PORTLAND—Since Day One this season, McAuley’s girls’ basketball team has persevered.
Wednesday evening, the Lions had to rise to the occasion again in a Western Class A semifinal round game against South Portland at the Cross Insurance Arena.
McAuley carried the top seed and a five-year, 17-game postseason win streak into the contest and appeared to be in good shape when a pair of 3-pointers from junior Sarah Clement spelled an early 10-2 lead, but late in the first quarter, Clement, who missed her entire sophomore season with a knee injury, hurt her knee again.
But with the fifth-ranked Red Riots primed to take advantage, the Lions turned to their standby, their defense, to make the difference.
McAuley only managed 23 first half points, but behind a balanced attack, from starters and reserves alike, enjoyed a nine-point advantage at halftime.
The Lions held South Portland scoreless for nearly 10 minutes and built a 12-point lead, but the Red Riots rallied in the fourth period, getting as close as five points down the stretch.
McAuley would not be denied, however and thanks to some clutch late foul shooting from senior captain Olivia Dalphonse and sophomore Ally Tillotson, held on for a 39-34 victory.
Junior Jess Willerson had a team-high nine points, senior Ayla Tartre added eight and the Lions improved to 19-1, ended the Red Riots’ season at 14-6 and advanced to meet second-seeded Thornton Academy (18-2) in the Western Class A Final Saturday at 7 p.m., at the Cross Insurance Arena.
“I’m having a great time coaching these girls,” McAuley coach Billy Goodman said. “It’s all about heart. We’ve won games where I don’t know how we’ve won, but we’ve won them. We rely on our defense. If our offense is there, we’ll take it, but this team is about defense and heart.”
McAuley has long taken center stage in the girls’ tournament, but South Portland has enjoyed some memorable moments itself over the years.
The Lions went 17-1 in the regular season, losing only at Thornton Academy in the opener, and Monday in the quarterfinals, rode a second half surge to a 52-41 win over No. 9 Portland to advance.
The Red Riots had a lot of close calls that resulted in losses against top competition in the regular season and despite finishing 13-5, had to host No. 12 Westbrook in a preliminary round contest, a game they won, 52-45. Monday, South Portland upset No. 4 Deering in the quarterfinals, 49-37, as it finally broke through against a top foe.
Entering Wednesday’s contest, the teams had met four prior times in the playoffs (see sidebar), with the Red Riots winning three times. The Lions took the most recent encounter, however, a 52-27 victory in the 2011 quarterfinals en route to their first title in this run.
This time around, McAuley had the answers.
The game started slowly and South Portland got an early break when Lions freshman Eva Mazur picked up two fouls in 94 seconds. McAuley scored first when Tartre drove for a layup, but Red Riots senior Holly Black countered with a jumper. Dalphonse then drove for a leaner and Clement buried a 3, forcing South Portland coach Lynne Hasson to call a timeout.
Out of the timeout, Clement took a pass from Tillotson and made another 3 for a 10-2 lead.
After south Portland sophomore Lydia Henderson countered with a 3, Willerson set up senior Mary Furlong for a layup, but Hasson made a free throw.
With 9.6 seconds remaining, Clement drove to the basket and was fouled, but landed awkwardly on her surgically repaired right knee and crumpled to the ground. After staying down for several minutes, she rose and left the court under her own power.
Tartre came on to shoot the free throws and made one for a 13-6 advantage after one quarter.
The Lions extended their lead in the second period.
After Henderson scored on a hook shot, Willerson heated up, taking a pass from Mazur and making a layup, adding a free throw moments later, then taking a pass from Tartre and converting another layup to make it 18-8 McAuley.
South Portland answered as freshman Grace Soucy sank a long jumper and after classmate Megan Graff kept play alive with an offensive rebound, Hasson knocked down a jumper. Tartre canned a 3, but Hasson hit another jumper. McAuley junior Margaret Hatch then scored on a putback.
With 1:02 left, Clement returned to the floor. She moved gingerly but played out the half. No one scored from there and it was 23-14 Lions at the break.
“Tonight stinks a little bit because Sarah was awesome,” Goodman said. “I was waiting for her to be like that. I just told the girls, ‘Sarah’s in foul trouble,’ but they were all deflated. It was tough. I gave her a minute to see what she looked like and I didn’t like what I saw. It was tough saying no, but I had to.”
Clement and Tartre both had six points and Willerson added five in the first half of play. The Red Riots were paced by five apiece from Hasson and Henderson.
“I was worried about offense and we only had 14 points at the half,” Lynne Hasson said. “Then we were stuck on 14 for a long time.”
The third period started like the first, as it took 98 seconds for someone to score. Willerson did the honors with a free throw. Neither team then scored until 1:08 remained, when Brooke Howard banked home a shot, ending an 8 minute, 21 second field goal drought.
With 29 seconds to go, Hasson scored on a putback, ending a 9:44 drought and as time wound down, Graff hit a jumper to keep the Red Riots within hailing distance, 26-18, heading for the final stanza.
There, McAuley did just enough to put it away.
Hasson opened the quarter with a pair of free throws, but after Willerson and Furlong both grabbed offensive rebounds and couldn’t finish, Mazur did. A jumper from Black with 6:28 left cut the deficit to 28-22, but Willerson made a free throw and after missing the second, Mazur kept possesion alive and Tartre got a baseline jumper to hit the rim, the backboard and drop in for a 31-22 advantage with 5:58 left.
South Portland refused to quit, as Hasson put home a miss, was fouled and added the free throw. After Dalphonse sank both ends of a 1-and-1, Black made a layup while being fouled. She couldn’t hit the free throw, but Hasson got the rebound and passed to freshman Abby Cavallaro behind the 3-point stripe. Cavallaro’s bid to make it a one possession game was just short, however.
After Tartre set up Willerson for a layup, Hasson banked home a shot from in close, but with 1:11 to go, Dalphonse made both ends of a 1-and-1 for a 37-29 lead.
Henderson kept faint hopes alive by banking home a 3, but Tillotson made two free throws to end all doubt.
“Ally’s been hurt for weeks,” Goodman said. “She’s been begging to get back in the lineup. She does so many things to win. She does so many things I need out there.”
A bank shot at the horn by Graff accounted for the 39-34 final score.
“We worked really well as a team,” Tillotson said. “It was fun. We stuck to our defense. We know our offense isn’t always there, but we can rely on our defense.”
“(South Portland’s) very talented,” Goodman said. “They have a lot of good players. They averaged 60-plus points per game. I have to give credit to the girls off the bench. Whether it was a minute, five minutes, 10 minutes, they did their jobs. I’m so proud of the whole team. If we didn’t play the defense we’d played all year, I don’t think we would have been able to do it tonight. This started back in November. We stuck with our strength. It helped us win tonight.”
Willerson led the Lions with nine points. She also finished with five rebounds, three assists, two blocks and a steal.
“(South Portland) played really good defense in the paint and holding on was tough, but we knew we had to win it for Sarah,” Willerson said. “She’s such a big part of the team and we wanted to win it for her. It was hard to see her go down. We passed the ball well and ran our offense well.”
Tartre finished with eight points, Clement had six, Dalphonse six and Furlong, Hatch, Howard, Mazur (six boards, three steals) and Tillotson (six rebounds, two steals) added two points each.
“I felt more comfortable than last year,” Tillotson said. “Having my team behind me gave me confidence. I just go in looking to do my job, rebound and take care of the ball.”
“It’s all about the bench,” said Tartre. “There was a point where we had four starters out. The bench players knew what they needed to do. It’s very scary, the big lights when you first walk out, but they held it together really well. They did an awesome job. (South Portland’s) all shooters, so we tried to stop their shooting. It was our goal. It worked out in the end.”
The Lions enjoyed a 28-23 rebounding advantage. They turned the ball over 15 times and made 10 of 17 free throws.
South Portland was led by Hasson’s game-high 14 points. She also had 11 rebounds and four steals. Henderson added eight points, Black had six, Graff four and Soucy two.
The Red Riots had just 10 turnovers and made 4 of 7 free throws.
“We just couldn’t get our shots to go,” Lynne Hasson said. “Give credit to their defense, they’re a very good defensive team. We didn’t have a lot of open looks, but we ones we had weren’t falling. We’re a good shooting team. I don’t think it was nerves, but playing in the semifinals on the Civic Center floor is tough. These kids have never been here before. We talked about how we wouldn’t get a lot of open looks and we had to take advantage when we had them. We had a good plan offensively. We knew what we were doing, but we weren’t patient. We weren’t cutting and screening and McAuley’s too good defensively.”
Considering South Portland had win a preliminary round game just to make it to the quarterfinals, no less the semifinals, the Red Riots did accomplish a lot this winter.
“We were a top team,” Lynne Hasson said. “They won’t hear that now and there’s nothing I can do to make them feel better. They had ups and downs, but overall, they had a very successful season. Getting here is great, but it’s not enough for them. It’s done and it’s over and we have to accept that. This is why you want to do something like the high school musical, where you don’t have to worry about losing. It’s the worst part of sports after working so hard.”
The program graduates Black and senior Paige Carter, but should be a factor again in 2015-16.
“The seniors were great,” Lynne Hasson said. “Both Black and Carter were huge against Deering. The future is bright. We have good young kids coming through and kids who were on the bench who will help us. We’ll be back at it next summer. We’ll look forward to next year.”
McAuley now turns its attention to Thornton Academy.
The Lions split with the Golden Trojans this winter, losing, 37-34, Dec. 5 in Saco and winning, 29-25, at home Jan. 6.
The teams have no playoff history.
They’re about to make some.
“I think we want it a lot more this year,” Tillotson said. “We have to stick together. It will be about 32 minutes of defense. Whoever wants it will take it.”
“It’s never easy,” Willerson said. “Every team gives us a good game. We’ll be ready. We know what we have to do. We’ll work hard. We have to rebound and box out. It will come down to who wants it more. I’m looking very forward to it.”
“We struggled on offense tonight without Sarah and TA’s a good defensive team, so we have a lot to do in two days,” Goodman added. “They’re a great team with good players. I think we have to play our best game of the year to challenge them. (Ashley) Howe has been there awhile. (Katie) McCrum is an awesome player. (Victoria) Lux is a three-time champion. (Alex) Hart is one of the best freshman I’ve ever seen. They have other players who are tough. It’s going to be a very big challenge.”
South Portland freshman Abby Cavallaro lets a shot go.
McAuley junior Sarah Clement plants on a drive to the basket during the first period. Clement hurt her knee on the play.
McAuley senior captain Olivia Dalphonse drives into the lane.
South Portland freshman Megan Graff floats a shot over McAuley senior Ayla Tartre.
South Portland junior Maddie Hasson soars to the hoop for two of her game-high 14 points.
South Portland junior Maddie Hasson and McAuley junior Jess Willerson fight for a loose ball.
McAuley freshman Eva Mazur races up the court.
McAuley sophomore Ally Tillotson protects the ball from South Portland freshman Megan Graff (left) and junior Maddie Hasson.
McAuley junior Jess Willerson shoots over South Portland sophomore Lydia Henderson.
McAuley senior Ayla Tartre goes up for a shot during the Lions’ 39-34 win over South Portland in Wednesday’s Western A semifinal. McAuley will face Thornton Academy in the regional final Saturday.
More photos below.
SP- 6 8 4 16- 34
M- 13 10 3 13- 39
SP- Hasson 5-4-14, Henderson 3-0-8, Black 3-0-6, Graff 2-0-4, Soucy 1-0-2
M- Willerson 3-3-9, Tartre 3-1-8, Clement 2-0-6, Dalphonse 1-4-6, Furlong 1-0-2, Hatch 1-0-2, Howard 1-0-2, Mazur 1-0-2, Tillotson 0-2-2
SP (2) Henderson 2
M (3) Clement 2, Tartre 1
2011 Western A quarterfinals
McAuley 52 South Portland 27
2006 Western A semifinals
South Portland 39 McAuley 29
1984 Western A quarterfinals
South Portland 52 McAuley 41
1981 Western A quarterfinals
South Portland 60 McAuley 51