 19-3 lead, forcing Berthiaume to call timeout again.

Again, it didn’t turn momentum, as Maggie Whitmore made two free throws and Leckie drove for a layup to culminate a 21-0 run and stretch the advantage to 23-3.

With 4:39 on the first half clock, Gorham finally snapped a 9-minute, 33-second drought, as Holmes scored her first point, at the foul line.

Sophomore Adele Nadeau then made a backdoor layup off a feed from Holmes, Holmes hit a leaner and Holmes scored with her left hand to make it 23-10, forcing Hasson to call timeout.

Senior Bela Cloutier countered with a 3-pointer, but a last-second Nadeau 3 pulled the Rams within 26-13 at the break.

Whitmore led the way in the first half with a dozen points. Gorham got five points apiece from Holmes and Nadeau, but 13 turnovers helped dig a hole.

The Rams would chip away at the deficit in the third period, but the Red Riots refused to buckle.

Nadeau started the second half with a 3, but Leckie countered with a clutch 3 of her own from the corner.

After Holmes drove and banked home a shot with her left hand, Katie Whitmore scored on a putback to make it 31-18.

Gorham then got a putback from Holmes and a 3 from Desjardin to cut the deficit to eight. 

The Rams had a chance to make it even closer, but Leckie stole the ball and passed ahead to Maggie Whitmore, who made a layup while being fouled and Whitmore added the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play.

Leckie then drained a 3 and hit a long jumper to make it 39-23.

“Normally if I get down on myself for missing, Coach tells me to keep shooting and I do and they end up falling,” Leckie said.

After Holmes made a jump shot in the lane, Maggie Whitmore set up Towle for a layup and Aceto followed with a 3 for South Portland’s biggest lead.

In the final minute of the quarter, Desjardin made a jump shot, but that only drew Gorham within 44-27.

The Rams would make things interesting down the stretch, but they never got closer than nine points.

Holmes started the final stanza with a leaner and a pair of free throws.

After Maggie Whitmore rebounded her own shot and put it home, Nadeau buried a 3 to make the score 46-34.

Maggie Whitmore answered with a runner in the lane, but Desjardin countered with a basket of her own.

A Leckie jumper with 4:19 to play put the Red Riots on top, 50-36, but Holmes scored on a putback, then, with 3:11 on the clock, Holmes scored on a putback while being fouled and hit the free throw to cut the deficit to 50-41.

Maggie Whitmore answered with two free throws, but another Holmes putback pulled the Rams within nine again with 1:29 remaining.

Towle missed the front end of a one-and-one, but Maggie Whitmore got the rebound and was fouled.

With 1:07 left, Whitmore made two free throws to end all doubt.

Leckie then sank one of two foul shots with 16.9 seconds to play and that brought the curtain down on South Portland’s 55-43 victory.

“This was circled on our calendar,” Maggie Whitmore said. “The bench got into the game and people hit their shots. We kept our momentum rolling.”

“We have such a long history with Gorham and we don’t like to lose at home,” Towle said. “We owed them one and we came out swinging. We talk about mental toughness and keeping it together. Coach always says good teams will go on runs. We had to keep pushing back and that’s what we did.”

“We kept our composure and played as a team,” Leckie said. “When we play together, we play better.”

“We had to stay confident and limit the runs,” Hasson added. “We just kept playing. There were several big shots that we countered with when it mattered most.”

Maggie Whitmore continued her superb season by leading all scorers with 23 points. She also had seven rebounds, five assists and a pair of steals.

“Maggie’s confident and she wants the ball in her hands,” Hasson said. “Maggie does a lot of different things for us.”

Leckie tallied 18 points, seven rebounds and two steals. Aceto added five points, Cloutier had three and Katie Whitmore finished with two.

Towle scored four points and had four rebounds, but most importantly, she produced a fabulous defensive effort.

“Mackenzie’s really good and very physical and she can score, so I decided to match her intensity and just give my all, honestly,” Towle said.

“Kaleisha played phenomenal,” Whitmore said. “Holy cow. Mackenzie averages 30 points a game. She’s an incredible player and Kaleisha played her heart out.”

“Shutting down Mackenzie was our main goal,” Leckie said. “Double-teaming her in the paint and not letting her get as many points as she has in the past was the goal. When she went to the middle, we knew we had to be there with help defense.”

“The kids believe and they executed the game plan and a huge part of the game plan was to help out on Mackenzie,” Hasson added. “She’s great, but she didn’t get much. Kaleisha gave us confidence. She’s been our primary defender on every big player we face. She’s getting better and better. She rebounded before, but now she rips the ball. She’s tough out there.”

The Red Riots had a 29-27 rebounding advantage, only turned the ball over nine times and sank 11 of 16 free throws.

Gorham got 22 points and 13 rebounds from Holmes, while Nadeau added 11 points (to go with five rebounds and three steals) and Desjardin had 10.

The Rams made 4 of 7 free throws and turned the ball over 17 times.

“I felt like in the second half, when we were kind of coming back, we were really close to turning the corner, but credit to (South Portland), they came out firing,” Berthiaume said. “We don’t have a bunch of quitters. We compete each time down the floor. We switched to a zone to keep them away from the rim. That worked for only so long, then we had to come out of it. We tried to give ourselves a chance and we did. I’m proud that we did that.”

Almost that time of year

Gorham is currently fourth in the Class AA South Heal Points standings. The Rams hope to finish third or fourth and to host a quarterfinal round playoff game. Gorham is home with Windham Tuesday, then closes the regular season Thursday at home versus Thornton Academy.

“It’s not the final chapter,” Berthiaume said. “It was encouraging the way we finished. I’m not leaving here extremely disappointed. I wish we’d started better, but I feel like there were a lot of positives that came out of this game.

“We have to value each possession. We have to understand that early possessions are just as important as those late. We have two left and we hope to finish strong.”

South Portland has leapfrogged Scarborough into the top spot in Class AA South and they’ll be ranked first in the tournament for the second year in a row. South Portland plays at Portland Tuesday, then closes at home versus Cheverus Thursday.

“Finishing first is important,” Towle said. “We want homecourt advantage. It’s important to the road to the Gold Ball, which we’re hoping to get.”

“This will hopefully secure the 1 spot,” Leckie said. “We’ll play whoever comes our way. We just need to keep our composure. We have more team chemistry and we communicate better this year.”

“In the grand scheme of things, this is a good measuring stick, but we want to beat (Gorham) February vacation,” Maggie Whitmore said. “We have to keep playing the way we are. There’s definitely places to improve. Keeping the good things rolling will be big down the road. We need to keep doing what we did tonight. We’ll face good teams, but having confidence in ourselves will be big.”

“We’ve just got to play,” Hasson added. “In some ways, we’re more balanced this year. We’re more of a team, more confident. If we see Gorham again, we know we can beat them. It’ll be fun.”

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

South Portland junior Maggie Whitmore goes up for two of her game-high 23 points.

South Portland senior Bela Cloutier drives on Gorham sophomore Adele Nadeau.

Gorham senior Mackenzie Holmes goes up in traffic for two of her 22 points.

South Portland senior Jena Leckie lines up a shot.

South Portland junior Maggie Whitmore drives to the hoop.

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