McAuley's still the one; Lions take battle of unbeatens at Scarborough
SCARBOROUGH—Even though the defending Class A state champion McAuley girls' basketball team won its first 10 games this winter, there were suggestions in some quarters that the Lions weren't playing to their potential.
Try criticizing this.
Friday evening at Alumni Gymnasium, in a postseason-like environment featuring two unbeaten teams doing battle, McAuley reminded everyone why it was such a big preseason favorite.
After a sluggish start, the Lions brought host Scarborough down to earth, thanks to a passing game that made the Red Storm's vaunted press ineffective, leading to easy look after easy look, a typical staunch defensive effort that forced the hosts into numerous desperation heaves and ultimately several of the state's best players doing what they've done time after time, stealing the show on the big stage.
After scuffling to get on the board in the first period and missing several easy layups, the visitors came to life in the middle periods and opened up an insurmountable lead. While Scarborough attempted to rally, it was too little, too late, and the Lions cruised to a 49-37 win over the Red Storm, improving to 11-0, while dropping Scarborough to 11-1 on the season.
McAuley got a breakout game from freshman Victoria Lux, who was the beneficiary of many pinpoint passes en route to a game-high 18 points. Senior Alexa Coulombe was her usual dominant self at both ends of the floor, sophomore Allie Clement did a little of everything, unheralded junior Molly Mack came off the bench to provide nine key rebounds, senior Sadie DiPierro was her usual standout self on the defensive end and hit a couple big hoops and sophomores Olivia Smith and Jackie Welch also pitched in for the Lions' most impressive team effort to date.
"The win means we beat a good team," said McAuley's first-year coach Billy Goodman. "We didn't win anything tonight, but we beat a good team and we got confidence we can play these games. When things get tough, we don't give up and keep fighting."
Coming into the 2011-12 season, popular sentiment held that it was McAuley at one level and several other teams trying to chase the Lions down.
McAuley went 20-2 last winter, ending the year celebrating its first Gold Ball in eight seasons after a 39-23 win over Hampden Academy in the Class A state final.
This season, at the outset, the Lions had little trouble in defeating Noble (62-31), Kennebunk (61-18), Portland (60-19), Marshwood (58-34), Bonny Eagle (61-26), Biddeford (60-19) and Windham (41-32). Then, McAuley was nearly upset at Deering, but a late 3 from Clement forced overtime and the Lions went on to a 30-25 win. Next came home victories over Massabesic (51-26) and Thornton Academy (41-36), but of late, criticism has reared its head.
Scarborough won the 2010 Class A title in undefeated fashion, but graduation and injuries spelled a 6-12 record a year ago. This winter, the program's first under legendary coach Tom Maines, the Red Storm has returned to form and shocked the local basketball world by winning its first 11 contests.
Scarborough's been tested several times, but has passed them all. The Red Storm's victories came over Gorham (58-51), Westbrook (57-39), Marshwood (54-48), Windham (46-44), Portland (50-38), Biddeford (57-29), South Portland (58-37), Thornton Academy (48-32), Cheverus (48-36), Noble (73-25) and Deering (53-47). In the victory over the Rams Monday, Scarborough had to come from behind to stay perfect.
Since the Red Storm joined the Southern Maine Activities Association for the 2003-04 season, the rivalry has been pretty even, with McAuley winning four of the seven encounters.
The Lions rolled in the first three meetings, winning by an average of 34 points. Scarborough got its first win over McAuley in 2007-08 (52-48), on the Lions' floor. The host Red Storm won by 36 the following season and in 2009-10, by 18. Last winter, McAuley romped, 69-32, at home.
Friday night, in front of a huge crowd, the game showed that the Lions are still at the top, while the Red Storm have work to do to join them.
The first period was more notable for what didn't happen that what did, as missed opportunities, fouls and turnovers were plentiful.
The tone for the game was set on the first possession. After winning the opening tip, Coulombe had a great look at a layup, but the ball rolled off the rim. The next time down, Smith had an opportunity and also missed.
Scarborough broke the ice on a free throw from senior captain Carly Rogers. Smith gave McAuley a 2-1 lead on a putback, but junior Maria Philbrick made a jumper to put the hosts back on top.
Seconds after Red Storm freshman Ashley Briggs was whistled for her second foul, Maines tried a mass substitution, hoping to spark his team. It didn't work and a minute later, the starters returned.
With 1:28 to go in the first, DiPierro sank a long jumper, which most on hand felt was from behind the 3-point arc, but was only credited as a two-point shot. Just 17 seconds later, the Lions found themselves in the bonus, but Clement missed a pair of free throws.
In the final minute of play, Philbrick hit a 3 and junior Courtney Alofs followed with a driving layup to get Scarborough going. With 3.4 seconds remaining, Lux made her presence felt for the first time, taking a feed from Coulombe and making a layup to pull McAuley within 8-6 after eight minutes.
The Red Storm gave the ball away nine times in the first quarter but still had the lead.
The Lions would start to exercise control in the second period.
After Mack fed Coulombe for a layup to tie the game, Coulombe returned the favor, setting up Mack for a layup and a 10-8 McAuley lead. With 5:53 to go before halftime, Scarborough junior Mary Redmond sank a 3, but that would be the last field goal the Red Storm would muster in the half.
After Coulombe fed Lux for a layup, Briggs tied the game with a free throw at the 5:18 mark, but the Lions would end the half with six straight points.
With 5:02 to go, DiPierro sized up a 3-pointer and drained it to put McAuley ahead to stay. Coulombe fed Smith for a layup with 3:06 left, but seconds later, Smith received her third foul. In the final minute, Coulombe made the second of two foul shots and the Lions had an 18-12 lead at the break.
As the teams returned to the court for the second half, Maines said matter-of-factly, "Well, we stink so far."
Scarborough's fortunes didn't improve in the third quarter.
The Red Storm appeared to get a break when Smith was called for her fourth foul a little over a minute in and made it a one-point game when Alofs scored on a runner (ending a 7 minute, 26 second scoring drought and an 8:01 field goal drought) and Briggs converted an old-fashioned three-point play.
Scarborough would get no closer.
McAuley's defense, rebounding and interior passing soon opened the game up.
"We focused on Redmond, Briggs and Rogers," Clement said. "Sadie did a nice job on Briggs. Redmond had a couple. Rogers didn't do too much. They're the main ones we wanted to focus on."
With 4:18 left in the quarter, Lux got an offensive rebound, missed the putback, but got the ball again and this time, laid it home while being fouled. She missed the free throw, but the tide had turned. A little less than a minute later, Lux demonstrated a nice spin move before banking home a shot to make it 22-17. Clement followed with a layup after a steal and Maines had to call timeout.
It didn't help.
Out of the timeout, Clement stole the ball again and made a layup.
"We were definitely ready," Clement said. "We prepared for this game all week. We were excited. I think it's a turning point for us, knowing we can overcome and knowing we can play against a good team. We worked on press break all practice. We were successful because we broke their press and got it up the floor."
Mack fed Coulombe for a three-point play and Clement passed to Lux for a layup on the fast break. After the hosts answered on a transition layup from Philbrick, the Lions put a punctuation mark on their dominant quarter as Coulombe, falling down, managed to tip the ball to an open Lux for a layup and a commanding 33-19 advantage.
"We've been working on our pressbreak," said Mack. "We get the ball to Alexa in the middle and she gets it up the court and we get open shots. We got a lot tonight so it worked."
Scarborough would make things interesting in the fourth, but never so much that a rally appeared possible.
Junior Taylor LeBorgne opened the final stanza with a 3-pointer and Philbrick made a runner off the glass to cut the deficit to 33-24, but after Clement made an acrobatic and athletic play to keep possession at midcourt, DiPierro set up Lux for a layup. Rogers hit a pair of foul shots, but Smith made a layup, Coulombe made one of two free throws and with 3:53 to go, Clement set up Coulombe for a layup and a 40-26 lead.
Two Briggs free throws and a Briggs jumper made it a 10-point game, but Coulombe again found Lux for a layup. After the Red Storm crawled within eight, 42-34, thanks to a bank shot from Redmond and a layup from Philbrick (assisted by Redmond), Clement sank two free throws with 1:35 left to make it 44-34.
At the other end, Redmond buried a long-range 3, but Coulombe answered with a free throw, Clement hit a pair and as time wound down, DiPierro set up for Lux for one final layup and McAuley slammed the door on its impressive 49-37 victory.
"This is definitely a big win for us," said Clement. "A lot of people say we're not as good as we should be and I think we proved those people wrong. We didn't just win by one. I think people will respect us a little more now. It's a big win since both teams were undefeated."
"This win doesn't mean everything, but it's definitely a step forward for us," said Coulombe. "We still have to keep working."
"We wanted to prove everyone wrong," said Mack.
"We've still got a lot to work on, but it's nice that we handled their pressure," Goodman added. "They bring it for 32 minutes and we did a very good job. Much better in the second half. We missed layups and we played with our heads down, but it got better in the second half. We had a great week of practice. We had about eight girls against five all week. The bench players stepped up and did a great job this week. They worked hard. They don't get a lot of credit or playing time, but they did a great job in practice.
"We wanted to make sure we could handle their pressure, get good shots and not rush it and not turn it over. We had a mix of good and bad in the first half. When we did good stuff, we missed shots. We did much better in the second half. We worked on ball movement all week. It's all new. Tonight, we did stuff I wish we had two years of experience, but the girls are willing to work so hard."
Lux, who this winter has alternately shown signs of excellence while occasionally reminding fans she's a freshman, stole the show with 18 points, six rebounds and a pair of blocked shots.
"Everyone thought we'd lose, but we didn't pay attention to that," Lux said. "We went forward and listened to coach and this is where it got us. It was intense. We've practiced the past week, their strengths and weaknesses. We stuck together and worked as a team. We made some good shots down low. We had some tough, close games, but we're getting better as the year goes on."
"(Vic) started out a little nervous, missed some shots, but stuck with it," Goodman said. "She's earned the right to be out there. She's really come on strong the last couple weeks. Everything with her has been outstanding. She started out struggling, but didn't give up and kept getting better. She's earned her playing time. She made layups. She's a good passer. From where she was a month ago, I'm very happy for her. That's why we coach. We like to see someone get better and she's gotten better. For a freshman, she handled it and I'm very proud of her."
Coulombe, who continues to sacrifice what could be nightly 20 or 30 point efforts for all-around contributions, had 10 points, seven boards, six assists, five steals and three blocked shots. She's the league leader in blocked shots, tied for first in assists and is second in rebounds. Her mere presence sent Scarborough into a panic and forced the Red Storm to throw up many rushed shots that had no prayer of finding the basket.
Clement finished with eight points, four rebounds, four steals, four assists and a block. Smith, despite limited playing time to due to her foul situation, had six points, DiPierro five (along with two steals) and Mack two (in addition to a game-high nine boards).
"I know I'm not a scorer, so I need to help the team out somehow," Mack said. "I try to rebound as best I can."
"(Molly and Vic) brought a ton tonight," said Clement. "They gave us layups that kept us in the game. Molly gave us so many rebounds. Vic went up strong and made layups. It's awesome they've stepped up so big this year."
"A girl like Molly Mack, I don't know how many key rebounds she's gotten for us," Goodman added. "She works so hard, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, she plays D. Whatever's asked. I love coaching that girl."
McAuley had a 31-21 advantage in rebounds, 8-1 edge in blocked shots and finished with 12 steals. The Lions committed 20 turnovers and made 8 of 16 free throws. If it wasn't for the multiple missed layups (at least eight on the night), they would have won by a more dominant margin.
"We run for every time we miss a layup," said Coulombe. "Personally, I didn't want to sprint. Layups will come. Everything we messed up on, we can fix."
Scarborough was paced by 11 points from Philbrick. Briggs (four rebounds) and Redmond (four boards, two steals) each had eight points, Alofs four (along with five rebounds), LeBorgne (three steals) and Rogers (five steals, four boards and a block) three apiece. The Red Storm had 12 steals, gave the ball away 22 times and sank 7 of 9 foul shots.
"Basically, we got outplayed," Maines said. "We don't like to lose, but we'll use it as a learning tool. Their size certainly hurt us. If the ball goes over the top, we can't do anything about it. We were a step slow on the press. It's the coach's fault for not having the kids prepared. Next time, we'll do a better job preparing the kids. It's great to have this before the tournament comes."
No rest for the weary
Scarborough (still first in the Western Class A Heal Points standings) welcomes Kennebunk Tuesday. The Red Storm is at Sanford Friday.
The remaining schedule is favorable, meaning Scarborough still has a great shot a top seed.
"If we win out, I don't think we can go any lower than second and we could still be first," Maines said.
McAuley (now second in the Heals) is back in action Tuesday when it hosts Sanford. The Lions might not be pushed until hosting Cheverus Feb. 4.
They're looking to keep improving and to finish strong.
"We'll be No. 1 and we need to defend that," Clement said. "We're making progress. We're getting there."
"We need to work hard and we'll have some tough games," Mack said.
"We make mistakes, but we're able to fix them," Goodman added. "We need to shoot 3,000 minutes of layups. We need to keep working on the girls learning the new system. Every day, I learn from them. I know a lot more now than I did a week ago. It's just learning what works and what doesn't work. We still have a long way to go to get better and we need to get better."