PORTLAND—All is right again in the world of the McAuley girls’ basketball team, while the Cheverus Stags continue to wonder what it will take to beat its private school rival.
Tuesday evening, the host Lions rode 31 points from senior standout Rebecca Knight and a superb 32-minute defensive effort to roll, 58-39, as they improved to 16-1, dropping the Stags to 13-4. Each squad has one regular season tuneup remaining before gearing up for the start of the Western Class A tournament.
McAuley led virtually the whole way, forced 23 turnovers and held Cheverus’ top scorers in check.
“I’m really proud of them,” said Lions coach Amy Vachon. “We came out tough. We came out and played hard defensively. Once we settled down in the first quarter, we made them work for everything they got. That’s what keys us. When we play defense and rebound, we’re a good basketball team.”
McAuley, a semifinal loser to Deering in 2009-10, has impressed all year, winning its first 14 games, including a stirring 47-43 come-from-behind overtime victory at Deering Thursday (its first win over the Rams in seven tries), but Saturday night, at Gorham, the Lions managed just seven second half points and went down to a stunning 37-27 defeat. They bounced back Monday by downing visiting Massabesic, 56-29, behind 17 points and 10 rebounds from Knight, 16 points from freshman sensation Allie Clement and a typical dominating eight points, eight boards and five blocked shots performance from junior Alexa Coulombe.
Cheverus, which got to the quarterfinals for the first time before losing to Biddeford a year ago, entered the game 13-3, with its other losses coming at home to Deering on Jan. 22 and at Gorham Friday.
The teams met back on Dec. 21. Cheverus led most of the way, but McAuley pulled ahead late and held on for a 45-42 victory.
That decision left the Stags 0-for-forever against the Lions, but they hoped to rectify that once and for all Tuesday.
It wasn’t to be.
Both teams clicked offensively in the first period.
Cheverus broke the ice 56 seconds in when sophomore Mikayla Mayberry made a layup. After Knight tied the score with a layup, Stags junior Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy fed classmate Morgan Cahill for a layup and the visitors’ final lead, 4-2.
McAuley went on top on a 3-pointer from sophomore Hannah Cooke. After Coulombe added a free throw to make it 6-4 Lions, a layup from Cheverus sophomore Kylie Libby tied the score anew. Knight and Libby then traded layups before sophomore Molly Mack hit a layup and Clement drained a jump shot to make it 12-8 Lions.
The visitors tied the score one final time on a layup from Cahill and a driving layup from Libby, but with just under a minute to go in the first, Knight hit a baseline jumper to put McAuley ahead to stay. Coulombe added a driving runner and with time winding down in the first, Coulombe stole the ball and fed Clement for a layup and an 18-12 advantage after eight minutes.
“(McAuley) came out with pressure,” said Stags coach Richie Ashley. “They made shots. It was a physical game. They did a good job physically. I’m not sure how we reacted to that. It was a well-reffed game. We have to adjust.”
A relatively even first period would be followed by a lopsided second.
Over the next eight minutes, the Lions clamped down defensively, forced eight turnovers and went on a 15-6 run to seize control.
A layup from Knight and a Knight leaner pushed the lead to 22-12. After Cheverus’ lone senior, Britni Mikulanecz, hit a long jumper to end a 10-0 run and a 4 minute, 29 second drought, Clement drained a pullup jumper and Knight made a pair of foul shots. The Stags got a layup from Palazzi-Leahy, but Clement hit a foul shot, junior Sadie Dipierro (more on her in a moment) made a backdoor layup and Cooke added a layup for a commanding 31-16 lead. Mikulanecz stemmed the tide with a putback, but as time expired, Knight scored on a driving layup for a 33-18 advantage at the break.
Cheverus hoped to make a run in the second half, but the Lions soon put the game away.
After Mikulanecz scored on a tip-in to start the third period scoring, Knight scored on a putback, Knight took a pass from Coulombe and made a reverse layup, Coulombe hit a free throw and with 5:08 to play in the quarter, Knight made a layup to allow McAuley to double up the Stags, 40-20.
“We didn’t talk the whole Gorham game,” Knight said. “We’re working on communication. In the locker room before we left, we acted like we were down by 20. That’s what motivates us to do better. We couldn’t think we had it. The intensity wasn’t there against Gorham. We had to come out with the intensity.”
After Cahill scored her final points on a layup, Knight hit a turnaround jumper to push the lead back to 20. Sophomore Brooke Flaherty scored back-to-back hoops for Cheverus to make it 42-26, but Knight made a layup and Coulombe scored on a putback to make it 46-26. A 3-ball from sophomore Casey Honan in the final minute gave the Stags a momentary boost, but Clement’s free throw gave the Lions a 47-29 advantage after three.
A Knight layup, two foul shots and an old-fashioned three-point play pushed the lead to 54-29 and McAuley wouldn’t lead by less than 21 the rest of the way as it cruised home with the impressive 58-39 triumph.
“It was a big one for us,” Knight said. “My whole team thinks it’s a rivalry, but they’re all from Portland. I’m from Alfred, so it’s more like Sanford for me. It is a big Catholic school rivalry, obviously. (Cheverus is) a good team.”
“Every year, it doesn’t change,” said Dipierro. “They haven’t beaten us and we wanted to keep that up.”
Knight, who is bound for the University of Maine, had another sensational evening, not only scoring the 31 points, but adding four rebounds, four steals and two blocked shots to her ledger.
“I don’t pay attention to it,” Knight said. “It’s because of my teammates. They fed the ball to me. There were a lot of assists tonight.”
“What I love about the 31, was that it came in the flow,” Vachon said. “I had no idea she had 31 points. She’s been like that all year long. I feel like she doesn’t get enough credit.”
Clement had eight points (and three rebounds), Coulombe six points (in addition to 10 rebounds, five blocks and two steals), Cooke five (along with four boards and two steals), and Dipierro (four rebounds), Mack, senior Olivia Porch (three rebounds in limited action) and freshman Nina Davenport two points apiece.
“We like to force turnovers, get out and run,” Vachon said. “That’s what we didn’t do in our loss against Gorham. Molly did a great job getting rebounds. Hannah had to get rebounds and play defense and she did it.”
The Lions had 21 turnovers and only shot 9-of-22 free throws, but it was hard to find fault with their effort.
Cheverus put 10 players in the scoring column, but the defense of Coulombe and Dipierro on Cahill and Palazzi-Leahy, respectively, held the Stags in check.
“Alexa’s huge defensively for us,” Knight said. “ I don’t know what we’d do without her. Cahill was hesitant because once you get blocked twice, obviously you’re not going to go against her again.”
“Defense is my favorite part of the game,” said Dipierro, on the eve of her 17th birthday. “Defense is how we win games. That’s what we go by. It’s fun to shut them down. If I miss something, we talk the whole time and can count on each other. We have each others’ backs. I think we learned that we need to focus every game and come in strong. We came in and we wanted it more and we showed it.”
“We need to play our game and we were able to do that tonight,” Vachon added. “That’s a credit to Sadie and Alexa. Sadie always guards the best player on the other team. It never fails. She holds them. She goes unnoticed. A lot of people don’t see what she does.”
Cahill, Libby (five rebounds) and Mikulanecz (five rebounds, four steals) shared the Stags’ top scoring honors with six points apiece. Honan and Mayberry (seven rebounds) both had five, Flaherty four, Palazzi-Leahy, sophomore Danielle Kane and Georgia Ford two each and junior Megan Carroll one.
“(The Lions) deserve credit,” Ashley said. “They played well. Allie had open looks and they didn’t fall. Morgan had some good looks, but the ball didn’t go down. They forced us into some tough shots.”
The Stags finish the regular season Friday at South Portland, in a contest that will go a long way toward determining final Heal Points standings. Cheverus (fourth in the latest Western Class A Heal Points standings) beat the visiting Red Riots, 52-41, back on Jan. 28.
“We’ve only won 13,” Ashley said. “The girls want 14-4. If we reach our goals, we’ll play McAuley again. We’re a young team. They have a senior-laden team. It’s good for the girls to play in this atmosphere in this type of game. We hope to play them again on a bigger floor and see what happens.”
Top-ranked McAuley hosts second-ranked Deering in another heavyweight showdown Thursday night. The winner will be the top seed for the tournament and the loser will likely go in No. 2.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Dipierro said, of Thursday’s battle. “We want to prove we can do it again. I think we’re on the verge of being a championship team. We have work to do, but we believe we can do it. That’s what matters.”
“We came out strong and worked really hard (tonight),” Knight said. “We have to come out and continue to do that. We’ll get ready for Deering. We want the No. 1 seed. We don’t really have the pressure. We’re confident in each other. It’s better to be No. 1. It’s better and we’ll have to work harder.”
“We have a big day of practice tomorrow and we’ll be back here Thursday night,” Vachon added. “All year long our defense has been good. That’s never really wavered. Our offense has been kind of shaky at times. It’s just a total team effort defensively.”
Then, the tournament fun begins. The Lions are ready.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com or followed on Twitter @foresports