SACO—The atmosphere had February written all over it, but the calendar read early December and as a result, the highly anticipated regular season-opening showdown between four-time defending Class A state champion McAuley and preseason favorite Thornton Academy at Linnell Gymnasium Friday evening was more about what will be than what is.
What was was a narrow Golden Trojans’ victory, but what will (and should) be is that both squads will be much more formidable the next time they square off.
The Lions took advantage of a pair of long Thornton Academy scoring droughts in the first half and took a 20-12 lead to the break, as junior Jess Willerson had seven points and the Golden Trojans hindered their chances by making just 1-of-9 free throws.
The hosts were a different team to start the second half, however, as they turned up the defensive intensity, forced turnovers on the Lions’ first six possessions and junior Ashley Howe’s offensive fireworks sparked a 10-0 run.
The visitors took a 23-22 lead to the fourth quarter, but there, Thornton Academy did what it took to ensure it, not McAuley, would start the season 1-0.
With the game tied, 30-30, inside of two minutes, Golden Trojans senior post standout Victoria Lux, who won three Gold Balls in a Lions’ uniform, scored on a bank shot after a nice move to put her team ahead to stay.
McAuley had its chances down the stretch, but couldn’t make free throws or shots from the field. When Howe scored on a third effort three-point play with just over a minute to go, Thornton Academy had its biggest lead of the game.
Twice, in the final minute, the Lions pulled within three, the final time on a long jumper from senior Ayla Tartre, but the Golden Trojans were able to hold on and prevail, 37-34.
Much bigger games await down the road and bragging rights will be fleeting, but for one night at least, Thornton Academy got the last laugh.
“I feel badly for the girls,” said McAuley coach Billy Goodman. “They worked so hard. For us to just give it away, it’s sad.”
“It is McAuley and the girls are very happy to beat the four-time defending state champions,” Golden Trojans coach Eric Marston said. “Meeting in the first game of the season after all that happened last season, certainly added a lot of interest to the game. The atmosphere was electric.”
Ever since the schedule was released, the McAuley at Thornton Academy battle was circled.
For many reasons.
For starters, the Golden Trojans were the team that ended the Lions’ 56-game win streak back on Jan. 7, 50-49.
That only began to tell the story, however.
Lux’s leaving McAuley back in the summer to go to Thornton Academy certainly turned heads and made her team the odds-on favorite.
At least until Willerson left Cheverus for McAuley, closing the gap yet again.
Prior to January’s upset, the Golden Trojans hadn’t beaten the Lions, the state’s gold standard program, this century. Thornton Academy was eliminated by Windham in last winter’s quarterfinals, preventing fans from seeing a rematch in the regional final and McAuley went on to its fourth title in succession.
Both teams have new looks and questions to answer this winter and on Opening Night, it was clear that each has talent, but that there will be a learning curve.
Points were at a premium early as both teams had nerves and couldn’t hit shots.
Senior Abigail Strickland put Thornton Academy on top with a free throw 30 seconds in and Lux, after taking a pass from freshman Alex Hart, made a layup for a 3-0 lead with 7:07 to go in the first quarter, but the hosts wouldn’t score again until the waning seconds of the period.
With 5:58 to play in the first, McAuley got on the board, by virtue of a most welcome sight, a 3-pointer from junior Sarah Clement, who missed all of last season with a knee injury.
With 3:26 left, Willerson scored her first points for the Lions, finishing a feed from Tartre and hitting a short jumper to put the visitors on top.
After Willerson made a free throw, Tartre made a jumper for an 8-3 lead, but with 7.6 seconds to go in the quarter, after McAuley chose not to hold for the last shot and had Lux block an ill-advised bid, the Golden Trojans ended a 7 minute drought when junior Barrett Campbell scored.
The Lions still led, 8-5, after eight minutes, but they hadn’t been able to open up a healthier advantage.
They would do so in the second period.
McAuley freshman Eva Mazur, who impressed in her first varsity action, set up Willerson for a jumper early in the stanza. Campbell answered with a 3 and senior Katie McCrum tied the score with a jumper, but with 5:16 to go before halftime, Lions senior Mary Furlong hit a jumper to put the Lions back on top.
Senior Mikayla Moran added two foul shots and after Hart drove for a basket, senior Olivia Dalphonse and Furlong each made a free throw. Willerson added two foul shots and Mazur also hit two to put McAuley ahead, 20-12 at the break.
In the first 16 minutes, foul shots were the difference, as the Lions sank 9-of-12, while the Golden Trojans only made 1-of-9.
In last winter’s statement victory, Thornton Academy rallied from a third period deficit after failing to get anything going on offense up until that point.
History repeated Friday.
The Golden Trojans were clearly a different team as the second half began, thanks in large part to Howe, who didn’t score in the first half.
After McAuley turned the ball over on its first possession, McCrum, who stole it, set up Howe for a basket. Hart added a layup after a steal. Howe then sank a jumper and with 4:07 to go in the frame, she made two free throws to tie the score, 20-20.
“Both teams struggled early on,” Marston said. “They’ll go through some early struggles, just like we will adjusting to new personnel. I didn’t think we’d come out and set the world on fire offensively by any means, but I was hoping for more than 12 points in the first half.
“At halftime, we said, ‘Listen. We’re struggling offensively. We have to turn our defense into offense.’ We did that right off the bat. We knew our on the ball defenders were good enough so we didn’t need a lot of help. Each player took it upon themselves to dominate their girl each possession. That turned the game around for us.”
Thirty-two seconds later, Howe scored on a putback and just like that, the home team was on top, 22-20.
“(Ashley’s) unbelievable,” Lux said. “Whenever we need her to do something, she does it. Under pressure she’s great.”
“We knew (Howe’s) good,” Goodman said. “They have a lot of good players. That’s why they’re ranked number one. We just lost focus on everything. It was their defense. They played great defense.”
The Lions ended a 5 minute, 5 second drought when Clement scored on a putback and Dalphonse added a free throw to make it 23-22 McAuley heading for the final stanza.
There, Thornton Academy found a way.
After Willerson scored her first points of the second half with an up-and-under layup to stretch the lead to three, Lux answered with a layup to cut the Golden Trojans’ deficit to 25-24. Clement made a free throw and Willerson hit two to make it 28-24 McAuley with 5:43 to go, but McCrum was fouled after an offensive rebound and made two free throws and with 5:03 to play, after a steal, Howe made a layup to deadlock the contest at 28-28.
Midway through the quarter, Lux more than made up for her offensive struggles by crashing to the floor to get an offensive rebound and keep possession alive. The ball then came to Hart, who sank a jumper for a 30-28 Thornton Academy lead with 3:55 remaining.
“I was going to do whatever it took,” Lux said, of her dive. “I knew I had to do that. You do whatever you have to do to win a game like this.”
“(Victoria) made some clutch shots down the stretch and got some key rebounds,” Marston said. “I thought the play of the game, other than a couple of the steals that Ash had, was when she dove on the floor and flung it out and we scored on that possession. That showed a lot of hustle.”
Lux was then sidelined with her fourth foul, but McAuley couldn’t take advantage as first Willerson, then sophomore Ally Tillotson both missed two free throws.
Finally, with 2:10 to go, Tartre went to the line and hit both attempts to draw the Lions even at 30-30.
The deadlock lasted all of 27 seconds as Lux got the ball, eluded a defender and banked home her shot to make it 32-30 Thornton Academy with 1:43 to play.
“I played with (Lux) when I was younger,” Howe said. “Being on the court with her was great. She’s such a big presence inside. She’s such an open target. We look for her.”
At the other end, Willerson tried to draw Lux’s fifth foul, but she traveled in the process.
Lux then missed a shot, but Howe got the rebound. She went back up only to miss, but got the rebound again and this time, with 1:02 showing, scored while being fouled. Howe added the free throw and the Golden Trojans were ahead by five, their biggest lead of the game, 35-30.
“Ashley has been so consistent for us,” said Marston. “She felt she had an off-year last year and took it upon herself to come out and work so hard in practice this year. The whole team played good defense in the second half, but it was a couple off the ball steals she got that sparked us. Then the key rebound and foul shot at the end. She’s a complete player. I’m really proud of her.”
McAuley refused to buckle as Willerson took a pass from Clement and made a layup, cutting the deficit to 35-32 with 51.1 seconds to go.
Thornton Academy refused to let it slip away, however, as although Hart missed the front end of a one-and-one, Lux got the rebound to keep possession and was fouled. After struggling so mightily from the line, Lux got her first free throw to rattle home, then sank the second for a 37-32 lead with 39.3 seconds to play.
Tartre was short on a 3-pointer, but after forcing a turnover, the Lions still had a pulse when Tartre sank a long jumper from the corner. It was ruled a two-pointer and with 8.1 seconds to go, McAuley was down 37-34 and needed the ball back.
It didn’t happen, as Lux’s inbounds pass went into the frontcourt where Howe caught it and managed to run out the clock.
Thornton Academy celebrated beating McAuley for the second year in a row (the Lions hadn’t lost to a team in consecutive seasons since Deering beat them three times in the 2009-10 campaign and once in 2010-11), handing the defending champs their first season opening game setback in memory.
“You walk around school and everyone talked about (the game tonight),” Howe said. “There was so much hype. We wanted to start off the season with a great win against a great team. Against a great team like McAuley, you never know, because they’re so good, but with the team we have, I knew we could come through.”
“It was amazing,” Lux said. “Intense. We knew there would be full stands. I had to keep my head. There were some times when I lost my head, but the girls kept me in it. It was fun. The first half, we were terrible. We couldn’t get our offense going at all. Our defense won this game. Coach told us to pick it up and we did. We got together and did what we had to do.”
“It was nice to see the girls come together at the end like that,” Marston added. “It was really cool to see all these fans here supporting girls’ basketball. McAuley fans are fantastic. They appreciate good basketball.”
Willerson was impressive in her debut, leading McAuley with 13 points. She also blocked a pair of shots.
“Willerson has been great,” Goodman said. “A lot of girls played great. We just had a bad run there.”
Tartre and Clement (who grabbed five rebounds) both had six points, Furlong finished with three, while Dalphonse, Mazur and Moran each added two. Tillotson didn’t score, but grabbed five rebounds.
McAuley finished 15 of 24 from the free throw line and turned the ball over 11 times in the second half (14 times total).
“We’ll bring it for 32 minutes every game,” Goodman said. “We did a good job on defense. It was great tonight. It was the offense and turnovers that hurt us and that’s my fault.”
Howe set the tone for Thornton Academy, scoring all 13 of her points in the second half. She also had five rebounds and a pair of steals. Lux, in her first game with her new team, had eight points, 11 boards and six blocks. Hart had six points, Campbell tallied five, McCrum (who was limited by Dalphonse’s excellent defense) finished with four and Strickland added one.
The Golden Trojans took much better care of the ball in the second half, finishing up with 13 turnovers, and made 8 of 17 foul shots (7 of 8 in the second half).
The teams will meet again Jan. 6 in Portland. A third meeting, in the tournament, is a distinct possibility as well.
“I expect it will be a dogfight again,” Marston said.
Neither coach cares much about the future, however. Both teams have work to do, but each hinted at their potential greatness.
Thornton Academy, which faces tests at Deering and Cheverus next week, needs to guard against the hype.
“Coach tells us not to worry about the pressure,” Howe said. “He tells us to relax and stay calm.”
“We still have a lot to work on,” Lux said. “It’s very even this year. A lot of teams will be good, but we definitely have a chance.”
McAuley, which plays at Massabesic Tuesday before opening up the home portion of its schedule Friday against dangerous Gorham, needs to generate more consistent scoring.
“I knew we’d struggle with offense,” Goodman said. “We struggled with offense, but have been winning with defense in the preseason. I have to do a better job teaching my team to handle pressure better. We have to fix it.”
Thornton Academy senior Katie McCrum defends McAuley junior Sarah Clement as Golden Trojans senior (and former Lion) Victoria Lux calls out the play to her teammates.
McAuley senior Ayla Tartre and Thornton Academy senior Victoria Lux collide.
McAuley junior Sarah Clement and Thornton Academy senior Abigail Strickland battle for possession.
McAuley senior Ayla Tartre blocks the shot of Thornton Academy senior Abigail Strickland.
McAuley senior Ayla Tartre goes up for a shot. Tartre was fearless throughout.
McAuley sophomore Ally Tillotson drives to the basket as Thornton Academy freshman Alex Hart defends.
McAuley junior Jess Willerson goes up for two of her team-high 13 points.
At the final horn, Thornton Academy celebrates its victory.
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 junior Jess Willerson has a shot blocked by Thornton Academy senior and former Lions standout Victoria Lux during the preseason favorites’ regular season-opening showdown Friday night. The Golden Trojans made the key plays late to hold on for a 37-34 victory.
More photos below.
M- 8 12 3 11- 34
TA- 5 7 10 15-37
M- Willerson 4-5-13, Tartre 2-2-6, Clement 2-1-6, Furlong 1-1-3, Dalphonse 0-2-2, Mazur 0-2-2, Moran 0-2-2
TA- Howe 5-3-13, Lux 3-2-8, Hart 3-0-6, B. Campbell 2-0-5, McCrum 1-2-4, Strickland 0-1-1
M (1) Clement 1
TA (1) B. Campbell 1