PORTLAND—The Western Class A girls’ basketball tournament doesn’t officially get serious until Feb. 21, but a definite playoff feel was in the air Thursday evening amid the clamorous and claustrophobic conditions at Catherine McAuley High School’s gymnasium.
In a rematch of last Thursday’s epic, where visiting McAuley rallied past Deering to win in overtime, 47-43, the Rams got the last laugh, somehow storming back from 14 points down in the third quarter, closing the game on a 10-0 run to stun the Lions, 38-35.
The Rams took the lead for good on a layup from senior standout Kayla Burchill with 1:52 to play and improved to 17-1, earned the top seed for the upcoming tournament and dropped McAuley (16-2) to the No. 2 spot.
“Tonight’s going to be a real memory because everyone stepped up,” said Burchill, who was burdened with four fouls and managed just six points in the first three quarters, before coming alive in the fourth. “We all tried our hardest, knew what we wanted and we got it. I think we have a really good chance and I think we proved it tonight.”
The Lions and Rams have dominated Western Class A this decade, combining to win seven regional championships and five Class A crowns (McAuley won it all in 2002 and 2003, while Deering captured the Gold Ball in 2004, 2008 and 2009).
Prior to their thrilling, come-from-behind overtime win at Deering last week, the Lions had dropped six straight to the Rams, including playoff losses each of the past two seasons: a much-closer-than-the-final-score indicated 42-27 quarterfinal round game in 2009 and 45-35 in last year’s semifinals.
McAuley won its first 14 games this winter under new coach Amy Vachon, but dropped from the unbeaten ranks Saturday with a stunning 37-27 loss at unheralded Gorham, in a contest which saw the Lions struggle offensively and score just seven points in the second half. McAuley bounced back with a 56-29 home win over Massabesic Monday, then made an emphatic statement Tuesday with a 58-39 home victory over Cheverus.
The Lions’ triumvirate of standouts, senior Rebecca Knight (bound for the University of Maine), junior Alexa Coulombe (verbally committed to Boston College) and fabulous freshman Allie Clement (she of the dramatic, game-tying 3 that forced OT last week) have posed matchup nightmares all season for the opposition. Clement has directed the offense with poise well beyond her years, while Knight (fifth in the league in scoring at the start of the week) has made up for time lost to an ankle injury a year ago by scoring with abandon (she had 31 points versus Cheverus Tuesday), often taking advantage of pinpoint passes from Coulombe (who has cut back on her scoring this year to play more of a set-up role, while also focusing on her unrivaled defense, rebounding and shotblocking acumen).
Deering had no trouble rebounding from its loss to McAuley, beating visiting Windham (55-40), host Marshwood (51-30) and visiting Portland (56-46).
The Rams have gotten an expected sensational season-long effort from Burchill (bound for the University of Vermont). Burchill is the league’s leading scorer and free throw shooter and is second in made 3-pointers. While she was expected to dominate, the rapid growth of her supporting cast has made Deering so formidable. Senior Aarika Viola and junior Ella Ramonas have big-game experience, but the rise of sophomores Marissa MacMillan and Chelsea Saucier have bolstered the cause.
Deering defeated McAuley, 52-48, in the championship game of a holiday tournament in Augusta Dec. 29, but that didn’t count in the standings. Last week’s overtime loss did, however, and the Rams hoped to earn a measure of revenge Thursday.
Despite a big deficit, they did that very thing.
As was the case a week ago, both teams started slowly after a Senior Night ceremony.
It took over two minutes to break the ice and the Lions scored first when Clement hit a pullup jumper in the lane. After Deering answered with a baseline jumper from Saucier, Coulombe began to heat up from the perimeter, draining a 3-ball. The Rams pulled even on a layup from MacMillan and a Burchill foul shot, but Coulombe buried another 3 before Saucier fed MacMillan for a layup to pull the visitors within 8-7 after one quarter.
“Obviously, that’s a great squad over there,” Rams coach Mike Murphy said. “Coulombe knocked down 3s that opened things up when points were at a premium.”
Deering took its only lead of the first half when Burchill made two free throws 25 seconds into the second quarter, but McAuley dominated the rest of the stanza.
A 3-ball from Coulombe put the Lions on top. She added another 3, her fourth of the first half, for a 14-9 lead and two free throws apiece from Knight and Clement pushed the advantage to nine, 18-9 with 2:36 remaining before the break.
The Rams ended a 10-0 run and a 5 minute, 8 second drought when Ramonas made a layup, but Knight answered with a layup to make it 20-11. In the final minute, Viola made two foul shots, but Clement answered with a jumper to put McAuley on top, 22-13, at halftime.
“We only gave up 22 in the half, which is pretty good, but I said at the half we left too many points out there,” Murphy said. “We missed layups. Credit McAuley’s defense.”
The hosts came out in the third period and appeared to put the game out of reach, but Deering never wavered.
A Clement pullup jumper started the second half similarly to the first. After MacMillan made a free throw for the Rams, sophomore Hannah Cooke knocked down a 3 and Coulombe hit a foul shot with 4:27 to go in the third, to make it 28-14.
The Rams seemed cooked, but instead, had the Lions right where they wanted them.
Deering would outscore McAuley 24-7 the rest of the way and quickly got back in the contest even though Burchill picked up her third and fourth fouls before the period ended.
A Burchill layup and a 3-ball from junior Emily Cole pulled the Rams within 28-19. Burchill added a free throw and Ramonas hit a runner to make it 28-22, but with 1:13 to go in the quarter, Burchill was whistled for foul number four and had to go to the bench.
Undaunted, Deering drew within four points, 28-24, heading for the fourth, thanks to a layup from Ramonas.
With the game on the line, the Rams had the answers.
A free throw from Coulombe and two from Knight made it 31-24 McAuley, but Viola answered with a layup. After Knight knocked down a baseline jumper with 7:01 remaining, Burchill (who had re-entered) answered with a leaner off the glass.
With 5:03 showing, Cooke was fouled and made both attempts for a 35-28 lead, but the Lions wouldn’t score again.
“With five minutes to go, I called timeout,” Murphy said. “We had a rushed possession and it reminded me of overtime at our place. I told them to take their time and take the ball to the rim. I could sense our kids being anxious, but I didn’t want them to be too anxious.”
With 4:21 left, Burchill sank two free throws.
With 3:38 to go, Saucier scored on a driving layup and Deering had pulled within a possession, 35-32.
When Saucier fed Ramonas for a layup with 2:53 left, the Rams were within a point, 35-34.
Then, with 1:52 to play, Burchill made a layup and Deering, improbably, was in the lead to stay.
Not only couldn’t the Lions stop the Rams, they couldn’t even get a shot off on offense, turning the ball over on three straight occasions before Deering extended its lead to 38-35 when Ramonas fed Burchill for a layup with 1:13 remaining.
Down the stretch, the Rams had chances to extend the lead, but Cole, Ramonas and Saucier all missed the front end of one-and-one free throws to keep it a one possession game.
After Cole’s miss, McAuley turned the ball over. After Ramonas was off, Knight had a good look at a 3 which could have tied the score, but her shot resulted in an airball.
“Becca’s shots didn’t fall tonight,” Vachon said. “I’ll take the shots she took any night. They just didn’t fall. Becca’s our leader. Becca played hard. It’s hard to play on Senior Night. A lot of emotions are going on.”
Saucier’s miss with five seconds left gave the Lions one last chance. Clement (looking to reprise her role as hero), raced across halfcourt, but thought time was about to expire. She could have dribbled for a closer shot, but threw up a prayer that wasn’t even close.
The final horn sounded and some how, some way, Deering had escaped with the 38-35 victory.
“After last week’s loss, we knew what we wanted,” Burchill said. “Watching (McAuley) celebrate got in our heads and we wanted to be that team tonight. Getting the ball inside turned it around. We didn’t settle for jump shots. Everyone drove to the basket and I think that was the game-changer.”
“There’s a lot of pride in these kids and a lot of heart,” Murphy added. “I got on a couple kids at halftime about decision-making. They didn’t go away, they sucked it up and played. I”m proud of the kids and they should be proud of themselves.”
The Rams got 14 points from Burchill (eight in the final quarter), who also had seven rebounds and a steal. She played the final quarter-plus with four fouls.
“I knew I couldn’t foul,’ Burchill said. “If it came down to a situation where it would be a foul, I had to move out the way and let them have the layup and keep playing from there.”
“To her credit, she’s going to get bugged and I remind her she has to keep her composure,” Murphy said.
Ramonas was superb for 32 minutes, scoring eight points, grabbing 14 boards and adding two steals and two assists.
“Last game, I didn’t think I produced well,” Ramonas said. “We got out-rebounded last game and I didn’t want that to happen again. I wanted to step up and get the loose balls. We all knew that we wanted to prove everybody wrong. We wanted to come out on top.”
MacMillan had five points (and three rebounds), Saucier and Viola (who helped hold Knight in check defensively) added four points apiece and Cole (who had four boards) three. Sophomore Keneisha DiRamio came off the bench to give Deering some solid minutes in the second half.
“We didn’t have one player today do everything for us,” Ramonas said. “We had everyone who came off the bench do what they were supposed to do and played good minutes and stepped up.”
“Ramonas was huge,” Murphy said. “Viola did a great job on Knight. I decided to make that change 20 minutes after the last game. Chelsea and Keneisha were big factors. The Cole kid gave us great defense and hit a big basket. They’ve done a nice job supporting Kayla. We were the afterthought behind the two private schools (at the start of the year). We lost Claire (Ramonas) and (Maria) Salamone and Britni (Mikulanecz, who transferred to Cheverus), but we stepped up.”
McAuley was led by Coulombe’s 14 points (she also grabbed eight rebounds, blocked two shots and had a steal). Knight was held to eight points (to go with four rebounds and three steals). Clement had eight points and Cooke finished with five. Sophomore Molly Mack had seven rebounds off the bench (six in the first half), while Dipierro, who was hampered with foul trouble, played her usual brand of strong defense.
“(Deering) pressured us and we didn’t really handle it that well,” Vachon said. “We turned it over and rushed shots. You have to give credit to Deering. I think we have the ability to dictate what we do on offense and we didn’t do that. People say we’re senior-laden, but we have three seniors, only one who played tonight. We have a freshman point guard. We’re still young. There’s really no excuses. They outplayed us and deserved to win.
“(Struggling late in games is) alarming, but I’m so confident in our defense. It keeps us in games. It’s a great group of kids. People say we have all that talent and we do, but let’s not forget how hard it is. It’s a team. The seniors are awesome. (Seniors) Kayla (Daigle) and Olivia (Porch) sat on Senior Night and didn’t get in, but they cheered louder than anyone.”
So now, it’s time to look ahead to the tournament.
As the No. 2 seed, McAuley will likely draw Windham (10-7) Feb. 21 at 3:30 p.m., at the Expo. The Lions beat the Eagles, 60-36, at home, way back on Dec. 17. The teams have no playoff history.
“We’ll see what we can do,” Vachon said. “We’ll regroup. When we get to the Expo and hopefully get past there where the court is bigger, we need to settle down and hope experience will take us from there. Every team is good and you have to be ready. We would have loved to have gone in No. 1, but we would have loved to be undefeated too and it didn’t happen. We’ll learn from it and go from there. I told them in the locker room that I’m really proud of them. We’ll see what we can do. We’ll regroup.”
Deering will be the No. 1 seed for the third time in four seasons. The Rams could draw Thornton Academy (8-9) or Bonny Eagle (7-10) in the quarterfinal round, Feb. 21, at 8:30 p.m. Deering downed the Golden Trojans, 53-46, on the road Jan. 7. The Rams won at the Scots in the regular season opener, Dec. 10 (56-34).
Last year, in the quarterfinals, Deering struggled with Thornton Academy before prevailing, 44-30. The teams also met in the 1975 semifinals (a 56-43 Golden Trojans’ victory) and the 1989 quarterfinals (a 73-63 Rams’ victory). Deering has no playoff history with Bonny Eagle.
“All this means is that we get to wear white (as the higher seed),” Murphy said. “We’re all 0-0. It’s anyone’s tournament. There’s seven or eight good teams. Thornton Academy has three all-stars. They’re a good squad. Sanford has three outstanding guards. South Portland has (senior Abby Hasson) and the two guards, (Danica) Gleason and (Danielle) DiBiase. There are good teams. I feel you wipe out the regular season and play basketball at 0-0 and have the attitude that it’s one game and one possession at a time. We struggle to score at times, but that’s the same with everybody. That’s why I feel it’s wide open.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @foresports
Two of the finest young varsity players in the region, Deering sophomore Chelsea Saucier and McAuley freshman Allie Clement battle for possession.
McAuley junior Alexa Coulombe drives past Deering junior Ella Ramonas. Coulombe had a team-high 14 points, but it wasn’t enough.
Deering junior Ella Ramonas tries to shoot over McAuley’s imposing juniior Alexa Coulombe.
McAuley junior Alexa Coulombe got the better of this encounter with Deering senior Kayla Burchill Thursday night, but down the stretch, Burchill and the Rams rallied for the game’s final 10 points to beat the Lions, 38-35.
More photos below.