SOUTH PORTLAND—If South Portland’s boys’ basketball team wasn’t aware of just how unpredictable tournament play can be, the Red Riots got a reminder Tuesday evening when Gorham was upset by Scarborough.

Twenty-four hours later, at Beal Gymnasium, second-ranked South Portland took the floor to take on upset-minded Sanford, the No. 7 seed, but the reigning Class AA champions weren’t about to be caught off guard in their quarterfinal.

The Spartans, who won 10 fewer games in the regular season, took a 13-10 lead after one quarter, but senior standout Jaelen Jackson scored on consecutive putbacks to give the Red Riots the lead for good and they were up, 19-17, at halftime.

South Portland then got some breathing room in the third period, going up by as many as nine points before taking a 32-25 advantage to the fourth quarter.

There, senior Ben Smith hit a backbreaking 3-pointer and Jackson scored eight points to help the Red Riots put the finishing touches on a 47-34 victory.

Jackson led all scorers with 17 points, junior Gabe Galarraga added 11 and Smith finished 10 as South Portland won its seventh game in a row, improved to 16-3, ended Sanford’s season at 5-14 and in the process, set up a semifinal round showdown versus No. 6 Scarborough (7-12) next Thursday evening at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland.


“I like winning, no matter how we get it,” said Red Riots coach Kevin Millington. “(Sanford) gave (top-ranked) Thornton Academy a really tough game and we knew beating them a third time wouldn’t be easy. It wasn’t, but we held on.”

Ready to repeat

South Portland has a vastly different look this winter, but success remained a constant with a 15-3 record (see sidebar for links to previous stories), marred only by two losses to preseason favorite Thornton Academy and another to a Gorham squad which has already been eliminated from the tournament.

Sanford, meanwhile, dropped its first four games and seven of its first eight and after winning four in a row, lost its final six to drop to the No. 7 seed.

The Red Riots twice beat the Spartans this season, 77-68 on the road and 78-41 at home.

South Portland was 9-0 all-time (dating to 1975) versus Sanford in the tournament (see sidebar for previous results), with a 65-39 win in the 2019 Class AA South quarterfinals the most recent.


Wednesday, the Red Riots prevailed again, but nothing came easily.

South Portland junior Jayden Kim is defended by Sanford’s LJ McFarland early in the Red Riots’ 47-34 victory Wednesday. Hoffer photos.

The Spartans scored first, as Tanner McCann put home a missed shot and after Galarraga made a free throw for South Portland’s first point, McCann hit a 3-pointer from the corner for a 5-1 advantage.

The Red Riots then awakened and scored nine straight points, as Smith set up senior Joey Hanlon for a layup, Smith took a pass from junior Jayden Kim and made a layup to tie it, Kim stole the ball, then Jackson set up Hanlon for a go-ahead layup and after Sanford coach Jake Mills called timeout, Smith drilled a 3-pointer from the corner to make it 10-5.

The Spartans then went on a run of their own to close the frame, as Alex Sevigny hit a 3, LJ McFarland made a layup after a steal and Makai Bougie sank a long 3 for a 13-10 lead after eight minutes.

South Portland tied the score on an old-fashioned three-point play (layup, foul, free throw) from Galarraga before a Bougie driving layup gave Sanford its final lead, 15-13.

Jackson set up Galarraga for a layup to tie it, then with 3:17 on the clock, Jackson scored on a putback and the Red Riots had the lead for good.


After Jackson again scored on a putback, Bougie drove for a layup, but South Portland clung to a 19-17 advantage at the break.

South Portland junior Gabe Galarraga backs in on Sanford’s Shawn Puffer.

The Red Riots then started with a quick 7-2 burst to start the second half.

Jackson got things started with a layup (off a pass from Kim) and after Bougie answered with a jumper, Galarraga steered home a contested leaner, then, in transition, Hanlon drove the lane and drew the defense, then kicked the ball out to Jackson in the corner and Jackson buried a 3 for a 26-19 lead, forcing Mills to call timeout again.

It helped initially, as McFarland set up Shawn Puffer for a layup, but off an inbounds set, Jackson found senior Andrew Heffernan in the corner and Heffernan, who gave South Portland some great minutes off the bench, sank a 3.

“We got a couple stops in a row to start the second half, then offensively, we ran the floor and pressured the rim a little bit and that opened up kick-out 3s,” Jackson said. “Getting transition buckets and stops on the defensive end helped us a lot.”

After Bougie got a point back at the line, Galarraga answered with a layup.


Liam Gendron then appeared to give the Spartans life with a late 3, but Galarraga hit a free throw to give the Red Riots a 32-25 advantage going to the fourth period.

And there, South Portland ended all doubt.

Puffer started the final quarter by driving for a reverse layup, but Jackson hit two free throws and Smith scored on a putback.

After McCann scored on a runner with 4:11 remaining, Smith answered with a huge 3-pointer 17 seconds late for the Red Riots’ first double-digit lead of the night.

“I have to shoot with confidence, that’s how I make shots, so I just stepped into it and let it fly and it went in,” said Smith.

“Defensively, we got some stops and that 3 in the corner was big because we know we have Jayden and Jaelen, who can take care of the ball and you’ll have to foul us, or we’ll get to the rim,” Millington said. “We don’t shoot it really well, so we just had to make one. We get a little breathing room and our defense and guard play will help control the game.”


McCann countered with two free throws, but Kim drove for a contested layup, then Jackson made a layup in traffic with 2:06 to go and South Portland was ahead by a dozen, 43-31.

With 1:53 to play, Gendron sank a 3-pointer for Sanford’s final points.

Jackson then put it away with two foul shots with 1:06 on the clock and two more with 18 seconds showing and the Red Riots prevailed, 47-34.

“We came into the game knowing it would be hard-fought and we knew we’d have to give our all no matter what,” Smith said. “I feel like we gave 100 percent.”

“Playoffs is a grind,” said Jackson. “Everyone’s prepared for you, scouting a lot more than they would in the regular season. It’s a lot different especially playing a team a third time. Anyone can give you a game.”

“You feel pretty good in a game like that when you get a bit of of lead,” Millington added. “Earlier in the year, I didn’t think we were very good defensively. We seem to have improved a lot on that end. At the same time, we were scoring a lot of points early, but now we’re not.”


Jackson not only led all scorers with 17 points, he also had nine rebounds, five assists and three steals.

“(Jaelen’s) been contributing for four years and he knows playoff basketball,” Millington said. “He made some beautiful passes and let the game come to him.”

Galarraga added 11 points and four rebounds and Smith finished with 10 points.

Hanlon had four points, Heffernan finished with three (as well as three rebounds and two steals) and Kim had two (to go with five steals and three assists).

South Portland made 9-of-15 free throws and only turned the ball over 12 times.

Sanford was paced by 10 points and seven rebounds from Bougie and nine points from McCann. Gendron added six points, Puffer had four (to go with six rebounds), Sevigny three and McFarland two.


The Spartans had a 26-24 rebound advantage, but made just 3-of-7 foul shots and committed 22 turnovers.

The big floor

South Portland will again be a decided favorite in the semifinals, but Scarborough has already knocked off one high seed and will have nothing to lose.

The Red Riots swept the regular season games, winning 65-50 on the road and 64-57 at home.

The teams split two prior playoff meetings, as South Portland prevailed, 78-53, in the 2017 semifinals and the Red Storm winning, 55-43, in the 2018 regional final.

The Red Riots have a week to get ready and will look to continue their recent success at the Civic Center.

“This is the third time we’re going to play (Scarborough),” said Jackson. “We have to prepare all week and take everything seriously. We have to keep stepping up defensively and make free throws.”

“We have a lot of pride in being defending champs and we also have a chip on our shoulder because we were really good last year and people think we’re not as good this year, but our team is just as deep and we still have a lot of skill,” Smith said. “We want to prove everyone wrong.”

“We respect Scarborough,” added Millington. “The second game this year particularly they gave us a good game. They beat Gorham and that means they’re good. You never know how it’s going to play out. Thursday could be an up-and-down game, or it could be a slugfest. We’ll have to focus and I think it will be a war. Our opponents haven’t played at the Civic Center and we have five guys who played a lot of minutes there last year. Other guys will get their feet wet a little bit. We’re going to have to score some points. I know that sounds simple, but we have to knock down shots.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at

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