BOX SCORE

Oxford Hills 49 South Portland 38

OH- 15 12 13 9- 49
SP- 17 7 9 5- 38

OH- Colby 8-3-22, Dieterich 3-2-11, Dumont 2-5-10, Hartnett 1-0-3, Carson 1-1-3

SP- Whitmore 7-2-16, Towle 4-2-10, Aceto 1-1-4, Degifico 1-1-3, Owen 1-1-3, Boothby-Akilo 1-0-2

3-pointers:
OH (8) Colby, Dieterich 3, Dumont, Hartnett 1
SP (1) Aceto 1

Turnovers:
OH- 10
SP- 22

FTs
OH: 11-19
SP: 7-15

PORTLAND—For a quarter, the dream was alive and well.

At the half, it still flickered.

Even after three quarters, South Portland’s girls’ basketball team believed a first state championship in 34 years was attainable, but ultimately, the Red Riots weren’t able to secure the ball or make the key shots like their poised, talented opponent.

Defending champion Oxford Hills.

Make that repeat champion Oxford Hills.

In a high-intensity Class AA state final at the Cross Insurance Arena, the Red Riots rode 10 first quarter points from senior standout Maggie Whitmore to a 17-15 lead, but the Vikings, who got 10 points in the frame from their senior star, Julia Colby, were able to gain momentum late, thanks to a late 3-point shot from senior Cecelia Dieterich.

Oxford Hills then cranked up the defense in the second period, forced six South Portland turnovers and took the lead for good with an 8-0 run, highlighted by back-to-back 3-pointers from Dieterich and senior Maggie Hartnett.

By the half, the Vikings had the advantage, but only by one possession, 27-24.

Twice in the third quarter, the Red Riots pulled within a single point, but the Vikings were simply unflappable and they didn’t commit a turnover in the period while three times burying clutch 3-pointers to stretch the lead to 40-33.

No team protects a lead like Oxford Hills, which South Portland discovered to its chagrin, and the Red Riots never got closer than six points down the stretch before Colby and junior Cassidy Dumont iced the game at the free throw line and the Vikings prevailed, 49-38.

Colby led the way with a game-high 22 points, Dieterich and Dumont also finished in double figures and Oxford Hills finished 21-1, won its second consecutive state title and the second in program history and in the process, ended South Portland’s memorable campaign at 18-4.

“These girls have really made South Portland proud,” said Red Riots’ coach Lynne Hasson. “They’ll be long remembered as a team that accomplished great things. The senior class has been incredible. They’re heartbroken tonight and they’ll always remember this loss, but they were incredibly close and those relationships and our season were special.”

“This is amazing,” Oxford Hills coach Nate Pelletier said. “I couldn’t ask for anything more, especially for this senior group. They’ve worked hard since they were tiny. It’s a community effort. They wanted to see these girls win.”

The long wait

South Portland played for three championships in a 10-year span between 1977 and 1986, winning Gold Balls at each end, while losing to Bangor in 1982 (see sidebar, above, for previous state game results for both teams).

From 1987 through 2019, a 33-year stretch, the Red Riots posted 27 winning records and on two other occasions, wound up .500. They made the tournament 30 times in that span, but despite playing in the regional final four times, couldn’t get back to the big stage.

The previous four seasons had been the most difficult of all, as South Portland twice lost close regional finals to eventual state champion Gorham, which featured eventual college standouts Mackenzie Holmes and Emily Esposito, a surprising semifinal round loss to Gorham the year after Esposito graduated, and an upset regional final loss to Scarborough last winter.

But the 2019-20 campaign saw fortune smile upon the Red Riots at last.

South Portland suffered just three losses in 18 contests (see sidebar, above, for links to previous game stories), falling by a point at home to two-time defending Class A champion Greely, by eight at home to a Portland squad which wound up runner-up in Class AA North and by two at home to Scarborough on a late 3-pointer. The Red Riots were perfect on the road and captured their final seven regular season games to lock up the top seed in Class AA South for the third year in a row.

This time around, there would be no postseason letdown, as South Portland first handled No. 8 Thornton Academy, 46-19, in the quarterfinals at Beal Gymnasium, then, after ousting No. 4 Gorham, 45-30, in the semifinals at the Cross Insurance Arena, the Red Riots overcame a slow start to defeat No. 6 Sanford, 49-34, in the regional final to advance to states.

Oxford Hills has been a top contender for several seasons and cemented itself as an elite program with last year’s 55-45 victory over Scarborough in the state final, which gave the program its first Gold Ball.

The Vikings were nearly perfect this year, losing only by a point at Greely, while winning every other game. As the top seed in Class AA North, Oxford Hills pulled away in the second half for a 55-30 victory over Deering in the quarterfinals, then ousted No. 5 Windham (54-31) in the semifinals. In last Saturday’s regional final, the Vikings trailed No. 2 Portland in the third quarter before coming to life and going on to a 45-35 victory.

Oxford Hills and South Portland didn’t meet during the regular season and had no playoff history. The teams did meet on Dec. 28, 2018 in Oxford, in a memorable contest, won by the Red Riots, 62-56. Whitmore, then a junior, led the way with 23 points, while Dieterich, also a junior at that juncture, paced the Vikings with 14.

Saturday, in front of a large and raucous crowd, the Red Riots sought their first championship since the year of the Challenger space shuttle disaster, the year Bill Buckner’s name became a pejorative, Ronald Reagan was in his second term as president, the Chicago Bears had just won the Super Bowl, gas cost .89 per gallon and the Oprah Winfrey Show debuted on television and the Phantom of the Opera premiered on Broadway, but it would instead be Oxford Hills going back-to-back.

There were no early game jitters in this one, as both squads played very well in the first period and both superstars dazzled.

The Vikings committed a turnover on their first possession and Whitmore had a good look at a 3, but was off-target. Sophomore Hylah Owen got the rebound but couldn’t finish, then Oxford Hills opened the scoring 31 seconds in when Colby hinted at a fast start to come with a jump shot.

The Red Riots got their first points courtesy a 3-ball from senior Ashlee Aceto, but at the other end, Colby hit a 3 of her own for a 5-3 Oxford Hills lead.

Whitmore scored her first points, banking home a runner, with 6:15 to go in the opening stanza to tie it, then senior Kaleisha Towle added a free throw 21 seconds later.

Whitmore then drove for a layup and with 5:08 left in the frame, Whitmore stole the ball and drove in for a layup and a 10-5 advantage.

The Vikings countered, as Dieterich set up Colby for a layup, but Whitmore hit a jumper to restore the five-point lead.

After Colby sank a 3 from the corner, Aceto made one free throw, then Whitmore banked home a leaner to make it 15-10.

With 1:02 left in the quarter, a bank shot from Dumont gave Oxford Hills its first points from someone other than Colby and after junior Cora Boothby-Akilo took a pass from junior Maria Degifico and made a layup for South Portland, Dieterich buried a 3 from the corner just before the horn to pull the Vikings within just two, 17-15, after eight minutes.

“We just had to settle in,” Colby said. “We didn’t come out as hard as we could, but our goal this game was to press them and outwork them and make them tired. Coach stresses getting the last shot of the quarter. We always practice that.”

In the first period, Colby had 10 points and a pair of assists, while Whitmore also scored 10 points while blocking two shots and posting two steals.

The Red Riots’ offense wasn’t as efficient in the second quarter and Oxford Hills would come back to take the lead.

A putback from Towle started the frame, but sophomore Brooke Carson answered by banking home a shot.

After Owen set up Towle for a layup, with Towle making a great catch of a difficult ball, the next eight points went to the Vikings.

First Dieterich set up Colby for a backdoor layup.

Then, with 4:03 to go in the half, Oxford Hills took the lead for good, as Dieterich buried a 3.

Dieterich then set up Hartnett for a 3 before South Portland snapped the run and a 3-minute, 37-second drought as Towle scored on a finger roll.

Dieterich and Dumont then added free throws before a foul shot from Owen pulled the Red Riots within three, 27-24, heading to the half.

In the first 16 minutes, Colby led all scorers with 12 points, while Whitmore, who didn’t score in the second quarter, paced South Portland with 10.

The biggest difference in the first half came from beyond the 3-point arc, as Oxford Hills made five shots to just one for the Red Riots.

In the third quarter, the Vikings continued to make clutch shots, while forcing seven turnovers and committing none to extend the lead.

After Whitmore drove for a bank shot to start the second half, Colby converted a contested leaner over Aceto.

Degifico drove and finished with the left hand to pull South Portland within one, 29-28, but that’s as close as the Red Riots would get.

First, Colby buried a key 3.

Then, after Owen set up Towle for a layup, Dieterich buried a 3 from the corner.

Then, after a Whitmore layup, Colby sank a free throw and with 2:29 on the clock, Dumont drained a 3 to make it 39-32.

“(Oxford Hills is) a great 3-point shooting team,” Hasson said. “When they’re left open, they’re money and when they get into the middle, they get open.”

Degifico and Dieterich then traded foul shots, but Oxford Hills took a 40-33 advantage to the fourth period.

“We weren’t sure (South Portland) could keep up with us,” Pelletier said. “We’ve played at that tempo all year. We’ve played games pressing for 32 minutes. That’s something we’re used to doing. Our goal was the play the long game and keep battling. We mixed it up. We played some 1-3-1 (zone) and we played some press. We just couldn’t give up second or third opportunities.”

No one closes out a game like the Vikings, who for one final time, salted away a victory and a championship.

Colby opened the final stanza with a layup after a steal and after Towle set up Owen for a spinning layup, Dumont made two free throws with 6:09 to go for a 44-35 lead.

Neither team would score again for over four minutes, as Oxford Hills was content to milk the clock as only it can and South Portland missed its few opportunities.

Finally, with 1:37 to play, Towle made one of two free throws, ending a 5:22 drought.

After Colby missed the front end of a one-and-one, Whitmore made two foul shots with 48.2 seconds remaining, pulling the Red Riots within six, 44-38, but those would be South Portland’s final points of the season.

Three seconds later, Colby was fouled and this time, she sank both ends of a one-and-one to make it a three-possession game again.

“I just knew I had to make them,” Colby said.

“When we have the lead in the fourth quarter, we’re pretty successful,” Pelletier said.

“We were chasing them and they’ve got three point guards,” Hasson said. “If you’re down late in the game, you won’t steal the ball and you have to foul them and they made foul shots. We knew we couldn’t be down. They spread the floor. We caused a little havoc at the end when we doubled them, but we hoped they’d make mistakes and they didn’t.”

Then, after a Red Riots’ miss, it would be Dumont’s turn and she converted both shots.

Finally, with 2.9 seconds on the clock, Carson made one of two free throws and at 8:33 p.m., Oxford Hills got to celebrate its 49-38 victory.

“I’ve played with these girls for a really long team and it’s incredible to go out there and win again,” Dieterich said. “We’re so passionate about the game. It was stressful, but we got it done and went back-to-back. We kept our pace the whole game and that wears teams down. Most teams can’t keep with us.”

“This one feels better (than last year) because it was our last game together and we’ve played together so long,” Colby said. “Three out of four years we went to states and we won two.”

“We’ve been working for this since fifth grade and it’s so special,” Carson said. “It’s the best feeling.”

“(South Portland) played good defense too, but Jules came up big for us and Cassidy hit some big free throws for us and everybody did their job,” added Pelletier. “We had two games all year within 10 points. That says a lot to the character of the kids and grinding out games. In the playoffs, you have a target on your back and everyone wants to beat you, but I felt like we were the best team in the state.”

Colby, who will play next year at the New York Institute of Technology and is the favorite for the Miss Maine Basketball award, led all scorers with 22 points and added five steals and four assists.

“Julia is just incredible,” said Dieterich. “We’ve played together since fourth grade. She’s put in so much hard work and obviously, it’s paid off.”

“(Julia’s) a gamer,” Pelletier said. “That’s what she’s done her whole career, it’s a great way for her to go out, as a two-time state champion, and she is the best player in the state of Maine, if you ask me.”

Dieterich was stellar as well in her swan song, scoring 11 points, dishing out six assists and grabbing three rebounds.

“Cecelia has been great all year,” Pelletier said. “She’s a tough kid. She grinds everything out.”

Dumont had 10 points and three rebounds, while Harnett and Carson each added three points.

“Brooke is the best sixth man in the league,” Pelletier said. “She gives 1,000 percent. She’s not very big, but she will box you out, she will battle and we wouldn’t have won without her.”

Oxford Hills only turned the ball over 10 times, made 11-of-19 free throws and sank eight 3-pointers to South Portland’s one.

“The great thing is, there’s no pressure when we take shots,” Pelletier said. “Our goal every game is to take 60 shots because we want to get close to 60 points. When we make big shots, the pressure is off. Eight 3-pointers is normal for us. We’re not afraid to shoot them.”

Still chasing

Whitmore led the Red Riots with 16 points. She also had eight rebounds, five steals and two blocked shots in her final appearance before taking her talents to Colby College.

Whitmore was certainly the Vikings’ focal point defensively.

“(Oxford Hills) defended (Maggie) really well,” said Hasson. “She tried to create, but they’re a very strong defensive team.”

“We had to know where Maggie was at all times and help on her,” Colby said.

“We knew Maggie was really strong and we had to limit her scoring chances and we had to box out their bigger girls too,” Dieterich said. “We stepped it up and got it done.”

“In the second half, we did better on Maggie,” Pelletier added. “She didn’t get the shots she wanted.”

Towle nearly produced a double-double, bowing out with 10 points and nine rebounds.

Aceto had four points (as well as six rebounds and two assists), Degifico (five rebounds) and Owen (six rebounds) had three apiece and Boothby-Akilo finished with two (as well as six rebounds and two blocks).

South Portland had a commanding edge on the glass, 43-20, but only made 7-of-15 foul shots and was doomed by 22 turnovers.

“We turned the ball over against their pressure and we knew that’s what we couldn’t do,” Hasson lamented. “It happened and it cost us the game. The problem the whole game was we turned the ball over against their pressure. We tried to dribble through it. We didn’t execute our press-breaker. We played right into their hands and we missed shots. That’s a very good team. Hats off to them. They press and create turnovers and that’s why they’re 21-1.”

The Red Riots were disappointed with the end result, but they gave their community a memorable ride.

“(These girls have) done something no South Portland team had done since 1986,” Hasson said. “Girls in South Portland have changed their screen savers to a picture of our team. We had a huge crowd tonight. We’ve all heard from alumnae all week long. The seniors were such good leaders and such good kids. So coachable. It’ll be a long time before we’ll see another senior class like this.”

Even after graduation hits hard, the Red Riots figure to remain a top contender in 2020-21 and hope to take the final step a year from now.

“We’ll be back,” Hasson said. “We’ll be in the mix again.”

Sun Journal staff writer Adam Robinson contributed to this story.

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

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