BOX SCORE

South Portland 58 Falmouth 41

F- 6 10 12 13- 41
SP- 17 14 13 14- 58

F- Coyne 6-0-14, Stowell 4-3-12, Morrill 2-0-6, Simonds 2-0-4, L. Dilworth 1-0-3, Armstrong 1-0-2

SP- Estrella 8-3-20, Jackson 6-3-16, Maloney 2-3-7, Hobbs 2-2-6, Hanlon 1-1-3, Galarraga 1-0-2, Kim 1-0-2, Smith 1-0-2

3-pointers:
F (6) Coyne, Morrill 2, L. Dilworth, Stowell 1
SP (2) Estrella, Jackson 1

Turnovers:
F- 15
SP- 8

FTs
F: 3-3
SP: 12-21

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SOUTH PORTLAND—After a relatively quiet start to the 2021-22 season, highly-touted and closely-watched South Portland senior center JP Estrella roared and soared to life in noisy, rim-rattling fashion Tuesday evening at Beal Gymnasium.

In a showdown of two unbeaten boys’ basketball title hopefuls, Estrella quickly broke the will of the visiting Falmouth Navigators with an early 3-point shot, a dunk off an alley-oop pass from senior Jaelen Jackson and finally a thunderous, one-handed dunk, all the in first quarter, as the Red Riots raced to a 17-6 advantage.

Estrella nearly had a double-double in the first half alone and South Portland held a 31-16 lead at the break.

Falmouth tried to rally in the second half, but never got closer than 13 points and the Red Riots pulled away for a 58-41 victory.

Estrella stuffed the stat sheet to the tune of 20 points (half of which came on dunks), 15 rebounds and five blocked shots as South Portland improved to 4-0 on the season and in the process, handed the Navigators their first setback in four outings.

“JP hadn’t played like himself the past couple games, but what you saw tonight is a lot more of what I’m used to seeing,” said Jackson, who wound up with 16 points of his own. “I have complete faith he can get it done against any team in the state.”

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Early season shootout

It’s safe to say that Falmouth and South Portland began the season as favorites in their respective regions and in the early portion of the 2021-22 campaign, neither squad has disappointed.

The Navigators handled visiting Biddeford (84-40), host Kennebunk (91-69) and visiting Marshwood (64-46).

The Red Riots started with victories at home over Noble (76-32), at home over Windham (62-39) and at Sanford (66-34).

The teams met twice a year ago, during the COVID-shortened campaign, and Falmouth captured both contests, 62-60 at home and 52-48 in South Portland.

Tuesday, the Red Riots got a dose of revenge as they started fast and never looked back.

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South Portland senior Owen Maloney defends Falmouth senior Jack Stowell early in Tuesday’s contest. Hoffer photos.

Just 52 seconds into the game, South Portland set the tone, as Estrella got the ball just beyond the 3-point arc, went up and calmly buried the shot to give his team the lead for good.

“I’ve been waiting for this game for awhile,” Estrella said. “It was great having all these fans here cheering us on. That was a great game-starter. That got us going.”

Falmouth couldn’t answer and after senior Owen Maloney made two free throws, Jackson set up junior Nolan Hobbs for a short bank shot and a 7-0 lead just over two minutes in, forcing longtime Navigators coach Dave Halligan to call timeout.

It worked, momentarily, as senior Zach Morrill knocked down a 3-pointer, but at the other end, Jackson lobbed a pass toward the basket, Estrella levitated above the crowd, grabbed the ball, then slammed it down, making the score 9-3 and bringing the partisan crowd to its feet.

“That dunk felt great,” Estrella said. “The student section was going crazy and a couple of them were hollering, ‘Give us a couple more,’ so I decided I’d give them a couple more.”

Sure enough, with 2:24 left in the first, Hobbs fed Estrella, who leapt over a defender and slammed the ball home.

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Maloney then set up Jackson for a reverse layup, forcing another Halligan timeout, but it didn’t work, as junior Ben Smith sank a long jumper and on the fastbreak, sophomore Gabe Galarraga set up Jackson for a layup.

In the final minute, Falmouth senior Brady Coyne ended the 9-0 run with a 3-ball, but the Red Riots held a 17-6 advantage after one period.

South Portland didn’t let up in the second quarter, as sophomore Jayden Kim drove for a layup, then Estrella, showing his dexterity, tipped home a missed shot with his left hand to make it 21-6.

Coyne countered with a 3, but Maloney spun and finished.

After Morrill made a 3 for the visitors, Jackson made one of two free throws.

Sophomore Chris Simonds pulled Falmouth within 10 with a layup, but Estrella made two free throws, Jackson added another, then, with 2:21 on the clock, Estrella brought the house down by driving through defenders, leaping into the air, then firing the ball into the hoop in overpowering fashion with just his right hand and the lead was 29-14.

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“That dunk was my favorite,” said Estrella. “I wanted to rip off the rim with that one.”

“Those dunks get everyone in the gym and everyone on the team hyped up,” Jackson said.

South Portland senior JP Estrella had five dunks in Tuesday’s contest, but even he couldn’t quite reach the ball on this play.

Simonds countered with a layup for the Navigators, but a Hobbs jump shot put South Portland ahead, 31-16, at the half.

In the first 16 minutes, Estrella had 13 points, eight rebounds and three blocked shots, while Hobbs, Jackson and Maloney added four points apiece.

Falmouth tried to rally in the second half, but couldn’t find an answer.

A bank shot from Maloney started the third quarter before senior Jack Stowell scored his first points for the Navigators on a runner.

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After Hobbs made a free throw, Jackson made another to allow the Red Riots to double up Falmouth, 36-18.

The Navigators then got a floater from Coyne and three free throws from Stowell, but Jackson got a leaner to rattle home and junior Joey Hanlon added a foul shot.

South Portland senior Jaelen Jackson gets a leaner to drop.

Late in the frame, Coyne made a pretty reverse layup, but after taking a pass from Jackson, Estrella did the same.

Junior Lucas Dilworth made a 3 for Falmouth, but Galarraga scored on a putback, then Jackson made one free throw for a 44-28 advantage heading for the final stanza.

There, South Portland closed it out, but not before a couple more Estrella highlights.

With 6 minutes to play, Estrella got to an errant shot and slammed it home.

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After a fastbreak layup from Jackson extended the Red Riots’ lead to a game-high 20 points, 48-28, Coyne hit a jumper, Stowell banked home a runner, then Coyne got a finger roll to bank home to make it a 14-point contest with 4;31 left, but Estrella hit a free throw and after Stowell drove for a layup, Estrella set up Jackson for a layup.

Then, with 2:31 on the clock, Jackson drove and finished a layup with his left hand for a 53-36 advantage.

“I just needed to see the ball drop,” Jackson said. “I was missing free throws in the first half. Once I got a couple layups, everything generated off that.”

Stowell made a 3 before Estrella stole the show one last time, taking a pass from Galarraga before dunking with 2:12 to go.

Jackson hit a step-back 3 for the Red Riots’ final points before a leaner from Falmouth junior Eli Cowperthwaite brought the curtain down on South Portland’s 58-41 triumph.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Jackson said. “We were expecting a lot of 3s because they can shoot the ball. We did a good job of closing out. Last year, they killed us because our defense wasn’t anywhere like it is now.”

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“I just wanted to beat (Falmouth) after losing twice last year,” Estrella said. “Getting the lead was important. I’m having a blast with this team. We’re very skilled. We have a deep bench.”

“It’s fun when we compete at a high level,” Red Riots coach Kevin Millington added. “We kept our composure and executed well. It was fun to see the kids battle like that. It’s not always easy to compete when you’ve won three games easily.

“Falmouth might not lose again. They’re awesome and they have great 3-point shooters. We were worried about them going off and if they go off, they can hang 80 (points) on you.

“People want to come watch this team. It’s great to be playing in front of fans. Fingers crossed we can make through the whole season..”

Estrella led the way with 20 points, 15 rebounds, five blocks, a steal and an assist.

“When I’m on the block, I’m getting double-teamed, triple-teamed, so there’s always on open guy to find for open shots,” Estrella said. “That’s an important factor to my game.”

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Estrella had coaches from Penn State and Syracuse on hand Tuesday and while such scrutiny might prove onerous for some, he said after the game that he’s embracing the recruiting process.

“I’m loving this,” Estrella said. I’m talking to a bunch of schools and going as many places as I can right now.”

Estrella has certainly made an impact on his teammates and on the opposition.

“College coaches know what they’re talking about and (JP’s) a major Division I player,” Millington said. “He does so many things. It’s not just that he can shoot a 3 and can dunk. He’s a willing passer, he’s got great court awareness. We talk all the time about life being a lot easier for the rest of the guys if JP is touching the ball. Jaelen and Owen and all those guys can get to the rim when we get JP touches.”

“Players like him don’t come along very often,” Halligan said. “He’s special. He’s a rim-protector, the type of player every team would love to have on their side. Bigs usually develop later and he’s developed by leaps and bounds. He’s a special player, a game-changer.”

Jackson, who is getting some serious college interest as well, also excelled, to the tune of 16 points, five rebounds and four assists.

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“Jaelen is really important,” Estrella said. “He’s our leader. He helps us communicate on the floor.”

“In my opinion, Jaelen is the best point guard in the state,” Millington said. “We like the ball in his hands.”

Maloney added seven points, three assists and three rebounds, but his value to the Red Riots can’t be quantified.

“Owen is, in my opinion, one of the most important guys on the team,” Estrella said. “He’s a lights-out shooter, a key defender. I try to get him going when I can.”

“Owen impacts the game in so many ways,” Millington said. “He’s as fundamental as they get. He’s an elite defender, a great shooter, he gets to the rim. He should get a lot of attention too.”

The “supporting cast” was also impressive, as Hobbs had six points and five rebounds, Hanlon three points and Galarraga (six rebounds), Kim and Smith two apiece.

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“Everyone stepped up and had a great game,” said Estrella.

“Joey’s an instigator for us and Nolan is a warrior and Gabe gives us great minutes,” Millington said. “We have a lot of good players. We have other guys on the bench who can contribute.”

South Portland enjoyed a 43-28 rebounding advantage, made 12 of 21 free throws and only committed eight turnovers.

Falmouth was paced by 14 points from Coyne, 12 from Stowell, six from Morrill, four from Simonds, three from Dilworth and two from Armstrong, who also had four assists.

The Navigators turned the ball over 15 times and made all three of their free throw attempts.

“(South Portland’s) one of the teams in the state with one of the best players and we couldn’t solve it,” Halligan said. “Every time we made a mistake, we paid for it. Their athleticism was a problem for some of our younger players. That’s how you learn. We could have chosen lesser teams to play, but we wouldn’t get better. We’ll get better from this. We’re a work in progress. If we’re fortunate to get through the South and play a team (at states) with some bigs, we might learn from this experience.”

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Say goodbye to 2021

Falmouth welcomes Brunswick Thursday and closes the calendar year at Mt. Ararat Tuesday of next week.

“We’re a work in progress,” Halligan said. “We’ll be a little more focused in practice and pay more attention after this.”

South Portland is back in action Thursday, with another showdown, at Class AA South rival Thornton Academy. The teams haven’t met since the Golden Trojans ended the Red Riots’ quest for an undefeated state title with an overtime victory in the 2020 Class AA South Final. A home game versus Massabesic a week from Wednesday then brings the curtain down on the 2021 portion of the schedule.

“Only me and Owen know how (losing two years ago) feels,” Jackson said. “I take it personally. We definitely need to keep improving defensively. We did a decent job tonight, but it could have been better. We need to execute better on offense. We have to settle in and handle pressure.”

“We just need to get back into practice and get ready for Thursday’s game against TA,” Estrella said. “I know what that game means to these guys. We’ll be fired up to play in their gym.”

“Defensively, we still have some things we can work on and offensively, our shot selection and execution isn’t always great,” Millington added. “We see our rival Thursday night in a hostile environment. It’s our favorite game to play. We love going there.”

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

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