South Portland Comes Up Just Short in State Final
AUGUSTA — The seven seniors on the South Portland High School boys basketball team brought the school its first Western Maine Class A title in 20 years, but that accomplishment didn’t relieve the hurt in the Riots’ locker room after a 45-41 loss to Hampden Academy in the state final.
South Portland’s seniors scored 35 of the team’s 41 points, and had the Riots seemingly on the verge of another comeback victory in the second half. South Portland head coach Phil Conley said his team never could find the bucket to “get over the hump” and tie the game, but that wasn’t for lack of effort.
“If you’re going to go out, you want to go out giving everything you have, and these seven seniors gave me everything they had tonight. I’m proud of them,” Conley said.
The Western Maine Class A championship is South Portland’s first since 1992. That year, South Portland defeated Bangor 81-79 in five overtimes to win the state title.
Senior guard Tanner Hyland has played on the same court with many of his 2013 classmates since elementary school.
“For our seven seniors it was a hell of a run. I mean, I’m going to remember this year for the rest of my life,” Hyland said. “We won a Western Maine final which not many people get to do, but it sucks right now.”
Hampden Academy built a significant first half lead Saturday on the shoulders of senior forward Zach Gilpin, who lived in the low post for the early portion of the game. Gilpin scored 16 of the Broncos’ first 22 points, muscling through senior guard Calvin Carr down low and stepping outside to hit one three-pointer.
Carr may be South Portland’s best perimeter defender, but stood undersized near the hoop at 6’1” to Zach Gilpin’s 6’5” frame. In the second half, Conley made a defensive adjustment to put senior 6’7” center Jack Tolan on the Broncos’ star junior.
That defensive adjustment and a hot shooting streak from Hyland on offense brought the Riots back into the game. Zach Gilpin managed just seven points in the second half with Tolan defending.
Hyland, who won the George Vinall award as the best player in the Western Maine tournament, hit just one of his eight shots in the first half, but knocked down his first four shots of the third quarter to cut the deficit to two points.
"In the first half, I came out forcing the ball. I knew that if we were going to be in this game I had to play my game as a point guard. I got in the lane, created for others and created for myself,” Hyland said.
The game stayed close late into the fourth quarter as Hampden Academy clung to a slim lead. When Hyland hit a three-pointer with 2:30 remaining to cut the lead to one, the red half of the Augusta Civic Center erupted. South Portland seemed on its way to the kind of come-from-behind win that had defined its season.
But the pressure of the moment didn’t rattle Hampden Academy, who seemed to have the confidence of a charmed team.
The Broncos earned a spot in the state final after freshman Nick Gilpin’s three-point buzzer-beating heave banked in to beat Lawrence High School, and that mysterious favor from basketball’s higher powers continued into Saturday’s game.
Just before Hyland’s three, a jumper from senior guard Matt Palmer kicked straight up off the back of the rim and fell through. Earlier in the fourth, one of Palmer’s free throws hit every side of the iron, finally dropping in after hanging on the edge.
However, the biggest play of the game for the Broncos came not from luck, but from effort.
When Palmer missed the first free throw of a 1-and-1 with Hampden Academy up three and a just few seconds remaining, South Portland had a chance to retain possession and tie the game with a three. But senior Tyler Norris scrambled to the corner to retrieve an offensive rebound and deny the Riots one last look.
Norris hit one foul shot to extend the Broncos’ lead to four, putting the game away, and bringing the gold ball to Hampden.
Many of South Portland’s players fell to a crouch with uniforms covering their eyes when the final buzzer sounded, but Hyland said the bond the seniors created in their time together on the court transcends the heartbreak of the season’s end.
“We’re all great friends. We became better friends through the season. I know we’re all going to stay close and we won’t forget each other. This was a memorable year,” Hyland said.
South Portland’s team next year retains just one key contributor from this year’s group, sophomore Jaren Muller, who scored six points off the bench in the state final.
Conley said even with a brand new team, he’s confident in his South Portland’s chances because of the work ethic the seniors have inspired in their teammates.
“The young guys talked about in the locker room. We’ll work hard this summer so we can get back to one of these games. That’s what this group of seven seniors did, along with the underclassmen.”
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