South Portland celebrates at the end of its 55-44 win over Thornton Academy in the Class AA South boys’ basketball championship game on Feb. 25 in Portland. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

SOUTH PORTLAND — The defending Class AA boys’ basketball champions had just absorbed a 21-point whipping at Thornton Academy.

It was time for South Portland players and coaches to take a hard look at themselves. Sure, a 9-3 record sounded OK. But …

“We were 9-3 and I said to my assistants, it’s amazing we’re 9-3 because we don’t really play very good defense and we don’t play very good offense,” said Coach Kevin Millington.

The changes that needed to be made were clear in a team meeting after that 82-61 loss in Saco on Jan. 17.

Start playing defense with purpose. Most of all, start sharing the ball on offense.

“I’d say we had a kind of selfish mentality when it came to the offensive side of the ball, and we sat down and had a conversation about that in the classroom, and literally the practice right after that, you saw guys more engaged and willing to move the ball,” said senior guard Jaelen Jackson, a four-year varsity player.


Message received. South Portland (18-3) hasn’t lost since.

“It really just took sitting down and gut-checking and making sure everyone knows it’s a team game and you have to play together to beat anybody good,” Jackson said.

On Monday night, the Red Riots will try to repeat as Class AA champions against rival Portland (16-5) at Cross Insurance Arena. Game time is 7:45 p.m.

Millington said he also had to be willing to change. Since he took over at South Portland in 2015-16, the first year of Class AA, Millington used a matchup zone  as the team’s primary defense. The defense worked. South Portland has been in six of seven South regional finals, and this will be its fourth state championship game during that span. The Red Riots are 57-5 over the past three full seasons (not counting the pandemic-shortened 2021 season).

But after Thornton’s Will Davies rolled up 26 points with 11 assists – many to wide-open shooters in the corner – in that mid-January game, the approach needed to change. This year’s team needed to play more man-to-man.

“That was hard for me to do. Hard for me to get away from something that had been so successful for us,” Millington said. “For this team, it was the right thing, and so far in the tournament, we’ve been playing really good defense.”


South Portland beat Sanford 47-34 in the quarterfinals, followed with a 63-37 semifinal victory over Scarborough, and kept No. 1 Thornton Academy and Davies in check in a 55-44 regional final win.

Even before the season started, South Portland knew it was going to have to make significant changes after winning the school’s first state championship in 30 years. Gone were three starters, two who are still seniors in high school.

Owen Maloney, an all-around 6-foot-4 player with a calming influence, graduated and is playing at the University of Maine. JP Estrella, the 6-foot-11 center who erased all sorts of defensive mistakes, transferred to Brewster Academy, a prep power in Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. Estrella committed to the University of Tennessee in September. Nolan Hobbs, a 6-foot-5 power forward, decided he would skip basketball to focus on preparing for his senior season as a pitcher on the baseball team.

“I think that it does suck losing them,” said senior guard Joey Hanlon, the Riots’ other returning starter. “JP, honestly, (he’s) on to bigger, better things and we’re all proud of him and happy for him. Hobbs, I mean, he’s a force to reckon with, a big man, hustles, always give his all. But we’re happy for him, doing his thing.”

Instead of being a big, physical team with four starters back, South Portland became a small, guard-oriented squad with two returning starters. Ben Smith, Jayden Kim and 6-6 Gabe Galarraga, who can play inside and on the perimeter, stepped into starting lineup after being valuable reserves in last year’s title run. That trio combined for 27 points against Thornton in the regional final.

Nafees Padgett, Manny Hidalgo, Andrew Heffernan and Drew Folley have contributed off the bench. Heffernan and Folley both knocked down 3-pointers off Jackson assists against Thornton during a 21-11 third-quarter run.

“It feels good to get back (to the championship) and it feels good to do it in a different way,” Millington said. “We had to play a totally different way and it took us awhile to get there, and there’s a reward in being able to adjust and find your own identity.”

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