The first round goes to McAuley in OT
PORTLAND—Thursday evening, amid a tournament-like atmosphere, the undefeated Deering and McAuley girls' basketball teams had their first of two showdowns in a little over a week (perhaps the first of three, if the teams, as expected, meet deep in the playoffs), and it remains clear that there isn't much separation between the Stevens Avenue rivals.
This time around, the Lions ended a six-game losing streak at the hands of the Rams and got a momentary measure of bragging rights by virtue of a 47-43 overtime victory over host Deering.
McAuley raced to a 13-1 lead after one period, but struggled against the Rams' zone defense thereafter. Late in regulation, the Lions were down 36-33, but freshman sensation Allie Clement came to the rescue, burying a clutch 3-pointer with just over 11 seconds to go to force overtime.
There, McAuley, behind four of senior Rebecca Knight's game-high 26 points, had enough to survive and hold on for the victory to improve to a Western Class A best 14-0, dropping second-ranked Deering to 13-1.
"It feels good." said Knight, who, like everyone else on the Lions' roster had never beaten the Rams. "We did it together. We never gave up or stopped believing. We knew it would take hard work."
Deering and McAuley entered the game with identical records and the same amount of Western Class A Heal Points, so something had to give.
The Lions and Rams have combined for five Class A state championships since 2002 and have met in the playoffs five times in the past 10 years. Deering holds a 3-2 edge, eliminating the Lions each of the past two seasons, including a much-closer-than-the-final-score indicated 42-27 quarterfinal round win in 2009, en route to the title, then 45-35 in last year's semifinals.
McAuley, which hasn't won a state title since 2003 or played for one since 2007, entered the season viewed as the favorite, as it returns two Division I-bound standouts, Knight (tied for second in the league in steals, 4 per game, fourth in rebounding, 9.1, and fifth in scoring, 16) and junior Alexa Coulombe (first in the league in assists per game, 4.6, first in blocks, 8.0, second in rebounds, 10.9, eighth in steals, 3.4, and 11th in scoring, 12.0). Mix in a stellar supporting cast of junior Sadie Dipierro (tied with Knight for second in the league in steals with 4 per game) and sophomores Hannah Cooke and Molly Mack, along with star-of-the-future Clement (fifth in the SMAA in assists, 4.0, 10th in scoring, 12.5, and 10th in made 3-pointers, 15), and the Lions were an easy choice for the pundits.
Under new coach Amy Vachon, they've lived up to billing this winter, winning all of their prior countable games, highlighted by a 45-42 come-from-behind victory at Cheverus Dec. 21. Six days later, McAuley lost, 52-48, to Deering in the championship game of a non-countable holiday tournament in Augusta.
The Rams, winners of the 2008 and 2009 Class A crowns, entered this season still stinging after last year's heartbreaking 37-34 regional final loss to Scarborough. After losing 2010 Deering Winter Female Athlete of the Year Claire Ramonas to graduation and senior defensive standout Britni Mikulanecz to a transfer to Cheverus, the team was expected to come back to the pack, even with the myriad skills of University of Vermont-bound senior Kayla Burchill.
Burchill has been fantastic this winter, leading Western Class A in scoring (24.4 ppg heading into Thursday), made 3-pointers (28) and free throw percentage (85 percent), but better yet for the Rams, her supporting cast has come of age nicely and Deering has passed every test, highlighted by a 56-44 win at Cheverus on Jan. 22, where Burchill had 24 points and sophomore Marissa MacMillan (who is second in the league in blocks per game, 3.0, and eighth in rebounds, 8.2) had a breakout 14-point performance. Senior Aarika Viola, junior Ella Ramons (tied for second in the league in assists, 4.5, and 18th in rebounds, 6.1) and sophomore Chelsea Saucier (seventh in assists, 3.6) have all stepped up mightily.
Entering Thursday's game (not counting the holiday encounter), the Rams had beaten the Lions in six successive meetings (including 42-33 and 44-41, in OT, last year in the regular season a year). McAuley's last victory came in the 2007 semifinals (46-35).
This time, the Lions started and finished strong to end the drought.
The first quarter seemed as if it was played on the other end of Stevens Avenue as McAuley carried play and its supporters were deafening.
The Lions took the early lead when Knight made two jump shots in just over 40 seconds for a 4-0 advantage. Clement got on the board with a baseline jumper with 4:12 to play in the first, causing Deering coach Mike Murphy to call timeout.
After Clement's steal and layup made it 8-0, the hosts finally got on the board with 3:03 to go in the first when Ramonas made a free throw. Knight answered with a foul shot, Clement took a pass from Knight and made a layup and Coulombe sank a long jumper to make it 13-1 McAuley after one period.
"Our defense has been there all year," Vachon said. "That first quarter defensively was just amazing. We need to find a way to continue that."
"We spotted them the first period, 13-1," said Murphy. "I'm disappointed with how we started, but that's rust. That first period, we were discombobulated. We had shots, but they spun out."
In the second stanza, the hosts switched to a zone defense, found their rhythm and got back in the contest.
A 3-point shot (off the glass) from junior Emily Cole got the comeback started. After Saucier made a layup (from Ramonas), Knight answered with a layup, but Viola knocked down a jumper and MacMillan made a free throw to make it a 15-9 game.
After Knight scored on a driving layup, then added a putback to push the lead back to 10, 19-9, Burchill finally got on the board with 2:14 to go before halftime with two foul shots and Ramonas knocked down a 3 to pull the hosts within five, 19-14. Knight scored after an offensive rebound, but with just under a minute to go in the half, Burchill converted an old-fashioned three-point play (layup, foul and free throw) to get the Rams within four, 21-17, at the break.
"We stunk in the first half and we were down four," Murphy said. "We gambled when we didn't need to and to be down 21-17, I was happy. When we went zone, they were bamboozled. We went man after that and they were still lost."
Deering continued to stymie McAuley in the third quarter, but couldn't grasp the lead.
Knight broke the second half ice with a bank shot after a pretty spin move, but Burchill answered with two free throws. After Knight scored on a driving layup, Burchill responded with a three-point play to make it 25-22. Knight took a pass from Dipierro and made a layup, but Burchill sank a 3 from the wing and suddenly, it was a 27-25 game. The Rams had a chance to tie or take the lead late in the quarter, but gave the ball away and Knight made a layup with 2.2 seconds to go to give the Lions a 29-25 lead with eight minutes remaining.
"We had the ball at the end of the third period and forced the ball and we gave up the basket and it was a four-point swing,' Murphy said. "That was huge."
Neither team scored in the first half of the final period. Finally, with 3:43 left, Burchill was fouled after an offensive rebound and made two free throws to bring her team within two, 29-27, ending a seven minute, 22 second drought. Coulombe answered with a left-handed hook shot off the glass, but Saucier fed MacMillan for a layup and with 2:33 left, Deering finally pulled even on a layup from Saucier (set up by Ramonas).
After Coulombe missed for McAuley, the Rams had a shot to take the lead, but Burchill's leaner went in and out and after Ramonas cleaned the offensive class, Cole's 3 and Burchill's follow were both no good. Knight rebounded for the Lions, but the visitors immediately turned the ball over. With just under two minutes to play, Deering regained possession and finally took the lead for the first time.
With 1:43 showing, Burchill was fouled by Clement and went to the line. She missed the first attempt, but made the second and the Rams were up, 32-31.
After Dipierro missed a 3 and Saucier grabbed the rebound, the promising sophomore was fouled with 51 seconds to go and calmly made both attempts for a 34-31 lead. Coulombe answered with two free throws 19 seconds later, but with 25.4 seconds showing, Burchill made two foul shots for a 36-33 advantage.
McAuley then called timeout. The Lions didn't necessarily need the 3 for the tie, but Vachon called a play for her poised freshman and Clement didn't disappoint. With 11.6 seconds left, Clement worked her way around a Coulombe and Knight screen, took a pass from Cooke at the top of the key and launched a 3 that found nothing but net.
"It was designed for me to go off a double screen and hit a 3 from the top of the key," Clement said. "I didn't think it was going to go in. I hadn't made a 3 the whole game, but I heard screams and saw it go in and I was so excited."
"I don't see her as a freshman," Knight said. "She's not a freshman anymore. We set a double pick and we knew she's make it."
"I called the play for the freshman," Vachon said. "I told her after the game, she's not a freshman anymore. To hit one at that point of the game, she's just phenomenal. She's great."
"You have to give credit for a freshman to knock down a 3-ball," Murphy lamented. "Clement is one of the top players in the state. They executed and got it off and did a great job. We thought about fouling, but with high school kids and officials, you don't know what you'll get. Hats off to her. She knocked it down."
Deering raced into the frontcourt, but called timeout with 2.1 seconds showing. The ensuing inbounds pass came to Burchill, but under pressure from Knight, her leaner from well beyond the 3-point stripe was short and it was on to overtime.
The Rams got the jump in OT, as Burchill buried a pullup jumper, but on a picture perfect high-low set, Coulombe fed Knight for a layup. Knight was fouled on the play and put the Lions ahead for good with her ensuing free throw.
With 2:28 to play, Coulombe stepped back behind the arc and threw up a 3 that found the bottom of the net for a 42-38 lead. Ramonas missed back-to-back shots and after a turnover, Viola missed, but Coulombe went to the line for a one-and-one opportunity and missed the front end.
After a Deering turnover, Clement had a chance to extend the lead, but she too missed the front end of a one-and-one.
With 1:25 to go, Burchill made two free throws to bring Deering back within two, 42-40, but 22 seconds later, Knight fought off stern defensive pressure from Ramonas and hit a tough-angle bank shot to push the advantage back to four.
Ramonas looked to answer with a 3 at the other end, but it was no good and Knight had the rebound. She fed Cooke, who was fouled and with 48.5 seconds showing, sank both free throws for her lone two points of the night and a 46-40 lead.
The Rams still had plenty of time to answer, but Burchill's 3-pointer was no good and after Viola's putback failed, Dipierro grabbed the rebound and was fouled. She missed both free throws, but as Burchill set up for a 3 at the other end, Clement stole the ball and was fouled.
With 16 seconds remaining, Clement made one of two free throws to essentially salt the win away. A 3 as time wound down by Ramonas proved to be too little, too late and McAuley held on for the inspirational 47-43 overtime triumph.
"It was a really exciting game," said Clement. "Cheverus was a big game, but this was more exciting. It's a huge win for us. It gave us confidence. We have to believe in ourselves and know our teammates support each other. We knew we had to buckle down and play good defense, especially on Kayla. She's done so well and can create so much for her team. We tried to play defense as well as we could. Our offense struggled a little bit. We came out strong in the first quarter, lost it a little bit, but found a way."
"We came out with intensity," Knight said. "We went away from our help defense, but we came out in the third with intensity. We like to run and play our game. We knew we had to take our time and not rush things and be calm. We have to come out and play that hard all game like we did in the first quarter and the third."
"I told them before the overtime, our defense would win the game," Vachon added. "We had huge shots. Allie's, obviously, and Alexa's 3 in overtime, those are big-time shots. You can't coach that. Those were just huge, big-time shots."
Knight led all scorers with 26 points. She also grabbed nine rebounds.
"Becca's been that way all year," Vachon said. "She was the only one to score for us in the second and third quarters."
"That's the best Knight's played against us," said Murphy. "She gave them senior leadership. She made big basket after big basket."
Clement had 10 points, seven steals and three rebounds. Coulombe was her usual imposing self, complementing nine points with five rebounds, four blocks and a steal. Cooke added two points and four boards. Also stepping up were Dipierro (seven rebounds) and Mack (five boards).
The Lions only turned the ball over seven times.
"One of the greatest things about this team is that they all play their roles," Vachon said. "Sadie got rebounds and tips. Molly just pounds and gets offensive rebounds. Anyone who goes in there, works their hardest and plays their roles. Hannah is the only one who hit free throws in overtime. Alexa's 3 was a big-time shot. She's a big-time player."
Burchill wound up with 22 points, but none of them came easily.
"We just wanted to make (Kayla) work for everything she got," Vachon said. "We know she's a fabulous player, one of the best in the state. Becca and Alexa did a good job. We constantly knew where she was. We wanted to frustrate her. She got her points, but we made her work for the points she got."
Burchill also had 15 rebounds. Ramonas added seven points (along with eight boards and two steals), Saucier six (in addition to five rebounds, two steals and two blocked shots), Cole and MacMillan three apiece and Viola two (to go along with five rebounds). The Rams finished with 11 turnovers.
"I'm proud of the kids," Murphy said. "Defensively, I'm ecstatic with how the kids responded. I told the kids, we'll play again tomorrow and that it's not the end of the season. You learn from losses.
"Let's call a spade a spade. We're a neighborhood team playing against a team of all-stars. My kids for 10 years have done a great job of doing that. Chelsea was on JV last year and she knocked down the biggest foul shots of her life. We went toe-to-toe with great players."
Deering is back in action Friday night when it hosts Windham in a makeup of Tuesday's snowout. The Rams go to Marshwood Monday, host Portland Wednesday, then close the regular season with the rematch at McAuley on Feb. 10 (the game has been moved up a day.
"It's not the end of the world," Murphy said. "We play tomorrow. Were not in the Civic Center or the Expo, let's go play."
"We're not strangers," Vachon said. "We have them again in a week."
The Lions play at Gorham Saturday, then close the regular season at home with games versus Massabesic Monday, Cheverus Tuesday and Deering next Thursday.
"We have to focus and get better every day in practice," said Clement.
"We have four more," Vachon added. "We're just trying to get through and learn. We've gotten better at not settling for shots and not hiding when teams play zone. We're getting there. We still have a long way to go. We have bragging rights for a week."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com