Scarborough coach Mike Giordano raises his arms in celebration as the Red Storm bench players exult at the final horn of Friday’s 35-25 upset win over South Portland in the Class AA South Final. Scarborough will battle Oxford Hills in the state game March 2.

John Ewing / Portland Press Herald photos.

More photos below.

BOX SCORE

South Portland 35 Scarborough 25

S- 9 13 8 5- 35
SP- 6 5 3 11- 25

S- Blanche 4-8-16, Conley 3-0-7, Freeman 3-0-6, Dickinson 1-1-4, Couture 1-0-2

SP- Towle 6-1-13, Leckie 2-1-5, K. Whitmore 0-3-3, M. Whitmore 1-1-3, Cloutier 0-1-1

3-pointers:
S (2) Conley, Dickinson 1
SP (0)

Turnovers:
S- 16
SP- 16

Free throws
S: 9-18
SP: 7-12

PORTLAND—It was Celebration Day.

Or Groundhog Day.

Depending on your loyalties.

Friday afternoon at the Cross Insurance Arena, the top-ranked South Portland girls riding a 17-game win streak, met second-seeded Scarborough, a squad thought by many to be a year away, in the Class AA South Final and little went as expected.

The Red Storm, coming off a three-game season sweep of three-time defending regional champion Gorham, put on a defensive clinic from the get-go and thanks to four quick points from junior Madison Blanche, grabbed an early 8-2 advantage and led, 9-6, after one period.

With the Red Riots missing several open looks, in a haunting flashback to last year’s semifinal round loss to Gorham, Scarborough slowly opened it up in the second quarter and when Blanche somehow got a contested runner to drop at the horn, the Red Storm’s lead was 22-11.

South Portland then went six minutes without a point in the third period and by the end of that frame, Scarborough was up, 30-14, thanks in part to a clutch 3-pointer from sophomore Kayla Conley.

In the fourth, junior Kaleisha Towle tried to rally the Red Riots, but they never got closer than 10 points and the Red Storm were able to hold on and prevail, 35-25.

Scarborough was paced by 16 points from Blanche as it improved to 19-2, ended South Portland’s season at 19-2 and in the process, advanced to the Class AA state final where it will battle Oxford Hills (19-2) Saturday, March 2 at 6:05 p.m., at CIA.

“I was counting them up and this was the 452nd varsity game I’ve coached and it’s the most special game in my career, bar none,” said Red Storm coach Mike Giordano, who spent 17 years coaching the Red Riots before he wasn’t invited to return after the 2012-13 season. “It’s because we won a championship, because of who we did it against and how our kids came together and were there for each other. We got to the point where we passed being good and entered into great.”

Getting defensive

South Portland was expected to get to the state final last winter, but was upset in the semifinals by Gorham.

This winter, the Red Riots lost their third game, at Greely, but won every other outing (see sidebar, below, for previous stories) and as the top seed in the region, opened the tournament with a 66-33 home victory over No. 8 Thornton Academy in the quarterfinals. Tuesday, in the semifinal round, South Portland had no trouble with fifth-seeded Bonny Eagle, prevailing, 58-35, to reach the regional final for the third time in four seasons.

Scarborough, meanwhile, lost early to South Portland and late to Portland, but won its other 16 games and after downing No. 7 Massabesic, 41-29, in the quarterfinals, beat Gorham for the third time this winter in Tuesday’s semifinal round, 39-32.

Entering play Friday, the teams had battled five previous times in the playoffs, with the Red Storm taking the first three and the Red Riots the past two (see sidebar, below).

This time around, Scarborough immediately set the tone 56 seconds in, when junior Julia Freeman hit a jumper.

After South Portland, which missed its first six shots, tied the score on a bank shot from junior Maggie Whitmore, junior Bella Dickinson set up Blanche for a layup, then Blanche hit a leaner before Conley’s putback gave the Red Storm an 8-2 lead and some early confidence.

“We didn’t play our best last time (we played South Portland),” said Blanche. “We had a very bad game. We wanted to come out and play with confidence.” 

Senior Jena Leckie scored on a putback for the Red Riots and after Blanche added a free throw, a Leckie driving layup seemed to give South Portland life, as it cut the deficit to 9-6 heading for the second period.

But instead, Scarborough extended its lead.

A runner from Conley and a driving layup from senior Josie Couture got things started. 

“I think it’s really important for us to come out with energy in the first half especially,” said Couture. “Even if we don’t make all our shots, we still fight on defense to get the ball.”

After Whitmore set up Towle for a layup, Dickinson drained a clutch 3 from the corner to make it 16-8.

Leckie got a point back at the free throw line, but Freeman banked home a shot and two Blanche foul shots stretched the lead to double digits, 20-9.

After Towle made a layup, South Portland had a chance to draw even closer before the break, but after Couture stole the ball from Whitmore, Blanche made a contested leaner at the horn and Scarborough had a 22-11 advantage at halftime. 

“We had turned it over on offense, so to come back and get it back, that shows our mindset, going and playing tough D,” Blanche said.

“(Maddie’s) a phenomenal player who always works hard,” Couture said. “I just love that kid.”

The Red Riots found shooting at the opposite basket just as frustrating when the third quarter commenced.

Senior Katie Whitmore opened the second half with a free throw for South Portland, but the Red Riots wouldn’t score again for over six minutes.

The Red Storm then got even more separation, as Freeman hit a jump shot, Blanche made a free throw, Blanche sank two more foul shots, then with 1:47 left, Conley buried a 3 for a 30-12 lead.

“Coach G always says to go out in the first three minutes of the second half to put them away and I think we got in their heads a little bit,” Freeman said.

With 39.7 seconds on the clock, Towle made a layup after a steal to end the 6-minute, 3-second drought and an 8:24 field goal drought, but that only cut Scarborough’s advantage to 16 heading for the fourth period.

Where the Red Storm never let the Red Riots get too close for comfort. 

A driving layup from Blanche started the final stanza, but the next eight points went to South Portland, as senior Bela Cloutier made a free throw, Towle hit a jumper, then made a layup, Katie Whitmore sank two foul shots and with 1:37 left, Maggie Whitmore made one to cut the deficit to 32-22.

Blanche stemmed the tide with a free throw 12 seconds later and after Towle sank one, Dickinson and Blanche each hit one before a Towle putback accounted for the 35-25 final score.

“It’s an amazing feeling,” Freeman said. “I give credit to my team. We all work so well together. In the regular season, when we didn’t do too well against (South Portland), we worked hard in practice on improving. Boxing out was key this game and our defense was just incredible.”

“South Portland’s such a great team that never quits,” Blanche said. “They played hard to the end. We’ve worked so hard all season. Since freshman year, we went one step further. After losing last year, coming back here and winning is amazing.”

“I’ve been dreaming about this since I was a little girl, so it’s an amazing feeling,” said Couture. “We just kept fighting hard. We knew what we had to do. We went out with energy, played our hardest and executed. We definitely learned from our mistakes last time. We knew if we wanted to win we had to box out, play good help defense and we did our job. I’m so happy for Coach. This was very personal for him. He wanted it really bad and we all wanted it. It means a lot to us.”

“We beat a really good basketball team,” added Giordano, who was visibly emotional following the win. “Our defensive effort was just enormous. I told the girls rebounding and defense would win the game and it certainly did today. We want back and watched film from the last time we played them. We held them to perimeter shots and they missed them, but we didn’t rebound. We let up second and third opportunities, five (points) became 10, then we were down 15. I told the girls they’d miss shots, they’re human, and if we rebounded, we’d be in it and we were.

“Nobody on our team has won a championship in basketball. They’ve done it in other sports, but there were some nerves coming down the homestretch. We had enough of a cushion and we found a way to win.

“We knew we had the best region in the state. To get to the state game, we knew we had to go through (Gorham and South Portland). They’re both really good teams, but we proved to be the best of the three today.”

Blanche had the game of her young life, scoring 16 points, grabbing five rebounds and producing a couple steals as well.

“We have so many offensive threats on our team,” Blanche said. “Anyone can go off in a given game. Today, I think my teammates just got me the ball and I saw open lanes and took the opportunity to drive. It just happened.” 

“Maddie had a tough final last year against Gorham,” Giordano said. “She had moves to the basket and couldn’t finish. She was out for redemption today.” 

Conley added seven points, Freeman, who was named the Edward “Red” McMann Award winner as the regional tournament’s top player, had six (to go with six rebounds), Dickinson four and Couture two (to go with five boards).

Scarborough made just 9 of 18 free throws and committed 16 turnovers, but overcame.

South Portland was led by Towle’s 13 points and seven rebounds. Leckie bowed out with five points and six boards. Katie Whitmore and Maggie Whitmore each had three points and six rebounds. Cloutier added one point.

The Red Riots didn’t make a 3-pointer, turned the ball over 16 times, shot just 9 of 42 from the floor and made 7 of 12 foul shots.

“I don’t really have an answer,” said South Portland coach Lynne Hasson. “I feel like it’s Groundhog Day. We get to the big game and it feels a little bit like we play not to lose instead of to win. We were tentative. I wish we played better today. That wasn’t our game. We got shots and layups that didn’t drop. We didn’t see open people against their pressure and they were open. We knew what we were running, but we were so afraid of making a mistake, it took us out of the game. Our best players couldn’t make shots and there were times they weren’t taking shots. We knew they were good, but we came in confident, then we backed down for whatever reason. They got momentum.

“I am incredibly proud of my kids and what they accomplished.”

The Red Riots will graduate Cloutier, Leckie and Katie Whitmore, but everyone else returns and South Portland will attempt again to win that elusive Gold Ball.

“All three seniors had a great year,” Hasson said. “They were outstanding. We’ll go back at it next year with a lot of kids back. We’ll eventually find a way.”

Each team finished with 31 rebounds.

Thirty-two minutes to glory

Scarborough and Oxford Hills didn’t play in the regular season this year and have no playoff history.

“I’m not ready for it all to end, so knowing we get to go on for one more game is amazing,” Couture said. “Same thing as today, we just need to come out with energy and play really good defense. Oxford Hills is an amazing team, but I really think if we come out and play our game, we have a good chance.”

“We have to work on defense again,” Freeman said. “That’s key for our team. We know we can score.”

“We definitely believe in ourselves,” said Blanche. “We’re so close-knit. Even when no one thinks we can win, we believe. Defense will be key. They have a lot of great players on offense. We’ll focus on defense.”

“Oxford Hills is tremendous,” Giordano added. “We played them in the preseason and they had their way with us. We’ll have to go to work. We have to rebound and limit them to one shot and get some shots ourselves and make them. We have a week to get ready.”

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

Scarborough freshman Lindsey Fiorillo drives on South Portland junior Maggie Whitmore.

Scarborough junior Madison Blanche gets back too late to stop this layup attempt from South Portland junior Kaleisha Towle.

Scarborough junior Madison Blanche goes behind the back to elude South Portland sophomore Maria Degifico.

South Portland junior Kaleisha Towle and Scarborough sophomore Kayla Conley fight for the ball.

Scarborough captains Josie Couture, left, Madison Blanche and Leah Dickman receive the regional championship trophy.

Scarborough coach Mike Giordano hugs his son, Tony, following the victory.

Previous South Portland stories

Season Preview

Greely 66 South Portland 50

South Portland 58 Windham 29

South Portland 46 Edward Little 38

South Portland 55 Gorham 43

Class AA South semifinals
South Portland 58 Bonny Eagle 35

Previous Scarborough stories

Season Preview

Scarborough 44 Gorham 36

Class AA South semifinals
Scarborough 39 Gorham 32

Previous South Portland-Scarborough playoff results

2017 Class AA South semifinal
South Portland 43 Scarborough 27

2016 Class AA South semifinal
South Portland 49 Scarborough 41

2013 Western A quarterfinal
Scarborough 45 South Portland 32

2010 Western A quarterfinal
Scarborough 40 South Portland 22

2009 Western A quarterfinal
Scarborough 53 South Portland 26