PORTLAND—Call it the Great Escape.
Call it a statement win.
Call it a mere appetizer for what’s to come, but as challenging as it was, McAuley’s girls’ basketball team will take Tuesday evening’s 29-25 home victory over recent nemesis Thornton Academy and run with it.
The Lions had dropped two straight games against the Golden Trojans, both which saw Thornton Academy rally in the second half to prevail.
This time, in Portland, McAuley again controlled the first half, getting Thornton Academy senior standout Victoria Lux in early foul trouble, then riding the hot hand of junior Jess Willerson (12 points) to a seemingly safe 22-9 halftime lead.
Yet as well as the Lions played defensively in the first half, that’s how anemic they were on offense in the second.
McAuley managed a mere three points in the third quarter, but still was up 11, 25-14.
The Lions then watched in all-too-familiar shock as the Golden Trojans continued to chip away in the fourth period and when Thornton Academy drew within two, 27-25, on freshman Alex Hart’s long jumper with 1:25 to play, the four-time defending Class A state champions were at a crossroads.
The Golden Trojans got the ball back with a chance to tie or go ahead, but McAuley junior Sarah Clement came up with a huge steal, then knocked down two foul shots with 33 seconds remaining for some breathing room. Thornton Academy’s comeback magic then ran out as the Lions managed to run out the clock on their closer-than-it-should-have-been 29-25 triumph.
Willerson led all scorers with 14 points and McAuley improved to 8-1 with its eighth win in succession, as it extended its home win streak to 30 games and dropped the Golden Trojans to 8-1 in the process.
“This game was a mid-term for my team,” said Lions coach Billy Goodman, now 4-2 against Thornton Academy and 69-0 against everyone else during his four-year tenure with the program. “I wanted to see what we had. We didn’t win a trophy tonight, but we gained confidence that we can compete with the top team.”
Prior to last winter, there wasn’t much of a rivalry between the Lions and Golden Trojans (see sidebar, below), but that all changed when Thornton Academy ended McAuley’s 56-game win streak Jan. 7 of last year. A hoped-for regional final never came to fruition as the Golden Trojans were upset by Windham in the quarterfinals and the Lions went on to win a fourth straight Class A crown.
In the offseason, Lux left McAuley for Thornton Academy and she (along with junior Ashley Howe) played a key role down the stretch in the season opener Dec. 5 as the Golden Trojans rallied from eight points down at halftime to beat the Lions again, 37-34.
Thornton Academy thus became the first team to enjoy a win streak against McAuley since Deering swept three meetings (including one in the semifinals) back in the 2009-10 season.
Entering Tuesday, neither team had lost since.
The Golden Trojans followed up their victory over McAuley with wins at Deering (42-22), at Cheverus (50-28), at home over South Portland (50-33) and Sanford (50-15), at Portland (61-26), at home over Marshwood (72-36) and at Scarborough (44-29).
McAuley bounced back from its loss at Thornton Academy by rolling at Massabesic (66-20), beating visiting Gorham (54-43) and host Deering (in a 49-48 thriller), dominating visiting Noble (65-16), staying perfect all-time in the “Holy War” with a 57-46 victory at Cheverus, then rolling over host Windham (52-15) and Biddeford (57-19).
Tuesday, round two of a likely three encounters this winter went the Lions’ way, but not as easily as it could have.
Willerson got a little good fortune to start the contest as her hook shot appeared off the mark, only to get a friendly bounce and tickle the twine. The visitors then took their lone lead when Howe scored on a putback while being fouled and added the free throw for an old-fashioned three-point play.
McAuley would control the rest of the frame.
A pair of foul shots from senior Ayla Tartre after Lux’s first foul put the Lions ahead for good. Senior Olivia Dalphonse then stole the ball, raced in for a layup, was fouled in the process and hit the free throw to complete the three-point play. A baby hook from Willerson completed a 7-0 run and made it 9-3 Lions.
After Golden Trojans coach Eric Marston called timeout, Lux received her second foul and the visitors remained in disarray until Hart drove for a layup, ending a 4 minute, 14 second drought. A putback from Willerson and a nice feed from sophomore Ally Tillotson to freshman Emily Weisser for a layup made it 13-5 McAuley after one period.
The Lions continued to fluster Thornton Academy in the second quarter, even if their offense wasn’t quite as productive.
Lux returned to action and scored on a putback 15 seconds in. Willerson then took a feed from freshman Eva Mazur for a layup to end a 4:29 drought, Willerson took a pass from Clement and made a baseline jumper and with 1:58 to go in the half, after a Mazur steal, Mazur set up Willerson for another layup and a 19-7 advantage.
The visitors ended another long drought (6:01) when senior Katie McCrum hit a jumper with 1:44 remaining, but after being fouled on a drive, Tartre made a free throw and with just 3 seconds left, after another steal, Dalphonse drove for a layup to give McAuley a seemingly commanding 22-9 lead.
In the first half, Willerson took advantage of Lux’s absence and scored 12 points and added five rebounds, while Mazur had five boards, three assists and two steals.
“We were really proud of our first half,” Dalphonse said. “We came out with the intensity we were looking for. We wanted to come out with the same intensity in the second half, but we didn’t do that as much.”
“I told the girls I wanted to get off to a good start and we did,” Goodman said. “I’m proud of my team. We did what we practiced in the first half.”
The third quarter would feature a combined eight points, as the hosts were content to use a lot of clock on offense, but when the period ended, the Lions still appeared in control.
With 6:10 to go in the period, Clement was fouled after an offensive rebound (Lux’s third) and made one free throw to give McAuley its biggest lead, 23-9. Lux countered with a putback, but with 4:43 to play in the frame, she was whistled for her fourth foul and would sit until the fourth.
Howe made a free throw with 3:22 to go, but 12 seconds later, Willerson took a feed from Clement and made a layup for a 25-12 advantage.
That would prove to be the Lions’ last field goal of the night.
With under a minute remaining, McCrum took a pass from junior Hayden Campbell and made a layup to bring the Golden Trojans within 11, 25-14, heading for the final stanza.
There, Thornton Academy nearly pulled off another Houdini act.
Lux returned 23 seconds in and a minute later, Hart went coast to coast for a layup, cutting the deficit to nine.
With 5:58 to play, Hart set up Lux for a short jumper and the score was 25-18 and the crowd began to get nervous.
After a long scoreless stretch, McCrum was fouled with 3:21 remaining and she sank both free throws to pull the Golden Trojans within five, 25-20.
Hart had a chance to make it a one possession game, but after a steal, she missed a layup.
That loomed large, as with 1:46 left, Dalphonse was fouled and the captain calmly sank both ends of a 1-and-1, snapping a 9:24 drought.
McAuley still wasn’t home free, as McCrum buried a 3 11 seconds later, cutting the deficit to 27-23.
“I didn’t think we had our best effort on either side of the court, especially defensively, in the first half and I challenged them at halftime,” Marston said. “I knew we’d shoot better in the second half. We were more aggressive on the defensive end.”
Hart then showed why she’s so highly touted, first stealing the ball and keeping possession for her team when she threw it off Clement out of bounds, then burying a long jumper just inside the 3-point arc with 1:25 to go to bring Thornton Academy within a possession, 27-25.
All the momentum and recent history was in the Golden Trojans’ corner, but the Lions reminded everyone why they’re the four-time defending champs and why they have a legitimate shot at a fifth.
Talent may come and go, but heart and pride do not.
After Mazur missed the front end of a 1-and-1, McAuley needed a defensive stop in the worst way and got it as Clement came up with the biggest steal of the season.
Clement was fouled with 33 seconds to play and the proud veteran, who could only sit and watch after missing her whole sophomore season with a knee injury, wouldn’t be denied, calmly making both free throw attempts to push the lead back to four.
“We knew she’d make them,” said Willerson. “We could exhale. That helped a lot.”
Lux tried and missed a 3, but got her own rebound and Howe had a look at a 3 as well, but it too was off target and that was that.
The Lions ran out the clock and celebrated their grueling 29-25 triumph.
“That was a fantastic game,” said Willerson. “We knew we couldn’t fold like last time. We knew had to keep the lead. We had energy and positivity. We played smart. It was good teamwork. We all played good help D. We knew where the ball was at all times. I wanted to win this for everyone. We wanted to prove to everyone how well we could play. We wanted to beat the number one seed. We wanted to avenge the losses from last year and this year. This gives us a lot of confidence. We know we can play with anyone.”
“We were able to pull through and get the win,” said Dalphonse. “I think we had the previous (losses) in the back of our heads. We knew we needed to pull this out. It’s really important. We’re not so much focused on beating TA, it’s just beating a top team. We want to prove to the rest of the league that we can win. We’ve grown so much. At the beginning of the year, we were adjusting to our roles. Our defense has really gotten there. Our guards were our top rebounders tonight. This definitely boosts our confidence. It’s a big win against a great team.”
“Our shots stopped falling and I knew (Thornton Academy would) come back,” Goodman added. “They’ll win a lot of games. We were sluggish in the third period. That’s on me. I’d like to see us execute on offense better, but we don’t give up. We haven’t given up all year. These girls have it inside them.”
Willerson had nearly half of McAuley’s point total (14). She also snared seven rebounds.
“The last couple weeks, she’s taken to my assistant coaches and whoever is helping her,” Goodman said. “She wants to get better. She works hard. I’m just so proud of her.”
Dalphonse added seven points, two rebounds and two steals. Clement (eight boards and one enormous steal) and Tartre had three points apiece, while Weisser finished with two. Mazur added six rebounds, three assists and two steals.
The Lions overcame 15 turnovers with strong defense and 9 of 14 foul shooting.
For Thornton Academy, McCrum’s nine points led the way. Hart (five rebounds, four steals) and Lux (seven boards, three blocks) both had six, while Howe finished with four.
The Golden Trojans took just seven free throws, making four, and committed a most respectable nine turnovers, considering the setting.
“I’d have liked another minute or so, but I give all the credit to Coach Goodman and McAuley,” Marston said. “They locked us up defensively from start to finish. We couldn’t get in a flow as a result of fouls. It affected our substitution patterns. We have a lot of weapons, but we couldn’t use them tonight. They had tremendous energy. The gym was electric. It was a great atmosphere.
“I’m really proud of how our girls fought back. They all believe in one another. We’re the epitome of a family. We all have each other’s back on and off the court. I think they all believe in each other and they feel like they’re always in a game. One team had to lose tonight and unfortunately, it was us.”
While much attention has been paid to the two McAuley-Thornton Academy encounters, the truth is, we’re only halfway through the regular season and nothing has been decided.
The Golden Trojans (still first in the Western Class A Heal Points standings) return to action Friday at home against Noble.
“I’d love to see (McAuley) a third time, not that you ever want to play McAuley, but that would mean it would be deep in the playoffs,” Marston said. “We won’t look ahead. We know all too well you have to take it one game at a time.”
The Lions (second in Western A) face another huge challenge Friday when they go to South Portland. Home games versus Scarborough and Sanford follow next week.
“We’ll keep improving,” Willerson said. “We’re ready for South Portland. We know it’s a big challenge, but we know we can do it.”
“We’ll look forward to another tough game against a great team Friday,” Dalphonse said. “We know it’s still the middle of the season. We haven’t won a championship. Our defense is getting there, but our offense has to get moving and get the ball to our shooters. (If we play TA again) that would be a great game. We’d look forward to it if it happens.”
“We have to learn how to run an offense,” Goodman added. “South Portland is loaded. They have a lot of good players. We know they’ll bring it Friday night.”
McAuley senior Ayla Tartre shoots over Thornton Academy senior Katie McCrum.
McAuley freshman Eva Mazur goes up for a shot along the baseline while Thornton Academy freshman Alex Hart tries to get a hand on it.
McAuley senior Olivia Dalphonse has a shot denied by Thornton Academy senior Victoria Lux.
Thornton Academy senior Victoria Lux goes up for a shot.
Thornton Academy freshman Alex Hart shoots over McAuley freshman Emily Weisser as classmate Eva Mazur (31) helps defend.
Thornton Academy senior Katie McCrum pokes the ball away from McAuley junior Sarah Clement.
Thornton Academy junior Ashley Howe ties up McAuley junior Sarah Clement.
@ TA 37 McAuley 34
McAuley 64 @ TA 38
@ McAuley 41 TA 36
McAuley 46 @ TA 21
@ McAuley 35 TA 32
McAuley 48 @ TA 45
@ McAuley 67 TA 33
McAuley 51 @ TA 41
@ McAuley 64 TA 17
McAuley 54 @ TA 18
@ McAuley 84 TA 21
McAuley senior Ayla Tartre stands tall (with help from sophomore teammate Ally Tillotson) to deny Thornton Academy freshman Alex Hart during the teams’ highly anticipated showdown Tuesday night. The Lions got a stellar defensive effort and they needed it as they held on for a 29-25 victory.
More photos below.
TA- 5 4 5 11- 25
M- 13 9 3 4- 29
TA- McCrum 3-2-9, Hart 3-0-6, Lux 3-0-6, Howe 1-2-4
M-Willerson 7-0-14, Dalphonse 2-3-7, Clement 0-3-3, Tartre 0-3-3, Weisser 1-0-2
TA (1) McCrum 1