Knight leads McAuley past SP
PORTLAND—After watching Gorham senior standout Mia Rapolla go off for 34 points in the first game of Monday's session, McAuley senior Rebecca Knight decided to put on a show of her own.
Facing seventh-ranked South Portland in a Western Class A quarterfinal round contest at the Portland Exposition Building, Knight helped jump-start a stagnant Lions' attack by scoring her team's first eight points.
Second-seeded McAuley opened up a 12-7 lead after one quarter, stretched it to 24-14 at the break (as Knight had 16 points at that juncture) and wound up cruising to a 52-27 victory over the Red Riots behind Knight's 24 points, 10 rebounds and a steal.
The Lions improved to 17-2, ended the Red Riots' season at 11-8 and advanced to meet No. 3 Gorham (15-4) in the Western A semifinals Friday at 7:30 p.m., at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
"Becca's done that all year," said McAuley's first-year coach Amy Vachon. "I can't say enough positive things about her. She led our team and has been fantastic. I can't put my finger on why some people think she's not as good as she is, but she's the real deal. I'll take her."
McAuley, which lost to Deering in the semifinals a year ago, entered this season as the favorite, a role the Lions embraced, and they won their first 14 contests, including a come-from-behind 45-42 victory at Cheverus Dec. 21 and capped by a stirring 47-43, come-from-behind overtime win at Deering Feb. 3, but down the stretch, they sandwiched losses at Gorham and at home to Deering around home wins over Massabesic and Cheverus to slip to No. 2.
South Portland was humbled by eventual champion Scarborough in last year's quarterfinals, but bounced back strong this winter, winning 11 times. The Red Riots' signature victory came at Gorham (53-47) Jan. 25. South Portland could have finished even higher, but slipped up late, losing to Portland and Cheverus in the final week.
McAuley and South Portland know each other well. The Lions were fortunate to survive the host Red Riots, 43-39, back on Jan. 13. The teams have three prior playoff meetings with South Portland taking them all. In the 1981 quarterfinals, South Portland triumphed, 60-51. Three years later, in the same round, the Red Riots won again, 52-41. The most recent contest was the most memorable, a 39-29 South Portland upset in the 2006 semifinals.
Monday, the Red Riots hung tough in the early going, but Knight and the Lions soon took over.
Knight hinted at her big game to come by breaking the ice with a putback 1 minute, 27 seconds in. South Portland, which didn't score in the first quarter of last year's quarterfinal round loss to eventual state champion Scarborough, took a 3-2 lead when sophomore Danica Gleason banked home a 3-ball. After McAuley went back on top with a pair of Knight free throws, the Red Riots got a foul shot from senior Stephanie McDonough and another Gleason 3 for a 7-4 advantage.
Then, nothing went South Portland's way.
Sparked by Knight and a pair of substitutes who haven't seen much playing time, senior Kayla Daigle and freshman Nina Davenport, the Lions came to life.
In a 24-second span, Knight made a layup and a jumper and McAuley was ahead to stay. With 1:10 to play in the eight-minute first period, fabulous freshman Allie Clement made a layup. Sophomore Hannah Cooke and Davenport both added free throws and it was 12-7 Lions after one.
Knight opened the second quarter scoring 11 seconds in as she got into double figures with a jumper. Cooke added a layup and Knight took a pass from Clement and made a layup to make it 18-7.
Knight's scoring ability and McAuley's defense helped open things up.
"We just picked up our defensive intensity and communication," Knight said. "We stress that. We know the offense will come in the flow of the game. The ball movement was good. We got open shots. Everything came easily because we were working together."
"Our team just loves defense," said Vachon. "We really do. When we don't talk to each other, we struggle. I like that about this team."
"Rebecca just took over," lamented South Portland coach Mike Giordano. "To her credit, she's a Division I player and we saw that today. She carried them for as long as she needed to."
With 4:40 to play before halftime, the Red Riots finally ended the 14-0 run and a 7 minute, 49 second drought when freshman Brianne Maloney made two free throws. McAuley junior Alexa Coulombe answered with a jumper, Knight made two foul shots, then added two more for a 24-9 advantage with 2:32 to play in the half.
South Portland would finish strong, however, and got it back to 10, 24-14, behind a putback from senior Danielle DiBiase, a layup from senior Abby Hasson and a Hasson free throw.
Any Red Riots upset hopes were quickly dashed in the third.
Knight opened with a jumper and Clement made a layup after going coast-to-coast following a rebound. After DiBiase made a 3, Knight made a jumper, Clement made a layup after a steal and with 2:48 to in the third quarter, Knight hit a jumper for a 34-17 lead.
DiBiase answered with a free throw, but Knight canned a step-back jumper for points 23 and 24. A bank shot from Hasson was countered by a Cooke free throw to make it 37-20 Lions after three.
Clement and Hasson traded hoops to start the fourth. After Coulombe scored on a bank shot, DiBiase made a 3, but Coulombe scored after a nice spin move, then made a layup and after Clement and Davenport hit free throws, the lead was up to 47-25.
With 1:07 to go, junior Logan Neal made a layup for South Portland's final points. A 3 from junior Mary Leasure and two Davenport foul shots brought the curtain down on McAuley's 52-27 win.
"Tournament games are tough," said Vachon. "I was proud of the way we turned it around and played together as a team. Defensively, we were strong. Anyone who's seen us, our defense has led us through. It's solid. If we can continue that, that keeps us in games."
Knight's 24-point performance was the show stealer, but she had plenty of help.
Clement, after shaking off some early nerves, had nine points, five rebounds and two steals. Coulombe finished with eight points, three rebounds, two steals and a block and helped hold Hasson in check. Cooke had four points, as did Davenport (who added five rebounds and a pair of steals).
"Nina had a fabulous week of practice," said Vachon. "She's a kid who swung JV. Middle of the year, she didn't swing anymre, but didn't get many minutes. I wanted to see what she could do out here. She was huge f0r us. She does little things, rebound, play physical."
Leasure finished with three points. Junior defensive standout Sadie Dipierro didn't score, but had three steals and a pair of boards. Daigle didn't score early, but helped calm her team in the early going and junior Molly Mack also made her presence felt.
"I think our bench goes a lot of deeper this year than before," said Coulombe. "Nina's like a brick wall when she comes in. She gave us solid minutes. Molly's learned so much this year and has gotten better. Kayla's really good on defense when Sadie needs a break. She doesn't get enough credit."
"Molly and Kayla did a nice job," Vachon said. "We only played six kids against Deering. We need to play more than that. That was my fault. Today was better. "
The Lions shot 12 of 17 from the foul stripe and committed just five turnovers.
For South Portland, DiBiase bowed out with nine points and three rebounds. Hasson had seven points and seven boards. Gleason finished with six points, Maloney (who had six rebounds) and Neal had two points each and McDonough one.
The Red Riots turned the ball over 19 times and made 5 of 9 free throws.
" You can't win tournament games (going without a point for nearly eight minutes)," Giordano said. "We showed life the last three minutes of the half, but they shut the door on us in the second half. (McAuley was) a very good basketball team today."
South Portland did better than many expected this year.
"I told the kids (in the locker room) that if you told me a year ago we'd walk into the tournament and compete in every game until the end, I'm not sure I would have believed that," said Giordano. "We had a great season of being competitive, it's just disappointing when it ends this way."
The Red Riots lose DiBiase, Hasson and McDonough, but should return strong in 2011-12.
"All three seniors have been such a big piece of our program the last three years," Giordano said. "We'll continue to be competitive, which is what we've done since I've been here. We'll continue to knock on the door."
The Lions' win sets up a rematch with Gorham (a 54-33 winner over No. 6 Windham in its quarterfinal) Friday night, less than three weeks after the Rams knocked McAuley from the ranks of the unbeaten. In that game, the Lions held a 20-11 lead late in the first half, but a Rapolla halfcourt prayer at the horn sparked a comeback. The Lions managed just seven second half points and were stunned.
A year ago, McAuley outlasted the Rams, 33-22, in the quarterfinals. They also met in the 2006 quartefinals (a 61-46 Lions' victory).
McAuley knows that Friday's game will be a 32-minute struggle.
"We have to come out like we did today," said Knight.
"I'm ready," Coulombe said. "We didn't play our basketball in that game. We played theirs. Nothing else matters but our team."
"We need to do a better job boxing out if we'll be successful Friday," said Vachon. "When we don't box out, we can't rebound and run. We were a halfcourt team against them. They play a fantastic 2-3 zone, they're active and we really struggled against it. Anyone who saw (Monday's earlier game) knows Mia Rapolla can shoot the ball and score. We need to know where she is all the time defensively. We have to come together and play a great game to beat them on Friday. A lot of times we get into one pass-shot. When we do, we're not a good team. We'll see what we've learned and if we've improved on Friday."
The Western A Final is Saturday at 7 p.m., at the Civic Center. The Class A state final is in Augusta this year, Saturday, March 5, at 4 p.m.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @foresports