BOX SCORE

South Portland 55 Portland 37

P- 12 6 10 9- 37
SP- 13 8 16 18- 55

P- W. Donato 3-3-9, Cross 3-2-8, Khamis 2-2-6, P. Donato 2-0-4, Toher 1-0-3, Alakafaji 1-0-2, Johnson 0-2-2, Veilleux 1-0-2, Girumugisha 0-1-1

SP- Estrella 10-4-24, Jackson 4-4-14, Maloney 4-2-11, Kim 0-4-4, Rende 1-0-2

3-pointers:
P (1) Toher 1
SP (3) Jackson 2, Maloney 1

Turnovers:
P- 19
SP- 13

FTs
P: 10-21
SP: 14-23

Advertisement

SOUTH PORTLAND—If you saw JP Estrella soaring through the air, throwing down violent slam dunks and celebrating with his teammates and student section late in Thursday evening’s contest against Portland at Beal Gymnasium, you would have never guessed that for much of the night, Estrella was frustrated and his team was held in check in its regular season finale.

But in reality, for much of the showdown, the Bulldogs indeed played the game at their pace and when they held a third quarter lead, they were entertaining dreams of an upset.

But those dreams came crashing down about as hard as an Estrella slam dunk.

Of which there were many.

The first quarter featured five lead changes and while senior Spencer Cross scored eight points for Portland, Estrella had six points and seven rebounds for South Portland, which clung to a 13-12 advantage after eight minutes.

Estrella, a 6-foot-10 junior standout who is getting major interest from Division I colleges, was held in check in the second quarter and the Bulldogs, who got seven first half points from senior Wani Donato, were still within three, 21-18, at the break.

Advertisement

Midway through the third period, sophomore Jeissey Khamis converted a three-point play and Portland held a surprising 26-25 advantage, but the Red Riots would end the frame with a flourish.

After junior Jaelen Jackson gave his team the lead for good with a layup, Estrella finally provided some breathing room in the final minute, scoring seven straight points, highlighted by a dunk which led to a three-point play, as he emphatically answered a Bulldogs student section which called him “overrated” and South Portland took a 39-28 lead to the fourth quarter.

There, Portland never got closer than nine as the Red Riots pulled away to prevail, 53-35.

Estrella had a game-high 24 points, 16 rebounds and four blocked shots, Jackson added 14 points and senior Owen Maloney finished with 11 as South Portland ended its superb regular season at 17-1 and ended the Bulldogs’ regular campaign at 11-7.

“I started off pretty bad,” said Estrella. “I missed a bunch of 3s in the first half, but after hearing the ‘overrated’ chants, I had to step up after that. I just tried to get us some momentum. We got a couple stops and some easy baskets and we went on a run.”

Look out below

Advertisement

South Portland has worn the bulls-eye all winter and has worn it well.

The Red Riots started with victories at home over Noble (76-32), at home over Windham (62-39) and at Sanford (66-34) before producing an impressive 58-41 home win over visiting Falmouth. South Portland then went to Saco and held off the host Golden Trojans, 60-53. After the calendar flipped to 2022, the Red Riots defeated host Sanford (65-42) and Massabesic (54-45), visiting Scarborough (61-42), host Gorham (61-51) and Bonny Eagle (59-44) before losing for the lone time, 58-53, to visiting Thornton Academy.

“None of us want to feel what it’s like to lose, so it’s good it happened in the regular season,” Maloney said.

“We don’t want to lose, but in my opinion, that loss helped us out,” Estrella said. “We took games too lightly earlier in this season. That was a wake-up call. Better to lose then than in the playoffs.”

South Portland then bounced back and knocked off host Deering (66-52), visiting Massabesic (69-41), host Scarborough (57-24), visiting Bonny Eagle (56-47), host Noble (72-32) and visiting Gorham (51-39).

Portland, meanwhile, has returned to prominence after a couple of down years.

Advertisement

The Bulldogs started with a 42-40 home loss to Lewiston, then won at Bonny Eagle (45-41) and at Hampden Academy (63-42), rallied for a 44-41 victory at Cheverus, then downed host Deering, 45-40. A 47-41 home loss to reigning Class AA state champion Edward Little was followed by a nearly two-week hiatus before Portland returned to action with an impressive 45-36 home victory over reigning Class AA South champion Thornton Academy and an equally impressive 52-43 home victory over Oxford Hills. After falling at home to Cheverus, 46-42, the Bulldogs held off visiting Falmouth, 47-44 and beat visiting Windham (65-53). Losses at Lewiston (64-44) and Oxford Hills (45-40) were followed by a 49-44 home win over Bangor and a 45-44 victory at Windham. After a 56-35 setback at Edward Little, Portland impressed at home versus Deering Tuesday, 54-32.

The Bulldogs-Red Riots rivalry dates to 1910. South Portland took both meetings a year ago, 67-47, at home and 56-46 in Portland, the Red Riots’ first sweep of the Bulldogs in a dozen years, which cut Portland’s all-time edge in the series to 127-106.

Thursday, in front of a large and raucous gathering, on the Red Riots’ Senior Night, the Bulldogs executed their game plan well for much of the night, but ultimately, there was no slowing the South Portland Express.

South Portland senior Owen Maloney looks for his shot against Portland senior Wani Donato as Red Riots junior JP Estrella prepares to crash the glass during the Red Riots’ 55-37 victory Thursday night. Hoffer photos.

The first quarter featured five lead changes and some great action both ways.

Two Donato free throws got things started, but Estrella scored on a putback, Jackson made a layup, then Estrella scored on another putback for a quick 6-2 Red Riots’ lead.

Cross scored his first points on a putback before Jackson drained a long 3.

Advertisement

Cross then put on a show, driving and finishing a reverse layup, making two free throws, then, off a long feed from Khamis, racing in for a layup for a 10-9 Portland advantage.

Red Riots coach Kevin Millington called timeout and South Portland answered, as Maloney made a floater in the lane.

Cross then set up Donato for a go-ahead layup, but with 23 seconds left, Jackson passed to Estrella, who had just enough room along the baseline to soar in and slam the ball home for a 13-12 lead after eight minutes.

Estrella had six points, seven rebounds and a couple blocked shots in the frame, while Cross paced the Bulldogs with eight points.

The action slowed a bit in the second period, but the Red Riots were able to hold their lead.

Maloney started the frame with a pair of free throws and after sophomore Pepito Giumugisha hit a foul shot for Portland, Khamis tied it with a jumper, but sophomore Jayden Kim was fouled with 3:36 left and a technical foul on Cross was called as well and Kim made all four subsequent free throws before a Maloney floater made it 21-15 14 seconds later.

Advertisement

That sequence was huge not only for the six points, but because Cross wouldn’t return the rest of the night.

“Spencer did well, but he got that T and maybe it was stupid of me not to play him again, but it’s a tough call,” said Portland coach Joe Russo. “It was a parental thing. It killed me to keep him out, but I wanted the lesson to be learned. I needed him, but I couldn’t allow that.”

That would be it for South Portland’s offense in the half, however, and after sophomore James Johnson made one of three free throws, Donato’s putback pulled the Bulldogs within three, 21-18, at the break.

When junior Brady Toher opened the second half with a 3-pointer, Portland pulled even.

Maloney answered with a floater, but after a Toher steal, junior Pitia Donato’s layup tied the score for the fourth and final time, 23-23.

After the Red Riots got a pair of Jackson free throws, Khamis’ old-fashioned three-point play (layup, foul, free throw) gave the Bulldogs a 26-25 with 3:35 left in the quarter.

Advertisement

And then, South Portland exploded on a 12-2 run to turn the game on its ear.

Jackson drove and finished a layup with his left hand to put the Red Riots ahead to stay and after Estrella made two free throws, Jackson hit another, but with 1:06 on the clock, a Pitia Donato putback pulled Portland within two.

But in the span of 36 electrifying seconds, Estrella scored seven points to give South Portland some space.

First, he scored on a putback with 54 seconds to go.

Estrella scored another putback 18 seconds later.

Then, after a Jackson steal, Jackson passed ahead to Estrella, who raced in and slammed the ball home and in the process was fouled. He added the and-one free throw and a nip-and-tuck contest had turned into a 37-28 Red Riots’ advantage after three.

Advertisement

“We knew (Portland would) slow the game down and it would be a bloodbath, but once we pounded the ball in the middle and pressed them and put JP up top, it gave them trouble and it gave us momentum,” Maloney said. “He makes it a lot easier for everyone else. He’s just fun to watch.”

“When we put JP up top the press, it kept them from getting into any kind of offense and got us some big dunks and that got us going a little bit,” said Millington.

“It turned around quick,” lamented longtime Portland coach Joe Russo. “That little spurt gave them separation and that was it. We couldn’t recover from that.”

Any Portland comeback hopes were quickly dashed in the final stanza.

Estrella stayed hot with a layup and after Wani Donato finished a reverse layup to make it 39-30, Jackson threw an alley-oop pass to Estrella, who ascended over the defense to snare it and throw it down for another dunk to thrill the crowd with 6:31 remaining.

“(Jaelen and I have) been playing together for a long time and we have the right chemistry,” Estrella said. “We know on the right play just where to be.”

Advertisement

“We made Estrella look great tonight,” Russo said. “We let him get those alley-oops. That’s on me. Maybe I could have covered that better if I scouted more.”

Khamis answered with a free throw, but Maloney drained a contested 3-pointer, Jackson and Estrella added single free throws, then Estrella got a hook shot to drop for a 48-31 advantage with 4:43 to go.

After Girumugisha hit a free throw for the Bulldogs, Estrella produced his biggest highlight.

Portland got the ball back, but Maloney knocked it away, Jackson scooped it up and spotted Estrella alone behind the defense. Jackson got Estrella the ball, he raced in and windmill dunked the ball home to make it 50-32.

“I just go with the flow and I just put it down,” Estrella said. “I had to put a little extra power on that one to hype up the student section.”

“(JP) needed to see the ball go in a little bit,” said Millington. “He was frustrated early. Portland did a great job putting three guys on him. They’re probably the best defensive team in the league.”

Advertisement

After Jackson made a free throw, he added a floater and that was it for the starters.

Down the stretch, freshman Drew Veilleux made a layup, sophomore Isaak Alkafaji scored when South Portland goaltended and Johnson added a free throw for the Bulldogs’ final points.

Maloney then set up senior Nate Rende for a layup to account for the final score and the Red Riots celebrated their 55-37 victory.

South Portland players celebrate at the final horn.

“It was really exciting,” said Maloney. “A lot of people showed up tonight and it was nice to recognize the seniors. We’ve grown this season. We’re moving the ball well. All five guys move the ball and play great defense.”

“It’s great to play Portland,” Millington said. “Portland, Deering and Cheverus are our rivals. We played one game at Deering, didn’t play Cheverus, so playing Portland the final game at home, it felt great in front of this crowd. It was a tournament-type game that was good for us.”

The win was the 100th for Millington in his seven seasons at South Portland (against just 33 losses).

Advertisement

“It just means I’ve had a lot of really good players here,’ Millington said.

While Estrella had a double-double of 24 points and 16 rebounds and also blocked four shots, he had plenty of company in leading South Portland to victory.

Jackson added 14 points, six assists, four rebounds and three steals. Maloney also finished in double figures with 11 points, as well as four steals. Kim had four points and Rende two.

The Red Riots enjoyed a 39-28 rebound advantage, only turned the ball over 13 times and made 14-of-23 foul shots.

Portland didn’t place a scorer in double figures. Wani Donato led the way with nine points. He also had eight rebounds and three blocks. Cross had eight points in his limited time, Khamis added six (to go with five rebounds), Pitia Donato had four (as well as four rebounds and three steals), Toher three, Alkafaji, Johnson and Veilleux two apiece and Girumugisha one.

The Bulldogs only made 10-of-21 free throws and committed 19 turnovers.

Advertisement

“It was a weird game because there were no playoff implications and they’re in a different region, so it was almost anti-climactic after our Deering game,” Russo said. “I do think South Portland’s the best team I’ve seen.”

Showtime

Portland will be the No. 3 seed in Class AA North tournament and will host No. 6 Cheverus (7-11) in the quarterfinals next week, likely Wednesday, at a time to be announced.

“I’m so thrilled with these guys,” Russo said. “Going 11-7 was beyond what I thought we could do. I don’t want to tell them they’re overachieving because we’re not done. We’ll keep going forward. No games will be easy.

“Cheverus will be tough. We split with them. Cheverus has two really good guards. They don’t have a whole lot of size. We can maybe do some things underneath. It should be fun.”

South Portland has long locked up the top seed in Class AA South. Next week, the Red Riots will welcome winless Noble in the quarterfinal round.

Advertisement

“We want to use this momentum for the playoffs,” Maloney said. “We just have to play hard all 32 minutes. We’re up for the challenge.”

“We had a great regular season,” Estrella said. “We grew as a team and battled. We just need to work hard and think about the South Portland community every time we step on the court. They’ve been waiting 30 years for us to win a Gold Ball. It’ll be really tough, but we have a really good chance if we work together.”

“We’ve had a good year,’ Millington added. “We’ve grinded. We’ve played some tough teams. We’ve learned a lot about ourselves. We’ve come into our own defensively. We’re tough to score on and the big three have played great.

“We’ll treat the quarterfinal like it’s the state championship, try to do the best we can to survive and advance. We probably have as much tournament experience as anyone and that helps. Some teams are happy to be there, but we’re going in on a mission. Matchups will be a big thing. Some teams don’t match up with us at all and other teams do match up, so we need to be great defensively every game and we have to execute on offense.”

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

Comments are not available on this story.