Some how, some way, Lions roar once more
PORTLAND—The regional final that so many wanted to see proved to be an epic game for the ages Monday evening.
The two dominant powers of the past decade in Western A girls' basketball, Deering (three state titles since 2004) and McAuley (six regional, two state crowns since 2000) squared off at the Cumberland County Civic Center with an opportunity to win a Gold Ball awaiting the victor.
After two thrilling, down-to-the-wire regular season contests, the teams raised the bar even higher as 32 minutes weren't enough to decide it and for the second time in less than a month, the rivals had to go to overtime to determine the thinnest measure of separation.
After the Lions missed chances to put the game away from the foul line late in regulation, Deering senior standout Kayla Burchill was fouled with 0.5 seconds remaining and her team down one. She made the first free throw, but missed the second to send the game to OT tied at 37.
There, McAuley again appeared primed to hold on to win, but Burchill was again fouled in the waning seconds with her team down two. She again made the first, but missed the second and after junior Ella Ramonas grabbed the rebound and missed a desperation heave, the Lions were able to run out the clock and hold on for a palpitating 41-40 triumph.
McAuley got 17 points, nine rebounds, six blocks and a steal from junior Alexa Coulombe, solid defense on Burchill from senior Rebecca Knight and a pair of clutch 3s from freshman sensation Allie Clement as they improved to 19-2 and ended the Rams' great year at 19-2.
McAuley will face either Hampden Academy or Messalonskee (those teams meet in the Eastern A Final Tuesday night in Augusta) in the Class A state final, Saturday at 4:05 p.m., at the Augusta Civic Center.
"That was just a great basketball game," said McAuley first-year coach Amy Vachon, the one-time Cony High and University of Maine star, who has seen her share of memorable games. "I think everyone here enjoyed it. It was back and forth. You couldn't relax at all, even at the end. It's really too bad someone lost. I'm so happy for the girls. To be on the sidelines and see how hard they worked, I'm just really happy for them."
Familiarity breeds contempt (and great basketball)
Deering and McAuley each had to survive two tournament tests before their showdown.
The Rams, ranked first after a stellar 17-1 regular season, struggled in the quarterfinals last Monday versus No. 9 Bonny Eagle, trailing by nine at one point before awakening to hold off the Scots down the stretch, 37-30. In the snow-delayed semifinals Saturday versus No. 5 Sanford, Deering trailed 11-2 early before rallying to down No. 5 Sanford, 51-45.
The Lions, meanwhile, the No. 2 seed after a 16-2 regular season, had little trouble with No. 7 South Portland in the quarterfinals, 52-27, then, in the semis, versus No. 3 Gorham, McAuley's stellar defense keyed a 39-30 triumph, which avenged a regular season loss.
That set up Monday's battle.
The teams split in the regular season, both rallying on the other's court. First, the Lions defeated the Rams in overtime, 47-43, on Feb. 3. A week later, Deering was down 28-14 in the third period, but went on a game-closing 24-7 tear and came back to win, 38-35. They also met in late December in the (non-countable) championship game of a holiday tournament in Augusta, which the Rams took, 52-48.
The teams have plenty of recent playoff history, squaring off five times since 2001.
McAuley won in the 2001 quarterfinals (58-47) and 2007 semis (46-35), while Deering was victorious in the 2004 regional final (56-46), 2009 quarterfinals (42-27) and last year's semifinal (45-35).
Monday proved to be the best of them all.
Unlike their first two playoff games, the Rams came out hot as sophomore Marissa MacMillan made her presence felt, scoring on a putback and adding a layup for a quick 4-0 advantage.
McAuley then rattled off eight in a row as Coulombe got on the board with a jumper, Clement tied the score with a layup after a steal, Coulombe hit a bank shot and Knight's driving layup made it 8-4. A MacMillan leaner ended the run, but Knight took a pass from Clement for a layup, then made a free throw for an 11-6 edge.
Deering would answer as Burchill made consecutive layups to get her team back within one, 11-10, heading to the second.
After Burchill tied the score with a foul shot, Knight hit a jumper and Coulombe drained a long jumper for a 15-11 Lions' lead. After Burchill made two foul shots and Knight answered with a driving layup, Cole sank a 3 over Coulombe and with 1:29 to go, junior Chelsea Saucier made two free throws for an 18-17 Rams' lead.
Finally, with 18.4 seconds remaining, Knight scored on a runner to end a 4 minute, 35 second drought and put McAuley back on top, 19-18.
In the first 16 minutes, Knight led all scorers with nine points. Coulombe added six points and was her usual dominant force on the glass (five boards) and affecting shots (blocking four). The Lions had just four turnovers and made 1 of 2 foul shots.
Burchill led the Rams with seven points and four rebounds. MacMillan, thanks to her early success, had six points, four boards and a block. Deering turned the ball over five times and shot 5 of 6 from the line.
In the third, nothing changed as the margin remained razor thin.
A free throw from MacMillan tied the score, but Clement sank a 3 with 6:07 to go for a 22-19 lead. After Saucier hit a jump shot, Davenport scored on a putback, but Ramonas did the same with 3:20 to play to cut the deficit to 24-23.
A driving layup from Coulombe pushed the Lions' advantage back to three, but Deering closed the quarter on a 5-0 run as Burchill first fed MacMillan for a layup, then, after a McAuley turnover when it was holding for the last shot, Burchill got free for a 3 on the wing and buried it to make it 28-26 entering the fourth.
That set up a memorable finish.
After Coulombe tied the score with a leaner off the glass, Burchill went to the line and made both free throws. With 5:40 to go, Clement went coast-to-coast for a layup but Burchill fed MacMillan for a layup to put Deering up, 32-30. Burchill added two free throws and it appeared as if the Rams were on the verge of opening it up, but Clement answered with a clutch 3 to cut the deficit to 34-33.
"Allie hit some big 3s tonight," Vachon said.
With 3:06 to play, Coulombe made two free throws for a 35-34 Lions' lead.
Burchill had a good look at a 3 at the other end, but the shot was short and Clement rebounded. After a Knight miss, on the next Deering possession, Coulombe stole the ball and McAuley had an opportunity to extend the lead.
The Lions would do just that, as on an inbounds pass from under the basket, Dipierro found Coulombe, who had some how gotten free. Coulombe laid the ball in and was fouled. She missed the free throw, but it was 37-34 with 1:48 to go.
At the other end, Ramonas missed a contested layup, but Burchill grabbed the rebound and scored to make it a 37-36 game with still 1:33 to play.
McAuley managed to run a minute off the clock before the Rams could register their seventh team foul and put Dipierro at the line for a one-and-one. Dipierro's free throw bid just missed and the rebound was tipped out of bounds to Deering.
At the other end, Cole got a great look at an open 3, but her shot went in and out. Coulombe rebounded and was fouled with 15.6 seconds showing.
The standout junior, who has verbally committed to Boston College, went to the line with a chance to give her team breathing room, but she too missed the front end of a one-and-one, giving the Rams a chance to win it.
After a timeout, Deering set up for the endgame and all eyes were on Burchill, who got the ball, gave it up momentarily, then got it back as the clock wound down. She drove on Coulombe and Knight and threw up a wild shot that was no good, but the whistle blew and with the clock showing 0.5 seconds to go, arguably the best player in the state was going to the line with a chance to tie it or win it.
Burchill, who's been haunted and driven all season by the agony of last year's 37-34 regional final loss to Scarborough, where she was called for a questionable foul and had to leave the game, opening the door for a Red Storm rally, had a chance to right that wrong.
Her first free throw was nothing but net and suddenly the Rams were close enough to taste their third regional crown in four seasons.
Wisely, Vachon called timeout and Burchill had a minute to think about the next free throw.
The teams returned to the court, Ramonas gave Burchill some words of encouragement and the senior eyed the potential golden free throw.
It was just long.
"It's a tough spot for a kid," said Deering coach Mike Murphy. "The reputaton she has, it's still a tough spot for a kid to go through it. It's tough to do."
McAuley was able to exhale.
“I thought Kayla makes all her foul shots, so I just thought about the next offensive set," Coulombe said.
"I was nervous, but I was so confident in our team that we'd pull through," said Clement.
"It didn't look good," said Vachon, who added that her timeout wasn't to ice Burchill, but instead to set up a desperation play if the Lions fell behind. "As difficult as it was, I had to try something. We set something up, but luckily we didn't have to use it. It gave us a second wind, a second chance."
Not only had McAuley dodged a bullet with the missed free throw, but the Lions appeared to have the upper hand entering OT with big-time momentum and the fact that Burchill had four fouls.
Immediately, McAuley looked to capitalize on that advantage when Coulombe blew past Burchill into the lane for a runner, but it was no good and Burchill got the rebound.
"We were trying to attack (Burchill) in overtime, but she did a nice job of not letting that happen," Vachon said. "She's a smart player. She wasn't going to pick up her fifth foul."
At the other end, Burchill missed a shot, but Ramonas ran down the rebound before the Rams turned the ball over.
On the next possession, Saucier, who twice had the ball swiped from her by Clement in regulation, stole it away from Clement and fed Burchill for an easy layup and a 39-37 lead.
At the other end, Coulombe missed a shot, Dipierro got the rebound, but had a shot blocked by MacMillan and the ensuing held ball went to Deering.
The Rams turned it over, however, and this time the Lions made them pay.
With 1:11 left in the extra session, Clement fed Coulombe for a layup and she was fouled by Deering senior Aarika Viola. Coulombe calmly sank the free throw to put McAuley ahead to stay, 40-39.
At the other end, Burchill went 1-on-2 versus Knight and Coulombe and her wild, contested shot wasn't even close and went out of bounds, possession Lions.
With 25.3 seconds left, Knight went to the line for two shots with a chance to make it a three-point game. She hit the first free throw, but was off on the second and again, the Rams had life.
Again, Burchill would be at the center of the action as she picked up a foul on Coulombe and went to the line with her team down two with 9 seconds left.
As was the case at the end of regulation, Burchill made the first free throw and Vachon called timeout.
The second foul shot was off the mark, but Ramonas came from nowhere for the rebound. Ramonas hurried a putback attempt that was way off the mark and Knight grabbed the rebound before being knocked to the floor. The ball went out of bounds, but with 4.1 seconds to go, McAuley had possession.
"We had to get the ball," Coulombe said. "It's the ball or nothing.”
"I said to the kids that Ramonas is the unsung hero of that team," said Vachon. "That's what she does. We were lucky. We did a good job keeping her off the boards the majority of the game. She almost won it at the end."
The Lions had to get the ball in and Coulombe did so, to Dipierro, who found herself with an open lane up the court. She raced into the frontcourt and before Deering could foul her, the horn sounded.
The Rams, for the second year in a row, left the court in despair.
The Lions, meanwhile, went wild with joy.
McAuley 41 Deering 40. OT.
"We felt all the emotions," said Coulombe. "We were down, then we were up, then we had to go to overtime. You don't really think about it. It's play by play."
"We found a way," said Knight. "That's the theme of our year. I was praying for a second chance (at the end of regulation). We got it and we took advantage. We worked hard. We didn't put our heads down once and I think that really helped us. We kept believing. We knew how to handle it. I think it's better to play a game like this since it's so fun. It was also very nervewracking."
"It feels like I'm in a dream," Clement said. "I'm so excited. There's nothing better than winning Western Maine. I can't even imagine winning states. We kept having second chances and we were so lucky to get those second chances since that kept us in the game. Our defense was there. We gave everything we had. I had a really good feeling about this game and I was so excited when we won. There's no better feeling than winning a game like this. I wasn't nervous, more really, really excited. We wanted it more. We gave it everything we had. We left everything there. We proved it and won.
"It was close all the way. Every possession counted. We had to make sure we took care of every possession. We had to keep our heads and make sure we stayed in the game. We supported each other and knew we could come back. I think we learned from our losses and it paid off in the end."
Deering was at the other end of the emotional spectrum..
"It stings, but we exceeded all expectations," said Murphy. "We walked out of here last year and felt like we got robbed. This game right here, we could have played for another hour and it still would have been one point. There was just no separation. That was proven in all four games. The kids played hard. Both teams played hard. I told the kids they had nothing to be ashamed of. We had chances. McAuley's a great team. Two scholarship players and another who will be one."
Coulombe had a second straight command performance, scoring 17 points to lead the offense and anchoring the defensive effort with nine rebounds and six blocks. She also had a steal and wound up earning Edward "Red" McMann Award as the outstanding player/sportsperson in the Western A tournament, the first McAuley winner since Tara Beaulieu in 2005.
"Coulombe stepped up," Murphy said. "There's a reason why BC wants her."
"Alexa was huge," said Clement. "She always is. She's a huge leader on our team. She's a great captain."
Clement continued to show just how special she already is and just how transcendent she will become by handling point guard duties with poise well beyond her years, adding 12 points, grabbing seven rebounds and coming up with three steals.
Knight, although she struggled in the second half on offense, was superb in helping somewhat hold Burchill in check at the other end. Knight wound up with 10 points, five boards and a block.
"When Becca doesn't score, she brings it up at the other end," Coulombe said. "We can always depend on her."
"Becca didn't care if she scored," said Vachon. "She just concentrated on defense. She did a really nice job."
“I wasn't worried about it offensively," Knight said. "I wanted to stop Burchill. We did a good job with that. We won. What more can I say. I have my wing man, Alexa. She really stepped up. Allie did. Defensively, we all did.”
Davenport had the other two Lions' points. McAuley turned the ball over just seven times in 36 minutes and kept things most interesting by missing five of 10 foul shots.
McAuley, the preseason favorite, wound up where many expected them to be, but it sure wasn't easy.
"I wouldn't say it's a relief," Vachon said. "The girls were new to me. I was new to them. I think we improved a lot as the year went on. I think it's thrilling and exciting.”
Burchill, who won the Class A title as a freshman and sophomore and wound up four points shy of perhaps capturing four Gold Balls in her sensational high school career, bowed out with 20 points, eight rebounds and a block. Her impact will be felt for a long, long time.
"I feel so bad for Kayla," said Murphy. I don't want to see a kid go through that. You'd rather lose by 20 than see a kid go through that, but life goes on. I'll harp forever on what she meant to us. She meant the world. When the Deering job opened, I knew Kayla was a sophomore and with her family's history, I knew I had a great player on hand. She grew up so much this year. She's just a quality person. She got caught in the moment. I don't blame her. She got us there to being with. She always, always performed."
MacMillan had a breakthrough performance with 11 points, seven rebounds and two blocks.
"Marissa stepped up," said Murphy. "She's had some nice games, but she did a nice job in this game."
Saucier had four points (two steals and a block), Cole three and Ramonas two (along with seven boards). Deering committed 12 turnovers and made 12 of 16 free throws.
The Rams, who for the first time in four years weren't the favorite this winter, certainly produced a fantastic campaign, which ended 19-2, giving the program 79 wins over the past four years.
"It's been an awesome season," Murphy said. "I'm pleased with this group. A lot of people didn't give us a shot. A lot of other teams in Western Maine would love to be in our shoes."
While Burchill's departure will leave a monstrous hole, Deering returns everyone else, save Viola. Ramonas will be next year's leader and the likes of Cole, sophomore Keneisha DiRamio (who was huge in the two tournament wins), MacMillan and Saucier will keep this program near the top.
“The onus is on them for how much better they want to get in the offseason,” said Murphy. "I like that Ella's so competitive. Chelsea held her own and then some. She had a big year. Marissa was gigantic. Emily gave us great minutes defensively and keeping the ball moving. She's a shooter. Keneisha has battled injuries. We hope for big things from (junior) Katryna Gilson and (freshman) LeeAnn Downs. They'll decide how good they want to be with offseason workouts."
Gold ball time
McAuley is 2-4 in state finals. In 2000, the Lions lost, 54-41, to Mt. Blue. After a 53-43 setback to Nokomis in 2001, McAuley went back-to-back in 2002 (67-61 over Cony) and 2003 (50-39 over Nokomis). The Lions lost to Cony in the 2005 (58-40) and 2007 (46-41) state finals.
McAuley has no history with 18-2 Hampden Academy or 11-9 Messalonskee (those teams meet in the Eastern A Final Tuesday evening in Augusta).
The Lions have gone eight long years without a Gold Ball. After this victory, all signs point to them being destiny's darlings, but there is still plenty of work to do.
"We have one more game and it's not going to be easy," Coulombe said. "We'll have to practice and be ready."
"We'll work hard and prepare," Knight said. "I think we'll be ready."
"We have one more and we have to give it everything we have," Clement said. "I'm so excited. We have to work hard in practice and stay focused. This wasn't it. This was a big part of it, obviously, but the next one really counts. We have to give it everything we have. We love each other and we just have to be there for each other."
Vachon knows the Eastern A side of things and will have her team prepared for the final step of their magic carpet ride.
"They are both good teams," she said. "Messalonskee's not an eight seed. They have two all-state players. They've struggled, but turned it on at tournament time. Hampden's senior-laden. They have good shooters. Whoever we get, it's going to be a battle."
It will have to go a long way, however, to come anywhere close to the magnitude and magic of Monday's legend.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @foresports