PORTLAND—The McAuley girls’ basketball team certainly showed the heart of a lion Tuesday evening.
Visiting a talented foe, gung ho for a first-ever win over its nemesis, in front of a rabid crowd, McAuley could do little in the first half and trailed by as many as a dozen points, but the Lions slowly found their way, rallied and made the plays down the stretch to eke out a 45-42 win at Cheverus in a delicious early-season showdown between two of the best teams in Class A.
This one was in doubt until the final horn. McAuley senior Rebecca Knight put her team on top to stay after converting an old-fashioned three-point play following a pivotal steal with 30 seconds remaining and freshman Allie Clement gave the Lions a three-point lead with a foul shot, but it wasn’t until a last-second bid from Cheverus senior Britni Mikulanecz, who had a spectacular evening, was off the mark, that McAuley could celebrate its fourth straight victory this winter, which dropped the Stags to 4-1.
“I’m proud we found a way to win,” said Lions’ first-year coach Amy Vachon. “I’m not sure how we pulled it out. It was a gut check and we came through.”
It’s not often that a highly-touted December contest produces 32 jawdropping minutes, but that was certainly the case in this meeting.
McAuley, which reached the semifinals a year ago before losing to Deering, entered clicking on all cylinders in its first year under Vachon, a former standout at Cony High School and the University of Maine. The Lions, led by Division I-bound standouts Knight (a senior, headed to Orono) and Alexa Coulombe (a junior, who’s verbally committed to Boston College), downed Marshwood (61-35), Thornton Academy (46-21) and Windham (60-36) in their first three outings.
Cheverus, which got to the Expo for the first time last winter before falling to Biddeford in the quarterfinals, had no trouble prior to Tuesday, rolling past Noble (67-34), Westbrook (67-35), Kennebunk (71-15) and Portland (59-21).
The Stags are on the precipice of becoming an elite contender, but they haven’t yet beaten McAuley (or Deering for that matter), making Tuesday’s showdown a golden opportunity for a squad that not only boasts several solid returning players, but also three pivotal newcomers in Mikulanecz (a defensive and passing standout, who can also hit an open shot, a member of Deering’s 2008 and 2009 Class A titlists), junior Morgan Cahill (a force down low, who spent her first two high school seasons with Yarmouth) and sophomore Kylie Libby (a former Falmouth player, who is also dominant in the paint and on the glass).
This time around, Cheverus carried play much of the way, but in the end, just couldn’t slay the mighty Lions.
The first period was sloppy as the teams combined for more turnovers (eight apiece) than points (15).
A minute in, Libby broke the ice with a layup. A minute later, Clement (taking a pass from Knight) scored on a layup to make it 2-2. With 4:35 to play in the first quarter, Cahill made two free throws. A putback from Libby made it a 6-2 game. After Clement buried a 3, the Stags closed the opening stanza with a jumper from sophomore Brooke Flaherty and a reverse layup by Cahill for a 10-5 advantage.
Both teams did a better job holding on to the ball in the second quarter and offense picked up.
After Mikulanecz fed junior Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy for a fastbreak layup to make it 12-5, Clement made a free throw and Coulombe got on the board with a hook shot to cut the deficit to four.
With 5:53 to play before halftime, Palazzi-Leahy was fouled on a 3-point attempt and made her subsequent three free throws. After Knight made her first basket, on a putback, Cahill scored on a putback, hit a short jumper, then Mikulanecz buried a 3-ball to make it 22-10 with 3:31 to go in the half.
Coulombe answered with a hook shot, but a Cahill layup restored the 12-point bulge, 24-12.
Cheverus was on the verge of seizing control of the game, but McAuley restored a semblance of order before halftime and kept things interesting as Knight scored on a leaner and sophomore Hannah Cooke converted a putback to make it 24-16 at the break.
“It was really important to keep it close,” Clement said. “It could have been much worse.”
“We had to get back in it late in the half,” Vachon said. “We had to make some adjustments. (Cheverus) broke our press and got layups.”
By the late stages of the third period, the Lions had completed their rally, setting up a frantic finish.
The Stags twice led by 10 points in the quarter after Mikulanecz made a left-handed layup and after Flaherty answered a Coulombe bank shot with a jumper, but McAuley was able to begin running its offense and chipped away.
An old-fashioned three-point play from Coulombe cut the deficit to 28-21. Clement followed with a pullup jumper and Knight made a free throw after being fouled following an offensive rebound. After Cahill made a layup after a steal for a 30-24 lead, the Lions pulled even as Knight made two foul shots, hit two more after a technical, then scored on a layup off an inbounds pass.
“It was overwhelming and hectic at first,” Knight said. “We didn’t dictate the pace in the first half. We needed to calm down. At halftime, we knew what we needed to do, talk and believe in each other. We came out and remembered we were in it together. That was a huge difference.”
“Give the credit to Cheverus,” Vachon added. “Their zone defense took us out of our game in the first half. We worked the ball and focused on getting it inside in the second half.”
With less than a second to go, Mikulanecz put Cheverus back on top, 32-30, when she grabbed a loose ball and hit a jumper.
The final period would be nervewracking throughout.
Coulombe took a pass from Knight and made a layup just 18 seconds in to tie the score. Thirty seconds later, McAuley had its first lead as Coulombe sank one of two free throws.
The hosts went back on top as Mikulanecz fed Palazzi-Leahy for a layup. Cahill followed with a putback for a 36-33 lead, but Coulombe hit a long jumper. With 5:33 to go, Palazzi-Leahy made one of two foul shots, but a minute later, the Lions again tied the score as junior Sadie Dipierro calmly sank both ends of a one-and-one.
The back-and-forth affair tilted back in the Stags’ favor with 4:19 left when Mikulanecz fed Flaherty for a layup, but after a steal, Clement tied the score (for the fifth and final time) on a pullup jumper with 3:39 remaining and with 3:02 left, Coulombe scored on a putback to make it 41-39 McAuley.
Cheverus’ last hurrah came with 2:21 to pay when Flaherty took a pass from Mikulanecz, hit a runner while being fouled and added the free throw for a 42-41 lead.
After the teams traded turnovers, the Lions looked to go ahead. Coulombe missed a shot, Dipierro grabbed the rebound, but turned the ball over. The Stags couldn’t seal the deal, however, as Clement trapped Mikulanecz, Knight stole the ball, raced in and laid the ball home while being fouled.
“We always look to trap,” Knight said. “(Britni) didn’t see me coming. I just took the ball and went. I didn’t even know I made the shot or got fouled.”
“That steal was huge,” Vachon said. “We were getting ready to have to foul.”
Knight added the free throw and with 30.8 seconds to play, McAuley was back on top, 44-42, after the fifth and final lead change of the fourth quarter.
Cheverus came down and looked for the equalizer, but a Palazzi-Leahy runner was short and Flaherty’s putback was no good. Clement grabbed the rebound with 12 seconds to go and was fouled. She missed her first attempt, but sank the second, giving the Stags life down three, 45-42.
“A lot was going through my head,” said Clement, of the free throws. “I was really nervous. On the second one, I knew I had to make it.”
Cheverus looked for Mikulanecz and with 3.7 seconds to go, she prepared to shoot a 3-pointer, but Clement knocked the ball out of bounds.
The Stags had one final chance and sophomore Mikayla Mayberry inbounded the ball to an open Mikulanecz on the right wing. Her shot was off, however, and Cheverus had fallen short against the Lions once more, 45-42.
“They were keying on (Alexandra), but Britni got a good look, it just didn’t go,” Stags coach Richie Ashley lamented. “The game got into an ebb and flow and (McAuley) started to make the plays. They play hard. They’re supposed to be the best team for a reason. They made a couple more plays at the end and we didn’t take care of the ball. We just missed some shots.”
McAuley’s emotions were on the other end of the spectrum.
“I was so excited to win,” Clement said. “It was an awesome game.”
“It’s one more step to where we want to be,” said Knight. “This was a good test for us. It shows we never give up. It wasn’t pretty, but we got it done.”
“I was interested to see how we’d respond to a game like this,” Vachon added. “Not having led. I’m proud of them for sticking with it. There’s a long way to go, but this was a great game.”
McAuley was paced by a game-high 16 points (along with eight rebounds and four blocked shots) from Coulombe. Knight added 14 points and Clement finished with 11.
“Allie really took control as the point guard,” Knight said. “She doesn’t play like a freshman.”
“It’s hard to take (Allie) off the floor,” Vachon said. “She hit some huge shots. It looked like she was having fun. She’s a very special player.”
“It was a fun atmosphere,” said Clement. “I wasn’t that nervous.”
Cooke and Dipierro added two apiece. Sophomore Molly Mack and freshman Nina Davenport also contributed key minutes.
“Molly was huge,” said Vachon. “She’s not in the box score, but her defensive intensity was great.”
For Cheverus, Cahill led the way with 14 points and six boards. Flaherty added nine points, Palazzi-Leahy eight, Mikulanecz seven (she also had five rebounds and seven steals) and Libby four (along with seven rebounds).
The Stags return to action at home Jan. 4 versus Windham.
The Lions next play that evening at Noble.
McAuley knows it still has work to do.
“We need to come out focused and not let the atmosphere affect us,” Knight said. “We’ll have tough games down the stretch.”
“I really like this team,” Vachon added. “We have a lot to improve on, but I like our senior leadership and focus. We just have to play hard every day.”
If you want to plan ahead (and you really, really should), Cheverus is at McAuley on Feb. 8.
“I’m looking forward to playing them again,” Ashley said. “We know we can play with them.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
McAuley senior Rebecca Knight (31) and junior Alexa Coulombe try to keep a rebound away from Cheverus sophomore Kylie Libby.
McAuley freshman Allie Clement rises up to release a jump shot over the outstretched arm of Cheverus junior Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy.
Cheverus senior Britni Mikulanecz makes a bounce pass into the post during Tuesday night’s game against McAuley.
McAuley junior Alexa Coulombe looks to make an entry pass as she’s defended by Cheverus sophomore Kylie Libby.
Cheverus junior Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy goes up for a shot inside against McAuley freshman Allie Clement.
McAuley players celebrate after pulling out a 45-42 road win against Cheverus in Tuesday night’s girls’ basketball game.
More photos below.