PORTLAND—It’s hard to believe that just a couple of weeks ago, the McAuley girls’ basketball team was mired in a crisis of confidence and not only appeared vulnerable, but was actually beatable.
Now, with the playoffs getting closer by the day, the three-time defending Class A state champion Lions have roared their way back into nonpareil form.
Monday evening, in the gymnasium of a rival which has regularly given it fits during its reign of dominance, McAuley put forth another stellar effort and is once again on the verge of entering the tournament as the clear cut favorite.
The Lions pride themselves on defense and teamwork and both elements were on display as McAuley never trailed and the result was honestly never in doubt.
A jumper from senior Jackie Welch put the Lions ahead to stay, they forced nine first quarter turnovers en route to an 11-5 lead and stretched their advantage to 25-13 at halftime.
McAuley’s offense turned it up a notch in the second half and behind the scoring of seniors Allie Clement and Olivia Smith and junior Victoria Lux, as well as critical contributions from several others, the Lions gradually pulled away to prevail with ease, 62-39.
Lux led all scorers with 17 points, Clement added 16 to go with five steals and Smith finished with 12 points and a game-high 10 boards as McAuley improved to 16-1, made it 64 wins in 65 outings and dropped Deering to 7-10 in the process.
“We’ve tried to come out strong,” said Clement, following the penultimate regular season game of her sensational career. “Our press clicked. Everyone was unselfish and made amazing passes. We always prepare for Deering. They always give us a good game. Their record doesn’t show how good they are. They’re a good team with good players.”
For the better part of this century, Deering and McAuley have been as close on the court as the schools are located on Stevens Avenue.
Eight of the past 11 seasons have either culminated with the Lions (five times) or Rams (three) snipping the nets and raising a Gold Ball to the heavens.
After Deering beat McAuley six straight times between the 2007-08 and 2009-10 seasons, the rivals produced three epics in 2010-11, with each winning on the other’s home floor in the regular season, before it took 36 palpitating minutes for the Lions to prevail in the Western A Final, en route to their first of three straight championships.
Even as McAuley repeated in 2011-12 and three-peated a year ago, the Rams gave the Lions fits.
McAuley has found it especially difficult to win at Deering.
In the 2010-11 season, the Lions needed a late 3 from Clement, then a freshman, to send the game to overtime before they were able to hold off the Rams, 47-43.
Two years ago, McAuley had to rally again behind another late 3 from Clement to force overtime, where it prevailed, 30-25.
“It’s special because of the history we’ve had here,” Clement said. “It’s fun to come back here because of what’s happened.”
Last year’s meeting (at McAuley) took two days to complete, as five minutes into the game, on a Friday night, play was suspended due to a wet floor with Deering leading, 6-5. Action resumed the following afternoon and the Lions went on to a 43-35 triumph.
This season’s first meeting, back in December, 24 hours after the originally scheduled game was postponed by bad weather, McAuley beat the visiting Rams again, 46-33, making it four straight victories by the Lions in the series, who, since the start of the 2003-04 campaign, held a 13-9 edge over Deering entering Monday’s contest (please see sidebar, below).
Neither team has been dull this season.
Deering, despite graduating all but one player (senior LeeAnn Downs) who saw ample playing time last winter, has remained competitive, even if the victories haven’t come quite as frequently as hoped.
The Rams opened with a 35-29 home win over Bonny Eagle, then lost at Thornton Academy, 41-27. After beating visiting Noble (52-18), they fell at McAuley (46-33) and at home to Cheverus (65-42). Deering then enjoyed a 41-32 victory at Westbrook before closing 2013 with a 50-48 setback at South Portland. After opening 2014 with a 56-48 home win over Marshwood, the Rams fell at Windham (40-22), then won at Massabesic (58-36). Deering then dropped three in a row, all winnable games: at home to Gorham (53-44), at Portland (60-55) and at Sanford (43-37). The Rams turned things around with a 49-44 home win over Scarborough, then prevailed at home over Biddeford, 55-35, before struggling from the field in Friday’s 44-29 loss at Cheverus.
McAuley, meanwhile, has tasted more adversity than the past couple seasons, but this championship core has risen to the occasion.
The Lions beat visiting Thornton Academy in the opener, 51-36, then dispatched visiting Massabesic (68-22) and rallied late to edge host Gorham, 65-59. A 46-33 victory at Deering and a 72-18 romp at Noble followed. After decisive home wins over Windham, 74-29, and Biddeford, 60-25, the Lions rallied from a second half deficit to beat visiting rival Cheverus, 47-39. Then came a trip to Saco Jan. 8, when McAuley went to Thornton Academy and let a 15-point third quarter lead slip away in a stunning 50-49 setback. After holding off visiting South Portland’s upset bid, 41-36, in a win that left the Lions acting like they’d lost, McAuley had no trouble with host Scarborough (59-30) and Sanford (69-33), visiting Westbrook (65-28), host Portland (79-47), host Bonny Eagle (78-28) and visiting Marshwood (75-44) Friday on Senior Night.
Monday, Deering was hoping to beat the Lions for the first time since Feb. 11, 2011 (38-35 at McAuley) and for the first time on its home floor since Jan. 28, 2010 (42-33), but it wasn’t to be.
Welch put McAuley ahead to stay with a jumper in the opening minute and Clement set up Lux for a layup and a quick 4-0 lead.
The Rams got their first points courtesy a 3-pointer from junior Mary Tadsse, but Lux scored on a putback, Lux made a free throw, then junior Ayla Tartre canned a foul shot to make it 8-3.
After Tadsse scored on a runner, Clement took a pass from Welch and made a 3 for an 11-5 Lions’ advantage after eight minutes.
While Deering was very much in the contest, its inability to consistently put the ball in the basket, prevented it from making a serious run.
Early in the second quarter, Lux showed her passing dexterity by finding Smith for an easy layup. Junior Courtney Brett answered with a jumper for the Rams, but junior Olivia Dalphonse set up Welch for a 3 and Clement went coast-to-coast for a layup and an 18-7 advantage, forcing Deering coach Mike Murphy to call timeout.
It didn’t stem the tide.
Out of the timeout, Lux made two free throws. Freshman Amanda Brett countered with a pair for the Rams and the hosts appeared to get a break when Clement was whistled for her third foul with 4:44 still to go in the half, but while Clement was making her way to the bench, Deering somehow had six players on the floor, resulting in a technical foul. Welch made one of two free throws to turn momentum and Lux scored consecutive layups, the first off a pass from Smith and the second from Welch, and just like that, McAuley had a 25-9 advantage.
Late in the half, Downs scored on a leaner and after an offensive rebound, senior Molly Kilbride sank two free throws, but the Rams were still down a dozen at the break, 25-13.
In the first 16 minutes, Lux dominated with 11 points, four boards, a blocked shot, a steal and an assist, while Welch added six points and Clement had five. Deering was doomed by poor shooting and 15 turnovers.
The Lions were even better in the second half.
After promising Rams freshman Tasia Titherington opened the third quarter by taking a pass from Downs and making a driving layup to cut the deficit to 10, Smith scored on a fadeaway jumper, Welch, after a steal, set up Dalphonse for a layup, and Welch passed to Lux for another layup to push the lead to 31-15.
Titherington scored on a leaner, but Dalphonse made a layup after a steal and Smith finished on a pretty reverse layup. After Titherington tried to single-handedly keep her team alive with two foul shots, Smith fed Clement for a 3, Smith made a layup after a steal, Smith set up Clement for a layup and with 2:45 to go in the third, Clement found Smith on the fastbreak for yet another layup and the Lions had stretched their lead to a commanding 25 points, 44-19.
“Allie knocked down shots and played great D,” said McAuley coach Billy Goodman. “She got in foul trouble which hurt her a little, but she came out and produced in the second half. She ran the show.”
After Deering junior Katie Howard ended the 9-0 run with a layup, Clement hit a pullup jumper, then scored on a putback to push the lead to 27. A jumper from Howard and a Titherington 3 pulled the Rams back to 48-26 with eight minutes to go.
The fourth period was a formality, but McAuley never let up.
Early into the final stanza, Smith and Lux hooked up again for a layup. Titherington answered with a 3-ball and Howard scored on a putback, but Smith found Lux for another layup and Clement made a layup after a steal for a 54-31 advantage.
“In the second half, we really connected,” said Smith. “Our first thought is to look for the other player. That really works for us. We have two bigs, so why not use it to our advantage?”
“When Olivia and Vic play like that, I tell them I have the best seat in the house,” Goodman said. “They’re fun to watch.”
After Downs sank a 3, Smith hit a jumper, essentially ending the night for the Lions’ starters.
Junior Mary Furlong added a jump shot for McAuley before Titherington sank a 3 and sophomore Simone Lauture went coast-to-coast for a layup. In the final minute, Furlong made a bank shot and junior Pam Mukiza scored on a layup to account for the Lions’ 62-39 victory.
“We have players who can shoot and score,” Clement said. “We can go in the flow of the game and play our best. We didn’t want to represent ourselves like (we did when we were struggling). We knew if we kept playing like that, we wouldn’t have a shot at playoffs and no one was OK with that. We’ve worked hard on passing and defense and it’s coming together at a perfect time.”
“We got our minds in the right place at halftime and came out really strong in the second half,” said Smith. “Mostly it’s been sticking together and helping each other out. It could have gone either way after a loss, but we stuck together and focused on what really matters.”
McAuley got the job done inside and out, as eight different players scored.
Lux had a game-high 17 points, Clement added 16 and Smith also finished in double figures with a dozen. Welch had six points, Dalphonse and Furlong four apiece, Mukiza two and Tartre one.
“We had early season injuries and our bench got a lot of experience,” said Goodman. “They get a lot of practice time too. I’m comfortable I can put at least 10 girls in a game who will do a good job and be in the right spot. I give the bench a lot of credit. Ayla, (freshman) Ally (Tillotson), (sophomore) Margaret (Hatch), Mary, those four really go in there and do their job. That was great team basketball. We’ve played really well for the past month. We’ve focused on doing the little things. We’re producing and executing much better. I give my girls credit.”
The Lions outrebounded the Rams, 32-20, as Smith had 10, Lux six and Clement five.
McAuley also had 17 steals, as Clement and Dalphonse led the way with five apiece. Smith had four.
“I’m close to 100 percent,” said Smith, who missed the early part of the season (including the first Deering game) with a knee injury. “It’s taken awhile to get back in the swing of things.”
“You wouldn’t know what Olivia’s been through if you saw her tonight,” said Clement. “She played amazing. Her passing was outstanding. She and Vic were on the same page. It’s fun to watch.”
“I don’t know if Olivia’s 100 percent,” Goodman added. “I’ve been trying to manage her minutes. She’s filling the stat sheet like (2012 Miss Maine Basketball winner) Alexa (Coulombe) used to do.”
The Lions only turned the ball over 14 times, forced Deering to give it away 26 times and made 5 of 9 foul shots.
For the Rams, Titherington set the tone with 15 points.
“She played timid the other night against Cheverus and I told her she couldn’t back down and to take it at them and shoot it,” Murphy said. “She did a much better job of that. She’s 14 and played at St. Brigid last year. She’s playing against the three-time state champion. I know I’m asking a lot of her, but she’s really developed and games like this will only help her in the future.”
Howard had six points in another strong effort off the bench.
“Katie Howard hit some shots for us tonight,” said Murphy. “She stepped up and did a nice job.”
Downs and Tadsse had five points apiece and Amanda Brett, Courtney Brett, Kilbride and Lauture added two each. Amanda Brett had a team-high five boards, while Tadsse led with three steals.
Deering was 6 of 8 from the line.
“(McAuley’s) good,” Murphy said. “That’s a train. Once they get going, it’s tough to stop. I thought we did some nice things, but you can’t play with fear. We had too many soft passes. When you have soft passes against a good team it equals layups at the other end. I can live with missed shots as long as we’re going at them and not relying on deep 3s. We had to make them play defense and hopefully get them in foul trouble. We had minutes of looking good, then too many minutes looking discombobulated and we gave up too many 3-on-1s and 4-on-1s. Their bigs beat our guards down the floor off the dribble when we jogged instead of sprinted.”
Each team has one game left Friday against arguably its fiercest rival.
Deering (now 10th in the Western Class A Heal Points standings, 12 teams make the postseason) can still move up the ladder, but will need to knock off visiting Portland, which is in the midst of its best season in a decade, to ensure it reaches its goal.
“We had games won and we gave games away and now, who knows?” Murphy said. “If Bonny Eagle beats Windham, I think they’ll get in. Marshwood could pass us too. I definitely think we have to beat Portland. We had Portland on the ropes last time. I like that we’re playing top teams. We’ll only get better from it. For me, these games are like tournament games. I like our kids. We’re coming, it’s just growing pains. Our room for error is nil. Every coach in the state wants to be in the tournament to experience it. Once we get our feet wet, there’s excitement. I don’t care how veteran a team you have, it’s a step. Trust me, we’d love to get in. Even if it’s just a prelim. We need that atmosphere.”
Top-ranked McAuley has to go to red-hot Cheverus, which would love nothing more than to beat the Lions for the first time in series’ history, in the regular season finale.
“Our seniors are sad (it’s almost over) but we’re ready,” Smith said. “We’re looking forward to it.”
“Cheverus is a great team with great players,” Clement said. “It’ll be a great battle like always. We have to start out strong. Hopefully things will work out and we’ll come out successful. I think we’re all on the same page. We know how to play in the playoffs.”
“The girls are bringing a great attitude and the little things are starting to add up to success,” Goodman added. “Cheverus has played well. They have a good record. They played us tough the last game and they’ll play us tough the next game. We have to get prepared.”
McAuley senior standout Allie Clement blows past Deering freshman defender Tasia Titherington.
Deering senior LeeAnn Downs goes up for a shot over McAuley junior Ayla Tartre.
McAuley junior Victoria Lux goes strong to the basket.
Deering junior Mary Tadsse looks to pass out of a trap by McAuley senior Jackie Welch (40) and junior Olivia Dalphonse.
McAuley junior Ayla Tartre lines up a long distance shot as Deering senior Kiana Ward closes in.
McAuley freshman Ally Tillotson plays a little defense.
Deering freshman Tasia Titherington, who had a team-high 15 points, dishes the ball to a teammate.
Deering senior Christiana Viney drives on McAuley sophomore Margaret Hatch (right) and freshman Ally Tillotson.
McAuley senior Jackie Welch shoots a technical foul shot after Deering had too many players on the court.
@ McAuley 46 Deering 33
@ McAuley 43 Deering 35
McAuley 30 @ Deering 25 (OT)
Deering 47 @ McAuley 23
Western A quarterfinals
Deering 42 McAuley 27
@ Deering 45 McAuley 32
@ McAuley 50 Deering 48
McAuley 39 @ Deering 38
Western A semifinals
McAuley 46 Deering 35
McAuley 50 @ Deering 42
@ McAuley 44 Deering 37
McAuley 56 @ Deering 36
@ McAuley 56 Deering 48
@ McAuley 60 Deering 55
@ Deering 71 McAuley 62 (2 OT)
Western A Final
Deering 56 McAuley 46
McAuley junior Victoria Lux and Deering senior Christiana Viney fight for possession during the Lions’ 62-39 win at the Rams Monday night. Lux led all scorers with 17 points.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.
M- 11 14 23 14- 62
D- 5 8 13 13- 39
M- Lux 7-3-17, Clement 7-0-16, Smith 6-0-12, Welch 2-1-6, Dalphonse 2-0-4, Furlong 2-0-4, Mukiza 1-0-2, Tartre 0-1-1
D- Titherington 5-2-15, Howard 3-0-6, Downs 2-0-5, Tadsse 2-0-5, A. Brett 0-2-2, C. Brett 1-0-2, Kilbride 0-2-2, Lauture 1-0-2
M (3) Clement 2, Welch 1
D (5) Titherington 3, Downs, Tadsse 1
M (32) Smith 10, Lux 6, Clement 5, Mukiza, Tartre, Welch 2, Coulombe, Dalphonse, Furlong, Hatch, Tillotson 1
D (20) A. Brett 5, Downs, Titherington, Viney 3, Howard 2, C. Brett, Kilbride, Lauture, Tadsse 1
M (17) Clement, Dalphonse 5, Smith 4, Coulombe, Lux, Welch 1
D (8) Tadsse 3, Downs, Titherington 2, A. Brett 1
M (3) Lux 2, Tartre 1
D (4) Downs 2, A. Brett, Titherington 1