SOUTH PORTLAND—Thornton Academy’s perseverance, commitment and belief finally paid enormous dividends Thursday evening at Beal Gymnasium.

And as a result, there will be a new state champion in Class AA boys’ basketball.

The sixth-ranked Golden Trojans, who endured a 12-game losing streak this winter, did battle with third-seeded South Portland, who for two years running had no peer in the state’s biggest class, in the Class AA South quarterfinals, two rounds earlier than the rivals normally square off.

Thornton Academy, which lost both regular season meetings to the Red Riots, fell behind early, 14-9, as sophomore Darius Johnson got the home team off to a fast start, but the game began to tilt when Golden Trojans senior captain Joshua Vallee hit consecutive 3-pointers to produce a 16-14 advantage after a frenetic first quarter.

The scoring slowed in the second period, but Thornton Academy was still able to cling to a 22-20 advantage at the break.

When senior Gabe Galarraga and junior Manny Hidalgo drained consecutive 3-pointers late in the third quarter to erase a five-point deficit and momentarily put South Portland on top, it appeared the champs were poised to advance, but after junior Robert Eldred tied the score at 37-37 with a free throw, the Golden Trojans would dominate the final stanza.


Thanks in large part to junior standout Wyatt Benoit, who showed just how dangerous he can be by scoring seven points in a 54-second span to begin the fourth period and give Thornton Academy the lead for good.

The Red Riots never got closer than five points from there and the Golden Trojans gradually pulled away for a therapeutic and inspirational 59-43 victory.

Vallee led all scorers with 21 points, Benoit added 15 and Thornton Academy improved to 6-13, advanced to take on second-ranked Scarborough (15-4) in the Class AA South semifinals next Thursday evening at the Cross Insurance Arena in Portland and in the process, ended South Portland’s title reign and its season at 9-10.

“I’m really proud of the guys,” said Golden Trojans’ first-year coach Mike Nelson. “A lot of people had a lot of answers for us. They came at us and came at me. These guys never quit on me and the coaching staff never quit on them. We believed once we got it going, we could be pretty good. It is very special. It means a lot to me.”

Trojan pride

South Portland has been the gold standard in Class AA the past two seasons and both times, the Red Riots had to go through Thornton Academy in the regional final to get to the state game.


This winter, both teams, having been hard hit by graduation, came back to the pack.

South Portland, which not only graduated last year’s standout, Jaelen Jackson, but also lost Jayden Kim and Nafees Padgett to prep school, lost its first five outings, but figured it out and closed on a 9-4 stretch to earn the No. 3 seed in Class AA South (see sidebar for links to previous stories).

Thornton Academy, meanwhile, started in the opposite direction, winning its first three games and four of its first five, but a 12-game skid then ensued. The Golden Trojans remain focused and closed the regular season with a win over Bonny Eagle and went into the tournament ranked sixth.

The Red Riots won both regular season meetings, 52-44 Jan. 6 in Saco and 70-62 Jan. 27 at home. In the first game, Galarraga had 20 points and Hidalgo added 19, helping negate 26 from Benoit. In the second encounter, Hidalgo led the way with 24 points and Galarraga finished with 22. Benoit scored 20 in a losing effort.

Entering play Thursday, South Portland had beaten Thornton Academy in eight of 11 prior postseason meetings (dating to 1970), with last year’s 55-44 regional final win the most recent (see sidebar for results).

This time around, the Golden Trojans came in with nothing to lose and a lot to prove and they dominated the final quarter to make a powerful statement.


South Portland senior Gabe Galarraga defends Thornton Academy senior Josh Vallee during the teams’ Class AA South quarterfinal Thursday. Vallee had a game-high 21 points to lead the Golden Trojans to a 59-43 upset victory. Hoffer photos.

Thornton Academy set the tone 34 seconds in when Benoit stole the ball and coasted in for a layup.

A putback from Johnson tied the score, but Vallee made his presence felt with an old-fashioned three-point play (basket, foul, free throw).

After Hidalgo scored his first points on a runner which rolled in, sophomore Simon Gellis got a contested leaner to drop to make it 7-4 in favor of the visitors.

The Red Riots again drew within one, as Johnson made a layup after a steal, but Vallee fed Gellis for a layup to restore the three-point edge.

South Portland then rattled off eight straight points to lead for the first time.

A putback from Galarraga sparked the run. Sophomore Gabe Jackson then scored on a putback to put the Red Riots in front. After Hidalgo scored on a driving finger roll, two Johnson free throws made it 14-9 with 2:33 left in the opening quarter.


That’s as good as it would get for the Red Riots, however, as senior Shiloh Thao made a free throw to snap the run, then Benoit found Vallee in the corner for a 3-pointer and the next time down the floor, Vallee got the ball up top from Gellis and buried another 3 for a 16-14 advantage.

“I’ve always been able to stretch the floor and shoot,” said Vallee. “I just had to come in and be confident. All the late nights in the gym paid off. I just couldn’t think in the moment.”

“We needed Josh to do that so badly,” said Benoit. “When I saw that first 3 go in, it put a smile on my face. He has the ability to shoot the ball and we needed him to knock down those 3s and get some buckets inside tonight.”

The Golden Trojans then started the second period quickly, as Vallee scored in traffic and Benoit drove for a layup to make it 20-14 and force South Portland coach Kevin Millington to call timeout.

With 4:15 to go before halftime, a jumper from Galarraga ended the Red Riots’ 6 minute, 18 second scoring drought and Thornton Academy’s 11-0 run, then Galarraga cut the deficit to just two with a driving leaner.

The Golden Trojans answered, as Vallee set up Gellis for a reverse layup off a pressbreaker, but Hidalgo’s layup pulled South Portland within two, 22-20, at halftime.


Vallee led all first half scorers with 11 points, while Galarraga, Hidalgo and Johnson all had a half dozen points for the Red Riots.

The third period would be more back-and-forth.

Thornton Academy senior Josh Vallee tries to make a move on South Portland sophomore Darius Johnson.

Thao opened the second half with a layup after a steal, then Vallee hit a jumper, but Hidalgo countered with a driving layup and a pullup jumper to make it a two-point game again, 26-24.

After Vallee banked home a shot, senior Chris Keene took a pass from Hidalgo and drained a 3 from the corner, but Vallee converted another three-point play.

Galarraga cut the deficit to two with a driving layup, but Thao answered with a layup of his own.

After junior Tom Maloji’s layup again pulled South Portland within two, Benoit buried a 3 to make it 36-31.


With 1:45 left in the frame, Jackson set up Galarraga for a 3 and 59 seconds later, after a steal by Johnson, Hidalgo sank a 3 to give the Red Riots what proved to be their final lead of the night, 37-36.

With 28.3 seconds to go, a free throw from Eldred tied the score and sent the contest to the fourth quarter with both teams feeling good about their chances.

The Golden Trojans then saved their very best for last.

Just nine seconds into the final stanza, Vallee set up Benoit for a layup and Thornton Academy was in front for good.

After a South Portland turnover, Benoit sank a long 3 and the visitors were starting to feel it.

“Once I scored on the backdoor on the pass from (Josh), it started right there, then I made a 3 on the next possession,” said Benoit. “We knew had to keep pushing and keep scoring.”


With 6:57 remaining, Benoit took a pass from Eldred and made a layup and just like that a tie game had turned into a 44-37 contest.

Galarraga momentarily stemmed the tide with a layup, but Vallee scored on a contested bank shot, Thao set up Eldred for a layup and after Millington took a timeout that didn’t help, Gellis scored on a putback, Thao sank two free throws and with 2:56 left, Eldred’s layup (from Benoit) made it 54-39 and put the Red Riots on the canvas.

Galarraga made a free throw, but Thao sank two, then Vallee made another to cap a 20-3 surge.

With 1:48 to play, Galarraga made the last basket of his high school career, a leaner, but Gellis answered with a free throw.

After Johnson sank a foul shot for South Portland’s final point of the season, a Benoit foul shot brought the curtain down on Thornton Academy’s 59-43 victory.

“It’s very sweet to win on their homecourt,” said Vallee. “We had (the last two years) in mind. It was time for something to change. We came in with great energy. Coach prepared us great. I don’t know if anybody in the state expected us to win this game other than Coach. We came in and played as hard as we could. The effort was really good this game.”


“It feels awesome, especially being the underdog,” Benoit said.

“We had three great days of practice and it just carried on,” Nelson added. “I like to think our practice habits carried over. The guys are locked in and focused. We’ve got eight seniors who have put up with a lot of naysayers. We had a plan and we stuck with it. We knew we had the toughest schedule in the state of Maine and that we’d be ready at the end of the season. The kids came to practice every single day. After the last game here, we made changes. Your shot selection is indicative of your culture and you have to be fundamental at a high rate of speed. We still have to get better at those things, but we made adjustments.”

Vallee dazzled with a near double-double, scoring 21 points while adding nine rebounds and three assists.

“(Josh) played like a senior captain should play in a potential last game scenario,” said Nelson. “I told him after the game how proud I am of him. He really stepped up big for us.”

“Vallee really hurt us,” said Millington. “We knew someone (other than Benoit) had to beat us and he did. He made us do some things differently.”

Benoit was held in check for three quarters, but erupted late and wound up with 15 points, 11 rebounds, four steals and three assists.


“You kind of become desensitized to what Wyatt can do every game,” said Vallee. “We’ve seen a lot of it. We appreciate the player and point guard and scorer he is.”

“I would have nominated Wyatt for Player of the Year in our league if we weren’t 5-13,” said Nelson. “He’s the top scorer in the league and he’s tough to cover. They did a great job on him early, but he’s not afraid of the moment. I can tell you that.”

Gellis (three rebounds) and Thao (five rebounds, two steals) both added nine points, while Eldred (three rebounds, two assists) had five.

The Golden Trojans outrebounded the Red Riots, 33-21, made 11-of-18 free throws and overcame 17 turnovers.

Looking ahead, Thornton Academy was swept by Scarborough this season, losing 62-37 on the road Jan. 4 and 53-40 at home Jan. 19.

The Golden Trojans have won the only two prior playoff encounters: 67-40 in the 2019 semifinals and 60-37 in the 2022 quarterfinals.


Thornton Academy will be the underdog again next week, but it isn’t wise to bet against this group.

“We have to have a really good week of practice and preparation and know our matchups and execute,” Vallee said.

“We’ll play as hard as we can,” said Benoit. “We’ll go into the Civic Center as the underdog and it won’t feel much different than it did tonight. This group has been playing together since middle school. The chemistry’s there. We knew we had a really tough schedule that would prepare us for the playoffs and now it’s one game at a time and anything can happen. We believe we can make a run.”

“We have to go in confident,” Nelson added. “(Coach) Phil Conley did a phenomenal job with that Scarborough team. They execute, they’re fundamental. They have a way to play that wins in the playoffs. Hopefully, we can take them out of what they like to do.”

All good things must end

South Portland got 16 points and six rebounds from Galarraga in his swan song.


“We won eight straight playoff games by double figures and (Gabe’s) a two-time state champion,” said Millington. “It’s hard to lose as a senior, but he can walk out of here knowing he left his mark on South Portland. He was our team leader this year and our go-to guy. Last year, he was secondary to Jaelen (Jackson) and his sophomore year, he came off the bench.”

Hidalgo also wound up in double figures with 13 points, to go with four rebounds. Johnson had seven points, six steals and four rebounds, while Keene added three points, Jackson two and Maloji two (to go with four steals and three rebounds).

The Red Riots only made 4-of-9 free throws and turned the ball over 15 times as their quest to become the first team to win three straight big class titles since Morse in the late 1980s fell short.

“It was a toss-up going into the game and it was a toss-up going into the fourth quarter,” Millington said. “Our Achilles’ heel is we’ve always had one quarter that’s done us in and it was the wrong one tonight. We felt like the fourth quarter was anybody’s ballgame. It was an eight-minute game. They got those points right out of the gate, then we got down and we didn’t make the best decisions on offense and it went from six or eight points down to 12. Mike’s teams are always great on defense. They made it really, really hard on us. A lot of the teams in the South are closer than the records, so on a given night, anybody can beat anybody.

“We’re South Portland, so everybody is gunning for us. We lost two really good players to prep school and we didn’t have much experience. Our first five opponents won 91 games this year. We played seven out of 10 on the road to start the season. it was a daunting task. I’m so proud of the guys. Teenagers live in the present and when you’re 0-5, it’s easy to lose kids mentally. Our guys came to practice every day and stayed focused and we played our best basketball at the end of the year.”

The departure of Galarraga will be felt and Keene was a key contributor as well, but the 2024-25 Red Riots promise to start from a much better spot and after a strong offseason, it wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see them return to the top of the heap.

“This year forced our sophomores, who could have been role players, to be more feature players and that was a good thing for us,” Millington said. “We have some guys coming back and good players who didn’t play much this year, so we’re optimistic.”

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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