Portland senior Jake Bouchard is sandwiched by South Portland sophomore Jaelen Jackson (4) and senior Alex Bambile during the Red Riots’ 56-46 win Friday night. Michael Hoffer / For The Forecaster

BOX SCORE

South Portland 56 Portland 46

SP- 14 18 15 9- 56
P- 11 11 6 18- 46

SP- Ayuel 7-0-17, Estrella 5-6-16, Jackson 4-0-11, Bitjoka 3-0-6, Bambile 2-0-4, Desjardins 1-0-2

P- W. Donato 2-2-8, Gerber 2-2-8, Bouchard 2-2-7, Cross 2-0-5, Khamis 2-0-4, Kiala 2-0-4, Russell 1-1-4,  Christensen 1-0-3, P. Donato 1-1-3

3-pointers:
SP (6) Ayuel, Jackson 3
P (8) W. Donato, Gerber 2, Bouchard, Christensen, Cross, Russell 1

Turnovers:
SP- 18
P- 14

FTs
SP: 6-11
P: 8-13

PORTLAND—South Portland and Portland’s boys’ basketball teams have been battling for over a century and one thing that’s stood the test of time is that regardless of records, you know that both squads are going to fight to the finish.

That was again the case Friday evening in the small gymnasium at Portland High School, as the undefeated Red Riots looked to make some history at the Bulldogs’ expense.

In the teams’ 233rd all-time meeting, South Portland went on top to stay less than five minutes into the contest, when senior Mekhi Bitjoka scored on the fastbreak. The Red Riots held a 14-11 advantage after one quarter, then behind a pair of long 3-pointers from Mayen Ayuel, extended the lead to 32-22 at halftime.

When South Portland went up by as many as 20 points in the third period before holding a 47-28 advantage heading to the fourth quarter, it appeared the Red Riots could coast home, but the proud Bulldogs weren’t about to make it easy.

With 3:43 to play, junior Aiden Christensen made a 3 and Portland was suddenly within eight, 51-43, but that’s as close as it would get as the Red Riots were able to finish off a 56-46 victory.

South Portland excelled from the outside, as Ayuel led the way with 17 points, and also dominated down low, courtesy 6-foot-8 sophomore center J.P. Estrella, who had a double-double of 16 points and 11 rebounds, and the Red Riots improved to 4-0 on the year, dropped the Bulldogs to 2-2 and in the process, swept their rival for the first time since 2009.

“It’s Portland, so we’re always happy to win,” said South Portland coach Kevin Millington. “You can’t go by talent. These two teams always battle each other to the end. We knew they wouldn’t give up.”

Turning the tide

For years, Portland had South Portland’s number, entering the contest with a 127-105 all-time lead, even beating the Red Riots in the 2016 and 2017 Class AA state finals, but the South Portland won the teams’ second meeting two years ago and captured the only game last winter.

Wednesday, on the 111th anniversary of the teams’ first encounter (a 46-11 Portland victory), the Red Riots did it again, 67-47, at home, behind 14 points apiece from Ayuel and Jackson and 12 from junior Owen Maloney (who was sidelined for Friday’s rematch).

That win marked South Portland’s third straight victory after sweeping Deering, 52-47 at home and 65-54 in Portland.

Portland started with a pair of victories over Cheverus, 52-45 at home and 44-30 at the Stags, then fell at South Portland, despite 11 points from junior Wani Donato.

Friday, the Bulldogs looked to match last year’s win total, but the Red Riots made it four in a row over their rival for the first time this century.

Ayuel hinted at a big night to come when he scored on a leaner 13 seconds in, but Portland senior Jake Bouchard answered with a 3 and sophomore Pita Donato added a runner which rolled in for a 5-2 lead.

That proved to be the Bulldogs’ highwater mark, however.

Jackson scored his first points on a pretty spinner in the lane, then Jackson set up Bitjoka for a fastbreak layup and South Portland had the lead for good.

After Bitjoka banked home a runner, Bouchard made two free throws to snap the Red Riots’ 6-0 run and Portland’s 5-minute, 2-second drought, cutting the deficit to 8-7.

South Portland answered with a 3 from Jackson and after freshman Jeissy Khamis made a layup for the Bulldogs, Ayuel made his first 3 before Khamis made another layup to pull Portland within 14-11 after eight minutes.

The Red Riots then got a little breathing room in the second quarter.

Jackson got things started with a 3 and senior Luca Desjardins added a floater to make it 19-11.

Wani Donato countered with a 3-ball, but after a Jackson steal, senior Alex Bambile made a layup for South Portland and after a Pita Donato foul shot, Jackson fed Estrella for a layup and a 23-15 advantage.

Wani Donato countered with a 3-pointer and after an Estrella foul shot, a putback from junior Jose Kiala pulled Portland within four, 24-20, with 4:27 left before halftime.

The rest of the half would belong to the Red Riots, however.

Ayuel stretched the lead from four to 10 with a pair of 3-pointers, the second even longer than the first, in a 48-second span and after longtime Bulldogs coach Joe Russo called timeout to no avail, Estrella drove and banked home a shot.

Portland got a little momentum as time expired, as Kiala’s shot rolled in, but South Portland was in command, up, 32-22.

Ayuel led all scorers with 11 first half points and Jackson added eight.

The Red Riots then added to their lead in the third quarter, as Estrella sank two free throws, Bambile scored on a floater, Jackson sank a 3 from the corner and with 4:13 to go, Bitjoka drove for a layup and a commanding 41-22 lead.

A 3-point shot from senior Gabe Russell stopped the 9-0 run and the Bulldogs’ 4-minute, 20-second drought, but at the other end, Estrella tipped home a missed shot and after Bouchard somehow floated the ball over Estrella’s outstretched arms and in, Estrella made two free throws and Ayuel made a layup off Bitjoka’s inbounds feed to make it 47-27.

Russell got a point back for Portland, but South Portland was firmly in control entering the fourth period, leading, 47-28.

The Bulldogs let everyone know they weren’t going to roll over when first junior Spencer Cross, then senior Sam Gerber, started the final stanza with 3-point shots to cut the deficit to 13.

Ayuel countered with a layup, but Cross tipped home a missed shot and with 5:13 remaining, Gerber made a 3 and was fouled on the play. He added a free throw and suddenly the deficit was single-digits, 49-40.

Christensen missed a 3 which could have made it a two-possession game and with 4:08 left, Ayuel drove for a layup.

Twenty-five seconds later, Christensen’s 3 pulled Portland within eight, but it would draw no closer, as Jackson fed Estrella for a layup and after Wani Donato made two foul shots, Estrella’s old-fashioned three-point play (layup, foul, free throw) with 50 seconds to go ended all doubt.

Gerber made one free throw for the Bulldogs in the waning seconds and the Red Riots were able to celebrate a 56-46 victory.

“We weren’t talking on defense and when we did, it picked back up again,” Estrella said.

“I thought we lost our composure a little bit and that contributed to lapses on defense and credit to (Portland), they hit big shots,” Millington said. “The game the other night, I didn’t know what they had and I thought they were much improved, so coming into this one without Owen (Maloney), I was pleased with how most of the game went.”

Ayuel led all scorers with 17 points. He also had eight rebounds and blocked two shots.

Estrella, who transferred to South Portland from Scarborough this year, was an unstoppable force on offense, scoring 16 points, grabbing 11 rebounds and was formidable at the defensive end also, blocking three shots.

“I’m loving South Portland,” Estrella said. “I feel like I’m fitting in pretty good. Rebounds and putback finishes are my biggest role.”

“(J.P.) really hasn’t practiced with us, but we’re so aggressive sometimes defensively when we don’t have to be because he’ll clean it up,” Millington said. “His raw skills are pretty special. He’s not done growing, which is crazy.”

Jackson added 11 points (to go with five rebounds, three assists and three steals), Bitjoka was huge off the bench with six points and two assists, Bambile had four points and three assists and Desjardins, who made clutch plays all night, finished with two points and a couple assists.

The Red Riots won the rebounding battle, 32-27, but committed 18 turnovers and hit just 6-of-11 foul shots.

Portland got eight points apiece from both Wani Donato (who also had four rebounds and three steals) and Gerber. Bouchard added seven points (to go with five rebounds and four assists), Cross had five, Khamis, Kiala (five rebounds) and Russell four apiece and Christensen and Pita Donato three each.

The Bulldogs turned the ball over 14 times and made 8-of-13 free throws.

“I’m really impressed with how the kids battled back,” Russo said. “They did a good job. You can’t sit back against SP. They’re too big for us and they can shoot, so you have to pick your poison. We wanted to go north and south and throw some pressure at them. We got it to nine, then we didn’t cover the big guy. I burned all my timeouts like a rookie coach. I should have kept a couple. It would have helped. We had open shots, but we missed our shots and they made theirs. I’m much more pleased with how we finished the game. I changed our defense in the second half. I know what I want to do now. I learned something.”

Big tests to come

Portland hopes to get back on the winning track Tuesday, but it won’t be easy, as undefeated Falmouth pays a visit. The Bulldogs are at the Yachtsmen Thursday, then they have a pair of games versus both Gorham and Deering.

“We have a very tough schedule,” Russo said. “We got all the best teams. I want to see the kids win more than two games.”

South Portland hopes to stay unbeaten Tuesday when it welcomes Scarborough. After traveling to the Red Storm Thursday, the Red Riots have two games apiece against Cheverus and Falmouth.

“We want to have an undefeated season and finish the year off strong for the seniors,” Estrella said. “I think it’s a big accomplishment to be 4-0 right now. Hopefully, we’ll keep it going. I think we’ll have really good talent next year too.”

” When you don’t practice, it’s hard to get in sync offensively, especially with a new team,” Millington said. “Defensively, we try to outwork teams.

“It’s one of those years where it’s going to be tough to go undefeated. We’re young, playing two very talented sophomores, a bunch of juniors and seniors who have been biding their time. Our future’s bright.”

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

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