BOX SCORE

South Portland 50 Bonny Eagle 32

BE- 9 4 11 8- 32
SP- 14 10 14 12- 50

BE- Campbell 3-0-8, Edwards 3-2-8, Walcott 4-0-8, Bouchard 1-4-6, Gordon 0-2-2

SP- Estrella 5-3-14, Jackson 6-0-13, Maloney 4-2-10, Kim 3-0-6, Smith 1-1-3, Galarraga 1-0-2, Hobbs 1-0-2

3-pointers:
BE (2) Campbell 2
SP (2) Estrella, Jackson 1

Turnovers:
BE- 17
SP- 14

FTs
BE: 8-11
SP: 6-9

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PORTLAND—Now, it’s official.

South Portland and Thornton Academy will meet in the Class AA South boys’ basketball final.

Yet again.

Thanks to the top-ranked Red Riots taking care of business in impressive fashion against No. 4 Bonny Eagle in a semifinal round contest Thursday evening at the Cross Insurance Arena.

It took South Portland a couple minutes to hit its stride, as it fell behind, 4-2, but the Red Riots seized control with an 11-0 run, sparked by the appearance of sophomore reserve Jayden Kim, who had two quick layups.

South Portland held a 14-9 lead after one quarter and with junior big man JP Estrella getting the better of Bonny Eagle junior center Eliot Bouchard, the Red Riots extended their advantage to 24-13 at the half.

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The Scots momentarily drew within 10 points in the third period before an Estrella 3 helped open it up again and South Portland took a 38-24 lead to the fourth quarter, where it continued to pull away before going on to a 50-32 victory.

Estrella had a double-double of 14 points and 14 rebounds, junior Jaelen Jackson added 13 points and senior Owen Maloney had 10 as the Red Riots improved to 19-1, ended Bonny Eagle’s season at 12-7 and advanced to take on No. 2 Thornton Academy (13-6) in the Class AA South Final Saturday at 8:45 p.m., at Cross Insurance Arena.

“I think we had a really tough matchup tonight in Bonny Eagle,” said South Portland coach Kevin Millington. “They’re a really good team with good players and their zone gives us trouble. It’s good to get this one out of the way.”

Decisiveness

South Portland nearly finished perfect and won it all two years ago, but was upset in overtime of the regional final by Thornton Academy. This year, the Red Riots are the favorite and have worn the bulls-eye well, winning 17 of 18 regular season games before easily ousting No. 8 Noble, 83-33, in the quarterfinals last Thursday (see sidebar for links to previous stories).

Bonny Eagle put together a strong season of its own, winning 11 regular season games, then beating No. 5 Gorham, 64-53, last week in its quarterfinal.

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South Portland won both regular season meetings, 59-44 Jan. 14 in Standish and 56-47 at home two weeks later.

The Red Riots were 1-3 all-time against the Scots in the tournament, with a 55-50 loss in the 2019 Class AA South semifinals the most recent (see sidebar).

Thursday, South Portland was in control most of the way and was never seriously threatened in the second half.

South Portland junior JP Estrella defends Bonny Eagle junior Eliot Bouchard early in Thursday’s contest. Hoffer photos.

The Scots started fast, as Bouchard showed off his passing acumen by feeding senior Aidan Walcott for a backdoor layup, then, after junior Nolan Hobbs tied it with a floater, Bouchard set up Walcott for another layup and a 4-2 lead.

But the Red Riots responded, tying it on an Estrella layup after a Jackson steal, then going ahead to stay with 3:31 remaining, when Kim, who had just entered the game, stole the ball from Bouchard and made a layup.

“I came in kind of nervous because I’ve never played here, but as soon as I got in, I started making plays and I felt it,” Kim said. “It just felt amazing. Our game plan was to take away (Bouchard’s) right hand and if he put the ball down, all the guards collapse.”

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Kim then drove for a layup and after an Estrella block at the defensive end, Maloney drove and scored on a floater to make it 10-4.

After Kim set up Jackson for a 3-ball from the corner, junior Ben Smith added a free throw to cap a 12-0 run.

With 37.9 seconds to go, Bonny Eagle capped a 6 minute, 35 second drought on two Bouchard free throws.

Then, with time winding down, the Red Riots turned the ball over and that allowed junior Hayden Campbell to drain a 3 from the corner at the horn to cut the deficit to 14-9.

South Portland kept the pressure on in the second period, as Maloney scored on a putback, then Maloney kept possession with an offensive rebound and set up Jackson for a short floater to extend the lead to nine.

Campbell answered with a putback, but Kim made a layup after another steal, Estrella scored on a putback and after being fouled on a dunk attempt, Estrella made two free throws with 1:35 remaining.

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That was the extend of the Red Riots’ first half offense and with 16.9 seconds to go, junior Dom Gordon hit two free throws to pull the Scots with 11, 24-13, at the break.

Bonny Eagle made just 4-of-23 shots in the first half and turned the ball over 10 times. Estrella and Kim each scored six points to help South Portland open up the lead.

The Scots hung tough for most of the third quarter before the Red Riots got a little more breathing room at the end.

Campbell knocked down a 3 to start the second half, but Estrella set up Jackson for a layup, then Maloney made a jumper for a 28-16 lead.

Bouchard hit two free throws, but Estrella scored on a putback, then Maloney made two foul shots for a 32-18 advantage.

Bonny Eagle crept back within 10 on a bank shot from sophomore Terrell Edwards and a jumper from Bouchard, but Jackson set up Estrella for a 3 from the corner, then Jackson stole the ball and went in for a layup.

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Estrella added a free throw before Walcott banked home a runner with a couple seconds left to make it 38-24 heading for the fourth period.

Where the Red Riots quickly ended any lingering suspense.

After Walcott drove for a layup to start the final stanza, Kim set up sophomore Gabe Galarraga for a layup, Smith found Jackson for a layup on the fastbreak, then Kim found Maloney for another layup and a 44-26 lead, forcing Scots coach John Trull to call timeout.

Edwards got three points back with a leaner, foul and free throw, but Estrella got a sliver of room and raced in for a slam dunk before Kim stole the ball, got it to Estrella and Estrella threw a long pass ahead to Jackson for another easy layup and a 48-29 advantage with 4:43 to go.

South Portland’s final basket came 21 seconds later, when Smith made a layup and Bonny Eagle then closed out the scoring, as Edwards made a free throw, then Edwards drove for a layup.

The Red Riots ran out the clock from there and advanced, 50-32.

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South Portland celebrates its win at the final horn.

“It was a battle throughout, but we came out strong, so I’m proud,” Estrella said. “We got the ball up the floor really well and got great transition points off the defensive end.”

“We have really good defensive guards and on offense, we have guys who can get in the paint, so we’re in an attack mode all the time,” said Millington. “We made it really hard on them to get it in the paint and it’s hard to get inside with JP there.”

Estrella, who is highly coveted by schools at the next level, indeed was a force, scoring 14 points, grabbing 14 rebounds and dishing out three assists.

Jackson was solid as well, with 13 points, four steals and three assists.

Maloney, who earlier this week was chosen a semifinalist for the Mr. Maine Basketball award, added 10 points and six rebounds.

Kim came off the bench and excelled with six points, four steals, four rebounds and three assists.

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“Jayden’s a hooper,” said Estrella. “I’m glad he played such an awesome game.”

“Jayden’s really been coming on,” Millington said. “We said coming in not to be surprised if he had a really good game. It was a game fit for him. He handles (the ball) really well, he can score around the rim and he’s tough as nails. He gives us a secondary ballhandler along with Jaelen.”

Smith had three points and Galarraga and Hobbs two apiece.

The Red Riots had a 37-22 rebound advantage, shot a terrific 24-of-43 (56 percent) from the floor, made 6-of-9 free throws and overcame 14 turnovers.

Bonny Eagle got eight points apiece from Campbell, Edwards (four rebounds) and Walcott (three steals). Bouchard had six points, seven rebounds, five blocked shots and three assists.

“Eliot’s great and he’s had a great year, but JP’s a tough matchup for anyone,” said Millington. “They’ve had some good battles and they’re both juniors, so they’ll have more.”

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Gordon finished with two points.

The Scots only shot 26 percent from the floor (11-of-42), finished 8-of-11 from the foul line and turned the ball over 17 times.

Here we go again

South Portland and Thornton Academy split during the regular season, with the Red Riots prevailing, 60-53, in Saco two days before Christmas, then the Golden Trojans winning, 58-53, Jan, 18 at Beal Gymnasium.

“We weren’t playing SoPo basketball and we weren’t playing to our potential and that game was a wakeup call and we learned we can be beat,” Estrella said. “Now, we’re in killer mode and we want to take it to everyone every game.”

“They’ve outplayed us both games this year,” Millington said. “They outworked us and really flustered us down there and we stole that first one. We got a couple breaks down the stretch. At home, we didn’t get those breaks.”

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Since 1970, the teams have squared off nine times in the tournament with South Portland prevailing on six occasions, but the most recent, the regional final two seasons ago, resulted in a 61-55 OT victory for Thornton Academy.

For the Red Riots to get to where they want to go, the state final, and get a chance to end a 30-year Gold Ball drought, it’s only fitting they’ll have to go through their rival/nemesis to do so.

“Playing TA in the regional finals is pretty cool,” said Kim. “(Thornton Academy junior standout) Will Davies is a great player and we’ll try to take him out of the equation.”

“We have to play our best basketball,” Estrella said. “They beat us mentally and physically both games, so we won’t take them lightly. We just have be more aggressive and beat them down the floor. Owen and Jaelen were big factors two years ago and I know they really want to beat (TA) and I want to beat them too. It’s a big game for us. We want to get to the state final.”

“We’ve played them so much and they’re obviously a great program,” Millington added. “They have a great pedigree with their (state champion) football guys and Will Davies is an all-state player. They come after us and always bring their best against us. It’s two even teams. It doesn’t matter what seeds we are. It should be fun.”

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

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