(Ed. Note: This story originally appeared March 8, 2007)
AUGUSTA—This time it was closer, but not quite close enough.
Two years after falling decisively to Cony in the girls’ basketball Class A state final, the McAuley Lions gave the Rams everything they could handle and more, but a slow start proved to be too much to overcome and the Lions went down to a 46-41 defeat in Saturday’s state final at the Augusta Civic Center.
McAuley trailed 7-0 and 11-3 in the early going and even though it battled back to tie the game early in the second period, never could take a lead. Cony was able to limit the effectiveness of Lions senior standout Ashley Cimino most of the game and the Rams got big plays from their three stars down the stretch to win the school’s seventh championship.
McAuley finished its stellar season 20-2.
“They found each other,” Lions coach Wil Smith said, of the Rams. “Their ‘Big Three’ made their shots. That’s how you become champion. I thought it would be this type of game. I didn’t think anyone would break out and dominate.”
While the Lions roared to their sixth state final in eight seasons, it was a little different this winter. The most notable change came at the top, where Smith, a former assistant, replaced dynasty-builder Liz Rickett as head coach.
McAuley had to navigate a more challenging regular season slate this winter as well. The Southern Maine Activities Association had several title-worthy teams, but the Lions only were bested once, a 36-28 loss at nemesis South Portland back on Jan. 6.
McAuley’s 17-1 mark gave it the top seed for the Western Class A tournament and the Lions (driven by the sting of last year’s bitter semifinal round upset loss to the Red Riots) met every challenge and were never seriously threatened by Westbrook, Deering or defending state champion Sanford.
McAuley entered Saturday’s state game confident. While the last meeting two years ago (a 58-40 Rams’ win at the Bangor Auditorium) was a longshot for the Lions, this time around, they felt they had better than a fighting chance.
McAuley and Cony had split two previous state final showdowns this decade (the Lions won the school’s first-ever title with a 67-61 win in 2002) and something had to give.
Unfortunately for the Lions, it was them in the early going.
Senior Morghan McAleney missed a short shot to begin the game and the Rams promptly took a 2-0 lead when senior Kristi Violette converted a layup. After a turnover, Cony junior Rachael Mack was fouled by Cimino while making a layup, then hit the ensuing foul shot for a 5-0 lead. McAuley junior Shannon Wood then missed a shot and the Rams went up 7-0 when Violette scored on a layup.
With 5:54 to play in the first, the Lions were in trouble and Smith called a timeout.
“A lot of the girls were overwhelmed with the experience,” Smith said. “Cony came right out and executed and we didn’t. Hats off to them.”
The timeout paid immediate dividends when senior Abby Wentworth continued her stellar postseason play with a jump shot. McAuley had a chance to draw closer as the Rams had a turnover and three misses (including a Cimino block) on their ensuing possessions, but Cimino, Wentworth and Wood were all off on shot attempts.
With 3:42 to play in the first, Cony junior Shelby Pelkey made one of two free throws. At the other end, Cimino did the same. The Rams then came down and took an 11-3 lead on a 3-pointer from sophomore Chelsea Arbour.
The Lions would finish the quarter strong, however.
Junior Rebecca Delude (who picked up three fouls in the first period) drained a short jumper and Wentworth converted an old-fashioned three-point play to make it 11-8. After a Cony turnover, Wood fired a 3-ball which could have tied it, but the shot went in-and-out. With 28.5 seconds to go in the first, Violette hit one of two free throws to give the Rams a 12-8 advantage after one period.
In the quarter, McAuley made just 3-of-11 shots from the floor and had two turnovers. Still, the Lions were very much alive.
McAuley drew even when freshman Caitlin Cimino hit a jumper and Ashley Cimino converted a layup to make it 12-12 with 6:16 remaining in the half. At the other end, Cony senior standout Cassie Cooper had a shot blocked by McAleney, but the Rams retained possession and soon took the lead for good when Cooper scored on a layup, was fouled, and made the shot for a 15-12 edge. With 4:02 left before halftime, Ashley Cimino drained a long jumper and the Lions were back within a point, 15-14.
McAuley got the ball back with a chance to go ahead, but turned it over. Pelkey then struck with another 3-pointer for an 18-14 lead. After another Lions’ turnover and a timeout, Mack converted a layup off the inbounds pass and it was 20-14. Wentworth answered with a jump shot. With 2:06 to go in the half, Violette made a jump shot. McAleney answered with one of her own to make it 22-18. After Violette made one of two foul shots with 40.9 seconds left, Wentworth scored on a layup after an offensive rebound and McAuley was only down three at the break, 23-20.
The third quarter was a story of Lions’ frustrations while the Rams did just enough to stay on top.
Just nine seconds in, Cooper was fouled and made two free throws. After a McAuley turnover, Cony got three looks at the hoop. On the third, Pelkey made a jump shot for a 27-20 lead. Finally, with 5:07 to go in the stanza, the Lions got on the board as junior Sarah Oliver drained a 3-pointer. After Cimino and Wood missed chances to draw their team closer, Cooper scored on an offensive rebound putback. At the other end, Wood made a pair of foul shots, but Arbour scored on a layup after the Rams broke the McAuley press for a 31-25 advantage.
With 2:45 to go in the third, Wentworth scored on a rebound layup. Oliver and Cimino then had chances to make it a one-point game, but both missed 3-pointers. With just under a minute to go, Mack took a beautiful pass from Cooper and scored on a layup. With 6.7 seconds remaining, Violette was fouled and made both shots for a 35-27 lead heading for the final period.
The vocal Lions’ cheering section erupted early in the fourth as Cimino hit a short bank shot and McAleney drained a jumper to cut the lead to four, 35-31, but Mack (taking a great interior pass from Violette) stemmed the tide with a layup. After missed shots by McAleney and Cimino and after Oliver’s 3-point attempt went in-and-out, Mack made two free throws, then followed seconds later with a jumper to give Cony a commanding 41-31 lead with just 3:39 to play.
“They made us expend a lot of energy early on to get back in the game,” Smith said. “Once we expended that energy we were out of gas. You could tell because our shots were a little bit short. They didn’t go in. They usually do. If they went in, it would have been a different game.
“(Cony) found the right person and they’d convert. When we tried to make a run, we’d find the right person and they didn’t convert. Too many of those gave them some room. If we made our shots, we would have been right there. Bottom line is that we didn’t. We didn’t have legs in the second half.”
With 2:29 left, McAleney gave McAuley hope when she converted an old-fashioned three-point play, but at the other end, Cooper got a rebound of her own miss and laid it in for a 43-34 lead. When Rams senior Heather Pratt made two foul shots with 46.7 seconds remaining for a 45-34 lead, both coaches emptied their bench.
That led to one final McAuley highlight.
Senior Nikki Viola went wild in the final 18.3 seconds, twice scoring on a layup after a steal, then, after Cony senior Molly Hopkins made a free throw, Viola buried a 3-pointer, which banked in from a difficult angle, with time expiring, to account for the 46-41 final score.
“Viola battled until the end,” Smith said. “She’s a great kid.”
Neither team shot well from the floor (the Lions hit 33 percent, the Rams 32 percent), but Cony outscored McAuley 14-5 from the line. The Rams had 12 turnovers to the Lions nine.
Violette led all scorers with 12 points (and added a whopping 15 rebounds). Mack had 11 points and Cooper scored nine. Pelkey added six and Arbour had five.
For McAuley, Wentworth led the way with 11. McAleney, Viola and Cimino all wound up with seven.
“They did a good job of neutralizing Ashley, but we also did a good job of neutralizing Ashley by not making our shots,” Smith lamented. “If we made our shots, Ashley would have been single-covered. She’s playing out of position. She made a sacrifice by playing with her back to the basket. That says a lot about her.”
The Stanford University-bound Cimino is a finalist (along with Cony’s Cooper and Messalonskee’s Chelsea Barker) for the Miss Maine Basketball award, which will be bestowed next Friday night at the senior awards banquet in Bangor. She’ll also take part in the McDonald’s Senior All-Star Game in Louisville, Ky., at the end of the month.
Even though McAuley (the seniors especially) was devastated by the loss, it shouldn’t detract from another marvelous season. The Lions won 20 games and won the school’s sixth regional crown. A decade ago, dreams of such lofty accomplishments would have been scoffed at.
“It was an amazing run,” Smith said. “The most incredible and fulfilling part about it is what the fans never see. Watching these girls come together and come to the point where they learned to trust me and my system. They believed in each other and trusted each other. It was quite an evolution to watch and admire. That was the best part of the season. Seeing what they did off the court and how that affected us on the court.”
The Lions certainly look as if they’ll come back to pack next year after graduating Cimino, McAleney and Wentworth (along with Jamie Berry, Jenna Jeffrey, Bradi True and Viola). That said, Delude, Oliver, Wood and the younger Cimino all saw key moments in big games and will be ready to keep this program near the top.
“I hope everybody thinks we’re rebuilding,” Smith said. “These seniors were amazing, but we have a good nucleus coming back. No McDonald’s All-Americans, but there’s a lot of good players still left. My JV and freshmen teams are solid too. I like our chances next year.”