BOX SCORE

South Portland 49 Sanford 34

S- 13 4 4 13- 34
SP- 4 13 13 19- 49

S- Cote 7-8-22, Bartolome 2-0-5, Tarbox 1-0-3, Hebler 1-0-2, Toothaker 0-2-2

SP- Whitmore 8-7-24, Boothby-Akilo 4-0-8, Towle 3-1-7, Degifico 2-0-4, Owen 2-0-4, Aceto 1-0-2

3-pointers:
S (2) Bartolome, Tarbox 1
SP (1) Whitmore 1

Turnovers:
S- 16
SP- 9

FTs
S: 10-12
SP: 8-10

PORTLAND—Nothing was going to keep South Portland’s girls’ basketball team from its date with destiny Saturday evening.

Not the weight of history, a slow start or a nine-point deficit in the Class AA South Final at the Cross Insurance Arena.

And for the first time since 1986, the Red Riots are on the cusp of capturing a Gold Ball.

How sweet it is.

Top-ranked South Portland met upset-minded, Cinderella No. 6 seed Sanford in a game that began in shocking and somewhat uncomfortably familiar fashion, but this time would be different.

Very different.

The Spartans, who came into the game with a sub-.500 record, but who already had an upset win over defending regional champion Scarborough to their credit this tournament, closed the first quarter on a 9-0 run behind University of New Hampshire-bound senior Paige Cote and the Red Riots were staggered, down, 13-4.

But unlike the past two seasons when slow starts spelled doom, South Portland bounced back, relied on its defense and got six points from senior standout Maggie Whitmore to win the second period, 13-4, and forge a 17-17 tie at the half.

The second half would belong to the Red Riots, who took the lead for good on consecutive layups from senior Kaleisha Towle and by the end of the third quarter, were in control, up, 30-21.

Towle started the fourth period with a basket and South Portland never led by less than nine points from there as it gradually pulled away and went on to 49-34 victory.

Whitmore dazzled with a double-double of 24 points and 10 rebounds and while Cote wound up with a double-double of her own (22 points, 15 rebounds), the Red Riots’ defense held the rest of the Spartans in check as they improved to 18-3, ended Sanford’s Cinderella run at 9-12 and best of all, won a regional title for the first time since 1986 and set up a Class AA state final showdown versus defending champion Oxford Hills (20-1) Saturday at 7:05 p.m., at the Cross Insurance Arena.

“I’m just so happy for these kids,” said South Portland coach Lynne Hasson, the first Red Riots’ coach to lead a team to a regional title since George Stevenson did it 34 years ago. “We talked about how this is for them and they’ve earned it, but it’s also for the players the last couple years who came so close. It is a little bit of a relief.”

A long time

South Portland won Class A state titles in 1977 and 1986 and got to the state final in 1982 (losing to Bangor), but despite consistently being one of the top contenders in the region, the Red Riots hadn’t been able to get back to the sport’s biggest stage in the 1990s, 2000s or the decade just past.

In three of the past four years, South Portland fell in the regional final, including last year to Scarborough, a frustrating setback that came on the heels of a similar semifinal round loss to Gorham in 2018.

This season, the Red Riots were clearly the team to beat in Class AA South (see sidebar, above, for links to previous stories), winning 15 times and losing only to two-time defending Class A champion Greely, Scarborough and Portland. After handling No. 8 Thornton Academy (46-18) in the quarterfinal round, South Portland ousted No. 4 Gorham in Thursday’s semifinals (45-30).

While South Portland expected to be in this game, very few thought Sanford would join the Red Riots there.

The Spartans began the year with a victory over Thornton Academy, then lost six in a row and wound up with just seven victories, but they saved their best for last, upsetting No. 3 Massabesic (52-45) in the quarterfinals and knocking off Scarborough in Thursday’s semifinal round, 43-36.

In the regular season, South Portland took both meetings, 53-40 in Sanford Dec. 27 (behind 23 points from Whitmore) and 60-41 at home Feb. 4 in the penultimate game of the regular season (Whitmore led the way with 16 points).

Entering Saturday’s contest, the Spartans held a 3-2 all-time tournament lead over the Red Riots, beating South Portland in the 2004 Western A quarterfinals (43-36), the 2005 Western A semifinals (49-43, in overtime) and the 2006 Western A Final (45-29). South Portland beat Sanford in the 1978 Western A semifinals (46-34) and in the most recent meeting, the 2010 Western A preliminary round (32-27).

South Portland would even the all-time series Saturday, but not without some anxious moments to start the evening.

It was a rough first quarter for the Red Riots, as the Spartans started fast.

A putback from sophomore Jaylyn Bartolome opened the scoring 21 seconds in and Cote’s first two points, from the free throw line, gave Sanford a quick 4-0 lead.

South Portland rallied to tie, as Whitmore hit a jump shot and Whitmore set up junior Maria Degifico for a layup, but the final nine points of the frame went to the Spartans.

With 3:17 remaining in the quarter, a corner 3-pointer from Bartolome put Sanford ahead again.

Junior Abby Toothaker added two free throws, then Cote twice made contested shots over Red Riots’ 6-foot-3 junior Cora Boothby-Akilo to make it 13-4 Spartans after eight minutes.

“We weren’t rebounding defensively,” Hasson said. “Everyone on their team was getting offensive rebounds. The second opportunities were the difference.”

South Portland wasn’t fazed, however, and settled down in the second period, rallying to forge a tie by halftime.

Whitmore got things started with a jump shot just inside the 3-point line, then Towle added a free throw before Whitmore added two foul shots to cut the deficit to four.

Cote countered with a putback, but senior Ashlee Aceto made a layup after a steal, Whitmore made a layup after another Aceto steal and with 2:11 on the clock, Degifico drove for a layup to tie it and force Sanford coach Rossie Kearson to call timeout.

It stemmed the run, as Cote made a leaner in traffic, but with 21 seconds remaining, Boothby-Akilo’s baseline jumper pulled South Portland even at halftime, 17-17.

In the first half, Cote had 10 points and five rebounds for the Spartans, while the Red Riots were paced by Whitmore’s eight points and five rebounds.

South Portland then turned its defense into offense to start the second half and finally took control.

After a scoreless 2-minutes, 37-seconds, Towle got loose behind the Sanford defense, took a pass from Whitmore and made a layup to not only give the Red Riots the lead for the first time, but put them on top to stay.

Twenty-one seconds later, after another Aceto steal, Towle raced in for another layup for a 21-17 lead.

“I love to run and I just saw an open lane and I went for it,” said Towle. “We weren’t frustrated. We knew they’d give us a battle, especially at the beginning, and we knew we had to keep up the intensity. Our shots weren’t falling, but there wasn’t panic. Our defense carried us the whole game.”

“There’s a different mentality with this team,” Whitmore said. “Deep down, we knew, especially the senior class, we’d get it going. Ashlee got steals, Kaleisha finished. We knew it was our time. We collected ourselves and realized it wasn’t going to be an easy game. We knew it was go-time and we had to leave it all on the court.”

“I truly believed we’d be OK,” Hasson added. “We had some great shots that didn’t drop, that went in-and-out, but the girls were determined and they were going to find a way. We knew we were the better team and we had to keep doing what got us here. We had to keep playing hard.”

Sophomore Hylah Owen then stole the ball and that led to a Whitmore layup and a six-point lead.

With 2:59 to go in the quarter, freshman Riley Hebler put back a miss for Sanford to end a 5:48 drought and the Red Riots’ 8-0 run, but South Portland countered with an Owen layup (from Towle) and a Whitmore 3 to go up by nine.

Cote answered with two free throws, but with 23 seconds to go, a leaner from Boothby-Akilo made it 30-21 Red Riots heading for the final stanza.

Where South Portland completed its date with destiny.

When Towle started the fourth with a runner and Whitmore added a jumper, Sanford was on the ropes.

The Spartans countered with a 3-pointer from senior Hope Tarbox, but Boothby-Akilo set up Whitmore for a layup.

Sanford continued to try and rally with a layup from Cote, but Aceto set up Boothby-Akilo for a layup with 4:07 remaining to make it 38-26.

Cote made two foul shots, but Whitmore fed Boothby-Akilo for another layup.

“We were looking to Maggie to score because the ball needs to be her hands as our best player, but we all needed to look to score and play not to lose, but play to win,” Hasson said.

With 3:22 to go, the Spartans drew within nine on an old-fashioned three-point play (putback, foul, free throw) from Cote, but an Owen putback and a Whitmore three-point play ended all doubt.

After Cote converted a three-point play for Sanford’s final points with 1:56 on the clock, Whitmore made two free throws with 47 seconds to go, then she punctuated the 49-34 victory with two more free throws 11 seconds later.

At 7:41 p.m., a celebration 34 years in the making broke out on the Cross Insurance Arena floor before the Red Riots cut down the nets as the South Portland side of the red-clad building erupted in joy.

“It’s exhilarating,” Towle said. “It means so much to win, especially as a senior. I’ve looked forward to this moment since I was 12-years-old. I always wanted to be in that (celebration) circle and it was awesome.”

“It’s a great feeling,” said Whitmore. “The best feeling is to share it with these girls who I’ve played with since fourth grade. I’m kind of speechless, but I’m so proud of this team. We worked so hard every day, every practice, night in, night out. That showed tonight in the intensity of the team.”

“We’ve had to sit there too many times watching the other team cut down the nets and it’s heartbreaking, so we worked hard this week for us to have that opportunity,” Hasson added.

Whitmore was given the Edward “Red” McMann Award as the regional tournament’s outstanding player/sports-person, after posting a stat line of 24 points, 10 rebounds, four assists and three steals.

“I’ve been known to not have the best nights here, but I had the mindset to be confident in my shot and take open shots if they were there,” Whitmore said.

“Maggie’s a great person to play with,” Towle said. “I’m been lucky to play with her both in high school and AAU. She makes everyone around her better.”

“The confidence the other kids and the coaches have in (Maggie) is huge,” Hasson said. “She’s going to find a way, get great shots, she’s fast and creates great scoring opportunities for the other players. She wasn’t going to be denied today.”

Boothby-Akilo, now healthy after missing the beginning of the season, continued to emerge as a top post option with eight points and a couple blocked shots.

Towle added seven points, three rebounds, two assists and helped contain Cote defensively.

“Kaleisha runs the court so well,” Hasson said. “She catches everything and finishes on the run. She’s got a great motor.”

Degifico finished with four points, three rebounds and two assists, Owen had four points, six rebounds and three steals and Aceto tallied two points, five rebounds, three assists and a pair of steals, while also being a difference-maker on the defensive end.

South Portland only turned the ball over nine times and made 8-of-10 free throws.

For Sanford, Cote, who surpassed the 1,000-point mark for her career in the semifinals, bowed out with 22 points, 15 rebounds and two blocked shots, but she faced relentless pressure from the Red Riots’ taller players throughout the game.

“Cora and Kaleisha did a great job on (Cote),” Whitmore said. “She’s such a strong, physical player. They did a great job limiting her on the boards. Keying on her was big for us.”

“Cote made some great shots, but I figured at some point, our defense would carry us,” Hasson said. “Cora and Kaleisha did a really nice job on her.”

Bartolome added five points , Tarbox had three, Hebler two (to go with eight rebounds) and Toothaker two.

The Spartans had a 39-30 rebounding edge and made 10-of-12 free throws, but turned the ball over 16 times.

The last teams standing

South Portland will go for its third Gold Ball Saturday night against an Oxford Hills team that has lost just once all season, by a point at two-time defending state champion Greely (which also beat the Red Riots by a point back in December).

South Portland and Oxford Hills didn’t play this season and have no playoff history.

The Vikings are guard-oriented, never get rattled and have a penchant for hitting big shots (as they did in their regional final win over Portland Saturday) and will be a daunting foe, but the Red Riots, as Tom Brady would say, have come too far just to come this far.

One more victory separates this South Portland squad from immortality.

“We need to keep being ourselves, keep up our defense and keep up our intensity,” Towle said.

“(The Vikings) have great players, so it won’t be easy,” Whitmore said. “We’ll be here and we’ll be ready. We have nothing to lose. Playing one last time in this uniform will be exciting.”

“Oxford Hills is pretty similar to us,” Hasson added. “We need to handle their full-court pressure and not get beaten off the dribble so they can get the ball to their open shooters who shoot well. We’ve played them close in the preseason. The key is to have the lead with a couple minutes to go, because they’re really good with a lead.

“We’ll celebrate tonight, then we’ll get back to work because this is awesome and we haven’t been here in a very long time, but this isn’t the one we want.”

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

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