SOUTH PORTLAND—If there were any doubts about the championship viability of the McAuley Lions, the events of the past four days have gone to show that this proud program still commands respect.
After holding off Thornton Academy Tuesday evening, McAuley took its show to Beal Gymnasium Friday evening to battle a South Portland squad eager to knock the Lions down a peg.
And for 16 minutes, the Red Riots had the four-time defending Class A champions on the run, but McAuley, behind a dozen points from junior Jess Willerson and stellar play from a pair of freshmen, South Portland native Eva Mazur and the unheralded Emily Weisser, managed to cling to a one-point halftime advantage, 27-26.
Then, the Lions cranked up the defense, forcing eight Red Riots’ turnovers in the third period. McAuley never put the game away, but as time wound down, its two standout seniors, captain Olivia Dalphonse and Ayla Tartre, came up huge and the Lions went on to a 45-36 victory.
Willerson led all scorers with 17 points, Dalphonse added a dozen and McAuley won its ninth game in a row, improved to 9-1, beat South Portland for the ninth straight time and dropped the Red Riots to 7-3 in the process.
“We knew coming out we had to focus on our intensity and we did that,” said Dalphonse. “It was definitely a concern that we’d be satisfied with a big win (against Thornton Academy), but we had to come out and make another statement against a good team and we did.”
Entering Friday’s contest, McAuley had beaten South Portland in eight straight encounters (see sidebar, below). That included last year’s narrow 41-36 victory in Portland.
This winter, both teams have been near the top of the Western Class A Heal Points standings.
McAuley opened with a 37-34 loss at Thornton Academy, then won at Massabesic (66-20), beat visiting Gorham (54-43) and host Deering (in a 49-48 thriller), dominated visiting Noble (65-16), stayed perfect all-time in the “Holy War” with a 57-46 victory at Cheverus, then rolled over host Windham (52-15) and Biddeford (57-19) before holding on for dear life to edge visiting Thornton Academy, 29-25, Tuesday.
South Portland had no trouble beating its first three opponents: visiting Noble (79-26), host Sanford (55-26) and visiting Westbrook (74-29), before losing at Thornton Academy, 50-33. The Red Riots then bounced back to beat host Portland (65-55) and visiting Bonny Eagle (62-38) before letting a 20-point halftime lead slip away in a 59-52 overtime loss at Deering. Wins at Massabesic (63-33) and at home over Scarborough (60-52) got South Portland back on track.
Friday, the Red Riots were hoping to beat McAuley in South Portland for the first time since Feb. 1, 2008 (48-41), but the Lions made it nine in a row overall in the series.
The first period delighted those on hand with its back-and-forth intensity and stellar play from both squads.
The Red Riots got the jump 44 seconds in when freshman Megan Graff hit a jumper, but the hosts would soon fall behind, as Tartre set up Willerson for a layup, Willerson made two free throws, Tartre sank a long jumper and Dalphonse made a layup after a steal for an 8-2 lead.
South Portland coach Lynne Hasson called timeout, not to change anything tactically, but to settle down her charges and it paid dividends.
After Graff made a layup, Willerson hit a runner, but South Portland got a pullup jumper from sophomore Lydia Henderson and Graff made a jump shot. After Weisser first made her presence felt with a free throw, Henderson buried a 3 and Graff took a pass from freshman Abby Cavallaro and made a layup for a 13-11 lead, capping a 9-1 run.
Just when it appeared the Red Riots had all the momentum, however, Dalphonse coolly knocked down a 3 from the left corner and the Lions were on top after eight minutes, 14-13.
The second quarter would feature more nip-and-tuck action.
After Dalphonse twice set up Willerson for layups, South Portland again responded, as junior Maddie Hasson made a leaner, hit a jump shot, then, after a steal, made a layup while being fouled and hit the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play for a 20-18 advantage.
The Red Riots’ first two leads lasted all of 17 and 65 seconds, respectively, and this one only held for 28 seconds as Tartre knocked down a 3-ball for a 21-20 McAuley lead.
After Willerson stretched the lead with a layup, Henderson buried a 3 from the corner to tie the score.
Weisser then made the final two minutes of the half her personal playground, as she banked home a shot with her left hand, then drove for a layup to give the Lions a 27-23 lead.
Late in the half, Henderson hit her third 3, but that only pulled South Portland within one at the break.
In the first half, the Red Riots got 11 points from Henderson, eight from Graff and seven from Hasson, forced 11 turnovers and had a 13-10 rebounding advantage, but still trailed, as Willerson went off for 12 points.
It appeared as if South Portland was in good shape going into the second half, but McAuley prides itself on defense, especially in the latter stages of a game, and the Lions made life miserable for the hosts after the break.
The Red Riots would commit eight third quarter turnovers and managed just two points, on a Graff jumper 57 seconds in.
That gave the hosts their final lead, 28-27.
With 5:08 left in the frame, two Dalphonse foul shots put McAuley ahead to stay.
While South Portland was throwing the ball away and failing to convert its few shots, the Lions weren’t able to open up a healthy lead, but a foul shot from Willerson and a layup from Willerson, set up by junior Sarah Clement, gave the Lions a 32-28 advantage heading for the fourth quarter.
It was still anyone’s game going into the fourth, but no one protects a lead like this championship squad and while the Red Riots had their chances, they weren’t able to rally.
Mazur scored her first point, on a free throw, 29 seconds into the fourth.
The local product then showed her ability to excel all over the floor, as she stole the ball at one end, then put back a miss while falling backwards at the other to make it 35-28.
“I think I was looking to draw a foul, but it ended up going in,” Mazur said. “We really stepped it up in the second half today.”
With 6:05 to play, Graff hit a long jumper, ending the Red Riots’ 8 minute, 58 second drought.
South Portland wasn’t able to further cut into its deficit, however, as Willerson scored on a putback.
With 4:03 to go, Henderson drained a 3 to make it 37-33, but Weisser hit perhaps the game’s biggest shot, a jumper at the other end, for a six-point lead with 3:38 left.
“I’ve been playing with JVs to help get the nerves out,” Weisser said. “I played really timid at the beginning of the season, but I’ve gotten comfortable with everyone and more confident. It’s nice to show that hard work pays off.”
Cavallaro countered with a free throw, but she missed her second, then couldn’t knock down a 3 after the Red Riots kept possession.
With 1:53 remaining and the Lions trying to run time off the clock, Dalphonse found a seam in the defense and drove for a layup and a 41-34 advantage.
After Cavallaro, Henderson and Hasson all missed 3-pointers, Dalphonse was fouled and made one of two free throws with 51.3 seconds to go.
Graff missed another shot and Dalphonse got the rebound, was fouled and sank two free throws to make it 44-34.
After Tartre added a foul shot, Graff sank a jumper in the waning seconds which accounted for the 45-36 final score.
“We’ve had a lot of close games,” McAuley coach Billy Goodman said. “This year has been different. We don’t have the offensive firepower we’ve had in the past. We focus on defense. That’s how we’ll stay in games. If the offense is there, it’s a bonus.”
Willerson, thanks to a big first half, led all scorers with 17 points. She also had 10 rebounds, two blocked shots, a steal and an assist.
“Jess did a great job,” Goodman said. “You have to have balance. I felt she did a good job when she was double- and triple-teamed to kick it out.”
Dalphonse remained cool as a cucumber while still not garnering the praise she so richly deserves. Dalphonse shot just enough to tally 12 points, while adding five rebounds, three assists, two steals and playing some of the best defense you’ll see anywhere in the state.
Weisser had her breakout game, scoring seven points, while also grabbing two rebounds and managing a pair of steals.
“Emily has been doing really well,” Dalphonse said. “She was really awesome tonight.”
“I’ve noticed Emily’s defense the past few weeks,” Goodman said. “She stepped up. I think she had an amazing game. I’ve never met her until this summer and she didn’t play this summer because she was hurt. I asked her to play JV. She’s a very quick learner, very smart. She’s played defense the way you want her to play.”
Weisser credited her development to her older teammates.
“It’s nice because they’ve been through championships,” she said. “They lead us and explain things to us.”
Tartre had six points and four boards, while Mazur impressed the hometown folks with three points, three steals, two assists, two rebounds, a blocked shot and countless deflections.
“I was nervous, but it was just pregame nerves,” Mazur said. “It was fun. I liked it. On defense, I just want to get the ball. I just want to help the team.”
“We knew this was a big game for Eva,” Dalphonse said. “She performed and played her heart out. She rebounds and hustled.”
“Eva Mazur does a heck of a job playing D,” Goodman added. “She’s mentally tough. She’s all about the team. She’s very unselfish.”
Junior Sarah Clement and sophomore Ally Tillotson also played key roles in the victory.
“Coach talks about the bench being the key to winning games,” Dalphonse said. “Everyone gets in during practice, which is helpful during games.”
“Ally came off the bench and did her job,” Goodman said. “Olivia Dalphonse brings it every day playing defense. Everyone on the floor played great defense. (South Portland’s) a great offensive team. They have a lot of good shooters and can score. They can attack the hoop and shoot 3s. They’re dangerous. I was worried about getting back and stopping them. They can get it done in transition and in the halfcourt. I’m proud of my team. They did a great job.”
McAuley turned the ball over 15 times and made just half of its 22 free throw attempts, but still prevailed, thanks in large part to its nonpareil defense.
South Portland was led by 14 points apiece from Graff and Henderson. Hasson added seven points, while Cavallaro had one, to go with five rebounds, four assists, two steals and two blocks. Junior Meaghan Doyle had 10 boards.
The Red Riots, who had a 27-25 rebounding advantage, were doomed by 23 turnovers and only got to the free throw line three times, making two.
“Everything feels like a contradiction,” Lynne Hasson lamented. “(Tonight’s) both discouraging and encouraging. We have to analyze what’s going wrong. We’re not running our offense efficiently at times and we don’t get open looks. We don’t look like we know what we’re doing. I still believe we’re one of the best rebounding teams around. We send four to the glass a lot tonight, even if it doesn’t look like it. We have to really focus on getting to the glass offensively. I have four kids who can rebound. Megan Graff, Maddie, (senior) Holly (Black) and Meg are four good, athletic rebounders. We have to make that a focus. We have to be more focused on offense. The things that make great basketball teams, waiting on screens, using screens. We want to attack the basket.”
South Portland’s remaining schedule features no breathers. The Red Riots (sixth in the Western Class A Heal Points standings) will be tested every game, which on the glass-half-full side gives them ample opportunities to win games and earn critical Heals.
After going to upset-minded Biddeford Tuesday, South Portland is home with dangerous Cheverus (which could have senior standout Jill Libby back from injury) Friday. Home tests versus Marshwood, Gorham and Portland and trips to Windham, Cheverus and Scarborough also remain.
“We still have a ways to go,” Hasson said. “On paper, everyone said we were a top team at the start of the season and I think people are questioning that. I hope the girls know how good we can be. You see it in stretches. At this point last year, we had three losses and we won out. I hope to follow that path. The losses we’ve had were significant losses. It’s just halfway through the season. We want to figure it out and we don’t want to lose confidence. There’s still a long way to go. It’s a great bunch of kids. I love these kids. We’re taking the weekend off, getting it back mentally and we’ll give it all we have for a month starting Monday.”
McAuley’s slate isn’t much easier. The Lions (second to Thornton Academy in Western A) are home against Scarborough and Sanford next week, then play at dangerous Westbrook and host a capable Portland squad the week after. After hosting Bonny Eagle and going to Marshwood, McAuley closes with home tests versus Deering and Cheverus.
“There’s always things we can work on, but overall, I think we’re doing OK,” Weisser said. “We’re working out the kinks in our offense.”
“We have leaders in the locker room who help us keep our intensity,” Mazur said. “We’ve worked on a lot things from our first game against TA. We’ve found a way to work together. We’re getting there.”
“(This week’s) been a big confidence booster, but we have big games coming up and we know we can’t underestimate any teams,” Dalphonse said. “It’s an even league this year. We know we have to come every game with the same intensity.”
“We don’t leave here thinking we’ll be champs,” Goodman added. “We leave here thinking we have a lot of work to do on offense and on defense, we still have to work on fundamentals.”
South Portland junior Maddie Hasson defends McAuley junior Jess Willerson.
McAuley senior Ayla Tartre drives on South Portland freshman Abby Cavallaro.
South Portland freshman Abby Cavallaro protects the ball from McAuley freshman Eva Mazur.
South Portland freshman Megan Graff, who had 14 points, launches a 3 over McAuley freshman Emily Weisser.
South Portland junior Maddie Hasson drives hard to the basket.
South Portland sophomore Lydia Henderson drains one of her four 3-pointers over McAuley junior Sarah Clement.
McAuley freshman Eva Mazur, who was terrific at both ends of the floor, soars on a drive to the basket.
McAuley senior Ayla Tartre launches a shot from long distance.
McAuley freshman Emily Weisser was a revelation off the bench Friday, scoring seven clutch points.
McAuley junior Jess Willerson blocks the shot of South Portland junior Maddie Hasson.
South Portland’s student section gets into it during Friday night’s contest.
McAuley 75 @ South Portland 48
@ McAuley 53 South Portland 11
McAuley 43 @ South Portland 39
Western A quarterfinals
McAuley 52 South Portland 27
@ McAuley 55 South Portland 24
McAuley 51 @ South Portland 32
McAuley 51 @ South Portland 45
South Portland 41 @ McAuley 37 (OT)
South Portland 42 @ McAuley 26
@ South Portland 48 McAuley 41
@ South Portland 36 McAuley 28
@ McAuley 44 South Portland 38
Western A semifinals
South Portland 39 McAuley 29
@ South Portland 55 McAuley 47
South Portland 68 @ McAuley 56
@ McAuley 61 South Portland 46
McAuley 65 @ South Portland 28
McAuley 47 @ South Portland 37
@ McAuley 73 South Portland 42
McAuley senior Olivia Dalphonse drives to the basket as South Portland sophomore Lydia Henderson looks to draw a charge during the Lions’ 45-36 win Friday night, McAuley’s ninth straight over the Red Riots.
More photos below.
M- 14 13 5 13- 45
SP- 13 13 2 8- 36
M- Willerson 7-3-17, Dalphonse 3-5-12, Weisser 3-1-7, Tartre 2-1-6, Mazur 1-1-3
SP- Graff 7-0-14, Henderson 5-0-14, Hasson 3-1-7, Cavallaro 0-1-1
M (2) Dalphonse, Tartre 1
SP (4) Henderson 4