With a second straight Class AA boys’ basketball championship in the balance, South Portland High needed to find someone to make a shot.

Enter Jayden Kim and Ben Smith. Valuable reserves a year ago, on Monday night they were stars.

Smith scored 19 points and Kim had 13, all in the second half, as South Portland beat rival Portland, 52-42, at nearly-full Cross Insurance Arena.

“My teammates gave me a lot of confidence out there on the floor and I hit my shots, too,” said Smith, a 6-foot-1 senior guard. “We have to shoot with confidence and that’s what we did and they went in.”

A year ago, South Portland snapped a 30-year title drought but that title was almost expected, with a lineup that included 6-foot-11 center JP Estrella, who opted to transfer to prep powerhouse Brewster Academy for his senior season.

This season, South Portland (19-3) wasn’t even regarded as the best team in AA South and was 9-3 with two losses to Thornton Academy when it reorganized itself into a man-to-man defense team that shared the ball on offense. South Portland beat Thornton in the regional final.


“No one expected us. We were underdogs, especially against TA and maybe even in this game,” Smith said. “We had to give it our all every game and that’s what we did and that’s what got us here.”

South Portland led 17-13 after a rugged first half, that featured poor shooting and tough defense by both teams.

Portland (16-6) took the momentum early in the third period behind senior guard Brady Toher’s penetration out of a spread offense. Toher kicked out a pass to Jeissey Khamis for a 3-pointer, then drove the lane was fouled and hit two free throws for Portland’s first lead of the game, 18-17.

“We were spreading the floor and that helped to get the lead,” said Portland Coach Joe Russo. “It was working but it’s an offense where you’re going to be one-and-done. Or do I get the team running a team offense. I’m going to have to sleep on that.”

Kim, who had some nice tournament moments a year ago off the bench, twice knocked down 3-pointers to regain the lead for South Portland.

“I felt like we were losing momentum a little bit and coming off the first half I was kind of struggling but I knew I had to pick it up for the team because they needed me,” Kim said. “Last year coming off the bench and winning it and this year coming back and winning it again, it’s just amazing.”


Smith hit a 3-pointer of his own to tie the game at 26-26 and South Portland never trailed again. Manny Hidalgo scored his only two points on a pair of free throws after an offensive rebound and Kim closed the quarter with a three-point play after spinning in a layup while being fouled for a 31-26 lead entering the fourth quarter.

Smith, a senior, hit three straight jumpers in the fourth quarter to open a 37-28 lead.

“He had the hot hand so I was just trying to feed him. His mid-range is butter,” Kim said.

South Portland’s top scorer Jaelen Jackson, who had been shut down for much of the game, scored seven of his 12 points down the stretch to help keep Portland at bay, despite late 3-pointers from Bulldogs’ Pitia Donato (5 points), Kevin Rugabirwa (7 points) and Remijo Wani (11 points).

“They needed to step up. I needed those guys,” Jackson said of his teammates, Smith and Kim in particular. “It’s tough when I’m getting face-guarded full court and I can’t go anywhere without a dude in my face. For me to get the ball is nice but for them to come up and make those plays, it’s almost better.”

Monday was the third time in the seven-season history of Class AA that Portland and South Portland met in the state championship. Portland won the previous two, in 2016, 52-50, in overtime at Cross Insurance Arena and in 2017 in a 60-38 rout at the Augusta Civic Center.

This time it was South Portland that came out on top.

“You’re so happy for the kids because they work so hard,” said South Portland Coach Kevin Millington. “They just grinded through the whole season and you saw them grind tonight because Portland just keeps coming at you, coming at you, just never quit. So you have to play that way. And that was synonymous with how we played all year. We had to grind. We weren’t going to throw it in to the big guy.”

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