Roar restored! McAuley wins Class A title
AUGUSTA—McAuley has returned to the girls' basketball mountaintop.
After eight long years, the Lions are the finest team in Class A and they capped their ascendance with a superb performance Saturday afternoon at the Augusta Civic Center in the Class A state final.
After barely surviving rival Deering in a regional final for the ages Monday night, McAuley ensured that no similar drama would be necessary against a talented, but outmanned Hampden Academy squad, racing to a 15-2 lead, holding off a Broncos' third period rally, then pitching a shutout in the final stanza en route to 39-23 victory which gave the legion of Lions' fans old and new an opportunity to finally exult.
McAuley, once again, was sparked by its three stars, as freshman sensation Allie Clement scored the game's first six points, senior standout Rebecca Knight added 10 points and a whopping 16 rebounds and junior gamechanger extraordinaire Alexa Coulombe capped her brilliant postseason with 15 points, 10 boards, seven blocks and three steals.
The championship month of March has come in like a Lion.
"It's so unreal, it's awesome," said Clement. "We came out really excited and wanted to play. We really wanted to win this game. We didn't want a close game. We didn't want to win by two or five, we wanted to pour it on and not make it close so we could get it out of the way and finally be the champions we wanted to be."
"I'm very happy for the kids," added first-year McAuley coach Amy Vachon. "I truly didn't know these girls coming in. I didn't watch their games. I didn't know who they were. They came in and it started this summer. They worked hard. They really love each other. I'm so happy they could do it."
The final chapter
The Lions were expected by many to be here. Even Vachon, the former Cony High and University of Maine standout, admitted from the get-go that her squad was the favorite for a reason:
No one else boasts two Division I-bound players like this squad has in Knight (heading for U. Maine) and Coulombe (verbally committed to Boston College). Mix in solid role players and Clement, whose skill, poise and demeanor makes her seem more like a college freshman than a player in her first year of high school, and you can see why McAuley wore the bullseye.
The Lions, who lost to Deering in the semifinals a year ago, took a long and winding road to the title, but in the end, McAuley was the last team standing.
After opening with easy wins at Marshwood and Thornton Academy and at home over Windham, the Lions' first challenge came at Cheverus four days before Christmas. After trailing most of the way, the Lions held on for a 45-42 victory.
McAuley then took part in a holiday tournament in Augusta and in the championship game, ran into Deering. In a sign of things to come, the teams played a contest (which didn't count in the Heal Points standings) that came down to the wire with the Rams prevailing, 52-48.
When the 2011 portion of the schedule began, the Lions easily dispatched Noble, defending state champion Scarborough and Bonny Eagle before running into a scare at South Portland. In a game that wasn't decided until the end, McAuley survived, 43-39. The next five wins, over Sanford, Biddeford, Portland, Kennebunk and Westbrook, came easily.
Then, the fun really began.
On the night of Feb. 3, at Deering, the Lions led 13-1 after one period, but trailed by three in the waning seconds before Clement produced the first chapter of her growing legend with a game-tying 3. McAuley went on to a stunning 47-43 overtime win.
Two nights later, however, the Lions scored just seven points in the final two-and-a-half quarters in a 37-27 upset loss at Gorham.
After rebounding with decisive home wins over Massabesic and Cheverus, the Lions hosted Deering in the regular season finale with the top spot for the tournament up for grabs.
When McAuley held a 28-14 lead midway through the third period, the No. 1 seed appeared a formality, for the second time in four games, the Lions' offense went stagnant and the Rams closed the game on a 24-7 surge and scored the last 10 points to steal one, 38-35.
McAuley wound up second in Western A and in the quarterfinals, got 24 points from Knight and solid production off the bench from senior Kayla Daigle and freshman Nina Davenport to beat No. 7 South Portland, 52-27. In the semifinals, the Lions got some revenge, riding Coulombe's 11 points, 10 rebounds and seven blocks to a 39-30 victory over Gorham. Then came Monday's regional final, where McAuley appeared doomed at the end of regulation, but it got a reprieve and wound up eking out a 41-40 overtime triumph. Coulombe was named the regional MVP.
Standing in the Lions' way Saturday was Hampden Academy.
The Broncos went 16-2 in the regular year, losing only to Edward Little and Cony. They earned the No. 3 spot in Eastern A, then eliminated No. 6 Mt. Ararat (47-27), No. 3 Edward Little (50-47) and Cinderella No. 8 seed Messalonskee (62-40) to advance to their first state final since the bicentennial year of 1976 (a 66-65 overtime win over Mt. Blue).
McAuley's first state title appearance came in 2000, a 54-41 loss to Mt. Blue. After a 53-43 setback to Nokomis in 2001, The Lions won back-to-back championships in 2002 (67-61 over Cony) and 2003 (50-39 over Nokomis). They lost to Cony in the 2005 (58-40) and 2007 (46-41) state finals, both on the Augusta Civic Center floor.
Hampden Academy was playing in just its second-ever championship tilt.
Prior to the opening tip Saturday, Hampden Academy got the Eastern Class A sportsmanship award, while McAuley received the Western Class A sportsmanship award.
The Lions then went out and garnered the big prize.
McAuley would get the jump, but it took almost two minutes to get the offense going.
With 6:03 left in the first quarter, Clement gave her team the lead for good when she scored on a putback. With 5:35 showing, Coulombe blocked a shot at one end and Clement raced coast-to-coast for a layup at the other to make it 4-0. With 4:05 remaining, Clement made a layup after a steal and it was clear the Lions would have no post-Deering letdown.
"It was really exciting at the beginning," Clement said. "I wasn't really nervous. I just wanted to get going and get a lead."
"Allie was ready," said Coulombe.
"This week of practice was really good," Vachon added. "They were ready and practiced hard. I felt confident we wouldn't have a letdown and I'm glad we didn't. We talked about how this is what they've been waiting for and how we had to dictate the game offensively and defensively. I think we did that."
Hampden Academy finally broke the scoring ice with 2:48 left in the first quarter when senior Courtney Doyon, who sparked the Broncos all afternoon off the bench, hit a jump shot for her team's lone points in opening period.
Coulombe answered with an old-fashioned three-point play (leaner, foul, free throw), Coulombe made a baseline jumper and with 2.6 seconds to go, Knight scored on a putback to give the Lions a commanding 13-2 advantage after one quarter.
"(The fast start) really helped us calm down some nerves and let us ease into the game," Knight said. "Me and Alexa as captains addressed before the game that we didn't want another close one and let's put it away."
McAuley would twice stretch its lead to 13 early in the second quarter, but Hampden Academy hung tough.
A jumper in the lane from Knight made it 15-2 Lions 15 seconds into the second period, but Doyon answered with a bank shot to end a 5 minute, 54 second drought and a 9-0 McAuley run.
With 4:36 remaining in the half, Coulombe made a layup to stretch to lead back to 13, 17-4, but the Broncos answered behind back-to-back 3-balls from sophomore Jordan Maxwell and senior Michaela Stephenson, the outstanding player-sportsperson of the Eastern A tournament.
The Lions went up 19-10 on a turnaround jumper from Knight, but senior Julia Snyder made a foul shot for Hampden Academy. A pair of Coulombe free throws with 1:51 left made it 21-11 McAuley, but Stephenson and senior Whitney Moore both made foul shots to pull the Broncos back to 21-13 at the break.
In the first half alone, Coulombe had nine points, seven boards and five blocked shots, Knight had six points and eight rebounds and Clement had six points, four boards and two steals, but the deal hadn't quite been sealed.
Early in the second half, Hampden Academy made it a four-point game before the Lions seized control again.
A 3-ball from Stephenson 44 seconds into the third quarter cut the deficit to 21-16. After sophomore Hannah Cooke fed Knight for a layup, Stephenson made another 3 with 5:30 to play in the period and suddenly, McAuley was only up 23-19.
Undaunted, the Lions returned to their high-low offensive set and went up 25-19 when Knight fed Coulombe for a layup. The next time down, the dynamic duo switched things up as Coulombe passed to Knight for a layup. With 3:11 to go, Coulombe was fouled after an offensive board and made both free throws for a 29-19 advantage.
"We wanted to pound it into the post," Knight said. "(Alexa) had her man sealed and I just lobbed it in high.
"I was happy with how we kept our composure, fought them off and kept the lead," added Vachon. "They're a very good team and we knew they'd make runs and they did. I wasn't worried necessarily. It's a state championship game and there are few blowouts in these games. I didn't like it. I would have liked to have kept that 13 point lead. We talked at halftime about the high-low. In the first half, we weren't sealing for the lob. We talked at halftime to seal for that. In the second half, we found Alexa."
"We cut it four and we thought we had a chance, but they came down and pounded it into their bigs and we couldn't answer," lamented Hampden Academy's second-year coach Chad Bradbury.
Hampden Academy answered behind two free throws from Doyon, but Knight again found Coulombe for a layup and Clement was fouled after a steal and made both attempts for a 33-21 advantage. With 1:28 left in the third, Doyon hit a leaner to cut the deficit to 33-23.
Little did anyone know that the Broncos wouldn't score another point.
Offense was almost nonexistent in the fourth quarter, but McAuley was content to run time off the clock.
As the Gold Ball was brought out and placed at center court for all to see, the Lions put the finishing touches on their victory.
With 7:19 to play, Knight set up junior Sadie Dipierro, McAuley's defensive specialist, for a layup and a 35-23 lead.
Neither team would score again for the next five-plus minutes as the Broncos couldn't buy a basket and the Lions took their sweet time with the ball.
With 3:03 showing, Davenport went to the line with a chance to extend the lead, but she missed two free throws. Twenty-one seconds later, Dipierro also had an opportunity, but she was off on the front end of a one-and-one.
Finally, with 1:42 to play, Cooke made two free throws to give McAuley its biggest lead. Then, with 1:03 left, Clement capped her stellar day with two more to bring down the curtain.
When the final horn sounded, the Lions celebrated their 39-23 triumph in earnest.
"It's unbelievable," Dipierro said. "I'm so excited. Coach just said to find a way and we clearly did. Coach emphasized how they had shooters and that they'd drive and dish. We focused on that all week and worked hard."
"It's amazing," said Knight. "A lot of McAuley alumnae tried to explain the feeling, but you have to experience it. I didn't believe it until today."
"It's good because it what's we worked for all season," said Coulombe. "We wanted to shut them down and make a statement on offense. We did. This is how every team wants to go out and it's an amazing feeling."
"I'm overwhelmed," added Clement. "It's the most amazing feeling to have that Gold Ball and know we're the best team in the state of Maine."
When all was said and done, McAuley had too much defense, balance and poise and that carried the day.
"I wasn't really concerned (when Hampden Academy rallied)," said Clement. "We left some shooters open and they can make their outside shots. We had to manage and make sure we knew who we had so they wouldn't be open."
"We wanted to make sure we kept the intensity and clearly we've learned (from our losses)," Coulombe said. "I think coach Vachon did a good job prepping us. We were here for the Christmas tournament and we've been on the floor a couple times shooting."
Despite the burden of big-time expectations, the Lions had won it all.
"Every day in practice we worked hard and strived to get better every single game," Coulombe said. "We gave everything we had. I don't think we ever felt the pressure. It was just our team and that's all that matters."
"There's been a lot of setbacks, but you have to keep believing and put hard work in and good things will come," Knight said. "This team never thought about the things that other people put on us. We were so close and we did what we wanted to do."
"It was definitely a long, stressful season," Clement added. "After the losses, we had to come back and be ready for the next one and keep our heads held high. We really learned from those games and it made our team a lot stronger."
Coulombe was the game's premier player, scoring 15 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, blocking seven shots and stealing the ball on three occasions. In addition, her mere presence made Hampden Academy abandon any pretense of trying to establish an inside game and her unselfishness on offense made her team that much better.
"Alexa has a really bright future," said Knight. "She's done so much for us this year offensively and defensively. She did so much tonight, blocking shots, her and I going high-low."
"Alexa's such an amazing player," Clement said. "If her offense is there or not, she's always there on defense blocking shots, getting rebounds, stealing. She's always helping us to whatever it takes to win."
"Alexa was absolutely dominant today," Vachon added. "I'm so happy to see that. She's the type of player who's so unselfish. She can sit back and let the other kids do their thing. She wanted this. She and Becca put the team on their backs and went after it. I'm glad people in Eastern Maine got to see the type of player Alexa is. She's dominant offensively and defensively."
Even Hampden Academy had to marvel over Coulombe's effort.
"The closest player we've seen to her was (Messalonskee's) Megan Pelleiter, but Alexa's taller than her and even bigger on the boards and she has players to complement her as well," said Stephenson.
Knight bowed out with 10 points and 16 rebounds. She also had a steal. Knight finished her fine high school run with 962 points and would have easily reached the prestigious 1,000 pinnacle if it wasn't for her ankle injury issues a year ago.
"Becca's like a big sister to me," said Clement. "We're really close. She took me under her wing from day one. She's always been there to support and help me through everything. I don't know what I'll do without her next year."
"Becca wanted it," Vachon said. "A couple shots didn't go, but she did a nice job."
Then there was Clement, who has already set the bar pretty high with three high school seasons still to come. She finished with 10 points, five rebounds, three steals and nearly flawless point guard play (the Lions had only seven turnovers for the game).
"I wasn't sure how big a role I'd play (this year)," Clement said. "I'd hoped to play as much as I do. I wanted to make sure I made a positive contribution to this team."
"Allie hasn't been overwhelmed all year," Vachon said. "She just runs with it."
Cooke and Dipierro each had two points and Daigle, Davenport (two steals and a rebound) and sophomore Molly Mack (three boards and a blocked shot) were steady off the bench.
Following the presentation of the Gold Ball, the three seniors (Daigle, Knight and Olivia Porch), along with Coulombe, ran to the McAuley cheering section and presented the trophy to Sister Edward Mary Kelleher, likely the Lions' number one fan.
It was a fitting ending for a senior class that had its share of disappointments, only to go out as champions.
"Our seniors have been great this year," Coulombe said. "They gave us leadership. They pushed us to get better. I couldn't have asked for better seniors. I'll miss them next year."
McAuley (which wound up 20-2) made 11 of 14 foul shots.
Not this year
For Hampden Academy, its dream was denied largely because it had no answer for the Lions' size and defense (which set a record for fewest points allowed in a Class A state game).
"(McAuley's) very tough defensively," Stephenson said. "Offensively too, they're some of the best players we've seen all season. They were limiting our outside shots. It's difficult at both ends."
"They're a great team," added Bradbury. "Their big three, we just couldn't stop them. They're tough inside. They're a very physical team. Defensively, they just shut us down. We couldn't get anything going. When it started falling apart, it kept on rolling. I don't know the last time we didn't get out of the 20s. When you get desperate, you throw up shots and nothing was falling. We knew coming in we had to have a good shooting night. All the credit to their defense. Their intensity was great. Their ball pressure was great."
Hampden Academy was led by Stephenson's 10 points and five rebounds. Doyon had eight points, four boards and a block. Maxwell finished with three points and Moore (three boards, two steals) and Snyder (eight rebounds) each had one. The Broncos gave the ball away 13 times and shot 5 of 10 from the foul stripe.
Hampden Academy (19-3) was disappointed with the result, but this was the best season the program had in 35 years.
"It's been fun," said Stephenson. "My freshman year, we were 2-16. My sophomore year, we won five games. Last year, we regrouped and got to the semis. Our goal this year was to get to the state championship and we accomplished that."
"It's a very special bunch," Bradbury added. "Seven seniors managed to make it all the way through the program and they've all contributed. They saw rock bottom. They remember the days of being 2-16. Here we are 16-2. They have nothing to be ashamed of. They should be proud of what they did to turn things around."
While the Lions will certainly miss Knight and her classmates, there's no denying that the 2011-12 edition will have a great shot to go back-to-back and will likely again be the favorite.
McAuley certainly hopes to find itself in the same situation a year from now.
"We believe in ourselves so we know we can do this again," Dipierro said.
"That would be so cool," Clement said. "We have to defend what we have now and play as hard as we did this year."
"I think we all want this feeling again," Coulombe added. "We'll work hard for it and try to get back here."
Even Knight has faith.
"I think they can do it again next year," she said. "I believe in them."
Even Vachon, who joked that she wanted time to savor this championship, admitted that a repeat will be the focus when next year's squad convenes.
"Our goal is always to do it again, but we'll worry about it next year."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @foresports