BOX SCORE

South Portland 65 Deering 54

SP- 15 17 19 14- 65
D- 17 12 8 17- 54

SP- Ayuel 8-0-18, Maloney 6-2-15, Jackson 4-1-9, Estrella 4-0-8, Bitjoka 1-3-5, Bambile 2-0-4, Borelli 2-0-4, Desjardins 0-2-2

D- Semuhoza 6-6-19, Augusto 4-1-12, Al Taee 2-3-8, Artan 3-0-8, Langella 1-1-4, Wani 1-1-3

3-pointers:
SP (3) Ayuel 2, Maloney 1
D (8) Augusto 3, Artan 2, Al Taee, Langella, Semuhoza 1

Turnovers:
SP- 15
D- 19

Free throws
SP: 8-12
D: 12-22

PORTLAND—South Portland and Deering’s boys’ basketball teams are accustomed to meeting twice each season, but not back-to-back and not twice in three days.

But in a COVID-19-abbreviated season where absolutely nothing is normal, that’s where the ancient rivals found themselves Saturday afternoon in Deering’s gymnasium.

And for the second time in three days, each squad showed promise mixed with self-inflected wounds before the Red Riots took control of the game in the third period and went on to victory.

The Rams shot to a quick 11-5 lead behind their lone experienced senior, Mpore Semuhoza, but by the end of the first quarter, South Portland was within two points, 17-15.

The Red Riots then took the lead for good with 4:32 left before halftime, when senior Mekhi Bitjoka sank two free throws. At the break, South Portland clung to a 32-29 advantage, but the Red Riots would come out sizzling in the third period.

After turning the ball over 11 times in the game’s first 16 minutes, the Red Riots didn’t commit a single third quarter turnover and behind stellar play from 6-foot-6 junior forward Mayen Ayuel, who returned to the program this year from Texas, and dominance inside from 6-foot-4 junior guard Owen Maloney and 6-foot-8 sophomore center J.P. Estrella, a transfer from Scarborough, South Portland pushed its lead to 51-37 entering the final stanza.

There, Deering, not surprisingly, rallied, as a pair of 3s from junior Titayo Augusto and another from Semuhoza got the hosts as close as five points, 59-54, but the Red Riots didn’t buckle and closed the game on a 6-0 run to finish out their 65-54 victory.

Ayuel led the way with 18 points and Maloney, despite first half foul trouble, added 15, as South Portland improved to 2-0 on the season, dropping the Rams to 0-2 in the process.

“It’s really nice to be playing again,” said Maloney. “We’re definitely out there to win, but we’re trying to work for next year too.”

Quick turnaround

After the start of the regular season was delayed over two months, Deering and South Portland quickly got acquainted with each other this week.

The Rams, who went 15-6 a year ago, reaching the Class AA North Final before losing to eventual state champion Edward Little, 64-51, and the Red Riots, who were perfect for 20 games last winter before finally meeting their match in an agonizing 61-55, overtime decision to Thornton Academy in the Class AA South Final, squared off Thursday with host South Portland prevailing, 52-47, as Maloney scored 23 points and sophomore Jaelen Jackson added 11 (Semuhoza led all scorers with 24).

Both teams were hit hard by graduation and feature a lot of new faces, but there is some promise on both rosters and was on display Saturday in an empty gymnasium with social distancing very much in the forefront of everyone’s minds.

The Red Riots broke the scoring ice 58 seconds in, when Jackson scored on a putback, but the Rams answered with two Semuhoza foul shots and a 3-pointer from junior Nick Langella for a 5-2 lead.

After Ayuel scored his first points, a 3-point shot, to tie it, Deering got a layup after a steal from sophomore Remijo Wani, a Semuhoza layup after a Wani steal and a Semuhoza leaner for an 11-5 advantage midway through the opening frame.

South Portland drew back within two on a layup from Estrella (set up by Ayuel) and a putback by Ayuel of his own miss, but junior Adbulla Al Taee countered with a 3 to push the lead back to five, 14-9.

The Red Riots then got a layup after a steal from Maloney and a bank shot from senior Nic Borelli, but senior Mohamed Artan sank a 3 for the Rams before Maloney’s pullup jumper made it Deering 17 South Portland 15 after eight minutes.

The contest remained close in the second quarter as well, but the Red Riots grabbed a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

After a free throw from Augusto and a coast-to-cost layup from Artan opened the quarter and pushed the Rams’ lead to five, the next eight points went to South Portland, as senior Luca Desjardins made two free throws, Borelli kept the ball alive for Ayuel to make a jump shot and after Bitjoka gave the Red Riots the lead for good with two free throws, a third-effort putback from Estrella made it 23-20 South Portland.

“J.P. is a huge rim protector for us and he helps us with rebounding,” Maloney said.

A free throw from Al Taee ended the run, but Maloney countered with a 3-pointer from the corner. After another Al Taee foul shot, Maloney made a runner in traffic to make it 28-22.

Augusto answered with a 3 for Deering and Al Taee added another free throw, but Estrella finished close to the basket with his left hand.

In the final minute, Semuhoza made a free throw and after senior Alex Bambile banked home a shot for the visitors, Al Taee made a layup after a steal to pull the Rams within three, 32-29, at the break.

Maloney led all scorers with nine first half points.

South Portland then turned it up another notch when the third quarter commenced.

Augusto scored on a putback to open the second half and pull Deering within a single point, but Jackson made a free throw and after a Bambile steal, Jackson fed Ayuel for a layup to make it 35-31.

With 6:22 to go in the third quarter, Artan got a 3-pointer to rattle home, but the Red Riots would close the quarter on a 16-3 run.

A jump shot from Jackson was followed by a leaner from Maloney and with 4:57 left, Ayuel made a 3 to push the lead to eight.

Semuhoza countered with a tip-in, but Jackson set up Ayuel for a layup and after Semuhoza made one free throw, Estrella scored on a putback, Borelli scored on a leaner, Bitjoka hit a free throw and Bitjoka got a leaner to rattle in for a 51-37 advantage at quarter’s end.

“We took better care of the ball in the third quarter,” Ayuel said. “Our size helps us a lot. We can grab rebounds and help the guards out. The guards depend on us to get rebounds.”

“We’re blessed to get Mayen back from Texas,” said Red Riots coach Kevin Millington. “He was with us until eighth grade. J.P. coming over from Scarborough, that’s a lot of size we didn’t have. It’s great to see how Mayen and J.P. fit in. J.P. has had one practice with us and he’s new to the program. The good thing is that they’re both underclassmen too.”

“South Portland is very good and this is one of the first years in a long time that we haven’t had a lot of size on our end and that’s a big difference,” said Deering coach Todd Wing. “South Portland’s utilizes their size well.”

Semuhoza started the fourth period by making two free throws, but a putback from Ayuel restored the 14-point advantage.

After Augusto sank a 3 from the corner, Jackson drove and scored, but Langella made one free throw, Augusto sank another 3 from the corner and with 4:37 remaining, a free throw from Wani pulled Deering within eight, 55-47.

Ayuel countered with a contested runner, but Semuhoza drained a 3 and after Maloney scored on a leaner, Semuhoza drove for a layup, then scored on a leaner with 1:40 to go, cutting South Portland’s lead to just five, 59-54.

The Rams had a chance to draw even closer after Ayuel missed two free throws, but they turned the ball over and never scored again.

In the final minute, Maloney fed Jackson for a layup, Bambile made a layup after a steal and two Maloney free throws brought the curtain down on the Red Riots’ 65-54 triumph.

“We had it in our heads to stay ready,” Ayuel said. “Whenever the time came, we wanted to take advantage of it. Every game counts because of COVID. We know it could be our last. ”

“(Playing the same team twice) was definitely weird because the other team can make adjustments quickly, but we knew what they’re going to do,” Maloney said.

Ayuel paced South Portland with 18 points. He also grabbed 11 rebounds for a double-double.

“The first game, I felt like I didn’t play to my potential, so I wanted to come here prepared today,” Ayuel said. “Individually, I wanted to help my team as much as possible. Being back in South Portland brings back a lot of memories. Half the kids I played with since elementary school. We used to battle each other. It’s great to be on the same team and have chemistry.”

“I played with (Mayen) before he left,” Maloney said. “When we heard he was coming back, we knew what we’d get from him. He’s a big help down low.”

Maloney added 15 points, to go with four rebounds, three steals and a pair of assists.

“Owen’s already a special player,” Millington said. “You could see signs of it last year. He’s elevated to the focal point in our offense.”

Jackson scored nine points and had three steals, Estrella scored eight points (and grabbed 10 rebounds), Bitjoka had five points, Bambile (five rebounds, four steals) and Borelli four apiece and Desjardins (five rebounds) two.

The Red Riots overcame 15 turnovers and hit 8-of-12 free throws, while winning the rebounding battle, 45-40.

“Normally, at the beginning of the season, it’s always sloppy with turnovers all over the place,” said Millington. “This year, it’s weird because it’s February. It’s even sloppier because we haven’t really practiced at all and we have a new team.”

Deering got a big game from Semuhoza, 19 points and nine rebounds.

“Mpore really has the only returning varsity experience and he’s playing at a higher level right now,” Wing said.

Augusto added 12 points (to go with six rebounds and a pair of steals), Al Taee had eight points, as did Artan, while Langella finished with four points and Wani three.

The Rams committed 19 turnovers and made 12-of-22 free throws.

“We came into the fourth quarter talking about trying to come back and playing through adversity and building character and we made it fun at the end,” said Wing. “At this point, it’s not necessarily about coaching or adjustments. It’s about what the kids can do on the floor. With two days of practice after a 10-day quarantine and some of our players not back yet, it’s tough, but I think they all are genuinely giving their all. We have a very promising junior class. They’re getting used to varsity speed. Playing a team like South Portland is good for their development.”

Doubling up

South Portland will meet Portland twice next week, in a double “Battle of the Bridge,” if you will. The teams meet Wednesday at Beal Gymnasium in South Portland, then play Friday at the Portland Exposition Building.

“We want to win as much as we can,” said Ayuel. “We want to go undefeated and get ready for next year. We want to win for the seniors this year.”

“It’ll be fun to play Portland,” Millington said. “They’ve been our pseudo-nemesis. I like that we’re playing Portland, Deering, Falmouth and Cheverus. I really feel for the seniors, so I’m trying to get them some time. I also want to establish relationships. We have new kids I don’t know as well. We want to develop and see how the pieces fit together.

“You don’t realize until you’re back in the gym that kids are kids and they love competing. We’re just happy to be here.”

Deering, meanwhile, only takes the court once next week, Tuesday, when it goes to Cape Elizabeth for a first-ever countable meeting between longtime powers.

“I don’t think I’ve traveled to Cape since we used to do a JV Cape league,” said Wing. “A (coach) Jimmy Ray-less Cape team, I don’t know what to expect, but it’s a gift to be between these lines this year. No matter the opponent, we’ll give it our all. You literally never know if the next game could be your last. We’ve hammered that point in as much as we can.”

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

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