SOUTH PORTLAND—For a stretch – most of the first half, even – it looked like Windham’s game to lose: They set the pace and controlled the flow, and when Cory Hutchison knocked down his fourth three, late in the second quarter, he pushed the Eagles out front 41-28. All they needed to do was protect a 13-point upper-hand.
But the Riots have been a top squad for years: They’ve emerged triumphant from tough situations before, and they did so once again Tuesday night. South Portland – on the back of double-digit performances by Connor Buckley, Noah Malone, Liam Coyne and Scott Lewis – surged in the second half to ultimately seize a 72-63 W.
“This is our fourth straight road game,” Windham head coach Chad Pulkkinen said. “We knew this stretch was going to be a test for us. And we knew, coming into South Portland, it’s a tough place to play; they’re a great team. Those guys have been in big games. Our guys are starting to realize how to play in a big game, and hopefully we’re a better Windham team come February than we are now.”
“They’re awesome,” South Portland head coach Kevin Millington said of the Eagles, chuckling. “We want to play super-fast, and I think that’s the first time, in the last few years, that we’re trying to play fast, and the other team is playing faster, and they were dictating the pace. To be honest, I’d like to say I had all these great adjustments, but I didn’t know what to do.”
The game – a thrill to watch – rolled up and down the court at a quick clip from the very get-go: Eagle Mike Gilman knocked down the opening bucket inside the first two or three seconds, and Lewis responded with a three so immediately that your friendly neighborhood sportswriter barely had time to take his notes.
The sides then traded baskets for the remainder of the quarter: Hutchison drained his first – of seven – threes, and Riot Riley Hasson drained a two; Hutchison hit another three, and Lewis completed a three-point play. Windham briefly pried open a small lead, Nick Curtis and Hutchison nailing back-to-back twos and Curtis soon adding a three, but South Portland stayed hot on their heels, chewed through the deficit and even grabbed the lead on a Lewis two and a Buckley three. 16-15, SoPo.
The first finished at 22-22. The second, though, belonged largely to Windham: The Eagles broke into a 12-0 run midway through the quarter, going from up one point, 29-28, to up 13 points, 41-28. Hutchison hashed two further threes, Curtis a three and Andrew Wing a three.
“Just moving the ball, being unselfish,” Pulkkinen said, asked went right for his boys during those times they dominated. “We’ve talked about this all year with our group; not a lot of teams want to play defense on us if we’re unselfish. Because we have a lot of shooters…a lot of things open up for us, and guys get good looks. You can knock down good looks, but you’ve got to move the ball to get good looks.”
Down by a veritable mile, the Riots nevertheless maintained their composure. They began the long battle back with a Buckley two; the team needed about seven shots between them to actually sink the shot, but once they did, they caught fire, tallying the last eight points of the second and the first two of the third. Suddenly, a mere three separated the sides.
Windham surged ahead again as the third progressed: Dierhow Bol picked up his own offensive rebound, then dished out to Hutchison, who nailed his fifth three; Cutis hit two from the line; Bol snagged another o-reb, converting this one for two; Curtis carried upcourt and shoveled at the last moment to Hutchison, who nailed his sixth three. 51-42.
But the Eagles soon stumbled mightily. Perhaps they began to feel the fatigue of the machine-gun action just hair sooner than the Riots, because they started missing passes and take rushed shots, allowing the Riots to trample back. Buckley and Malone notched the majority of South Portland’s points as they pulled even with their guests at 51 all.
“The pace of the game took a toll on us in the second half,” Pulkkinen said. “When you do that, you settle for jumpshots and distant shots, because you don’t have the wind to take it off the dribble. To battle that, you move the basketball: Instead of trying to do it yourself, you move the basketball, and good things will happen. If we take a long possession, that makes them work on defense, so they don’t have the energy on the offensive side. It was a chess match, and we didn’t pass the test.”
The last run of the night belonged to the Riots: From 55-55, South Portland outscored Windham 11-2, Buckley, Hasson, Malone and Jacob Milton all contributing. From 66-57, then, the opponents matched one another – but matching one another wasn’t enough for the Eagles. They needed to cover more ground than SoPo, and they couldn’t: Each time they sent Coyne or Hasson to the line, Coyne or Hasson hit both shots. Meanwhile, Curtis and Gilman both fouled out – a misstep neither player is, by any account, prone to making:
“Michael and Nick have never fouled out of a game,” Pulkkinen said. “There’s a lot of calls both ways that were missed, but that’s the game, that’s basketball. We can’t worry about those things; we’ve got to do all the little things, that we can control. Fouling was a big part of our aggressiveness on defense; first half we played really good defense on their guards, second half we allowed them a little bit of space where they got off a little bit. Malone had a pretty good second half.”
In the end, the Riots simply outlasted the Eagles. 72-63 the final.
“It’s a tale of two halves,” Pulkkinen said. “In the second half, were just very selfish with the basketball. Got out of our game plan, rushed shots…we were taking quick possessions, and they were coming down and converting. Not moving the ball, not trusting one another.”
“A lot of our shots came from the top of the key,” Pulkkinen said of the latter half. “They’re in a matchup zone, so they’re looking to stay put in the zone. So when we moved in the first half, they were getting lost with who they were guarding, so we got wide-open looks. Second half, we didn’t move the ball enough to get open looks…We just laid an egg on keeping our consistency on our offense.”
One tactic that seemed productive for South Portland in interrupting the Eagles’ flow was extending the d. “I was a little concerned to extend it,” Millington said, “and let Curtis turn loose. But we felt like they just had so much rhythm on offense, and if we could extend it, just disrupt the rhythm – I don’t know if it worked or not. I think the biggest thing is, they got tired. I don’t want overlook what’s probably the most obvious. We got tired, but they got more tired, and missed some shots. And when Gilman and Curtis foul out of the game, it hurts Windham.”
Hutchison finished the night with 25, the game high. Curtis had 21, and Wing seven. Gilman, quite capable of erupting for a big total, found himself mostly stymied, and ended with four.
“Throughout the season, it’s going to get tougher and tougher on Mike and Nick,” Pulkkinen said of his two primary standouts. “But Mike and Nick trust Cory a ton; the whole team trusts Cory. He’s one of those guys that never makes a mistake, he can shoot it, and he stepped up tonight. We knew, going in, that they were going to concentrate on Mike – they faceguarded him a little bit – and we knew they were going to make it hard on Nick. Cory’s that type of player, where he can get hot…We just tell him to keep shooting, and when he’s open, it’s good looks, because usually guys aren’t looking for him to score, and usually he’s got the fourth or fifth best defender on him.”
“Cory’s a steady player that can knock it down when he gets going,” Pulkkinen said. “Tonight, he took shots in rhythm, and we work on that. Nick, in practice, him and Cory have a connection, where, you’ll see it on pick-and-rolls and you’ll see it on pick-and-pops, Nick really trusts Cory on those jumpshots.”
Also notable for the Eagles, Bol looked very much like the player underneath that the team relies on him to be.
“First half, he was great,” Pulkkinen said of Bol. “He was block shots and getting rebounds. Second half, a little bit of fatigue, but the effort was there still. He had a tough task, guarding a guard at some points, guarding a big guy – they go small, they go big. He did a great job battling.”
Notably absent from the court for Windham were Nazari Henderson and Hunter Coffin; two of the team’s best defenders. Henderson was out of town, and Coffin is sidelined with a lingering shoulder injury.
Over on the South Portland side, Malone finished with 18, Buckley with 15, Coyne with 14 and Lewis with 14. Hasson added nine.
“We do think we have a little more balanced attack,” Millington said, asked about the Riots’ offensive spread. “We have five guys who can score, and we got some big lifts, and some bench time, when Liam Coyne got in foul trouble. And having those scorers down the stretch – I think Windham got a little tired, and our guys had a little left in the tank. We were very tired too; I don’t want to say that we weren’t, but we had a little left in the tank at the end, and that was probably the difference. And then they got in foul trouble.”
Windham moved to 7-2 on the result. The Eagles sit in AA North’s second slot; their only other loss thus far has come against No. 1 Portland. They hosted Sanford (eighth in the South, 1-7) on Thursday the 11th, and they welcome Bangor (third in the North, 5-4) on Monday the 15th.
“The goal is to try to get better every game,” Pulkkinen said. “To take those challenges, learn from it and move on. And our guys are learning fast, and that’s all you want as a coach, is for them to learn, and prove it. Tonight we ran into a tough opponent. We took a lot from it, and we’ll move on.”
South Portland, meanwhile, moved to 7-1. The Riots rank first in AA South, just ahead of Scarborough (7-2). The lone blemish on their record is a road loss vs. Greely, undefeated and the top dogs in A South. South Portland clashes with long-time nemeses Portland on Thursday, and Bonny Eagle (third in the South, 3-4) on Saturday.
Adam Birt can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @CurrentSportsME
South Portlander Riley Hasson and Windhamite Andrew Wing vie in midair.
Nick Curtis lofts up a jumper for the Eagles.
Dierhow Bol rejects – spectacularly – a Riots opponent.
Eagle Nathan Watson guards Riot Connor Buckley.
Eagle Cory Hutchison ascends toward the net; Riot Scott Lewis sails in to interrupt.