BOX SCORE

South Portland 56 Thornton Academy 39

TA- 0 20 6 13- 39
SP- 11 14 18 13- 56

TA- Davies 5-5-15, Camire 2-1-7, Marcus 1-4-6, Bowker 2-1-5, Jones 2-0-4, Binette 0-1-1, Ruff 0-1-1

SP- Jackson 6-4-17, Estrella 6-0-13, Maloney 5-0-12, Galarraga 3-0-8, Hobbs 1-0-2, Kim 1-0-2, Smith 1-0-2

3-pointers:
TA (2) Camire 2
SP (6) Galarraga, Maloney 2, Estrella, Jackson 1

Turnovers:
TA- 20
SP- 9

FTs
TA: 13-18
SP: 4-10

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PORTLAND—Winning a regional championship feels great.

And slaying its rival/nemesis to do so felt absolutely delicious for South Portland’s boys’ basketball team in the Class AA South Final Saturday evening at the Cross Insurance Arena.

The top-ranked Red Riots took on the only team to beat them this year, second-seeded Thornton Academy, the same Golden Trojans’ squad which denied South Portland’s bid for perfection and a title two years ago in this same regional final round.

But this time was different.

For starters, the Red Riots got off to a nearly perfect start, pitching a first quarter shutout defensively and racing to an 11-0 lead.

To no one’s surprise, Thornton Academy roared back in the second period behind the play of dynamic junior guard Will Davies and drew within five, 25-20, at halftime.

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Then, after Golden Trojans junior Braden Camire opened the second half with a 3-pointer, South Portland was on the brink of relinquishing the lead, but playing like the champions they hope to become in one week’s time, the Red Riots responded with their most brilliant display of basketball of the season.

With junior point guard Jaelen Jackson sidelined with three fouls, senior Owen Maloney twice fed junior 6-foot-10 big man extraordinaire JP Estrella for baskets to get things started, then late in the third quarter, Maloney made a 3, followed by a NBA-range 3-ball from Jackson to break it open and make the score, 43-26.

Thornton Academy could never make a serious run in the fourth period and South Portland went up by as much as 20 before going on to a 56-39 victory.

Jackson scored 17 points, Estrella added 13 and Maloney finished with 12 as the Red Riots improved to 20-1, ended Thornton Academy’s season at 13-7 and advanced to the Class AA state final for the first time in five years, where they will face Oxford Hills (18-3) Saturday at 9 p.m., at Cross Insurance Arena.

“This was our revenge game,” said Maloney. “We wanted it all season. We knew we’d have another matchup. We had a good scouting report and we just played as well as we could.”

Prime time performance

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South Portland had high hopes entering the season and stood tall throughout, winning 17 of 18 games (see sidebar for links to previous stories). In the quarterfinals, the Red Riots had no trouble with No. 8 Noble (83-33). In Thursday’s semifinal round, South Portland impressed again, eliminating No. 4 Bonny Eagle (50-32).

Thornton Academy had some tough losses in the regular season, but rose to the occasion in the tournament, eliminating No. 7 Scarborough (60-37) in the quarterfinals, then fending off No. 6 Massabesic’s upset bid in Thursday’s semifinal round (53-48).

Both regular season matchups were thrillers, with the road team emerging victorious. On Dec. 23 in Saco, the Red Riots made plays down the stretch to prevail, 60-53. On Jan. 18, in South Portland, the Golden Trojans wouldn’t be denied and won, 58-53.

The teams had met nine previous times in the playoffs, dating to 1970 (see sidebar), with the Red Riots taking six of them, but Thornton Academy’s 61-55 overtime victory in the 2020 Class AA South Final was the most recent.

Saturday, South Portland wasn’t about to stumble in this round again.

Just 25 seconds in, Maloney drove and finished with his left hand and the Red Riots were ahead to stay.

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While South Portland’s defense was giving the Golden Trojans fits, its offense needed three more minutes to add to the lead, as Estrella blocked a shot in resounding fashion at the defensive end, then took a pass from Jackson and buried a long 3.

Maloney then set up Estrella for a layup, Jackson scored on a putback and at the horn, a putback from sophomore center Gabe Galarraga made it 11-0 Red Riots.

“It was a very good defensive quarter,” Jackson said. “We held Will and his teammates to zero points.”

“The first two times we played them, we got off to really bad starts, but tonight, we got off to a really good start and that was key,” said South Portland coach Kevin Millington. “It felt good to be on the other end of that. We think we play very good defense, which gives us a chance to win every game.”

Red Riots sophomore Jayden Kim opened the second period with a runner off the glass, but 39 seconds in, Thornton Academy finally got on the board, as senior Cody Bowker knocked down a long jump shot.

Galarraga countered with a 3, but the Golden Trojans got a free throw from junior Alessio Marcus and a runner from Davies, for his first points.

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Maloney answered with another 3 to make it 19-5 and after Davies hit a jumper in the lane, a putback from Estrella kept the lead at 14 points.

Davies made two free throws, but with 3:47 to go before halftime, Maloney’s putback made it 23-9.

The Golden Trojans then closed the first half on an 11-2 run, as Davies converted an old-fashioned three-point play (bank shot, foul, free throw) and Davies hit a floater and after Jackson picked up his third foul and had to sit with 2:13 left, Bowker made a free throw and Camire drained a 3.

Estrella countered with a spinning layup, but with 7 seconds to go, Davies sank two free throws and Thornton Academy went into the break down by just five points, 25-20.

Davies’ 13 points in the quarter made things very interesting and the Golden Trojans’ rally didn’t come as a surprise.

“I knew they’d make a run, so I wasn’t comfortable,” said Millington. “Will Davies is so good. We tried to keep him out of the paint and he got in the paint in the second quarter. He’s so good at making plays down there, whether it’s his own shot, or finding a teammate.”

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When Camire opened the second half with a 3-pointer just 18 seconds in, it appeared Thornton Academy was going to come all the way back, but instead, South Portland settled down and let its big man restore order.

First Maloney found Estrella down low and Estrella made a reverse layup to stem the tide.

Then, Estrella knocked down a bank shot to push the lead back to six, 29-23.

“We all came through,” Estrella said. “I wanted it a couple times, but I was really looking for open teammates. Sometimes, it was me, so I had to do what I could do to score.”

“Owen kept us in the right frame of mind without Jaelen out there,” Millington said. “He got the ball inside to JP.”

Camire countered with a free throw, but Maloney hit a leaner.

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After Camire set up Davies for a layup with 4:14 on the clock, the Red Riots closed the quarter on a 12-0 run to pull away.

First, junior Nolan Hobbs made a short jumper.

Then, Jackson stole the ball and made a layup and while Golden Trojans coach Bob Davies called a timeout right afterwards, it didn’t work, as junior Ben Smith spun and finished for South Portland, Estrella found Maloney for a 3-pointer and then, with 1:07 remaining, Jackson got the ball way outside, beyond the NBA stripe, and let it rip.

Splash.

“I didn’t start the second half, so it was good to see my teammates step up,” Jackson said. “Jayden came in and took care of business until I could get back in there. I just needed to see a couple shots go in, then it started to flow for me. My teammates got me open shots and I was able to get them to connect.”

“Both of those 3s were awesome,” Estrella said. “That got the student section going and gave us energy.”

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“Jaelen’s really under control,” Millington added. “He can play with fouls and he did again tonight. He’s been a great leader for us. That was a dagger shot and I’ll live with it. He felt it and I didn’t say anything and it went in.”

Jackson’s 3 gave the Red Riots a commanding 43-26 advantage heading to the fourth period.

Where South Portland cruised to its coronation.

Jackson started the final stanza the way he ended the third quarter, with a highlight reel hoop, this one a runner that rolled around and in.

Bowker made a layup to end the 14-0 run and a 4 minute, 8 second drought, but with 7:19 to go, Galarraga got a pass from Maloney and sank another 3, this one from the corner, for the Red Riots’ biggest lead of the night.

“Those were Gabe’s first two 3s of the season,” Estrella said. “He got us pumped up.”

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“Gabe’s a great athlete,” said Millington. “He’s 6-foot-6 and he can shoot it. He’s struggled with his shot, but he got it up in the air tonight.”

Thornton Academy tried to make a run, as Marcus converted a three-point play, senior Cody Ruff made a free throw, Marcus sank two foul shots and junior Anthony Jones scored on a runner with 4:40 left to cut the deficit to a dozen, but Maloney fed Jackson for a breakaway layup to end the surge.

Jackson then made a free throw before converting a three-point play to make it 54-36 with 3:09 to go.

After senior Colin Binette made a foul shot for the Golden Trojans, Jones made a layup after a steal, but that only delayed the inevitable and after Jackson made two more free throws, the clock ran out and at 10:12 p.m., South Portland celebrated its 56-39 victory.

“This is something I missed out on freshman year, so it definitely feels great to come back and get some revenge,” Jackson said. “Owen and I have talked about this every day. It’s super-fulfilling. We got most teams’ best games. It’s tough, but we’ve been persevering all year.”

“They didn’t score in the first quarter because we talked on defense and made sure Davies didn’t get anything easy,” said Maloney. “The second quarter, we struggled a little bit. They got what they wanted. We got back to what we wanted to do after halftime and took it to them.”

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“We had that great first quarter, which was a great energy boost for us,” Estrella said.. They came back in the second quarter, but we shut them down in the third and fourth. We talked on defense and got wide-open shots in the offensive end. I trust all of our guys.”

“Thornton’s an unbelievable team and they’re unbelievably well-coached,” Millington added. “It’s a great rivalry. You have to bring your ‘A’ game to beat them. Keeping (Davies) out of the paint without Jaelen was key. We’ve shown great mental toughness down the stretch and in the playoffs, we’ve had really good focus. Tonight was a good example. I think we were feeling the pressure early in the year, but our mindset tonight was we had to play well and if we didn’t, they would beat us. The kids knew that and I’m not sure they knew that earlier on.”

Jackson wound up leading all scorers with 17 points and he also had four steals.

Estrella was his usual dominant self, scoring 13 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and blocking three shots. After the game, Estrella was given the Vinall Award, as the regional tournament’s outstanding player/sportsman.

“I’m really humbled to win the award and I wouldn’t have gotten it without my teammates,” Estrella said. “It’s an amazing feeling. It’s my first year playing here at the Civic Center.”

“It’s nice to have a 6-10 kid,” Millington said. “He’s getting recruited (by Division I schools) because he can shoot, he can run the floor, he has great hands, great feet and he’s a great kid too.”

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Maloney also finished in double figures with 12 points. He had five assists and four rebounds.

“Owen’s the most underappreciated player in the state,” said Millington. “He’s the defensive player of the year in our conference, he’s a great offensive player and his mindset is really contagious with the rest of the team.”

Galarraga impressed off the bench with eight points and Hobbs, Kim and Smith all added two.

South Portland made six 3-pointers to Thornton Academy’s two and while it struggled from the floor (22-of-53) and the line (4-of-10), it only turned the ball over nine times, with five of them coming in the final quarter after the game was decided.

The Golden Trojans were paced by Davies’ 15 points and seven rebounds, but Davies didn’t play in the fourth period.

Camire added seven points and three assists, Marcus had six points (to go with seven rebounds), Bowker five (and six rebounds), Jones four and Binette and Ruff one apiece.

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Thornton Academy had a 31-28 edge on the glass and shot 14-of-30 from the floor and 13-of-18 from the foul line, but turned the ball over 20 times.

End of a drought?

South Portland last won a state title in 1992, when the undefeated Red Riots outlasted Bangor in a five-overtime epic. South Portland came close several times in recent years and now has a chance to finish the job.

But it won’t come easily.

Not against an Oxford Hills team riding high after beating reigning champion Edward Little on Teigan Pelletier’s overtime buzzer-beater in the Class AA North Final Saturday.

South Portland didn’t face Oxford Hills this year. The teams played three times in the tournament in the 1990s with the Red Riots winning two. The Vikings, who will be playing for their first championship, captured the most recent playoff encounter, 52-44, in the 1995 Western A preliminary round.

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The Red Riots know next Saturday will be about destiny, history and legacy and they’re primed to end the school’s championship drought.

“I want a state title more than anything, personally,” Jackson said. “We’ll scout Oxford Hills. I think we match up well with them, but we’ll have to play lights out again for the whole game to take care of business.”

“I’ve been watching South Portland all my life and unfortunately, I’ve seen some teams make it (to states) and fail,” Maloney said. “We need to have a good week next week to get ready. I’m really excited. It’s going to be a fun one.”

“This feels great right now, but after tonight, we’ll just get ready for (Oxford Hills),” said Estrella. “We have to shut (Teigan) down. We have to do what we did in the first quarter tonight. We need to play great defense, find open shots, talk, everything. We need every ounce of energy for our last game of the season. We just need to play together and play as a team.”

“It’s been a long, long time,” Millington added. “We know Oxford Hills is a great team. They have great size and they’re tough as nails. We’ve sat and watched the other team collect trophies the last five, six, seven years, so hopefully it’s our turn.”

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

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