PORTLAND – After splitting two regular season matchups, the Western Maine Class A semifinal would be the rubber match between top-ranked South Portland (17-3) and No. 4 Portland (15-5). The Red Riots survived Bulldog runs of 8-0 and 10-2 to defeat Portland 47-41 in the highly anticipated tournament installment of the “Battle of the Bridge” rivalry Wednesday night at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
Fifteen seconds into the game, Portland senior captain Nate Smart opened the scoring with a 3-pointer from the corner. Riots’ forward Ben Burkey countered with a layup off an assist from senior captain Calvin Carr. After two free throws by Portland’s Justin Zuckowski, center Matt Talbot tipped in a rebound to make it 7-2 Bulldogs; a Tanner Hyland three cut the lead to 7-5 at the end of the first quarter.
Talbot and South Portland forward Conner MacVane traded baskets to open the second period, and Smart followed with a shot in the lane. The Riots then went on an 8-0 run over the next 2:15. Bulldogs senior Steve Angelo stemmed the tide with a 3-pointer, but the Riots would end the half on an inside-out jumper from senior Jack Tolan and a buzzer-beating three from Hyland to end the half 21-14.
The teams traded 3-point shots to open the second half, but the Bullogs chipped away at South Portland’s lead to cut it to seven points after three minutes. A Zuckowski three 13 seconds into the fourth quarter swung the momentum to Portland, but Carr hit Burkey for a layup underneath to lengthen the lead to 37-31.
Portland extended the run to 10-2 with a floater from co-captain Nick Volger, a layup from junior Jayvon Pitts-Young, who then found Talbot for a 3-pointer to take the lead 38-37. Hyland then answered with a 25-footer to make it 40-38 Riots. Talbot blocked a shot from sophomore Jaren Muller and ran the floor to tie the game with a jump shot. Volger made one of two free throws on the next possession for a 41-40 Portland lead, but the Bulldogs would not score again.
Following an offensive foul on Smart, Carr drove past the defense for the layup, and then MacVane found Carr alone under the basket off an inbound pass for another lay-in with 57 seconds remaining.
“A lot of the game, Zuckowski was doubling Tanner (Hyland) on the inbounds pass, and they were letting me catch the ball in the backcourt and bring it up,” said Carr. “We ran a different out-of-bounds play, and I happened to start on the block. (Zuckowski) didn’t notice I started on the block, he thought I was up top, so then he just left me wide open,” he said.
South Portland would net three of four from the foul line to ice the game.
Red Riots’ coach Phil Conley praised his captain’s intensity.
“Calvin Carr played well offensively and defensively. He’s not typically known as a scorer, but he made some big baskets for us,” he said. “He played his best game of the year.”
Beyond his role as distributor, Carr was confident in his own scoring ability.
“I’ve never been in doubt of scoring all year, it just hasn’t been my role on the team,” said Carr. “Tonight we needed a couple big baskets, so I did what I could to help the team win.”
Portland coach Joe Russo was disappointed with his team’s lack of energy in the first half.
“Call it nerves, call it young kids, but they didn’t even get out of their sneakers in the first half,” he said.
Russo said that his team’s more vigorous play got them back into the game in the second half.
Hyland identified the game as a marquee win for Conley’s squad.
“It’s a big step. Since I’ve been in high school, we’ve been here three times, and we were 0-2 coming into this game,” said Hyland. “It was a big step for the program, and hopefully we continue on.”
The Red Riots lead the playoff rivalry with Portland 15-13; the two schools first met in the 1923 quarterfinals.
South Portland will play No. 3 Bonny Eagle for the regional championship Saturday at 9 p.m. at the Cumberland County Civic Center. The Scots defeated No. 7 Thornton Academy 54-38 in the semifinal. South Portland last played in the regional final in 2000, a loss to Westbrook. The Scots dispatched South Portland 54-39 in last year’s semifinal. South Portland won the regular season matchup 82-77 in double overtime on January 21 at Bonny Eagle.
Conley cited fan support as a major factor in his team’s run.
“I’m proud of the community,” he said. “They’re our sixth man and we appreciate all their support, and I’m glad we can play in the regional final, not only for us, but for our community.”