(Ed. Note: This story originally appeared March 24, 2005)
BANGOR—The McAuley girls’ basketball team will have to wait another year to return to the top of the Class A jungle.
Saturday evening at the Bangor Auditorium, McAuley fell behind juggernaut Cony 22-5 early on, and despite a valiant effort, couldn’t put together a rally, eventually falling 58-40 to the Rams in the final Class A state championship game ever to be contested in the venerable auditorium.
Despite the setback, the Lions (who wound up 20-2) relished another title game experience.
“It never gets old,” McAuley coach Liz Rickett said. “I feel bad for the seniors, but it’s the best feeling to play in the last possible game of the year. To get that far is what you work for all season. I always like to be here at the very end. Only two teams make it and we’re happy to be one of them.”
Coming into the 2004-05 season, many pundits felt that South Portland was the team to beat in Western Class A. The Lions, who had lost senior stalwarts Marisa Berne and Vanessa Lux to graduation, moved sophomore Ashley Cimino from point guard to inside presence and the move paid big dividends. McAuley went 17-1 during the regular year (only falling 55-47 at South Portland in a palpitating thriller Feb. 11) and took the No. 2 seed into the regional tournament after five straight years at No. 1.
The Lions rolled past No. 7 Portland 49-42 in the quarterfinals, then dominated No. 3 Noble much of the way in a 52-40 semifinal round victory. Better yet, South Portland was upset by No. 4 Sanford in the semifinals, leaving the Redskins as the last regional obstacle for McAuley. The Lions cruised in the second half of the regional final en route to a 45-29 win, making it five Western A crowns in six seasons for the phenomenon known as McAuley basketball.
Unfortunately, awaiting the Lions in the Class A championship game was an absolute powerhouse Cony team that won all 21 of its games and featured so much firepower that McAuley didn’t quite know how to counter it.
The opening moments of the contest would be a sign of things to come.
Just 19 seconds in, Cony senior standout Katie Rollins (a Miss Maine Basketball finalist) hit a layup after grabbing an offensive rebound, was fouled by Cimino, then hit a free throw for a 3-0 lead.
Lions senior Courtney Powers missed a 3-pointer on McAuley’s first possession, then Rollins struck again, converting an up-and-under layup for a 5-0 lead just 49 seconds into the contest.
The Lions got on the board 20 seconds later as Cimino drained a 3-pointer, but at the other end, Cony senior Natalie Nimon answered with another 3-ball and McAuley was down five.
With 4:51 to go in the quarter, Cimino made two free throws (drawing a second foul on Rollins and sending her to the bench for the rest of the first half in the process) and it appeared as if the Lions had gained momentum.
Instead, the Rams demonstrated their depth. Sophomore Cassie Cooper rebounded her own miss and laid it in. While the Lions were growing cold from the field and suffering several turnovers, Cony stretched their lead to 15-5 after the first period as Cooper made two free throws, freshman Rachael Mack hit one, then Cooper made a driving layup.
McAuley made just one of nine shots in the first quarter and turned the ball over on six occasions, putting itself in a precarious position.
“We thought we needed to rebound and protect the ball tonight and we didn’t do a good job with that,” Rickett said. “We were able to break their pressure, but we gave the ball away when we got across halfcourt.”
After the Lions began the second period with consecutive turnovers, Cooper hit a jumper and Cony senior Bri Rende made a free throw for an 18-5 lead. Rams senior Amanda Mason hit two foul shots and Cooper took a pass from Nimon and laid it in for a commanding 22-5 lead with 6:06 to play in the half.
Just when it looked as if it would get blown out of the water, McAuley showed some fight.
Junior Carolyn Freeman (the birthday girl) knocked down a 3-pointer, then senior (and Western Maine tournament MVP) Tara Beaulieu stole the ball and drove in for a layup to cut the lead to 12, 22-10. Cony answered with a pair of free throws from Rende and a Cooper jumper in the lane, but Freeman drained another 3-pointer and Cimino hit a layup to make it 26-15. Mack and Cimino traded baskets to end the half and at the break, the Lions were still within hailing distance, down 28-17.
McAuley had seven more turnovers in the second period, but what hurt the most was that after Rollins sat down with her second foul, Cony still outscored the Lions 20-14.
“Not any one person in particular took over when Rollins left,” Rickett said. “It was just a great team effort that they gave. All their kids contributed. They stepped it up when she left the court. They executed well when she was out.”
Rollins returned with a vengeance in the third period, single-handedly ending McAuley’s title dreams.
On Cony’s first possession, Rollins scored a layup after an offensive rebound. After a Mason steal, Rollins scored again for a 32-17 lead. Cimino answered with a pair of free throws, but Rollins finished off a possession that saw the Rams get four shots at the basket with a layup, then after a Powers miss, hit another layup. When McAuley turned the ball over again their next time up the court, Rollins scored inside again to give Cony its biggest lead, 38-19, with 4:04 to play in the period.
With 2:17 to go in the quarter, Nimon hit her second 3-pointer. Powers made a baseline jumper and Beaulieu made a jump shot, but Rollins made a short jump shot to give the Rams a 43-23 lead with just eight minutes to play.
“They came out strong in that first quarter and continued, even with Rollins on the bench, in the second quarter,” Rickett said. “Then, she came out and just took over in the third quarter. They executed well and played a great game.”
The Lions never got closer than 16 points (45-29) the rest of the way and the final minutes featured both coaches clearing their benches. McAuley sophomore Morghan McAleney hit a layup with 25 seconds to play to account for the 58-40 final score.
“Things just didn?t fall for us tonight,” Rickett said. “We worked hard. We worked hard all year. Our goal was to get to this game. Obviously, we wanted to win, but it just didn’t work out this year.”
Rollins led all scorers with 24 points (12 in the third period alone). Cooper (who had 12 in the first half) added 15. Nimon had eight.
For McAuley, Cimino continued to develop into a star with 17 points. Freeman added six. Beaulieu scored five. Seniors Shannon Wood and Kelly Ebrahim each scored four in their swan songs, while Powers and McAleney added two points apiece.
The pain of losing the state final stung for the Lions, but having to say goodbye to Beaulieu, Ebrahim, Katelyn Hughes and Powers hurts even more.
“They’re some of the best leaders we’ve had,” Rickett said, of her seniors. “Tara, Courtney and Kelly are hard working. They’re great kids. The kids loved to be around them. We’ll miss their leadership. Hopefully some others will step up and take on responsibility. We’ll definitely be back.”
While the Lions happily let a rival grapple with the favorite’s role this winter, they’ll have no such luxury next year. Sanford should be very strong, but McAuley will be favored to win the west yet again. Not to say that it will be easy.
“The west will be a competitive league again next year,” Rickett said. “I think we’ll be up there. I think Sanford will be there too. We have some core kids coming back. I think we’ll be OK.”
Congratulations to the Lions players and coaches on another superb season.