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- The Forecaster
PORTLAND—All good things must end.
That painful reality was delivered to the state’s most successful girls’ basketball program Saturday evening at the Cross Insurance Arena.
The McAuley Lions, the four-time Class A state champions and the gold standard since the start of the millennium, finally met their match in the regional final against the one team, second-ranked Thornton Academy, that has managed to give them fits the past couple seasons.
McAuley came into the contest short-handed, after losing junior Sarah Clement to a knee injury in the semifinals, and the Lions knew they’d have to play close to a perfect game to handle the deep, talented and hungry Golden Trojans and for a half, they had things going their way.
Thornton Academy senior Victoria Lux, the former McAuley post standout, got into early foul trouble and the Lions grabbed a 7-5 lead after one quarter.
When Lux got her third foul with 3:06 to go in the first half and the score tied, 11-11, McAuley had a chance to seize control, but it only managed three points before the break and while it had a 14-11 lead, it hadn’t gotten the separation it needed.
As has been the case in each of the past three meetings, the Golden Trojans won the third quarter and took the lead for good on a scoop shot by Lux. A jumper as time expired from freshman Alex Hart made it 21-18 with eight minutes to go.
The proud champions fought valiantly to the end, but just couldn’t generate enough offense and down the stretch, after Lions senior Mary Furlong was just off on a potential game-tying 3-pointer, Thornton Academy made enough plays and hit its free throws and pulled away for a 41-31 triumph.
Senior Abigail Strickland had a game-high 13 points, Lux added 10 and the Golden Trojans improved to 19-2, ended the Lions’ season at 19-2 and their postseason winning streak at 18 games and advanced to meet Lawrence (20-1) in the Class A state final Saturday at 3 p.m. at the Augusta Civic Center.
“My team battled to the end,” said McAuley coach Billy Goodman, who had won his first 14 postseason games with the program. “We played championship defense, we just didn’t have enough firepower, but we didn’t back down. They got baskets and we couldn’t.”
McAuley overcame an offseason of change (three college-caliber players graduated and Lux transferred to Thornton Academy) and still managed to go 17-1, winning 17 straight after an Opening Night loss at Thornton Academy. The Lions earned the top seed in Western A for the fourth year in a row and pulled away in the second half to down No. 9 Portland, 52-41, in the quarterfinals, then beat fifth-ranked South Portland, 39-34, in Wednesday’s semifinals. That victory came with a price, however, as Clement re-injured her knee (she sat out her whole sophomore season with the same injury).
Thornton Academy entered the season as the favorite and went 16-2, losing only at McAuley and at home to Gorham. As the No. 2 seed, the Golden Trojans came alive late to down No. 7 Scarborough in the quarterfinals, 42-27, then defeated No. 3 Gorham in Wednesday’s semifinal round, 42-32.
Thornton Academy beat McAuley, 37-34, Dec. 5 in Saco and the Lions returned the favor, holding on for a 29-25 home triumph Jan. 6.
Prior to Saturday, the teams had never met in the postseason.
The first encounter proved memorable.
The Lions got off to a good start when senior captain Dalphonse made a free throw, then banked home a runner for a 3-0 lead.
The Golden Trojans got on the board when Hart set up Strickland for a layup, but McAuley junior Jess Willerson grabbed an offensive rebound, drew Lux’s first foul and made two free throws.
After Thornton Academy senior Katie McCrum scored on a leaner, Furlong grabbed an offensive rebound and drew Lux’s second foul with 3:20 to go in the first quarter, then hit both foul shots for a 7-4 lead.
McAuley didn’t score again in the first, but maintained a two-point lead after a late McCrum free throw.
Fifty seconds into the second period, Lux scored her first points on a putback, but Willerson answered with a hook shot that would have made Kareem Abdul-Jabbar proud.
McCrum hit two free throws to tie it and junior Ashley Howe drove for a layup to give Thornton Academy its first lead, but McAuley freshman Eva Mazur drove for a bank shot to tie it and after Lux received her foul (Furlong took a charge) with 3:06 to go in the half, Mazur set up Willerson for a layup and a Mazur free throw made it 14-11 Lions at halftime.
In the third period, the Golden Trojans were up to their old tricks.
Just 35 seconds in, Lux scored on a putback. Hart then fed Strickland for a layup and just like that, Thornton Academy had the lead.
A jumper from Furlong put McAuley back on top, but with 3:59 remaining in the third, a Lux scoop shot put the Golden Trojans ahead to stay. Lux added a bank shot, but with 39.1 seconds to go, she was whistled for her fourth foul and Furlong sank both free throws. Then, as time wound down, Hart hit a jumper and Thornton Academy took a 21-18 lead to the final stanza.
There, the Golden Trojans did what no other team in five years could do, eliminate McAuley from the tournament.
Not that the Lions made it easy.
A putback by senior Ayla Tartre (her first and only points) 53 seconds into the fourth pulled McAuley within one, but Strickland answered with a layup. After Strickland blocked her first shot, Willerson got the ball and went back up and finished to cut the deficit to one again, but McCrum banked home a shot.
With 4:38 left, a Dalphonse free throw pulled the Lions within 25-23, but McCrum set up Strickland for a layup and Strickland drove for a layup to push the lead to six.
“I give the girl credit,” Goodman said. “She made big buckets and played good defense. We did a good job on Howe, Hart, Lux and McCrum, but she stepped up.”
With 2:27 to play, Furlong made a jumper and 35 seconds later, the defensive wizard, Dalphonse, had a steal and a layup to make it 29-27. Howe then missed the front end of a 1-and-1, but a violation on McAuley allowed her to have another chance and she made her shot. She missed the second, however, and the Lions had a look to tie.
It proved to be a good look too, as Furlong lined up a 3, but the shot was just off target and Strickland got the rebound.
“That would have changed everything,” Goodman lamented.
With 1:11 to go, Hart made the first of her 1-and-1 opportunity, but she missed the second. The Golden Trojans then got a huge break as the rebound went out of bounds off Furlong.
Strickland added two free throws and after Dalphonse hit a pair, off the ensuing inbounds play, Lux threw a Tom Bradyesque touchdown pass three-quarters of the court on a dime to Howe that led to a layup and Lux added two free throws to make it 37-29 with 46.7 seconds to play.
Dalphonse got back to the line and hit two free throws to make it 37-31 with 40 seconds remaining, but that’s as close as McAuley would get.
After Hart missed two free throws, she got her own rebound and was fouled again. This time, she hit both and with 1.3 seconds to go, McCrum iced it with two more free throws and with that, the amazing four-year title run of the McAuley Lions was over as Thornton Academy prevailed, 41-31.
The Golden Trojans became the first team in five years and two days to beat McAuley in the tournament (Deering beat the Lions, 45-35, in the semifinals Feb. 19, 2010).
“It feels amazing,” Lux said. “It’s super-special. It’s different doing it with this team. We’re a family. It wasn’t easy. We knew it would be a good game. We had to play good defense. Our offense was iffy at the beginning, but we picked it up. We had to remind ourselves what we wanted.”
“There are no words,” Strickland said. “We really wanted it. That’s what it came down to. We’ve worked for it day in and day out. It’s just unbelievable. It came down to heart. We all worked extremely hard. Everyone’s always been intimidated by McAuley, but we knew we could beat them.”
“It was exactly what I expected,” Thornton Academy coach Eric Marston added. “I’m actually surprised we got to 40. You saw the defensive intensity on both ends. They take us out of what we want to do. I’m really proud of how my girls responded. Different girls stepped up all tournament for us.
“We didn’t get caught up in all the ‘who is number one’ talk. We just tried to get better each game. The difference this year is we peaked toward the end of the season on both ends of the court. We had a crushing loss to Gorham and that was the best thing that happened to us all season. We learned a ton of lessons from that. I’m not sure we’d be here now if we didn’t lose that game then.”
Strickland had a huge performance, scoring 13 points, blocking three shots, grabbing five rebounds and also posting a steal.
“I felt I needed to do whatever it took to win it for the team,” Strickland said. “Every one of us made us win.”
“Abby’s a beast,” Lux said. “We needed that from her.”
“Tonight, I can’t say enough about Abby on both ends of the court,” Marston added. “I just told the girls it’s amazing what can be accomplished when no one cares who gets the credit. We’re a family in that locker room. Abby puts on her hard hat and does the dirty work. Even without that offensive outburst, she played phenomenally on the defensive end, getting in front of Willerson. She stepped up big time with Vic in foul trouble.’
Lux, despite her four fouls and ensuing long stretches on the bench, managed a double-double with 10 points and 11 rebounds and blocked two shots.
“I was frustrated, but I had to keep playing,” Lux said. “My teammates had my back.”
McCrum had nine points, six rebounds and a steal. Howe added five points (and had a couple steals) and Hart finished with four points.
The Golden Trojans had a 26-22 rebounding advantage, only turned the ball over six times and made 12 of 22 free throws.
Thornton Academy will play in its first-ever state final against a Lawrence squad making its first appearance since the legendary Cindy Blodgett led the Bulldogs to four consecutive Class A titles between 1991-94.
“Lawrence is a great team,” said Lux, the only girl in the program with championship experience. “We’ll come out with the same intensity and we’ll play our game.”
“We’re going to work hard in practice,” Strickland said. “We want it.”
McAuley was paced by Dalphonse, who bowed out with 10 points. Furlong had a terrific showing in her swan song, posting eight points. Willerson also had eight points (to go with eight rebounds and four blocks). Mazur finished with three points, seven boards and a block before fouling out. Tartre had two points (and four rebounds) in her final game.
The Lions gave the ball away just eight times and made 13 of 19 free throws, but they only made nine field goals in 32 minutes.
“We really struggled in the third quarter,” Goodman said. “We just didn’t make our shots.”
McAuley graduates Dalphonse, Furlong, Tartre and three other seniors, but a strong nucleus will return in 2015-16. A hopefully healthy Clement, to go with Mazur and Willerson, are a great starting point. Players like junior Margaret Hatch, sophomore Ally Tillotson and Emily Weisser should all play bigger roles.
“I told the seniors that they were lucky to be part of championship teams,” Goodman said. “I told the young girls that next season starts tomorrow and they’ll have to work harder.”
While the loss was devastating for McAuley, what this undermanned group accomplished (19 wins, the top seed, reaching the regional final) was every bit as impressive as the Gold Balls captured by the last four editions.
“It was a very good season,” Goodman said. “It was a lot of hard work by the players and the coaches. Everyone had to do extra. We won a lot of close games. We improved. I give the players a lot of credit. I had the time of my life coaching this team.”
McAuley freshman Eva Mazur drives on the Thornton Academy defense.
McAuley senior Mary Furlong is defended by Thornton Academy senior Victoria Lux.
McAuley junior Jess Willerson launches a baseline jumper.
McAuley freshman Eva Mazur defends Thornton Academy freshman Alex Hart.
McAuley senior Ayla Tartre looks for a shot.
McAuley junior Jess Willerson leans in for a shot as Thornton Academy senior Abigail Strickland defends.
McAuley’s fan section was colorful and vocal as usual Saturday.
McAuley coach Billy Goodman expresses his displeasure over a call.
McAuley looks on in a daze during the postgame awards. The Lions had won their previous 18 postseason games.
McAuley senior Mary Furlong and Thornton Academy senior Abigail Strickland battle for a rebound during Saturday’s Western Class A Final. Strickland had 13 points to lead the Golden Trojans to a 41-31 victory, ending the Lions’ four-year reign as Class A state champion.
Ben McCanna photos.
More photos below.
TA- 5 6 10 20- 41
M- 7 7 4 13- 31
TA- Strickland 5-2-13, Lux 4-2-10, McCrum 2-5-9, Howe 2-1-5, Hart 1-2-4
M- Dalphonse 2-6-10, Furlong 2-4-8, Willerson 3-2-8, Mazur 1-1-3, Tartre 1-0-2
TA (1) Strickland 1