PORTLAND—The up-and-coming Cheverus girls’ basketball team has won 12 games and assured itself of a first-ever trip to the Portland Expo for the Western Class A tournament, but the Stags still haven’t solved rival McAuley.
Tuesday night, in front of a large and extremely vocal crowd, Cheverus had no answer for the Lions’ size and couldn’t hit enough shots. McAuley never trailed and held on late for a 50-42 victory which left both teams 12-5 on the season.
“We got the job done,” said McAuley coach Wil Smith. “We did the most important thing, which is get out of here with a win. We still have a lot of things we have to work on.”
Closing the gap
Cheverus has never beaten McAuley in its eight-year varsity history, most of which corresponded with dominant Lions’ teams, but the Stags have made a name for themselves under third-year coach Richie Ashley. After losing 33-27 at McAuley in last year’s preliminary round, Cheverus has turned heads in 2009-10, winning 12 of its first 16 games. The Lions have struggled at times without junior Rebecca Knight (who’s been in and out of the lineup with an ankle injury), but boasted an 11-5 mark (which included a 46-39 home win over the Stags back on Dec. 15) prior to tip.
Both school’s student sections were in strong form, but there wasn’t much offense in the early going.
McAuley grabbed a quick 4-0 lead on a jumper from sophomore Alexa Coulombe and two foul shots from Knight before the hosts made it 4-2 with 6:58 to go in the period on a jumper from senior Hanna Lyons. The Stags wouldn’t score again for nearly seven minutes, but the Lions couldn’t deliver an early knockout.
In fact, the visitors didn’t score again either until 2:23 was left in the quarter when freshman Hannah Cooke made a foul shot. She missed her second, but Coulombe grabbed the rebound and put it home. Coulombe then fed Knight for a layup and a 9-2 lead before Cheverus finally got a layup from freshman Brooke Flaherty in the waning seconds to make it a 9-4 contest after one.
Junior Chantelle Desjardins opened the second quarter with a 3-ball for McAuley to make it 12-4. After Flaherty answered with a bank shot, Coulombe scored on a third-effort putback, senior Caitlin Cimino made a jumper and Cooke drained a free throw for a 17-6 lead.
Then, finally, the Stags came to life.
A free throw from Lyons, a runner from sophomore Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy and a layup from Flaherty made it 17-11. After Cimino made a layup for the Lions, Palazzi-Leahy hit two free throws, then fed Lyons for a layup to pull Cheverus within four, 19-15. A free throw from freshman Molly Mack put McAuley up by five, but as time expired in the half, Palazzi-Leahy drove for a layup making it 20-17 and giving the hosts some momentum.
Ten turnovers and several missed layups prevented the Lions from grabbing a bigger lead.
“If we made layups, it wouldn’t have even been close,” Smith lamented. “We had a chance to put them away early and our best players didn’t make layups. That was disheartening, but we won despite that.”
When Palazzi-Leahy made two foul shots 58 seconds into the third period, the Stags were within one. They had a couple opportunities to take the lead, but couldn’t convert. Then, with 5:41 to go in the quarter, Coulombe made a layup to stretch the advantage to 22-19. A minute later, Cimino buried a 3 while being fouled (she missed the free throw). Coulombe followed with a jumper, made two free throws, then Cooke converted an old-fashioned three-point play for a 32-19 lead with 2:23 to go in the period.
A jump shot from senior Theresa Hendrix ended a 5 minute, 8 second drought and a 12-0 run. Palazzi-Leahy followed with a 3-pointer, but junior Kayla Daigle answered with a putback to put McAuley up 34-24 after three.
McAuley would go up by as many as 14 early in the fourth before Cheverus rallied, but the Stags could never get any closer than six down the stretch.
Four Cimino free throws early in the final stanza made it 38-24 Lions. After Palazzi-Leahy made two freebies, Hendrix hit a pair, then Hendrix made a hook shot with 5:48 to go to pull the Stags within eight, 38-30.
Coulombe fed Knight for a layup with 5:06 to go to restore a double-digit lead, but Palazzi-Leahy answered with a 3-ball. After Coulombe made one of two free throws, Flaherty scored on a bank shot with 3:02 to go to make it 41-35. Coulombe drained two foul shots, but Palazzi-Leahy countered with two and it was still a six-point game, 43-37, with 2:17 to play.
McAuley then iced the win at the charity stripe. First Knight made the second of two. Daigle then made one and Coulombe sank two for a 47-37 lead. After freshman Mikayla Mayberry made a layup for the hosts, Knight hit a free throw with 49.5 seconds left for a 48-39 edge. Senior Keturah Smith made a jumper to cut the deficit to seven, but two Cimino free throws with 19.1 seconds left slammed the door. Mayberry hit one foul shot two seconds later to account for the final score.
“We knew they’d come out strong and push us around,” Cimino said. “We knew we had to get it inside and that rebounding was key.”
Coulombe led McAuley with 17 points and was once again dominant on the boards, blocked several shots and altered even more. Coulombe credited the Lions’ defense for being the difference.
“We just put pressure on the wings,” she said. “Our whole team gets involved. When we got new legs on the floor, it helped us even more.”
Cimino added 13 points and controlled the pace on offense.
“Caitlin’s one of our team leaders,” Smith said. “She’s not a prototypical point guard, but she takes care of the ball. She’s not speedy, but she gets the job done.”
Knight wound up with eight points as she continues to work her way back into top form.
“Having her back is helpful,” Coulombe said. “We’re always on the same page.”
Cooke added five points, Daigle and Desjardins had three apiece and Mack finished with one.
Cheverus managed to avoid a ton of turnovers (the Stags had 14), something which had done it in earlier in the year, but just couldn’t hit enough shots to beat its nemesis.
“We’ll figure out someday how to beat those guys,” said Ashley. “We came back. We didn’t shoot very well, but I was happy that we scrapped. They did a good job of crashing the boards. They got 22-of-30 from the line. We might have 10 or so. That’s the difference in a seven-point game.”
Palazzi-Leahy led all scorers with 18 points. Flaherty added eight, Hendrix six, Lyons five, Mayberry three and Smith two.
Cheverus (fourth in the latest Western A Heals) closes Friday at home versus South Portland. The Stags will likely wind up fourth, fifth or sixth in the final standings.
“We have 12 wins and we’re going to the Expo,” Ashley said. “We’ve come a long way.”
McAuley has a stranglehold on the third spot. The Lions have a chance to make a statement in their finale, Friday at home versus two-time defending state champ Deering, a squad McAuley has played very well against recently.
“We’re a stronger team and we know what to expect,” Cimino said.
“I think we’re ready for another crack at Deering,” Coulombe said. “I don’t think we showed our full potential last time. Every game is a battle for us.”
“It’ll be a good game,” Smith said. “It’ll be interesting to see how the girls bounce back after last week.”
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com
Cheverus freshman Casey Honan was no match for the long reach of McAuley sophomore Alexa Coulombe on this play. Coulombe had 17 points and was her usual dominant self on defense in the Lions’ win.
Cheverus sophomore sharpshooter Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy shoots over McAuley freshman Hannah Cooke during the second half. Palazzi-Leahy led all scorers with 18 points.
McAuley sophomore Alexa Coulombe splits Cheverus defenders Brooke Flaherty (right) and Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy en route to the hoop in the first half.
McAuley freshman Hannah Cooke drives on Cheverus senior Theresa Hendrix during the teams’ showdown Tuesday night. The Lions stayed perfect all-time against the Stags with a 50-42 victory.