BOX SCORE

Thornton Academy 61 South Portland 55 (OT)

TA- 12 6 14 12 17- 61
SP- 15 8 8 13 11- 55

TA- Jones 5-9-19, Pyzynski 5-5-18, Mitchell 2-5-9, Griffin 3-0-6, Gikas 1-2-5, Gaudette 1-0-2, Lands 1-0-2

SP- Pamba 8-0-20, Owen 7-0-14, Bialorucki 3-0-6, Carr 3-0-6, Baez 2-1-5, Maloney 2-0-4

3-pointers:
TA (4) Pyzynski 3, Gikas 1
SP (4) Pamba 4

Turnovers:
TA- 12
SP- 19

FTs
TA: 21-31
SP: 1-7

PORTLAND—Saturday evening’s heavyweight bout was something to behold.

No, not the Tyson Fury- Deontay Wilder fight.

I’m alluding to the Thornton Academy-South Portland Class AA South Final boys’ basketball showdown at the Cross Insurance Arena.

A tussle which needed more than 32 minutes to crown a champion and a showdown that had been building for over two months didn’t disappoint as two proud teams gave everything they had with a regional title at stake.

The undefeated, top-ranked Red Riots, who beat the Golden Trojans twice in the regular season, including once in overtime, shot to an 11-4 lead behind five points from senior Pamba Pamba and four from sophomore Owen Maloney, but Thornton Academy didn’t buckle and trailed by just three, 15-12, after one quarter.

The scoring pace slowed dramatically in the second period and while South Portland again pushed its lead to seven, 19-12, the Golden Trojans never let the Red Riots get comfortable and despite a late layup from South Portland senior sparkplug Hunter Owen, were only down by a 23-18 score at halftime.

Thornton Academy then took the lead for the first time, on a 3-pointer from senior Jack Pyzynski in the final minute of the third quarter to hold a 32-31 advantage heading to the final stanza.

Or what we thought was the final stanza.

In the fourth period, the Red Riots went back on top by five, 37-32, when senior Cade Carr scored on a runner with 5:22 to play and held a 43-39 lead when unheralded senior Gerik Bialorucki drove for a layup with 1:14 left, but they couldn’t seal the deal.

The biggest basket of the night came with exactly a minute to play, when Golden Trojans’ junior reserve Costa Gikas coolly knocked down a clutch 3-pointer to cut the deficit to one.

Then, after South Portland senior Geremi Baez made the first of two free throws with 12.7 seconds left, but missed the second, Thornton Academy junior Payton Jones raced up court and with 2.5 seconds to play, fed senior Will Mitchell for a layup which tied the score, 44-44, and forced overtime.

There, the Golden Trojans, riding a wave of momentum, never trailed and went on top to stay on a putback from senior Colby Lands. Thornton Academy forced six turnovers in the extra session and got five rebounds from Mitchell as it pulled away and went on to a 61-55 victory.

The Golden Trojans got 19 points from Jones and 18 from Pyzynski as they improved to 18-3, advanced to face Edward Little (19-2) in the Class AA state final Saturday at 9:05 p.m., at the Cross Insurance Arena and in the process, handed valiant South Portland its first loss in 21 outings this winter.

“I’m disappointed we lost, but I’m not disappointed in anything else,” said Red Riots’ coach Kevin Millington. “It’s been a special group to be around. We played hard until the end.”

Tight throughout

South Portland and Thornton Academy quickly emerged as the top two teams in Class AA South this season.

The Red Riots, despite multiple scares, managed to navigate a tough 18-game schedule without a loss (see sidebar, above, for links to previous stories). South Portland then handled No. 8 Massabesic (69-37) in the quarterfinals and eliminated fourth-seeded Gorham (61-37) in Wednesday’s semifinal round.

The Golden Trojans lost only to South Portland (twice) and at Gorham. After an 81-64 victory over seventh-ranked Noble in the quarterfinals, Thornton Academy outlasted No. 3 Bonny Eagle, 81-74, in its semifinal.

In the teams’ first regular season meeting, Jan. 2 in South Portland, the Red Riots got a late 3-pointer from Carr to force overtime, then beat Thornton Academy, 68-65, behind 17 points from Baez, 15 from Pamba and 10 from Carr. In the rematch, Jan. 28 in Saco, South Portland won again, 60-50, as Baez led the way with 15 points.

Prior to Saturday, the teams had met eight times in the postseason, dating to 1970, with the Red Riots holding a 6-2 edge. The most recent encounter had come in the 2018 Class AA South semifinals (a 51-36 South Portland triumph).

Saturday, in front of a large and raucous crowd, the teams went back and forth all night before the Golden Trojans saved their best for last.

South Portland came out sizzling and got a 3-pointer from Pamba 41 seconds in to take the lead.

After junior 6-foot-6 big man Dylan Griffin scored the Golden Trojans’ first points, on a putback, Bialorucki made a layup for the Red Riots, off a feed from Carr.

Jones drove for a layup for Thornton Academy, but the next six points went to the Red Riots, as Pamba banked home a floater, then sophomore Owen Maloney came in and scored on a putback before driving for a layup and an 11-4 lead.

The Golden Trojans came right back, as Pyzynski hit two 3-pointers in a 47-second span, but Owen came in and made an immediate impact with a tip-in and after Mitchell made a jumper for the Golden Trojans, Owen put home a miss for a 15-12 South Portland lead after one quarter.

A layup after a steal from Baez and a Pamba leaner after a steal started the second period auspiciously for the Red Riots, but back came Thornton Academy, as Gikas sank two free throws and Mitchell did the same.

After freshman Jaelen Jackson set up Owen for a layup, Jones answered with a contested layup, but with 7.4 seconds on the clock, Carr found Owen for another layup and a 23-18 South Portland lead at halftime.

In the first half, each team shoot poorly (Thornton Academy was just 6-of-23 from the floor, while the Red Riots were 10-of-29) and had seven turnovers, but the difference was Owen’s play off the bench (eight points and seven rebounds).

In the third period, South Portland went up by five on three different occasions, but by the quarter’s end, it would be the Golden Trojans on top.

A putback from Griffin started the second half before Pamba made a layup after a steal for a 25-20 Red Riots’ lead.

After Jones sank two free throws, Carr answered with a leaner.

Jones then went coast-to-coast for a layup, was fouled on the shot and added the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play, but Owen banked home a leaner and after Mitchell made one-of-two foul shots, Owen spun and sank a shot in the lane for a 31-26 South Portland advantage with 2:24 remaining in the quarter.

The last six points would go to Thornton Academy, however, as Pyzynski drained a 3, then with 23.5 seconds to go, Pyzynski stepped back and made another 3 for the Golden Trojans’ first lead, 32-21.

The Red Riots went back on top 90 seconds into the fourth period, when a Pamba jumper snapped a 3-minute, 54-second scoring drought.

Owen then scored on a putback and Carr’s runner made it 37-32 South Portland with 5:22 to go.

The Golden Trojans again got off the deck, however, as Pyzynski drove for a layup, then Jones did the same.

With 3:30 to play, Bialorucki banked home a shot, but 20 seconds later, Griffin’s putback pulled Thornton Academy within 39-38 and it was clear that this one was going to come down to the wire.

After Lands missed the front end of a one-and-one with an opportunity to give the Golden Trojans the lead, Griffin picked up his fifth foul and had the sit the remainder of the evening.

With 1:46 on the clock, Carr drove for a layup and the lead was three.

Jones got a point back at the line 12 seconds later, but with 1:14 left, Bialorucki threatened to play the unexpected hero with a driving layup, making it a two possession game, 43-39.

Enter Gikas.

The reserve would get his team right back in the contest with exactly a minute to play in regulation, when he calmly buried a 3-point shot to cut the deficit to just one.

“Costa’s Costa,” Jones said. “He improvises. He’s a very good player who knows his role.”

Carr then missed the front end of a one-and-one, but Thornton Academy turned the ball over.

With 12.7 seconds remaining, Baez was fouled and went to the line to extend South Portland’s lead.

Baez’s first foul shot touched nothing but net, but the second was no good and the Golden Trojans raced up court, looking to tie or win it.

Jones found room on the right side, drove in, drew the Red Riots’ defense, then threw a perfect feed to Mitchell for the tying layup.

“I kind of lost the ball at the end and I saw their bigs come up, then I jumped and I saw Will Mitchell’s head and I knew I had to get the ball there and hoped he’d make it and he made it,” Jones said.

“(Payton) found the open guy and (Will) made the layup,” said Thornton Academy coach Bob Davies. “We missed some open layups all game, but we made that one.”

The Red Riots called timeout and the officials reset the game clock to 2.5 seconds, giving Owen (who will pitch at Vanderbilt University next year) an opportunity to throw a long pass to set up a potential game-winning shot.

Owen got the ball in to Maloney, but his desperation heave from just inside halfcourt was off-target and it was on to overtime, deadlocked at 44-44.

“Having a (game-tying) play like that brought energy for us going to overtime and it quieted their fan section,” said Jones.

South Portland got the ball to start OT, but Carr missed a shot. Baez kept possession with a rebound, but Pyzynski stole the ball away and fed Jones for a layup to set the tone.

Baez (from Pamba) scored on a layup with 3:19 left in the four-minute overtime session to tie it for a final time, but after Pyzynski missed a 3 and Mitchell kept possession with an offensive rebound, Jones missed a 3, but Lands got the rebound and put it home with 2:45 on the clock, giving Thornton Academy the lead for good.

Senior Ryan Boles missed a shot at the other for the Red Riots and Mitchell got the rebound, but the Golden Trojans turned the ball over before Mitchell stole it back.

Then, with 1:43 to go, senior Kobe Gaudette drove for a layup and a 50-46 Thornton Academy advantage.

Pyzynski stole the ball back and Gaudette was fouled, but he missed two free throws.

Owen was fouled with 1:14 remaining and had a chance to get South Portland back within a single possession, but he was off on the front end of a one-and-one and Mitchell rebounded.

With 59.3 seconds left, Pyzynski made the first of two free throws and missed the second, but Mitchell grabbed the rebound and was fouled. He too made one of two attempts, but the Golden Trojans got the ball back on a steal by Gaudette.

When Jones sank two free throws with 52.3 seconds on the clock, the lead was eight, 54-46, and would continue to grow.

The Red Riots committed yet another turnover and Jones added a free throw.

After Carr missed a 3, Mitchell rebounded and was fouled and also made one foul shot to make it a 10-point contest.

After stealing the ball, Pyzynski was fouled and he added two more free throws for Thornton Academy’s biggest lead.

“We’ve played real good defense the whole year and I knew my guys had my back if I didn’t get the steal,” said Pyzynski.

“We jumped some passing lanes and got some turnovers and that definitely helped,” Davies said. “We got the lead and the kids did a good job at the line.”

Pamba finally ended the 12-0 run with a long 3-pointer, but Pyzynski answered with a foul shot with 20.4 seconds to play.

After another Pamba 3, Jones made two more free throws for the Golden Trojans’ final points and with 3.6 seconds left, Pamba drained another long 3, but the clock soon ran out and Thornton Academy was able to celebrate its hard-fought 61-55 victory.

“It’s amazing,” said Jones. “It’s my first time going (to states). I’m very happy and excited. SoPo is a strong team and they beat us twice this year, but we stayed with them. We worked hard all week. The starters are smart guys. They’re almost all seniors. We did what we do and kids off the bench stepped up.  Our bench was into it the whole game and picked us up the whole game.”

“(Losing to South Portland twice) just made me super-mad,” Pyzynski said. “The first one, we came up a couple of free throws short of just icing it. I just wanted to beat them so badly and it just fueled all of us.”

“It’s a complete team and they didn’t quit and that’s a good thing,” added Davies.

Jones paced the Golden Trojans with 19 points. He also had seven rebounds and two huge assists.

Pyzynski added 18 points, seven rebounds and five steals.

Mitchell nearly had a double-double, scoring nine points, but grabbing a game-high 14 rebounds, including five in overtime.

Griffin scored six points (and had six rebounds) before fouling out, Gikas contributed five huge points and Gaudette (three steals) and Lands (two steals) finished with two apiece.

Thornton Academy out-rebounded South Portland by one, 42-41, only turned the ball over 12 times and made 21-of-31 foul shots.

The Golden Trojans handed Edward Little one of its two losses this year, 66-49, way back on Dec. 10 in Saco. Jones led the way with 21 points, while Griffin tallied 17 and Pyzynski had 13.

Thornton Academy also beat the Red Eddies in a memorable Class A state final in 2009, 54-52, for its most recent championship.

The Golden Trojans will try to win another Saturday.

“We just have to come out and play our game,” Jones said. “We can play with anybody.”

Agony

For South Portland, Pamba set the tone with a game-high 20 points and also had four rebounds and three steals.

Owen had a double-double of 14 points and 13 rebounds.

Bialorucki added six points (and six rebounds), Carr also had six points, while Baez finished with five and Maloney had four.

The Red Riots were doomed by their foul shooting (making just 1-of-7 attempts) and their ball-handling (19 turnovers, including a fatal six in overtime).

“Thornton is an awesome team,” said Millington. “It was a 50-50 game every time we played them and it was 50-50 again tonight, but they were better than we were tonight. We had our chances, but we were 1-for-7 from the line. We’re a really good rebounding team and we struggled tonight.

“These kids competed hard all year and they battled tonight. We thought we had chances in overtime too, but they played better than we did. Once we got down, we got careless with the ball. We hadn’t been in that situation all year. Basketball can go either way and it didn’t go our way tonight.

“I told the kids tonight they can’t lose. They’re such a great group to be around. They did more good things over the year than bad things.”

The Red Riots will try again in 2020-21, but saying farewell to Baez, Bialorucki, Boles, Carr, Owen, Pamba and Corey Gagne won’t be easy.

“It’s really hard every year to say goodbye to the seniors,” said Millington. “It’s a special connection with a special group of guys.”

Portland Press Herald staff writer Steve Craig contributed to this story.

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

Comments are not available on this story.