PORTLAND—The McAuley girls’ basketball team served up one dish of revenge Saturday night.
If the Lions can deliver another Monday evening, they’ll advance to the state final for the first time since 2007.
Saturday night, in a Western Class A semifinal at the Cumberland County Civic Center, McAuley junior Alexa Coulombe took centerstage, scoring 11 points, grabbing 10 rebounds, blocking seven shots and helping neutralize Gorham senior standout Mia Rapolla for much of the game.
The second-ranked Lions, who struggled mightily for stretches of the first and last quarters, did enough in the middle periods to build a healthy lead and went on to a 39-30 win over the third-seeded Rams to improve to 18-2, end Gorham’s fine campaign at 15-5 and set up a delicious regional final matchup with Stevens Avenue rival Deering (19-1), the top team in Western A, Monday at 6 p.m., at the Civic Center.
“I think we prepped for everything,” said Coulombe. “We wanted this. Each team we’ve seen (in the tournament), we were close to or lost to. For us to beat (Gorham), this means a lot to us.”
McAuley, which lost to Deering in last year’s semifinals, was the preseason favorite and had a very good season, going 16-2, losing only at Gorham and at home to Deering. The Lions entered the tournament with the No. 2 seed and dispatched No. 7 South Portland, 52-27, in the quarterfinals, behind 24 points from senior standout Rebecca Knight.
Gorham, led by Rapolla, won 14 of 18 regular season contests, earned the No. 3 seed and cruised to a 54-33 quarterfinal round victory over No. 6 Windham in the quarterfinals, as Rapolla put on a clinic with 34 points (including a half dozen 3-pointers).
In the regular season meeting between the teams, McAuley appeared in command, up 20-11, in the second quarter, but the Lions managed only seven points the rest of the way. A halfcourt prayer from Rapolla right before the half spurred a comeback and the Rams knocked McAuley from the ranks of the unbeaten, 37-27.
A year ago, McAuley outlasted the Rams, 33-22, in the quarterfinals. They also met in the 2006 quartefinals (a 61-46 Lions’ victory).
This time, McAuley built a lead and didn’t give it back.
Both teams had a difficult go of it offensively to start the contest, but late in the first period, the Lions began to put it together.
Gorham broke the scoring ice, but it took nearly four minutes to do so, when senior Natalie Egbert scored on a putback. A 3 from McAuley’s standout freshman, Allie Clement, got the Lions on the board midway through the eight-minute opening stanza. After Rapolla scored her first point at the line, a Coulombe leaner gave McAuley a 5-3 advantage.
Gorham answered as Rapolla knocked down a 3 with 2:30 left, but that would be the Rams’ last lead and their final point for over eight minutes. A putback by Coulombe in the final minute made it 7-6 Lions after one.
McAuley went up three on a putback from sophomore Hannah Cooke 12 seconds into the second period, but the Lions wouldn’t score again for 3 minutes, 35 seconds. Luckily for them, Gorham couldn’t do anything on offense, turning the ball over eight times in the quarter and missing an array of shots.
With 4:13 to go before halftime, Coulombe fed Knight for a layup. Knight then scored on a layup after a steal and with 2:51 left, Knight’s bank shot made it 15-6 McAuley.
Finally, with 2:15 remaining in the half, a leaner from sophomore Lexi Merrifield ended the Rams’ 8:15 drought and a 10-0 Lions’ run.
That was just a momentary reprieve for Gorham, however, as McAuley closed the half with a layup by freshman Nina Davenport (set up by Coulombe) and a steal and layup from Clement to seize control, 21-8.
“I think running and pushing the ball down the floor and hitting people in transition is what got us sparked and the offense started to come,” Clement said. “We had to focus and support each other and play help-side defense. We can always rely on our defense. It’s our defense that turns to offense. We had to buckle down, play good defense, support each other and the offense will come.”
“We were getting shots,” said McAuley coach Amy Vachon. “It’s not like we weren’t getting shots, they just weren’t falling, but I liked our aggressiveness and ball movement. Our defense is really strong, so I feel good that it will keep us in games.”
Rapolla, who wasn’t allowed room to breathe by Coulombe, senior Kayla Daigle and junior Sadie Dipierro, was held to a mere four points in the first 16 minutes.
“We had a bunch of people on her,” said Coulombe. “It was me, Kayla and Sadie. We switched off. We faceguarded her the whole time and depended on our teammates to call out screens.”
“Sadie’s been solid all year defensively,” added Vachon. “She did a nice job. Alexa’s so long and challenged shots. We tried different things, but a scorer will find ways to score and she did.”
In the third, the Rams picked it up offensively, but the Lions managed to stretch the lead.
After Coulombe fed Knight for a layup to open the half, Rapolla made a layup and two free throws to make it a 23-12 contest. The Lions would keep the pressure on, however, as Coulombe sandwiched layups around a Clement pullup jumper to give McAuley its biggest advantage, 29-12, with 3:44 to go in the third.
Gorham got consecutive hoops from Rapolla, but Cooke made a free throw and a reverse layup from Knight with 7.5 seconds left put the Lions on top, 32-16, heading for the fourth.
To their credit, the Rams never quit and cut the deficit down to seven, causing some panic among the McAuley coaches and faithful, before the Lions finally closed the game out.
Rapolla opened the final stanza with a 3. After a Rapolla free throw and a layup from senior Alyssa Clark, Rapolla made a leaner, was fouled and converted the old-fashioned three-point play with a free throw with 3:24 left, pulling Gorham back to 32-25.
“I said to one of the referees, ‘I don’t know how it just got this close,'” said Vachon. “(Letting leads slip away is) worrisome, but we’ve gotten lots of experience. We have a freshman guard, a sophomore and Sadie, a junior, who didn’t play last year. I have three guards without a lot of varsity experience.”
The Rams had opportunities to creep even closer, but couldn’t convert and with 1:54 to play in the game, Cooke scored on a putback to end a 6:13 drought and a 9-0 Gorham run.
With 1:27 remaining, Rapolla made two free throws to again cut the deficit to seven, 34-27, but on the next Rams’ possession, with a chance to get even closer, Coulombe came up with her seventh and biggest block and rebound of the night, which led to a pass to Clement, who found Knight all alone for a dagger of a layup and a 36-27 advantage with 1:13 to play.
Coulombe added a foul shot, Clement hit two more and a long-range 3 from Gorham junior Courtney Burns in the waning seconds proved to be mere window dressing as McAuley went on to the 39-30 victory.
Knight actually led the Lions with 12 points (and added five rebounds), but Coulombe was the story. Her play in this game makes it crystal clear why a school like Boston College (where she’s verbally committed) is interested in her talents. Eleven points and 10 rebounds were key, but the blocked shots (including back-to-back blocks on the first possession of the second half) set her apart.
“I was happy to see that,” said Vachon. “She can sometimes wait back. She’s such an unselfish player. She lets others step up. We knew we’d need her inside today to make a difference and she did. She went to the basket hard, played defense, blocked shots.”
Clement had nine points, four rebounds and a steal in what promises to be the first of many games for her on the big stage at the Civic Center.
“It was nervewracking playing on the big floor, but fun,” said Clement.
“It’s good for Allie to face that pressure,” Vachon said. “Mia’s one of the top five players in the state, hands down. Defensively and offensively. She’s not going to see another player like that.”
Cooke added five big points and three rebounds and Davenport, producing clutch minutes off the bench for the second successive tournament game, had two points.
McAuley turned the ball over 19 times, but was able to overcome. The Lions hit 4 of 6 free throw attempts.
For Gorham, the nonpareil Rapolla had 21 points, eight rebounds and two steals in her swan song, even though she was blanketed defensively from start to finish.
“Mia is an unbelievable person, first of all,” said Gorham coach Laughn Berthiaume. “As far as what she’s meant to our team, when you have your best player in the gym early and staying late and asking me to open the gym so she can get shots on Sunday, that’s what you hope. You hope your best player is your leader and she is. She’s a tremendous teammate and an unbelievable person. I’ll miss her on many different fronts.”
The Rams also got three points from Burns and two apiece from Clark, Egbert and Merrifield. Gorham turned the ball over 15 times and made 7 of 11 foul shots.
“I thought the first half coming out so slow really hurt,” Berthiaume said. “Our backs were against the wall in the second half and we came out fighting. When we were much more aggressive, looking to take it to the hoop a little more, I thought we played better. I was hoping we’d come back again, but getting down that much to a team that good, it’s a big hill to climb. I thought we did a good job battling back and I was proud of how we competed, but we just created too big of a hole in the first half.”
While disappointed not to be moving on, the Rams and their followers have to be thrilled with their season.
“Not a bad season at all,” Berthiaume said. “When we get time to step back and reflect a little bit, I think we’ll be pleased with our effort.”
There’s plenty of reason to believe Gorham will make another run next winter.
“The idea is to build and go forward,” Berthiaume said. “This is the furthest we’ve been in my four short years. It’s an experience we’ve all enjoyed and we want to be back here.”
McAuley’s victory sets up an eagerly anticipated regional final showdown versus Deering. The Rams advanced with a 51-45 semifinal round win over Sanford.
In the first game, Clement had to hit a 3 in the waning seconds to force overtime. In the rematch, McAuley was up 28-14 in the third period, but let it slip away and a last-second Clement prayer from just inside the halfcourt stripe was no good.
The teams have plenty of recent playoff history, squaring off five times since 2001.
McAuley won in the 2001 quarterfinals (58-47) and 2007 semis (46-35), while Deering was victorious in the 2004 regional final (56-46), 2009 quarterfinals (42-27) and last year’s semifinal (45-35).
Monday’s showdown is shaping up to be a classic.
“It’s so exciting,” said Clement. “It’s really cool to be part of a team going to the Westenr Maine finals as a freshman. I’m so lucky to be on this team. We want to win. We’re not just going, we’re going to win it. I think we just need to be the most aggressive team, play as hard as we can, play with everything we have. It could be our last game, hopefully not.”
“Obviously, it’ll be a fight,” Coulombe said. “Deering’s our biggest competition right now. We’ll come out ready to go. Every time we play them, they give us a new thing to overcome. We grow each time we play them.”
Vachon added that the teams know each other well and that she expects little separation.
“It’s going to be an exciting basketball game,” Vachon said. “It’s been what people have been talking about and looking for. Deering’s number one. They’re not 19-1 for no reason. There are no secrets. We know what they do, they know what we do. It’s just a matter who executes more and better. It would be really nice to avenge another loss. We have nothing to lose. Deering’s been here. I don’t know how many games (Rams senior standout Kayla) Burchill has played on this floor. That being said, it all goes out the window once the ball goes up. It’s going to be a good one. It’ll be fun.”
The McAuley-Deering winner will face either Hampden Academy or Messalonskee in the Class A Final Saturday at 4 p.m., at the Augusta Civic Center.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @foresports