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PORTLAND—If offense is your thing, the Portland Exposition Building wasn’t the place to be Monday afternoon, however, if you appreciate a 6-foot-2 standout with myriad skills, you had to come away impressed.
McAuley sophomore Alexa Coulombe not only led her team in points with 10, but she was her usual dominant self on defense, grabbing nine boards and blocking nine shots. She also had three assists and three steals, all of which helped the third-ranked Lions advance with a 33-22 win over No. 6 Gorham in a Western Class A quarterfinal.
By virtue of the victory, McAuley will meet rival and No. 2-seed Deering Friday evening in the semifinals.
“Alexa’s awesome,” said Lions freshman Hannah Cooke. “If you get screened and can’t get around it, she’s there to block the ball into the crowd. If you do something wrong, she helps out a lot.”
On Jan. 30, McAuley beat Gorham 42-31 at home. The Lions downed the Rams 61-46 in the 2006 quarterfinals in the only previous postseason meeting.
In the first period Monday, McAuley struggled to get the ball inside, while its defense made life tough for the Rams.
Just 22 seconds into the game, senior Caitlin Cimino buried a 3-pointer. Gorham drew even on a 3-ball from junior Mia Rapolla, then Rapolla scored on a driving layup for the Rams’ only lead. A leaner from Cooke tied the score at 5-5, but Coulombe made a foul shot and Cooke hit a leaner for an 8-5 advantage. After Rapolla made a free throw, junior Chantalle Desjardins capped the first period scoring with a 3, to put the Lions ahead, 11-7.
Cimino and Coulombe both blocked a pair of shots in the period, but McAuley was hindered by two fouls on junior Rebecca Knight and four turnovers.
Neither team could generate much offense in the second period. After a layup from senior Kristi Brown got Gorham within a point, Coulombe hit a runner and Knight made two free throws, but the Lions wouldn’t score again.
With 4:38 to go in the half, Knight was sidelined with her third foul and with 1:17 left, junior Natalie Egbert hit a 3 to pull the Rams within two, 15-13, at halftime.
A Rapolla spinner tied the score early in the third, then McAuley went on a run and seized control.
A Coulombe layup ended a 6 minute, 11 second drought and gave the Lions the lead for good, 17-15. Cooke followed with a long jumper, Coulombe made a layup, then fed Cimino for a layup and it was 23-15, forcing Gorham coach Laughn Berthiaume to call timeout with 3:55 left in third.
It didn’t help.
After neither team scored for two minutes, Knight buried a pair of foul shots to push the lead to 10 and McAuley took a 25-15 advantage to the fourth.
“We came out of halftime and stepped up our tempo,” Coulombe said. “We got defensive stops and our defense always feeds our offense. We’re all there for each other on defense. We talk well too. That helps.”
“We just needed to execute,” Cooke added. “We weren’t worried, we just knew we could do better. It was amazing. It’s just so much fun with the crowd getting into it. My teammates picked me up.”
At the 7:37 mark of the final stanza, a pair of free throws from sophomore Audrey Adkinson ended a 7:47 drought for the Rams, but Coulombe fed Cimino for a layup 17 seconds later. After Rapolla cut the deficit to seven with a 3 with 5:38 to go, Coulombe answered with a foul shot to make it 28-20. Coulombe made a leaner with 4:11 left, then, with 3:26 to play, Knight made a layup to essentially put it away.
With 1:17 remaining, Cooke made a free throw and 12 seconds later, a reverse layup from Egbert accounted for the 33-22 final score.
“I’m just glad to be able to exhale for about an hour before I start preparing for Friday,” McAuley coach Wil Smith said. “You can say it wasn’t pretty, but Gorham did a good job of causing controlled chaos. They’re well-coached. They’re a little undersized, but they what they do well. In the first half, we fought against our strength and drifted to the perimeter. In the second half, we started moving the ball and getting it inside. I like the way we moved the ball and I definitely liked our defense in the third quarter, holding them to two points. I’m proud of the girls for focusing on today.”
In addition to Coulombe’s monster performance, Cimino and Cooke both had seven points, Cimino finished with six and Desjardins added three.
“I know McAuley’s a name that’s synonymous with the tournament, but for the most part, these are young girls,” Smith said. “Hannah carried us offensively in the first quarter. It was important for her to get off to a good start and get confident. Alexa dominated, but as a coach, all I have in my mind is all the things she can do better. She’s still learning how to play, but she plays with her heart every single play. I can’t wait to see her improvement over the next two years.
“I can’t say enough about the experience playing without Knight (who missed several games earlier in the year with an ankle injury). It was a blessing in disguise. We might have panicked with her foul trouble, but we’ve been there. It’s a whole lot better having her out there.”
“(Knight’s absence earlier in the year) made us really grow,” Coulombe added. “We had to take different positions. When she’s out, it’s not like we didn’t know what we’re doing.”
For Gorham, Rapolla had 12 points, Egbert five, Brown three and Adkison two.
Third time a charm?
McAuley (13-6) now has a semifinal date with No. 2 Deering (17-2, after Monday’s 44-30 quarterfinal round win over Thornton Academy) Friday at 7:30 p.m., at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
The Lions have given the two-time defending state champion Rams fits the past two years, but have yet to beat them. Last year, in the quarterfinals, McAuley pushed Deering more than any foe before the Rams pulled away late to win, 42-27.
On Jan. 28, Deering won 42-33 at home. In the regular season finale Feb. 5, the host Lions took the Rams to overtime before losing 44-41.
McAuley believes it can finish the job Friday.
“I’m very excited to play Deering again,” Cooke said. “It’s a very even match. They have more experience than us, but I think we can do it.”
“It’s a pretty big step,” said Coulombe. “We’re really excited to go to the Civic Center. I think we were in it in both games. We just need to come out and execute and keep the tempo up. It should be a really good game.”
“It’s back to the drawing board with Deering,” Smith added. “I have to come up with a game plan. If there’s something worth doing different we’ll do it, otherwise we’ll go with what gave us a shot the other two times.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org