PORTLAND—The McAuley girls’ basketball team appeared to have turned the corner after junior standout Rebecca Knight returned to action last week.
Knight, who’s already committed to the University of Maine, bounced back from an ankle injury and led the Lions to a pair of wins, but in a painful twist of fate, she re-injured the ankle in the first quarter of Monday night’s home tilt with Biddeford and had to watch helplessly as the Lions went down to defeat.
Even without Knight, McAuley managed to lead 34-29 late in the third period, but the Lions mustered just one free throw and a layup the rest of the way and fell to 6-3 on the season after losing 40-37 to the Tigers, a team that was a regional finalist a year ago.
“When we lose a player like Knight, we get young again really fast,” lamented McAuley coach Wil Smith. “Especially in the backcourt. We’re back to where we were before last week.”
McAuley, which gave eventual champion Deering all it could handle in the quarterfinals last winter, entered 2009-10 as one of the teams expected to be a top contender. The Lions have battled injury instead (in addition to Knight’s ankle issues, sophomore guard Sadie Dipierro will likely be out for the remainder of the season with a back ailment), but still managed to win six of their first eight games, with the lone losses coming at Windham (35-26) and at top-ranked, unbeaten Scarborough (58-40).
Biddeford, meanwhile, won its first four, lost to Deering, Scarborough and Cheverus, then downed Westbrook, Kennebunk and Noble to get back on track.
Monday night’s tilt was close throughout and the hosts certainly had their chances.
The contest was scheduled to be played Tuesday, but was moved up 24 hours due to Smith receiving a “Northeast Region Sailor of the Year” award from the U.S. Navy, necessitating a trip to San Diego in the morning.
“I’m representing my command in the Northeast,” Smith said. “I’m competing for reserve sailor of the year for the entire navy. It means a lot to me. It’s a great honor. I’m going to San Diego tomorrow and rushing back Friday. I’ll miss the Portland game (Thursday), but hope to be back for the Sanford game Saturday. (Biddeford coach) Ron (Cote) did me a favor by coming here tonight. He’s a real stand-up guy.”
Early in the contest, which was witnessed by University of Maine coach Cindy Blodgett, McAuley couldn’t hold on to the ball and dug a hole. The Lions had three turnovers in the first 45 seconds and five in the game’s first three minutes.
Biddeford shot to a quick 4-0 lead on a jumper from senior Lauren Rousseau and a jump shot from junior Keila Grigware. McAuley finally got a shot off 1 minute, 47 seconds into the contest and senior Caitlin Cimino banked home a bid with her left hand to make it 4-2. Grigware answered with a left-handed leaner, then made a foul shot. After Knight scored her lone basket of the game (a layup on a pass from sophomore Alexa Coulombe), Grigware hit a turnaround jumper in the lane and senior Aimee Michaud followed with a jump shot for an 11-4 advantage.
The Lions responded with six straight. Coulombe scored on a floater off the glass. After junior Chantalle Desjardins buried a jumper, Coulombe again soared through the air and kissed a shot home to make it 11-10, but just when it appeared McAuley was hitting its stride, Knight went down and stayed down.
“She stepped on somebody’s foot,” Smith said. “The trainer says it’s not as bad as the first one, but we don’t know how long she’ll be out. Right now, my priority is to, for lack of a better term, limp into the playoffs and get her healthy. We’re obviously a different team with her there, but we’re still a pretty good team when she’s not.”
A Rousseau bank shot in the final minute gave the visitors a 13-10 lead after one period. Eight turnovers proved to be too much for the Lions to overcome.
The second quarter was back-and-forth.
A putback from Grigware stretched Biddeford’s lead to five, but freshman Molly Mack made a jump shot and Coulombe added a free throw to cut the deficit to 15-13. After Rousseau made a pair of foul shots, then buried a jump shot, McAuley answered with a 3 from senior Allina Verrillo and a layup by Coulombe (after a Verrillo steal) to make it 19-18.
The Tigers went back up by five on a runner from Rousseau and a Rousseau jumper, but a jump shot from freshman Hannah Cooke and a pair of Mack foul shots pulled the Lions back within one, 23-22, at the break.
Just 25 seconds into the third, McAuley took its first lead when Cimino made a layup. Grigware answered with two free throws, drawing a foul after Coulombe blocked her first two shots. A turnaround in the lane by Mack put the Lions back up, 26-25. Cimino added a free throw and Cooke scored on a putback for a 29-25 lead. After Grigware converted an old-fashioned three-point play, Desjardins buried a 3 to make it 32-28. Grigware answered with a free throw, but with 2:05 to go in the period, Coulmbe fed Cooke for a layup and a 34-29 advantage.
That would prove to be the Lions’ high-water mark. After the hosts failed on a couple opportunities to extend their lead to three possessions, Biddeford got a three-point play from Grigware to pull within 34-32 after three quarters.
McAuley wasn’t able to generate any offense in the fourth and despite holding the Tigers to just eight points, went down to an agonizing defeat.
Thirty-seven seconds into the final stanza, Rousseau tied the score with a contested bank shot. With 6:04 to play, another Rousseau bank shot proved to be the fourth and final lead change and put Biddeford up 36-34. With 5:40 to go, Rousseau sank two free throws. Cimino then ended the 9-0 run and a 4 minute, 40 second drought by drawing a foul on her third effort, then making one of two free throws. With 5:06 remaining, Cimino took a pass from Coulombe and made a layup to make it 38-37, but the Lions wouldn’t score again.
With 4:41 to go, Coulombe had a chance to put McAuley on top when she was fouled, but she missed the front end of a one-and-one and 18 seconds later, junior Amethyst Hersom made a layup to give the Tigers a 40-37 advantage.
Neither team would score in the final 4:23, but both had ample opportunities.
The Lions’ best chance to draw even came with 1:19 to go when Desjardins had a good look at a 3, but it was just off. Four seconds later, Cooke drove into the lane for a difficult scoop shot, which was too hard off the glass. After Grigware missed the front end of a one-and-one with 41 seconds remaining, Coulombe missed a shot. The teams then traded turnovers and with 16 seconds to go, Michaud went to the line for a one-and-one and a chance to ice it, but she missed the front end, giving McAuley one final chance.
With time winding down, the ball would come to Cooke, but her contested, running 3 was way off the mark, Biddeford rebounded and the horn sounded on the Tigers’ 40-37 victory.
“It’s hard for us to generate offense,” Smith said. “Especially when we expected to have (Knight). When we didn’t expect to have her, we could plan accordingly and run sets accordingly, but tonight we had to fix the offense on the fly without her. We had a great game plan coming in with her. We kept playing hard and never flinched. We had a chance to win and that’s all I can ask. I’ve never been prouder of them. We gutted out some wins lately, but I’ve never been more proud of the girls than tonight.”
McAuley got a team-high eight points (along with 10 rebounds and four assists) from Cimino. Coulombe finished with seven points and was once again dominant inside (16 rebounds and four blocks, to go along with five assists). Cooke and Mack both added six points, Desjardins had five, Verrillo three and Knight two.
“I’m loaded with role players,” Smith said. “They do a great job of what they do, but in games like this, you need a lead guard, a lead personality. We did the best we could with inexperienced guards. Caitlin and Alexa do a great job of playing post/guard. We’re bringing along the freshmen and sophomores slowly. We’ll get there.”
Biddeford lived up to its two-woman show billing, as both Grigware and Rousseau had 18 points, accounting for 90 percent of the Tigers’ total.
“We wanted to make them take tough shots and they made tough shots,” Smith said. “Our hats are off to Rousseau and Grigware. We did what we wanted to do, but they made tough shots. That’s why they’re two of the better players in the state.”
Hersom and Michaud added two each for the Tigers who improved to 8-3 (and fifth in the latest Western A Heal Points standings).
The Lions (6-3 and third in the region) won’t have long to lick their wounds. Thursday, they go to Portland and Saturday brings a trip to Sanford. McAuley still has two games remaining with defending champion Deering and also has to play at new rival Cheverus.
“We have tough games coming up,” Smith said. “We have our work cut out for us. They’re on the schedule, we can’t make them go away. I like our chances. I like how we’re playing right now.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org