WINDHAM—The 2011 calendar year was pretty magical for the McAuley girls’ basketball team.
To the chagrin of the rest of the state, 2012 has arrived like a Lion as well.
Tuesday evening, McAuley overwhelmed host Windham in the first half, scoring 24 of the game’s first 29 points, then, after the Eagles battled back to within seven in the fourth quarter, the Lions clamped down defensively and hit clutch free throws to prevail, 41-32.
Freshman Victoria Lux had a breakout performance with 14 points (12 in the first half) and six rebounds and seniors Alexa Coulombe and Sadie DiPierro spearheaded a dominant defensive effort which held Eagles senior standout Meghan Gribbin in check.
McAuley improved to 7-0 with the win, dropping Windham to 4-3 in the process.
“I think we definitely have space to improve, but I thought we kept it together as a team,” DiPierro said. “We hustled. We definitely need to learn from this, because I think we’ll have more games like this.”
The Lions went 20-2 in 2010-11, dispatching Hampden Academy in the state final.
This winter, McAuley had little trouble in defeating Noble (62-31), Kennebunk (61-18), Portland (60-19), Marshwood (58-34), Bonny Eagle (61-26) and Biddeford (60-19). The Lions did stumble at the recent Portland High Holiday Tournament, 63-45, to five-time reigning New Hampshire champion Winnacunnet, but that was a non-countable game.
Windham, which was eliminated by Gorham in the quarterfinals of last year’s tournament, has been very competitive this winter. The Eagles started with victories at South Portland (55-47), at home over Noble (73-20) and at Biddeford (51-23) before dropping a 46-44 decision at Scarborough. After a 64-58 home loss to Marshwood, Windham enjoyed a 46-26 triumph at Thornton Academy.
Last season, McAuley handled visiting Windham, 60-36 to end a two-game losing streak in the series. Two years ago, the Eagles beat the visiting Lions, 35-26, and in 2008-09, Windham went to McAuley and eked out a 41-39 decision.
Tuesday, the Lions (playing without talented sophomore Olivia Smith, sidelined with an ankle injury) assumed control early and went on to the victory.
It took nearly two minutes to break the scoring ice, which was done by McAuley sophomore Allie Clement courtesy of a free throw.
With 5:09 to go in the eight minute first quarter, the hosts took their only lead of the night when Gribbin scored on a driving layup, but at the other end, Coulombe tied the score with one foul shot and started a 12-0 run.
A Clement free throw with 3:53 left in the period put the Lions on top to stay. DiPierro then hit a baseline jumper, Lux scored on a putback, Lux took a pass from junior Molly Mack and made a layup, Clement scored on a driving layup and Mack set up Lux for a leaner to make it 13-2 McAuley after one.
After Windham senior Diandra Berthiaume made a free throw and Gribbin drained a pair to start the second, DiPierro buried a 3, Clement hit a patented pullup jumper, Lux made two free throws (after grabbing consecutive offensive rebounds), Mack hit a short left-handed turnaround shot and Lux scored on a putback to make it 24-5 and seemingly put the game away.
The Eagles answered with leaners from Berthiaume and Gribbin, but two Lux foul shots with just over a second left made it 26-9 Lions at halftime.
“The first half was amazing,” said McAuley first-year coach Billy Goodman. “The defense was great. It starts with the defense.”
The second half would be a different story as the Lions let Windham back in the game.
Sophomore Lonnie Staten got the rally started with a putback. After a Coulombe free throw, Gribbin scored on a leaner. Lux fed Coulombe for a layup, but Berthiaume scored on a finger roll. After a Lux layup (from Coulombe), Berthiaume converted an old-fashioned three-point play and Gribbin hit a floater from the baseline as the horn sounded to pull the Eagles to 31-20 heading for the final stanza.
“We didn’t play a good third quarter,” Goodman said. “I thought we took bad shots and let them slowly get back in the game. Shame on us if we don’t learn from that.”
When Staten started the fourth quarter with two free throws and Gribbin made a leaner, the Eagles were suddenly within seven, 31-24, with 5:18 still to play.
Coulombe gave her team a little breathing room by calmly draining two free throws, then buried a baseline jumper, but a 3 from senior Bebe Butts pulled Windham within eight, 35-27, with 3:12 still to play.
With 2:35 showing, Gribbin went to the line for a one-and-one with a chance to draw the Eagles even closer, but she missed the front end.
With 1:50 to play, Coulombe went back to the line and sank both attempts. With 1:14 to go, Clement had her opportunity and she made both free throws to push the lead to 39-27.
After Gribbin hit a bank shot with 57.8 seconds remaining, Butts made things interesting with a 3-pointer with 26.3 seconds left, but four seconds later, Clement went to the stripe and made both attempts and the Lions held on, 41-32.
“You can’t leave (Windham) open,” Goodman said. “We didn’t leave them open in the first half. We left them open in the second half and they drained them. We knew they’re a good team. I’ll take tonight and we’ll learn. The good thing is that we handled pressure at the end.”
Lux led the Lions with 14 points, six rebounds, an assist and a blocked shot.
“My teammates really helped me,” Lux said. “I trust them. I wasn’t nervous out there. It was a team effort. Everybody played great on the court. It’s been fun and challenging. In the beginning, I was nervous, but now I feel like part of the team and I love everyone.”
“(Vic’s) come a long way,” Goodman said. “She’s got so much potential. She’s doing well. With Olivia out, we had to have other girls step up and Molly Mack and Vic did.”
Clement and Coulombe both added 10 points. Clement also had a game-high nine rebounds and two steals. Coulombe was her usual dominant self with seven boards, four steals, three blocks and an assist. DiPierro finished with five points and Mack had two (along with six rebounds, two assists and a block).
McAuley had a 30-24 advantage in rebounds, six steals, five blocks, turned the ball over a dozen times and made 16 of 22 free throws, including eight of nine in the fourth period.
Windham was led by Gribbin’s 14 points, but nothing came easily for one of the league’s top talents, who was blanketed by Coulombe and DiPierro.
“Our plan was not to let (Gribbin) score or let her get the ball,” DiPierro said. “She’s a great player so it’s hard to do that, but I think defense is what won us the game. Coach wanted (both me and Alexa) to play her. We both got in foul trouble, but everyone else stepped up and helped out.”
“DiPierro showed why she’s one of the best defenders in the state because she went against one of the best players in the state,” Goodman said. “She showed what she’s got. When we gave her a break, we went with Alexa, who did a great job. Not many centers can play (Gribbin) and play post defense. They did a great job.”
Berthiaume finished with eight points (and six boards), Butts added six and Staten had four (with five rebounds).
The Eagles had nine turnovers and made six of nine free throws.
While Windham (sixth in the latest Western Class A Heal Points standings) hosts Portland in its next game Friday, McAuley (now ranked fourth) travels down Stevens Avenue for its lone regularly scheduled meeting with rival Deering (6-2 and fifth) this winter.
Last season, the Lions and Rams played three memorable games, capped by McAuley winning the regional championship in epic fashion.
The Lions will have no trouble getting fired up for Deering.
“I’m nervous, but we’ll practice,” Lux said. “It’ll be a good game. We have to work on passing and staying confident.”
“It’s a big game,” DiPierro said. “I think it’ll be a lot like this game. It’s going to be a fast paced game. Defense is going to win it.”
“Windham, I feel, is one of the best in the league and so is Deering,” Goodman added. “This was a good test for us and Friday will be too. To us, it doesn’t matter the score. We learn from everything.”
M- 13 13 5 10- 41
W- 2 7 11 12- 32
M- Lux 5-4-14, Clement 2-6-10, Coulombe 2-6-10, DiPierro 2-0-5, Mack 1-0-2
W- Gribbin 6-2-14, Berthiaume 3-2-8, Butts 2-0-6, Staten 1-2-4
M (1) DiPierro
W (2) Butts
M (30) Clement 9, Coulombe 7, Lux, Mack 6, DiPierro, Welch 1
W (24) Berthiaume 6, Staten 5, Gribbin 4, Sam Frost 3, Batchelder, Stephanie Frost 2, Butts, Cummings 1
M (6) Coulombe 4, Clement 2
W (7) Berthiaume, Butts, Staten 2, Sam Frost 1
M (5) Coulombe 3, Lux, Mack 1
W (2) Stephanie Frost, Berthiaume 1