PORTLAND—As a freshman, Jaelen Jackson and his undefeated South Portland boys’ basketball teammates were shocked in the Class AA South Final by Thornton Academy, a team the Red Riots had beaten twice in the regular season.

Saturday evening at the Cross Insurance Arena, three years later, Jackson came full circle.

By turning the tables on the Golden Trojans and leading South Portland back to the state final.

The second-seeded Red Riots, who won comfortably in their semifinal game against Scarborough the night before, came out looking fresh and confident against No. 1 Thornton Academy, which had to go to the wire to survive their semifinal, and after one period, South Portland held an 11-10 lead, thanks in part to Jackson’s six points.

The Red Riots then went ahead to stay early in the second period when junior Gabe Galarraga hit a 3-pointer and by halftime, South Portland clung to a 22-18 advantage after Jackson, who has made a habit of hitting buzzer-beaters this season, drained a shot with under a second remaining.

The Golden Trojans were unable to respond in the third quarter, as the Red Riots opened it up with a 12-2 run, highlighted by 3-point shots from Jackson and senior Ben Smith.


When senior reserves Andrew Heffernan and Drew Folley buried 3s late in the frame, South Portland went up by as much as 18 before Thornton Academy crept back to 43-29 heading to the final stanza.

There, the Golden Trojans momentarily got as close as 10, but a 6-0 run ended all doubt and the Red Riots closed out a most impressive 55-44 victory.

Jackson stole the show with 17 points, Smith added 11 and South Portland won the region for the second year in a row and fourth time in eight seasons, improved to 18-3, ended Thornton Academy’s campaign at 17-4 and in the process, advanced to take on rival Portland (16-5) in the state final Saturday March 4 at 8:45 p.m., at the Cross Insurance Arena.

“I don’t think most people thought we’d be in this situation,” said Jackson. “We hear from student sections, ‘Where’s J.P. (Estrella)?’ He was a great player, but we got back here and that’s all that matters.”

A different team

South Portland, despite a new look, playing without big man extraordinaire Estrella (now at a prep school) and Owen Maloney (now playing for the University of Maine), did very well during the regular season in its title defense, going 15-3 and earning the second seed in the region (see sidebar for links to previous stories).


The Red Riots then dispatched No. 7 Sanford (47-34) in the quarterfinals and eliminated No. 6 Scarborough in Friday’s semifinal round (63-37).

“I think stringing those wins together at the end of the year, I felt good about our chances,” Jackson said.

“There was a point halfway through the year when I didn’t think we were playing good offense or good defense, but we could beat most teams anyway,” said South Portland coach Kevin Millington. “The second half of the year, we beat Bonny Eagle at the buzzer, beat Gorham, beat Portland, we started to peak and that’s what we wanted to do.”

Thornton Academy, the preseason favorite, also went 15-3 in the regular season and after downing No. 8 Massabesic with ease (86-25) in the quarterfinals, needed a miracle in Friday’s semifinal round, edging No. 4 Bonny Eagle, 52-51, on senior standout Will Davies’ dramatic/controversial buzzer-beater to survive and advance.

The Golden Trojans won both regular season meetings, 69-60 in South Portland and 82-61 at home.

Entering play Saturday, the teams had done battle 10 previous times in the playoffs dating to 1970 (see sidebar), with the Red Riots holding a 7-3 edge, including last year’s regional final win.


Saturday, South Portland came out an made a statement.

That one Gold Ball was nice, but that it has its sights set on another.

Thornton Academy struck first on a driving layup from senior Braden Camire and after Smith made a free throw to get the Red Riots on the board, Davies set up Camire for another layup.

But that would be the Golden Trojans’ highwater mark.

Jackson scored his first points on a fadeaway jumper, then, after Jackson blocked a shot, he set up senior Joey Hanlon for a layup before Jackson hit a jumper to make it 7-4.

A pair of Davies free throws ended the mini-run, but Jackson banked home a floater and after senior Aleesio Marcus hit a short jumper in the lane, junior Jayden Kim made two free throws before a pair of foul shots from sophomore Wyatt Benoit pulled Thornton Academy back within one, 11-10, after eight minutes.


Jackson then set up the first points of the second period by stealing the ball and feeding Smith for a layup, but with 4:25 to go before halftime, after Davies got an offensive rebound, Camire got a 3-ball to hit the rim and drop in to tie the score.

The Red Riots then went on top for good courtesy a 7-0 run.

With 3:22 left, Galarraga’s 3 rolled around and in, Galarraga then finished a feed from Smith for a layup and with 2:18 left, Hanlon made a layup after a steal for a 20-13 lead.

“An early lead was really big,” said Smith. “One of our biggest struggles earlier in the season was slow starts. Getting shots to drop brought the energy.”

The Golden Trojans answered, as Davies made two free throws after being fouled while shooting a 3, then sophomore Trey Eldred sank a 3 to seemingly give the top seed all the momentum going into the half, but instead, Jackson backed Davies down, then faded away and hit a jumper to make it 22-18 South Portland at the break.

In the first 16 minutes, Jackson led the way with eight points, while Camire paced Thornton Academy with seven points.


The Red Riots then turned it up another notch in the third quarter and opened up a double-digit advantage.

Smith got things started with a spinner and after Eldred countered with a leaner, the next 10 points went to South Portland.

Kim set up Jackson for a 3 up top, Jackson found Smith for a 3 in the corner, Kim drove for a layup and Jackson was fouled after a steal and made two free throws to make it a 34-20 contest.

A Camire free throw ended the run, but Smith converted an old-fashioned three-point play (layup, foul and free throw) and after Davies scored on a putback, Jackson found Heffernan, the baseball standout, alone in the corner and Heffernan buried a 3 for a 40-23 advantage.

Camire made two free throws for the Golden Trojans, but with 1:13 remaining in the frame, Jackson spotted an open Folley in the corner and right in front of the South Portland bench, Folley calmly drained his 3 and the Red Riots had their largest advantage, 43-25.

“(TA) looked a little gassed tonight,” Jackson said. “They had to keep their guys in the game all night last night, while we were more businesslike and had guys in and out. We just wanted to come out and string a couple stops together. We were able to do that, got into transition and finished.”


Late in the quarter, Davies made two free throws and Eldred got a jumper to rattle in, but the Red Riots were able to take a 14-point lead to the final stanza.

Where they never let Thornton Academy make a serious run.

Davies got the fourth quarter started by delivering a pretty pass to Marcus for a layup, then Marcus set up Camire on the fastbreak for a layup to cap an 8-0 run and cut the deficit to 10.

Jackson then stemmed the tide by finishing a feed from Smith and making a layup.

After Davies scored on an offensive rebound, Jackson went coast-to-coast for a layup before Kim converted a three-point play and a Galarraga foul shot with 4:39 remaining made the score 51-35.

Camire tried to spark a comeback with a layup, then Davies made a free throw, but Kim countered with a bank shot.


After Davies sank two free throws, he set up Marcus for a layup, but Hanlon made a free throw.

With 57 seconds left, Davies pulled the Golden Trojans back within 10, but it proved to be his and his team’s final points of the season.

With 34 seconds remaining, Galarraga sank one free throw and that made it official.

At 10:09 p.m., the horn sounded and the Red Riots were regional champions again, 55-44, and a celebration ensued.

“I think we believed all along,” Smith said. “Coming into the playoffs, we had a lot of team dinners and hangouts and we had momentum going in. I feel like our team chemistry is why we’ve won these games. It’s hard to beat a good team like us three times. We have a lot of depth. We had to give more energy and every player who played today did that.”

“We probably played our best game tonight and it was a good time to do it,” Millington said. “They’re so good and Will’s one of the best players I’ve ever seen in this league. We knew to win it, we’d probably need to play a perfect game. It’s tough to come down here and win and they had a tough and emotional game last night. We’re a much different team than we had been. It took awhile to figure out who we were and the last few weeks, I think we found it.”


Jackson, who was named the regional tournament’s most valuable player, not only led all scorers with 17 points. He also had eight rebounds, five assists and four steals.

“Jaelen’s the best player I’ve ever played with,” Smith said. “He can score on anyone. No one can guard him. He finds the open man and gives confidence to everyone he plays with. He’s the best point guard in the state.”

“Jaelen came to win tonight,” said Millington. “Someone asked me about (the) Mr. Maine Basketball (award, given to the state’s top senior player) and when you think about a four-year career, he’s done as much as anybody. He told me that tonight’s the first game at the Civic Center he’s worn red (as a lower seed). He’s had such an unbelievable career and he brings his best in the big moments.”

Smith continued his strong play with 11 points and five rebounds. Kim had nine points, Galarraga added seven, Hanlon had five and Folley and Heffernan (three rebounds) both tallied three in limited action.

“It’s a testament to those guys who come in and don’t try and not make a mistake and instead, they go in there to contribute and impact the game,” Millington said. “All the guys who came off the bench did that tonight.”

South Portland made five 3-pointers to Thornton Academy’s two, only turned the ball over 11 times and hit 10-of-16 free throws.


For Thornton Academy, Davies, a Mr. Maine Basketball favorite, bowed out with 15 points and 11 rebounds.

“(Will’s) a great player,” said Jackson. “If you keep him under 20, that’s a great night. I think it was a team effort. Ben guarded him and had three fouls, then Jayden had him and had three fouls, then I had him at the end. With all three of us guarding him, I think we did pretty well. Defensively, holding that team to 44 points, I’m very proud.”

“Ben did an unbelievable job on defense,” Millington said. “You can’t stop Will, but he was there with him most of the game.”

Camire added 14 points and five rebounds, Eldred had seven points, Marcus six (to go with eight rebounds) and Benoit two.

The Golden Trojans enjoyed a 33-26 rebound advantage, but made just 14-of-23 foul shots and turned the ball over on 14 occasions.

One more step


South Portland hasn’t repeated as state champions since the storied teams of 1979 and 1980.

The Red Riots will have a chance to do so next Saturday, but a daunting Portland squad stands in the way.

The Bulldogs, like the Red Riots, came from the No. 2 seed and surprised the top seed, handling Oxford Hills Saturday afternoon.

South Portland edged host Portland, 47-46, in the regular season finale Feb. 9, on Jackson’s buzzer-beating putback.

Portland and South Portland have met 16 times in the tournament over the past 60 years with the Bulldogs holding a 9-7 edge. The last encounter was the 2017 state final, a decisive 60-38 Portland victory.

The Red Riots know it won’t be easy, but they’re determined that their final chapter will be a glorious one.

“It feels good to get back there and now, we want to get the next one,” said Jackson. “It’s going to be a tough game. They’re a very good defensive team. (Joe) Russo’s obviously a great coach. I grew up (in Portland) and I know a lot of those guys. It’s kind of cool to end up playing with them in a state game. At the end of the day, only one team can out on top.”

“We’ll keep our energy up and play great defense,” said Smith. “We have to box out too.”

“There’s one problem we haven’t solved yet and that’s Portland in the state game,” added Millington, alluding to losses in both 2016 (in double overtime) and 2017. “We want to continue to be the best version of ourselves and keep grinding and play our best game. If we play our best game, we have a shot. We’re going to have to defend and keep them off the glass. We’ll have to find a way to score because they don’t let teams score much. It’s going to be a slugfest. We know we’ll compete. At the end of the day, we’ll need to get some breaks and shots will have to go through the net.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net.

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