SOUTH PORTLAND—The South Portland and Thornton Academy boys’ basketball teams aren’t having their accustomed strong seasons, but both programs boast no shortage of pride and that was on display in a late-season showdown Saturday afternoon at Beal Gymnasium.

The Golden Trojans, regional finalists the past two seasons, but mired in a nine-game losing skid, took a 13-9 lead after one quarter and went up by nine points, 33-24, at the half, thanks to play of juniors Wyatt Benoit and Robert Eldred.

But the Red Riots, the two-time reigning Class AA state champions, came to life after the break, thanks to a pressure defense and the shooting of senior Gabe Galarraga and junior Manny Hidalgo.

South Portland scored 27 points in the third period, took the lead for good on a 3-pointer from Galarraga and held a 51-46 advantage heading for the fourth quarter.

There, Thornton Academy got as close as two before the Red Riots took their biggest lead of nine points, 65-56, with 1:40 remaining. The Golden Trojans made one final run, pulling within 66-62 on a three-point play from Eldred with 47 seconds left, but Hidalgo put it away with four late free throws and South Portland prevailed, 70-62.

Hidalgo led the way with 24 points, Galarraga added 22 and the Red Riots improved to 6-8, won their sixth game in nine outings and in the process, dropped Thornton Academy to 4-11.


“You have two proud programs with kids who have been successful in basketball and other sports, so we knew it would be a grind today,” said South Portland coach Kevin Millington.

Red Riots rising

After winning back-to-back state titles, South Portland has been hard-hit by graduation and has come back to the pack this winter.

The Red Riots opened with losses at Gorham (64-50), Cheverus (58-49) and Scarborough (55-52) before falling at home to Falmouth (59-50) and at home to Portland in a state game rematch (46-39). After closing the 2023 portion of the schedule with a 55-50 win at Edward Little, South Portland lost at home to Deering (57-47), then defeated host Thornton Academy (52-44), host Sanford in overtime (69-65) and host Bonny Eagle (47-35). The Red Riots then lost at home to Scarborough (54-49) and at Portland (67-43) before winning their most recent outing, 70-64, in overtime, over visiting Noble Tuesday.

Thornton Academy, now coached by Mike Nelson, won its first three games, but only prevailed once since and entered Saturday’s contest on a nine-game skid, capped by a 69-60 home loss to Gorham Thursday.

In the teams’ first meeting Jan. 6, Galarraga scored 20 points and Hidalgo added 19 for the Red Riots, while Benoit paced the Golden Trojans with 26 points.


Saturday, Thornton Academy hoped to get back on track, but instead, South Portland took over in the second half and went on to victory.

Eldred opened the scoring with a putback 25 seconds in before Galarraga made a layup and after a steal from sophomore Gabe Jackson, Hidalgo made a layup to put the Red Riots on top, 4-2.

But that would be the home team’s last lead until deep into the third quarter.

After Benoit tied it with a short jumper for his first points, senior Joshua Vallee knocked down a 3 to put the Golden Trojans in front and after Hidalgo drove for a layup, sophomore Simon Gellis set up Vallee for a layup and Benoit made a layup after a steal for an 11-6 lead, forcing Millington to call timeout.

Galarraga got a point back at the line, but Gellis responded with a layup. In the final minute, Jackson inbounded the ball to junior Tom Maloji for a layup, but that only cut Thornton Academy’s lead to 13-9.

The Golden Trojans continued to impress in the second period.


After Vallee set up Benoit for a layup, Vallee scored on a leaner, then with 6:18 to go before halftime, Gellis stole the ball and fed senior Pablo Nieto for a layup and with it, Thornton Academy’s biggest lead, 19-9.

South Portland responded with eight straight points, as Hidalgo scored on a runner, then junior Carmine Soucy came off the bench and provided a spark with consecutive 3-pointers to make it a two-point contest.

Eldred got a point back at the line for the Golden Trojans before Hidalgo scored on a runner to pull the Red Riots within 20-19.

Thornton Academy countered the run, however, as senior Joshua Ney drove for a layup and Benoit hit a 3.

Soucy then took a pass from Hidalgo and made his third 3-pointer of the quarter to make the score 25-22.

“(Carmine) came in and gave us that lift to keep us within striking distance,” Millington said.


After Ney hit two foul shots for the visitors, Galarraga converted a leaner off the glass, but the final six points went to the Golden Trojans, as senior Brady Kezal put back a miss, Eldred scored on a contested shot and Ney set up Eldred for a layup to send Thornton Academy to the locker room with a seemingly comfortable 33-24 advantage.

Benoit led the Golden Trojans with nine first half points, while Eldred added seven. Soucy paced South Portland with nine points, while Hidalgo had eight. Galarraga only managed five points in the half, but he’d have a monster third quarter and the Red Riots would come to life to turn the game on its ear.

Just 25 seconds into the second half, Galarraga scored on a leaner.

Eighteen seconds after that, Hidalgo put home a miss and Nelson called timeout.

Gellis momentarily stemmed the tide with a 3, but Galarraga took a pass from Maloji and made a layup, then with 6:29 on the clock, Galarraga scored on a driving layup while being fouled, then added the and-one free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play, cutting the deficit to 36-33.

Eldred countered with a layup, but Hidalgo knocked down a long 3 to make it a two-point game.


After Gellis found Eldred for another layup, Hidalgo answered with a layup, then with 4:08 on the clock, Hidalgo found Galarraga in the corner and Galarraga buried a 3 that gave South Portland its first lead in a long time, 41-40.

Benoit put Thornton Academy back in front with a runner, but with 3:19 remaining, Galarraga made another 3 and the Red Riots had the lead for good, 44-42.

“We started making shots,” Galarraga said. “I had a really slow start to the game. Manny got our offense going and we played more as a team and made the easy ones.”

Hidalgo then got in on the fun with a long 3.

“Here and there, I was feeling it and when I feel it, I’m going to shoot it,” Hidalgo said.

After Benoit scored on a leaner, sophomore Darius Johnson scored on a putback, then Hidalgo made a floater for a seven-point lead.


In the final minute, Nieto hit a jumper, but that only pulled the Golden Trojans within five points, 51-46, heading to the final stanza.

Where South Portland salted away its victory.

Jackson got things started with a 3 to push the lead to eight, but Benoit made a layup, Benoit scored on a runner and Ney took a pass from Gellis and made layup to make the score 54-52.

That’s as close as Thornton Academy would get, however.

With 4:54 to go, off an inbounds set, Hidalgo found Johnson for a layup.

Eight seconds later, Maloji stole the ball and fed Johnson for another layup.


Then, with 3:48 to play, Galarraga’s three-point play stretched the lead to 61-52.

The Golden Trojans got single free throws from Vallee and Eldred and after Hidalgo answered with a foul shot, Ney scored on a putback with 1:59 to go to make it 62-56.

After Maloji made a free throw, Jackson hit two, but a three-point play from Benoit cut the deficit to six points again, 65-59, with 1:18 on the clock.

Jackson got a point back at the line, but with 47.9 seconds showing, Eldred’s three-point play made things very interesting as suddenly, Thornton Academy was only down by four.

After Hidalgo calmly made two free throws, the Golden Trojans had three chances to make it a one possession game, but Benoit missed a 3, had another 3 blocked, then Gellis was also off target on a 3-ball.

Then, with just 14 seconds remaining, Hidalgo brought the curtain down with two free throws and South Portland went on to a 70-62 victory.


I think we’re putting it together,” Galarraga said. “With how young our team was, it was hard to get the ball rolling, but all the practices and tough losses we had brought us together. Now, people are stepping into their role really well. We’ve come a long way.”

“It was frustrating early, but speeding them up in the second half helped because they were out of control,” said Hidalgo.

“We’re not a pressing team that can generate a lot of steals, but we wanted to speed the game up to get Manny and Gabe in space so they could score some points,” Millington added. “They’re two experienced guys, especially Gabe. Five-on-five, we were struggling getting them easy looks and we missed the easy looks we had.”

Hidalgo had a game-high 24 points, as well as seven rebounds and five assists.

Galarraga also excelled with 22 points, four rebounds, two steals and a blocked shot.

Soucy had nine key points off the bench, while Jackson and Johnson (nine rebounds, three steals) added six apiece and Maloji had three (to go with four assists, four steals and two blocks).


The Red Riots made eight 3-pointers to Thornton Academy’s three, hit 12-of-19 free throws and turned the ball over 12 times, but just twice after halftime.

“We took better care of the ball in the second half,” Millington said. “Sometimes we try to make decisions and get ourselves in trouble.”

The Golden Trojans were led by Benoit, who had 20 points and seven rebounds, and Eldred, who finished with 15 points and eight rebounds. Ney (three rebounds, two assists) and Vallee (four rebounds and three assists) added eight points apiece, Gellis (five rebounds, five assists, two steals) finished with five, Neieto had four and Kezal two.

Thornton Academy enjoyed a 36-26 rebounding advantage, but made just 7-of-15 free throws and turned the ball over 22 times.

“They sped us up and if anybody is ever going to have success in this game, you have to be fundamentally sound at a high rate of speed and we weren’t,” Nelson lamented. “Our shot selection when they sped us up is what got us beat.”

Looking to play spoiler


Thornton Academy, currently ranked sixth in the Class AA South Heal Points standings, hosts Sanford Tuesday in a possible playoff preview. The Golden Trojans host Deering in a makeup game next Saturday, then close at Bonny Eagle on Feb. 8.

“It’s unbelievable how there’s no quit in those guys, which is a compliment to them,” Nelson said. “I feel terrible because they’ve played so hard. No matter what anybody says, we’ve had the most spirited practices. We’ve had a tough stretch with sickness and a two-week stretch when our gym floor was a mess and we couldn’t practice. It was a perfect storm. I still think we’ll be a team that no one will want to see in the first round.”

South Portland, currently fifth in Class AA South, goes to Deering for a possible playoff preview Tuesday, then finishes the regular season with home games versus Gorham, Bonny Eagle and Sanford.

“We’re starting to click as a team,” said Hidalgo. “We just need to be more confident, have less turnovers as a team and if we do, we’ll be fine because we have a good defense.”

“Coach always tells us the most important thing is how we play in the tournament,” Galarraga said. “If we can keep it rolling, I think we can beat some teams.”

“We’re just trying to get ourselves in a favorable position to get the right matchups,” Millington added. “This league is funny. The top teams are pretty good, but they’re beatable, and even the teams at the bottom can beat anybody.

“I think we’re close. I think we can make some noise if breaks go our way. We just have to take care of the ball. We like it (at the Cross Insurance Arena), but we have to get there first.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at For game updates and links to game stories, follow him on Threads: @foresports2023

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