PORTLAND—Nothing has come easily this winter for McAuley’s girls’ basketball team, but like the juggernauts of the past four seasons, these Lions manage to find a way to prevail.
Even against upset-minded opponents in the postseason.
Monday evening at the Portland Exposition Building, in a Western Class A quarterfinal, top-ranked McAuley got everything it could handle and more from No. 9 Portland in the first half.
The Lions found themselves behind much of the time and went into the locker room deadlocked, 24-24, due in large part to 12 points from Bulldogs senior Gabby Wagabaza, who dominated down low.
Then, McAuley returned to its bread and butter, its terrific defense, and that proved to be the difference in the second half.
With the game tied, 29-29, and under five minutes to go in the third quarter, junior Sarah Clement put the Lions ahead for good with a 3 from the corner. The Bulldogs pulled within one on two free throws from senior Elizabeth Donato, but four quick points from freshman sensation Eva Mazur opened up a lead and after Donato drove for a layup, senior captain Olivia Dalphonse banked home a shot and junior Jess Willerson scored on a putback to cap a 9-2 run to end the frame, making it 43-33 McAuley after three.
While Portland played valiantly throughout, it never got closer than eight points down the stretch and the Lions went on to a 52-41 victory, their 17th straight postseason win.
Mazur had a breakout performance with 15 points, Willerson added 12 and Clement had 10 as McAuley improved to 18-1, ended the Bulldogs’ season at 9-11 and advanced to meet dangerous No. 5 seed South Portland (15-5) in the semifinals Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. at the Cross Insurance Arena (formerly the Cumberland County Civic Center).
“Playoff basketball is very hard,” said Lions coach Billy Goodman, who is now 13-0 in the postseason with this program. “Give Portland credit. They were organized. When it came down to it, we played the defense we did all year and I’m proud of my girls.”
McAuley overcame its share of offseason departures to have another terrific season. The Lions lost at Thornton Academy in the opener, but won their final 17, including a payback home victory over the second-ranked Golden Trojans, to earn the No. 1 seed in Western A for the fourth year in a row.
Portland, a semifinalist in 2014-15, welcomed a new coach in Jay Lowery this season and while the Bulldogs were up and down, their 8-10 record got them in as the No. 9 seed and Wednesday night, Portland went to No. 8 Cheverus and held on for a 67-63 preliminary round victory.
McAuley rolled in the regular season encounter (60-30 at home Jan. 23) and had won five of seven previous playoff meetings (including a 70-38 romp in last year’s semifinals), but this time around, the Bulldogs would give the Lions fits much of the night.
McAuley got off to a fast start when Mazur drove for a layup, but Wagabaza tied the score with a layup. Lions senior Ayla Tartre took a pass from Willerson and made a layup, but a jumper from Portland senior Sydney Fredrick tied the score again, 4-4.
Clement then sank a 3 for a 7-4 McAuley lead.
“That gave me confidence,” said Clement, whose shot has come and gone this winter as she’s battled back from a serious knee injury. “Once I had confidence, that got my teammates going.”
Donato set up Wagabaza for a layup and Wagabaza took a pass from Fredrick and made another layup for the Bulldogs’ first lead, 8-7.
After Dalphonse tied the score with a free throw, Portland sophomore Taylor Sargent sank a 3. McAuley sophomore Ally Tillotson drove for a layup, but Portland led after one period, 11-10.
Lions freshman Emily Weisser started the second quarter with an old-fashioned three-point play (bank shot, foul, free throw), but a jumper from Bulldogs sophomore Kate Johnson tied the score, 13-13.
Willerson put McAuley on top with a layup, but Sargent countered with a 3. Tartre fired right back with a 3 and Mazur hit a baseline jumper for a four-point lead.
“I had no idea what to expect (in the playoffs),” Mazur said. “Everyone told me about it, but I didn’t know. It was fun. I’ve been pushed to do better on offense. Tonight, the big court helped. There’s more room to do stuff. I was confident taking shots. I was more comfortable.”
After Wagabaza made two free throws, she made two more to tie the score, but Tartre put the Lions ahead with a long jumper. Wagabaza tied it again with a layup. After Clement hit two free throws, Johnson made a jumper and shockingly, the contest was deadlocked at the break, 24-24.
“We got good rotation in the first half,” Lowery said. “We were patient. Our legs were fresh.”
The Lions finally got some separation in the third quarter.
Wagabaza scored on a putback 15 seconds in, but Willerson took a pass from Mazur and made a layup to tie it. After Johnson inbounded the ball to Fredrick for a layup and the Bulldogs’ last lead, Mazur hit a jumper and Willerson put McAuley on top with a free throw. Wagabaza tied the game at the line, but a corner 3 from Clement (set up by Dalphonse) gave McAuley the lead for good.
“(Coach) wasn’t panicked (at halftime) at all,” Clement said. “He believes in us 100 percent and that helps us believe in ourselves. We went out there like it was the beginning of the game.”
After Donato made two free throws, Mazur made a layup after a steal, was fouled and got her free throw to bounce twice off the rim before dropping. If that wasn’t enough, Mazur put back her own miss and with 2:57 to go in the third, the Lions were up, 37-31, and Lowery had to call timeout.
It worked initially, as Donato drove for a layup, but Dalphonse banked home a shot and Willerson put home a Mazur miss (after Mazur’s offensive rebound) and McAuley had a little breathing room, up, 41-33, with eight minutes to go.
Down the stretch, the Lions made sure they finished it off.
First, Willerson scored on a putback. Then, after a bank shot by Johnson, Mazur drove for a layup, Mazur set up Willerson for a layup and after a steal, Clement made a layup to push the lead to 49-35. Donato made a layup, but with 2:37 to go, Mazur, after another steal, made a layup to push the lead back to 14.
After Wagabaza banked home a shot, Willerson sank a foul shot for McAuley’s final point. Bulldogs junior Gianna Gaudet then scored on a putback to account for the 52-41 final score.
“All year, we’ve been challenged,” Mazur said. “We always stay believing. We didn’t have nerves at half. It was more motivation. We focused on help D more. We stepped up in the second half.”
“I wasn’t surprised (it was close) because playoff season is completely different,” Clement said. “Everyone wants to win and every team is going to come out and play their absolute hardest. We’re a young team. We don’t have as much experience as we did in the past. Having Ayla and Olivia and me out there helps.”
“It was hard,” Goodman added. “Our defense wasn’t disciplined in the first half. We have a brand new team. We didn’t have much experience. Dalphonse showed why she’s been a part of a couple championships. We need her like we need oxygen. The rest of them, this is a new thing. Donato didn’t play the last game, so I knew this would be tougher. Wagabaza has been a very good player all year. Donato is a great player. I have a lot of respect for them. They did a nice job. Jay’s done a nice job with that team.”
Mazur was the lead story from a Lions’ perspective, scoring 15 points, adding seven rebounds and three steals.
“Eva is the most unselfish player I’ve ever played with in my life,” Clement said. “She didn’t play like a freshman. You would have thought she’d played in the playoffs for years. She always makes the right decisions.”
“I’ve been begging Eva to be aggressive on offense and get rebounds and she did tonight,” Goodman said. “I’m lucky to coach that girl. She didn’t play like a freshman tonight. She doesn’t want to lose.”
Willerson had 12 points (and nine rebounds), Clement finished with 10 points, four rebounds, three assists and two steals. Tartre added seven points, Dalphonse (three assists) and Weisser each finished with three and Tillotson had two.
McAuley had a 25-19 rebounding advantage, committed 12 turnovers, while forcing 15, and made 7 of 11 free throws.
For Portland, Wagabaza bowed out with 17 points, six rebounds, two steals and two blocks.
Donato (three rebounds, two steals, two blocks), Johnson (three assists) and Sargent (four boards) all had six points. Fredrick (four assists) had four points, while Gaudet added two.
“Gabby had a great game,” Lowery said. “Sydney did a great job defensively on Willerson. Donato played a good game again.”
The Bulldogs made 7 of 8 free throws.
Portland stood tall, but ultimately fell short.
“We got a little frazzled and got out of our game plan,” Lowery said. “Our legs got a little wobbly. They had more depth and size. We tried to slow them down, but it got away from us a little bit.
Portland lost six of seven at one stretch this winter, yet made it to the quarterfinals for the second year in a row (something which hadn’t happened in a decade).
“This team did awesome,” Lowery said. “If you saw us in the preseason, no one thought we could do this. The girls learned a lot this year. We set things in place in the way we want to see this program run. We taught a lot of things this year. We spent a lot of time together this year. There were a lot of ups and downs. They had to be sold. The last two-and-a-half games going into this game, they did what we wanted them to do.”
Look for the Bulldogs to contend again in 2015-16.
“We’re losing Sydney, Gabby and Donato and those are big losses, but Taylor Sargent had a great sophomore year and Kate Johnson played well filling shoes,” Lowery said. “The younger players know what they’re walking into next year. We’ll look forward to it.”
South Portland is riding high following its 49-37 quarterfinal round win over Deering Monday.
McAuley beat the Red Riots in South Portland back in January. The teams have met in the playoffs four previous times with the Lions winning just once, a 52-27 decision in the 2011 quarterfinals, the most recent encounter.
Now just three wins from a record fifth straight Class A title, McAuley is up for the challenge, even on short rest.
“South Portland looked good tonight,” said Mazur, a South Portland native. “It will be interesting. We have to step up on defense on their shooters.”
“I think it will be a good matchup,” Clement said. “We need to work hard tomorrow in practice and focus and we’ll see what happens. This gives us some momentum for the rest of the tournament.”
“Tonight was tough, but I think our next game will be tougher,” Goodman added. “South Portland has a lot of good scorers. They’re a good, talented team. We’re well aware we have to be disciplined again on Wednesday.”
Portland senior Gabby Wagabaza scores two of her game-high 17 points.
McAuley freshman Eva Mazur leans in for two of her 15 points.
McAuley junior Sarah Clement goes up for a shot as Portland senior Gabby Wagabaza defends.
McAuley senior Ayla Tartre pulls up for a jumper.
McAuley junior Jess Willerson goes to the basket in traffic.
McAuley freshman Eva Mazur chases down a loose ball during the Lions’ 52-41 Western A quarterfinal round victory over Portland Monday night. Mazur had a breakout game with 15 points.
More photos below.
P- 11 13 9 8- 41
M- 10 14 17 11- 52
P- Wagabaza 6-5-17, Donato 2-2-6, Johnson 3-0-6, Sargent 2-0-6, Fredrick 2-0-4, Gaudet 1-0-2
M- Mazur 7-1-15, Willerson 5-2-12, Clement 3-2-10,Tartre 3-0-7, Dalphonse 1-1-3, Weisser 1-1-3, Tillotson 1-0-2
P (2) Sargent 2
M (3) Clement 2, Tartre 1
2014 Western A semifinals
McAuley 70 Portland 38
2005 Western A quarterfinals
McAuley 49 Portland 42
2003 Western A semifinals
McAuley 70 Portland 50
2002 Western A divisional round
McAuley 62 Portland 41
2000 Western A quarterfinals
McAuley 54 Portland 37
1988 Western A quarterfinals
Portland 66 McAuley 46
1985 Western A quarterfinals
Portland 63 McAuley 44