State Championship drought to end in Class AA

State Championship drought to end in Class AA

South Portland goalkeeper Jaelen Jackson jumps while celebrating with teammates after the Red Riots defeated Thornton Academy in the Class AA South Championship game at Cross Insurance Arena on Saturday. Carl D. Walsh/Staff Photographer

South Portland High boys’ basketball coach Kevin Millington is well aware of the historic significance of Saturday’s Class AA Championship game between his team and Oxford Hills.

A 1991 South Portland graduate, Millington was just a year out of high school when the Red Riots won their last basketball championship: a five-overtime thriller against Bangor in 1992.

“It was addition by subtraction,” Millington joked. “I had been part of the team the previous year.”

In his seventh year as head coach of South Portland, Millington led the Riots to the state finals in 2016 and 2017, failing Portland both times. His teams lost in regional finals in 2018 and 2020.

But history is the last thing he wants his talented 20-1 side to think about on Saturday night when they meet Oxford Hills (18-3) at Cross Insurance Arena. Tipping is due at 9 p.m.

“It’s something that if we’re lucky enough to win, we can talk about it afterwards,” Millington said. “The first meeting I had with them this season was about the fact that we didn’t even want to talk about the Ballon d’Or. It was always about being the best version of ourselves.

Oxford Hills also tries to thwart history. The school, founded in 1961, has never won a men’s basketball title, losing to Lawrence in its only appearance in a state championship game in 1990. Scott Graffam was the Vikings coach that that year, during the first of his two long stays in Oxford Hills. . Graffam was there from 1982 to 1991. Then, after stops in Scarborough and Medomak Valley, he returned to the Paris Sud school in 1999 and has remained its head coach ever since.

South Portland has a rich basketball history. He won the first state championship in 1922. Overall, South Portland is 11-11 in big school boys’ championship games.

South Portland center JP Estrella tries to bounce back against Thornton Academy in a January 18 game. The junior averaged 20.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.1 blocks during the regular season. Brianna Soukup/staff photographer

After beating rivals Thornton Academy in the South Final, South Portland players quickly focused on the next game.

“This one is over. It’s next Saturday,” senior forward Owen Maloney said.

“It feels good to get rid of this one, but then we have a tough game against Oxford Hills,” said JP Estrella, the Riots’ 6-foot-11 center (he grew an inch over the course of the season) who averaged 20.2 points, 11.8 rebounds and 4.1 blocks during the regular season. “It’s going to be a dogfight, it’s going to be a great game, and we’re already fired up for it.”

South Portland and Oxford Hills did not meet in the regular season. South Portland won a pre-season meeting.

” They are very good. They’re a good-sized team,” said South Portland junior point guard Jaelen Jackson, who averaged 14.4 points, 4.3 rebounds and 4.4 assists during the regular season. “Teigan Pelletier is very good. We’re going to have to check and play good defense, and I think otherwise we get on well with them. The pre-season game went well for us. We’ll see how it goes.

Graffam said early in the season, Pelletier, a 6-6 sophomore, tended to defer to older teammates, like senior shooter Cole Pulkkinen (11.8 points), center 6-10 Colby Dillingham (13.5 points) and 6-3 junior point guard Eli Soehren.

“He understood that he had to score a lot for us to be successful,” Graffam said. “He’s embraced it and is our top scorer and second-best rebounder.”

Oxford Hills’ Teigan Pelletier shoots the winning field goal with 0.4 seconds left in overtime in Saturday’s Class AA North championship game against Edward Little in Portland. Andrée Kehn/Sun Journal

Pelletier, the son of Oxford Hills women’s basketball coach Nate Pelletier, averaged 16.1 points and 7.4 rebounds in the regular season. He scored game-winning baskets against Bangor in the regional quarterfinals (a 3-pointer with five seconds left) and in overtime with 0.4 seconds left in the Class AA North final against No. 1 Edward Little.

“Obviously they’ve been in some huge games, and I think it means a lot not wanting to give anything up,” Graffam said. “We were five at Bangor with 30 seconds left and five at EL with 17.7 seconds (left in overtime). There’s no giving up on these guys, I can tell you that.

Millington said: “I just hope that if there’s one last shot we get the ball. I don’t want Pelletier to take it.

Both teams played their regional semi-finals and finals at the Cross Insurance Arena.

“I think a lot of the nerves of playing on this court are definitely gone out the window now,” Jackson said.

One difference is that Oxford Hills played in the afternoon. South Portland has had two 8:45 tournament starts this year.

“We’ve played this slot almost every game we’ve played in the tournament since the AA’s inception,” Millington said, though he was quick to add that “teenagers get up so late anyway,” and he doesn’t think familiarity with a 9 p.m. start gives his team any advantage.

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