Championship time on the hardwood

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Last winter, two city teams (and nearly a third) raised Gold Balls to the heavens.

This February, the city of Portland will produce plenty of memories on the hardcourt again.

The tournament is underway and will become all-consuming in the days to come as all nine local squads are involved.

Here’s an overview:

Stage set for history

McAuley has won the last four girls’ Class A state titles and has a chance to do something unprecedented by month’s end, win a fifth in succession. The Lions, who lost their opener at Thornton Academy, made it 17 in a row to close the regular season last week by downing visiting rivals Deering (49-40) and Cheverus (55-42). Against the Rams, McAuley led most of the way, then fell behind, 38-36, before closing on a 13-2 run. Ayla Tartre had 17 points, Sarah Clement added 13 and Jess Willerson finished with 12. The Lions then rallied from a halftime deficit and pulled away late to stay perfect all-time against the Stags, thanks to 17 from Willerson, 13 from Olivia Dalphonse and 11 from Clement.

“I’m very happy,” said McAuley coach Billy Goodman. “The girls got better every day. I’m proud of our record, but we’ve had a lot of close games. Different girls stepped up at different times, but defense has been a constant. Ayla Tartre brought it on defense every game and Olivia Dalphonse has been the leader of the ship. Scoring, handling the ball and playing great defense. I couldn’t take her off the floor.”

The Lions are the top seed in Western A for the fourth year in a row and will take the floor Monday at 8:30 p.m., at the Portland Exposition Building against the winner of Wednesday’s preliminary round game (see for game story) between No. 8 Cheverus (9-9) and No. 9 Portland (8-10). McAuley beat the Stags twice this year, also winning at Cheverus, 57-46, Dec. 23. The Lions handled the visiting Bulldogs, 60-30, on Jan. 23. McAuley beat Cheverus in both prior playoff meetings (the 2009 preliminary round and the 2013 regional final) and is 5-2 all-time against the Bulldogs, with a 70-38 win in last year’s semifinals the most recent.

“We have to keep getting better in practice,” Goodman said. “A lot of teams can win on a given night. Portland and Cheverus have both played teams close all year.”

Deering, which overcame a 2-2 start, finished 13-1 to go 15-3, good for the No. 4 seed. Last week, the Rams had their 12-game win streak snapped with a 49-40 loss at McAuley, but they bounced back and closed with a 53-47 win at Portland. Amanda Brett had 10 points against the Lions. Tasia Titherington had 25 points and Cierra Burnham added 12 against her old team in the victory at the Bulldogs.

“It was a long, ongoing process for us,” said Deering coach Mike Murphy. “We got whacked pretty good by the flu early on, but I’m very pleased by the progress of the kids. Their roles are defined by what they do on the floor. Different kids stepped up all year. That was nice to see.”

The Rams will face either No. 5 South Portland (13-5) or No. 12 Westbrook (7-11) in the quarterfinals Monday at 7 p.m. Deering rallied from 20 points down to beat the visiting Red Riots in an overtime thriller Dec. 30, 59-54, and downed visiting Westbrook a week prior, 49-35. The Rams split four prior playoff meetings with South Portland (the most recent was a 50-30 win in the 2007 quarterfinals) and are 2-1 all-time versus the Blue Blazes (a 41-20 victory in the 2008 semis was the last encounter).

Murphy thinks the tournament is as wide open as any in recent memory.

“McAuley’s had a great year and earned the No. 1 spot with quality wins, so they’re still the favorite, but overall, I believe five other teams could knock them off,” Murphy said. “South Portland is one of the six teams, in my opinion, who could walk away with it. They’re a very good team. They have great guard play. It comes down to surviving and moving on. Each possession is valuable. You can’t turn the ball over and you have to cash in at the free throw line. The team that does that, will come out on top.” 

Eighth-ranked Cheverus and No. 9 Portland are meeting for the first time in the postseason, with the opportunity to dethrone McAuley in the quarterfinals awaiting the winner.

The Stags overcame myriad struggles this winter, most notably the loss of senior Jillian Libby to injury for much of the season, but hit their stride late, even though losses at home to South Portland (63-55) and at McAuley (55-42) ended their regular campaign at 9-9. Against the Red Riots, Laura Holman continued her strong season with 21 points. Holman and Brooke Dawson both had 11 points against the Lions.

“If someone told me we would be .500 prior to the season, I would have been happy,” said Cheverus’ first-year coach Steve Huntington. “We’re coming off a year where we had five seniors graduate, two transfers and three others no longer with the program. On top of that, the three seniors we have this year have missed a combined 12 games due to injury and illness. We’re the youngest team in the SMAA. I came into the mix very late.  We didn’t have the summer to implement our philosophy. We were behind in every way from the start, but we still finished .500. I’m so proud of the girls for what they’ve accomplished thus far.

“We’ve had moments this year that showed we can play with every team in this league.  We’re second in the league in scoring and have taken some criticism for playing the pace we do. They say we live and die by the 3, but that really isn’t the case. We do shoot a lot of 3’s, but the goal is to get to the free throw line or shoot open shots, which happen to be 3’s much of the time.  We also are a very good passing team, which creates opportunities for us.”

The Bulldogs snapped a three-game skid last Tuesday by downing visiting Biddeford, 44-32 (Elizabeth Donato had 17 points). Portland closed with a 53-47 home loss to Deering Thursday (despite 16 points from Donato, 15 from Gabby Wagabaza and 11 from Taylor Sargent).

Portland hosted Cheverus Dec. 30 and beat the Stags, 66-60, in the teams’ lone regular season encounter.

“The girls are excited about having another chance to play Portland and to avenge the loss early in the season,” Huntington said. “We lost to Portland by six, but it was the first game without Jillian and we were still trying to figure things out.  Losing the league leader in rebounds and assists was huge, but we had younger players like Brooke Dawson and Deirdre Sanborn step up from an offensive standpoint and Brooke McElman on the defensive end. We’ve come along way since then and roles are more stable.”

In Western C, Waynflete wound up 12-5 and seventh after closing with a 66-29 home win over Greater Portland Christian School and a 60-17 triumph at Kents Hill. Helen Gray-Bauer had 14 points against the Lions, while Julianna Harwood tallied 12 and Lydia Giguere and Dana Peirce each added 11.

“We struggled for awhile, but a lot of that was self-inflicted,” said Flyers coach Brandon Salway. “We’ve come together and played much better of late. We have a lot more confidence.”

The Flyers hosted No. 10 Madison (9-9) in the preliminary round Tuesday. The teams don’t play in the regular season, but have split four prior playoff meetings. The most recent was a 63-41 Waynflete victory two years ago in the regional final, en route to the Flyers’ state championship.

“Madison is young, but they have good offensive options on the perimeter and in the post. If we take care of the ball, we have a good chance. We have to play well to win.”

If Waynflete advances to the quarterfinals, it will meet second-ranked Boothbay (17-1) Tuesday at 4 p.m., at the Augusta Civic Center. The teams don’t play in the regular season. The Flyers beat Boothbay in both prior postseason encounters, with the most recent being a 73-52 semifinal round triumph two years ago.

“It seems like the field is deep,” Salway said. “I think you’ll see some upsets.”

Looking ahead, the Western A semifinals are Wednesday of next week. The regional final is Saturday, Feb. 21. Both rounds will be contested at the Cross Insurance Center (formerly the Cumberland County Civic Center). The Class A Final is Saturday, Feb. 28, at the Augusta Civic Center. The Western C semifinals are Thursday and the regional final is Saturday, both in Augusta. The Class C state final is Saturday, Feb. 28, in Bangor.

Four to watch

All four boys’ teams from the city are capable of doing great things in the days to come.

Portland is the defending Class A state champion and wound up with the top seed for the Western A tournament for the second year in a row after finishing 16-2. The Bulldogs, who had their program-record, 37-game win streak snapped Jan. 31 by Cheverus, lost their second in a row last Tuesday, as a slowdown style didn’t pay off in a 20-16 overtime setback at South Portland. Liam Densmore had more than half his team’s points, but couldn’t reach double figures, ending up with nine. Thursday, Portland finished strong with an impressive 66-44 victory at rival Deering. The Bulldogs jumped ahead by virtue of an 18-2 run and pulled away in the second half behind 27 points from Steve Alex. Amir Moss added 13 points, Densmore had nine and Joe Esposito had eight points and 10 rebounds.

“We just wanted to play our game and bring it every possession,” Alex said. “We were ready to play.”

“We just focused on defense,” said Esposito. “We fed off our defense. We talked about doing our jobs, like the Patriots. I don’t think a lot of people thought we’d do what we did (this season). It’s all because of hard work.”

The Bulldogs will play either No. 8 Windham (10-8) or ninth-ranked Thornton Academy (9-9) in the quarterfinals Friday at 9 p.m., at the Expo. Portland won at the Golden Trojans (59-51) Dec. 23 and handled the host Eagles (70-55) Jan. 27. The Bulldogs have no playoff history with Windham. Since 1945, Portland is 2-3 versus Thornton Academy in the tournament. The most recent encounter was the 2009 Western A Final (a 49-43 Golden Trojans’ victory).

“It’s more wide open than I’ve seen in a long time, however, there’s only a handful of teams that can consistently win three games in a row and hopefully, we’re one of them,” Bulldogs coach Joe Russo said. “You can’t take anyone lightly because there are some good teams out there.”

Deering wound up fifth in the region at 12-6, a record that is a bit misleading considering how competitive the Rams were most of the year. Last week, Deering avenged an earlier loss with a 69-64 victory at Cheverus, then fell at home to Portland (66-44). In the win, Garang Majok had 20 points, while Raffael Salamone and Malik White both added 16. Majok had 16 points and 10 rebounds, while Ben Williams finished with 12 points against the Bulldogs.

“Sometimes you lose sight of what gets you there, which is good, solid team basketball,” Rams coach Todd Wing said. “We weren’t patient enough on offense. We wanted to get everything back on one shot. There’s a silver lining. We’re 12-6, same record as last year, with five new guys.”

Deering hosted No. 12 Scarborough (8-10) in Tuesday’s preliminary round (see for game story). The Rams held off the visiting Red Storm, 77-73, on Jan. 23. The teams have never met in the postseason.

“We’re in a better position to make a strong, strong run (this year),” Wing said. “It’s so wide open. We’re going to have to prepare to beat Scarborough. We both play up-tempo style. The better prepared team will win. It’s not the position we wanted to be in, but it’s the position we’re in. We’ll embrace that path.”

The Deering-Scarborough winner will meet No. 4 Gorham (13-5) in the quarterfinals Friday at 7 p.m., at the Expo. Deering beat Gorham in both meetings this winter: 71-49 in a Gorham “home game” at the Expo during the holiday tournament and 80-51 at Deering Jan. 13. The teams have no playoff history.

Cheverus finished 10-8 and seventh in Western A after closing with home losses to Deering (69-64) and South Portland (58-46). Austin Boudreau had 24 points against the Rams. Jack Casale had 14 points in the loss to the Red Riots.

Cheverus hosts No. 10 Marshwood (10-8) in Wednesday’s preliminary round. The Stags held off the visiting Hawks, 56-53, Jan. 23. Cheverus won all three previous playoff meetings, including overtime victories in the 2004 and 2005 semifinals and a 52-40 quarterfinal round triumph in 2011. If the Stags advance, they’ll play No. 2 South Portland (15-3) in the quarterfinals Saturday at 9 p.m., at the Expo. The Red Riots won both meetings this winter, including a 61-50 home decision Jan. 16. Over the past 50 years, the Stags beat South Portland in four of six playoff encounters. The most recent was a 68-48 Cheverus triumph in the 2004 quarterfinals.

In Western C, Waynflete, the defending regional champion, capped a stellar 15-1 campaign last week by downing visiting Greater Portland Christian School (81-33) and host Hyde (53-46). Milo Belleau had 20 points, Abel Alemayo added 14 and Harry Baker-Connick finished with 13 versus the Lions.

“I’m pleased with the way the team competes and with the leadership we have,” said Flyers coach Rich Henry. “Not just the captains, but guys who really put forth the effort and play within the team concept. Having gone through the regular season with one loss, by one point, to a top tier Class B opponent (Lake Region), is another accomplishment.”

Waynflete earned the No. 3 seed in Western C and will face either No. 6 Hall-Dale (12-6) or No. 11 Traip Academy (8-9). The Flyers don’t play Hall-Dale in the regular season. The schools have split two prior playoff meetings, with Waynflete winning in last year’s semifinal round, 55-35. The Flyers downed the Rangers, 59-51, Dec. 16 in Kittery and again Jan. 23 in Portland, 59-58. Traip won the only previous playoff game, 60-49, in the 2007 quarterfinals.

“I think the guys realize that the season is finite,” Henry said. “You start off in November and it seems like the season will always be there, but for the seniors especially, they understand the implications of single elimination. The consensus seems to be that Western C is wide open and I would agree there are very good teams at the top of the standings and some very dangerous teams in the middle of the pack.

“We have to play our style, stay focused mentally and be aggressive. If we’re able to do that, I’ll take the outcome. We were fortunate to have a lengthy playoff run last year and the players have been clear in putting that type of experience out there as a goal this year. I’m excited to see how things play out.”

Looking ahead, the Western A semifinals are Friday, Feb. 20. The regional final is Saturday, Feb. 21. Both rounds will be contested at the Cross Insurance Center. The Class A Final is Saturday, Feb. 28, at the Augusta Civic Center. The Western C semifinals are Thursday and the regional final is Saturday, both in Augusta. The Class C state final is Saturday, Feb. 28, in Bangor.

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at Follow him on Twitter:@foresports.

Sidebar Elements

Portland’s Liam Densmore makes a layup during the Bulldogs’ 66-44 win at Deering in the teams’ mutual regular season finale Thursday. Defending Class A champion Portland and the Rams both like their chances in the upcoming tournament.

McAuley’s Ayla Tartre goes up in traffic during the Lions’ 49-40 win over Deering last week. McAuley, the four-time defending Class A state champion, will be the top seed again for the tournament.

Sports Editor of The Forecaster since 2001. Find detailed game stories at I tweet prodigiously at @foresports.