PORTLAND—Here’s a phrase that most certainly will be reeling off The Forecaster’s printing presses with regularity for the rest of this basketball season and beyond: 6-foot-2 center Alexa Coulombe.
That’s in McAuley’s sensational sophomore with the type of complete game that already has folks whispering names of those from years gone by, recognizing Coulombe as the Lions’ “next” in a succession of great players responsible for six regional championships and a pair of Class A state titles this decade.
And while no one has plans of “Forgetting Sarah Marshall” quite yet, Thursday night, Coulombe continued her impressive ways of late with a game-high 17-point, 13-rebound performance – magnified by five resounding shot blocks – leading McAuley to an always-satisfying victory over rival South Portland, 47-31, off Stevens Avenue in a Southern Maine Activities Association game.
In addition to by far the league’s best introduction ceremony, McAuley had a few other elements to poke the fire with against its long-time antagonist, namely Coulombe and the welcome return of Rebecca Knight, a junior already verbally committed to join Cindy Blodgett and the University of Maine Black Bears after she’s done with her own attention-grabbing high school career.
Knight injured her ankle in the second quarter of the Lions’ second game of the season, a three-point win over Thornton Academy, and missed the next four games before returning after the holiday break with a 16-point effort in a win at Bonny Eagle on Tuesday.
McAuley did lose its first time out with Knight on the shelf, 35-26 on the road at Windham, but won its next two games before a foul-happy, 58-40 setback at top-ranked Scarborough left the Lions at 4-2 on Christmas in anticipation of Knight’s return after the holidays. The posting of back-to-back wins to begin the homestretch with her in the lineup has landed McAuley in fine position to make a serious run for postseason positioning at 6-2.
Against a Red Riots team now on a three-game slide, Coulombe bought Knight some time to loosen up when she sparked a 6-0 run to close out the first quarter and scored the middle four points of an 8-0 Lions run in the second on her way to a 10-point opening half.
Knight started slowly with only two points in her column at intermission, but got back into the swing of things with 10 points in the second half to finish with 12, including seven in the fourth quarter that helped salt the game away for the Lions.
“Having Knight back opens things up for a lot of other players,” said McAuley coach Wil Smith. “Her leadership seems to relax the other girls. She makes us a different team. Just having her on the floor brings that confidence. That’s huge for us.”
Leading 7-5 midway through the opening quarter, Coulombe began to assert herself with a sweeping hook shot-like layup in the lane, a steal that led to Knight’s only bucket of the half, and a blocked shot she converted into a hoop on the other end with a crafty fade away high off the glass to help build a 13-5 advantage for McAuley after the first.
Coulombe added consecutive buckets midway through the second quarter, her first on a nice look from senior Caitlin Cimino that extended the Lions’ lead to double-digits, 17-7, with just under six minutes left to play in the half.
Knight found Coulombe in open space for a short jumper on McAuley’s next possession, and freshmen Hannah Cooke (seven points) swished a jumper on the baseline to finish off an 8-0 run that put the Lions on top by 14 points, 21-7.
South Portland (5-5) managed only four points in the second quarter, book-ending the Lions’ eight straight with a tough leaner in traffic from junior Danielle DiBiase and a clever pass from senior Esther Palmieri to senior center Tayla Genesio for a bucket as time ran out with McAuley leading 21-9 at intermission.
“Defense is what we do,” said Smith. “That’s our M.O. We’re going to have nights where we struggle to put the ball in the basket, but if we continue to play lights out defense like we have all year we’re going to win our share of games.”
McAuley stretched its 12-point halftime lead to 15 after three quarters, 34-19, with Knight turning in a three-point play after picking off a pass in the frontcourt and splitting a pair of defenders for a layup while being fouled from behind. Coulombe connected on a 3-pointer from her point-center position at the top of the key for a 27-10 lead three minutes into the second half. Junior forward Chantalle Desjardins swished a jumper on the baseline, and freshman Molly Mack scored on another sweet dish from Cimino and was fouled. Mack made her freebie and junior Kayla Daigle scored on a rebound and putback with 1:25 left in the third quarter.
In a rare occasion for any basketball game, neither team attempted a free-throw in the first half. South Portland junior center Abby Hasson’s made free throw after Knight’s three-point play to begin the third quarter represented the first attempt of the contest. This event appeared to get the whistle going against McAuley, as the Red Riots went on to take 13 in the quarter, connecting for eight of its 10 points in the third from the stripe.
The Lions took a game-high 19-point lead on Coulombe’s final basket before emptying the bench on top 45-26 with 1:45 left to play in the game. McAuley won the fourth quarter 13-12 and basked in a convincing 47-31 win, its second-straight with Knight back in the mix.
The Red Riots did fare much better on the offensive end in the second half, more than doubling their output with 22 points, but will most likely find themselves on the wrong side of the scoreboard this season anytime three starters fail to score. Senior Danielle McCusker, junior Stephanie McDonough and Palmieri were all blanked by the Lions’ relentless defensive pressure backed by a pair of highly-skilled shot blockers in Coulombe and Cimino.
“The key for this team is our defense,” said Coulombe. “When we all come out and give 110 percent it has a way of sparking our offense. Our inside players get a lot of attention, with me and Caitlin (Cimino) both being 6-foot-2, but the wing players put so much pressure on the ball it keeps the other team from being able to make easy passes into the post.”
DiBiase led the Red Riots with 11 points. Hasson scored 10 points in her second game back after missing the first eight with a stress fracture in her lower back due to a long-winded condition that more simply translated means she’s growing too fast for her own good.
“McAuley is one of those old rivalry games and it’s always hard to come out on the losing end,” said Hasson. “It hurts, but we need to do a better job of handling pressure so we can get consistent looks on offense. McAuley is a big team, very tall. We came out playing on our heels and fell behind early. We just need to continue believing in each other. It’s that time of year when we can either give up or stay positive and finish strong.”
Mike Giordano, now in his 14th season with the Red Riots, has been pacing the sidelines long enough to develop a certain theory that’s proved almost frighteningly accurate so far this season. To win games in this league Giordano has come to the realization that a team needs to consistently score at least 40 points each night. Though not based on any scientific data, South Portland has gone 0-4 so far this season in games where they’ve failed to reach 40, while posting a 5-1 record when they do cross this threshold. The Red Riots’ lack of offense in these games no doubt played a major role in the outcome, but a closer inspection points to something perhaps even more troubling.
Tossing aside a heartbreaking 38-37 home loss to the Gorham Rams on a wild buzzer beater back on Dec. 12, the Red Riots’ other three losses have demonstrated they’re one step behind the league’s elite teams at this point in the season. During its current three-game skid to kick off the New Year, South Portland fell at home against two-time defending state champion Deering 44-31, on the road to unbeaten Scarborough 43-23, to go with its 16-point loss on the road to McAuley. The Red Riots’ other loss came at home in the season opener, a theory-testing 52-45 decision to the Biddeford Tigers (6-3).
“When we looked at the schedule before the season we knew this was going to be our toughest stretch,” said Giordano. “The key now is how we respond. We’ve won three in a row before and now we’ve lost three. But like I told the kids, win or lose tonight the season isn’t over. We know that we have to get better and work hard to improve, particularly on the offensive end.
“McAuley was the more intense team tonight for the first 16 minutes. Once we came out and matched their intensity it was a close game like I expected it to be. Knight coming back obviously makes them a much better team. She’s a Division I basketball player and they started to look for her late when they needed to score.”
South Portland will look to get back in the win column Saturday on the road at Thornton Academy at 3 p.m.
McAuley has another big game on the docket when it hosts Biddeford Monday at 7 p.m.