Geremi Baez, left, and Pamba Pamba, center, and Cade Carr lead an experienced South Portland boys’ basketball team, which is 6-0. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

The new year starts with a showdown between two unbeaten Class AA South boys’ basketball teams.

South Portland (6-0) meets Thornton Academy (5-0) at 7 p.m. Thursday at South Portland’s Beal Gymnasium – the two top teams in the Heal point standings.

“They are very good,” said South Portland Coach Kevin Millington, the boys’ coach at South Portland.

So are his Riots, who entered the season as one of the teams to beat in the division. They return four starters from a team that lost in the regional semifinals last year. And, Millington said, they have strong leadership from their group of seniors.

“We’ve got a core group of kids who’ve been with the team for three years,” said Millington. “They make mistakes but they don’t repeat mistakes. When you’re on the court as much as they’ve been the last three years, they’ve been in a lot of situations, in a lot of tournament games, you pick up things quickly.”

The Riots are balanced offensively – Cade Carr leads with 14.5 points per game. Geremi Baez, Pamba Pamba and Ryan Boles each have led the team in scoring in a game – but also play exceptional defense. South Portland averages 69 points a game, giving up 50.

“(Defense) is their trademark, their calling card,” said Millington. “They really bought into playing the type of defense we like to play.”

Thornton, which advanced to the regional final last winter, has outscored its opponents 62-44 on average in five games.

The Trojans handed Edward Little, the Heal points leader in Class AA North, its only loss of the season, 66-49 on Dec. 10. Senior guard Jack Pyzynski hit a pair of 3-pointers in the third quarter as Thornton took control of that game, and he scored 26 points in a victory over Sanford. Junior guard Payton Jones (21 points against Edward Little) and Dylan Griffin, a junior center, also have been key contributors to the fast start.

“The two of us could play, and you can throw Bonny Eagle in there too, a million times and how does it come out, .500 probably,” said Millington.

RICH HENRY, in his 16th year as boys’ basketball coach at Waynflete, won his 200th career game on Dec. 23, a 66-34 win over Freeport.

Typically, Henry downplayed its significance. “It’s just a  testament to longevity,” he said. “You stay around long enough, these things happen.”

That’s not entirely true. Henry is regarded as a pretty good coach. And he has the Flyers playing well this year. Waynflete, in Class C South, is 5-0 – three of the wins over Class B teams. Waynflete’s schedule includes seven games against Class B teams and one against a Class A school (Fryeburg Academy).

“You’ve got to play the hand you’re dealt,” said Henry. “It should toughen us up, for sure.”

The Flyers have four prominent players: seniors Diraige Dahia and Solomon Levy and juniors Dominick Campbell and Jared Johnson. But Henry spoke highly of the team’s intangible qualities.

“I think the kids have worked very hard,” he said. “The chemistry is very good, work ethic is high. It’s really been a team effort.”

Junior Gemima Motema has provided a spark as the first player off the bench for the Portland girls, wo are 5-1. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

THE PORTLAND girls’ basketball team sits atop Class AA North at 5-1, its one loss to unbeaten and defending state champ Oxford Hills.

Since that 60-32 loss to the second-ranked Vikings on Dec. 13, the Bulldogs have won three in a row and are resembling the team that Coach Gerry Corcoran envisioned.

He made a lineup switch, moving sophomore Lina Wakati into the starting point guard position and making junior Gemima Motema the first player off the bench, and it has been a spark. He also dropped the Bulldogs’ full-court zone trap in favor of man-to-man coverage.

“We’ve been playing and building since that game, becoming the team I’ve verbalized to them,” said Corcoran.

And while Portland’s 56-53 victory over Greely, the two-time defending Class A state champ, last week in a holiday tournament didn’t count in the Heal points, Corcoran said it was significant.

“That was a huge steppingstone for our program,” he said. “It’s not about anyone else, it’s about our girls and what they believe … Our girls played unbelievably. It really was a mark for us. We’ve got a little belief going, which is awesome. Now we’ve got to stay humble.”

Well, the schedule can do that. Portland faces South Portland, the No.1 team in Class AA South, on Tuesday and then has a rematch with Oxford Hills in a couple of weeks.

THE GREELY GIRLS continue to roll, even with that holiday tournament loss. The Rangers (5-0) are top-ranked in Class A South and have won 43 consecutive countable games.

“We’ve had a couple of nice wins,” said Coach Todd Flaherty. “We’re entering a tough stretch now. Our schedule is kind of packed in the middle. But it’ll be good for us to figure out what we need to work on before the tournament.”

The Rangers play rival Yarmouth (5-1) on Thursday, Freeport (4-10) Saturday then face Oxford Hills on Tuesday, followed by games against Gray-New Gloucester, Wells and Kennebunk – all quality opponents.

The Rangers are balanced offensively, led by junior Camille Clement, with around 20 points a game. And they’re improving defensively each game, according to Flaherty.

Clement announced recently that she has committed to next play at Northeastern University. Her club team, the Maine Firecrackers, sent out a release in which her coach there, Don Briggs, lauded her work ethic and attitude. “Camille was willing to put in the extra hours and allowed herself to be coached to a high standard,” he said.

Her older sisters also received basketball scholarships: Allie to Marist and Sarah to New Hampshire.

THE NOBLE GIRLS (5-1) are ranked second in Class AA South. The Knights are led by Amy Fleming, who is averaging 19.6 points a game, but are well balanced, with Raegan Kelly averaging 11.5 points and Olivia Howard 9.0.

Coach Matthew Reid is obviously pleased.

“For sure, there is a good vibe, a good feeling, as well as we’ve played so far,” he said. “Even though we have small numbers,  everyone here enjoys each other’s company. We’re a close group and are seeing what the hard work and effort can end up being.”

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