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Lions roar in home finale

Sports

Lions roar in home finale

PORTLAND—The home fans got one final look at the defending Class A state champion McAuley girls' basketball team Saturday evening.

While the Lions were pushed by rival Cheverus, which put forth a solid effort, consistent conversion of second chances was enough to spell victory on Senior Night.

On an evening where senior standout Alexa Coulombe was held relatively in check, McAuley got 15 points from sophomore Olivia Smith, 14 from sophomore Allie Clement and a superb 11-rebound effort off the bench from junior Molly Mack to spell the difference.

The Lions closed the first half on a 16-5 run to seize control and even though the Stags had their chances to make things interesting in the second half, they could never get closer than 10 points.

McAuley had a 45-26 rebounding edge, forced 18 turnovers and went on to a 57-40 victory, improving to 16-0 with its 20th successive win. Cheverus fell to 10-6 in the process, falling to 0-17 all-time against the Lions.

"We knew we needed to come out strong since (the Stags are) a tough team," Mack said. "They wanted to beat us. We knew they'd come out hard. It's a big rivalry. We had jitters at first, but we worked it out. We had to push all the way through until the end."

Farewell, seniors

Cheverus and McAuley each entered the 2011-12 season with high hopes.

The Lions, of course, are defending Class A champions. They were already coronated as repeat winners in some quarters in the preseason and under new coach Billy Goodman have passed all tests, even though it hasn't always been easy.

McAuley had little trouble in defeating Noble (62-31), Kennebunk (61-18), Portland (60-19), Marshwood (58-34), Bonny Eagle (61-26), Biddeford (60-19) and Windham (41-32). Next came a big time scare, but the Lions survived host Deering in overtime, 30-25. Home victories over Massabesic (51-26) and Thornton Academy (41-36) were followed by a the most impressive statement to date, a 49-37 triumph at Scarborough, which wasn't as close as the final score indicated. McAuley has rolled from there, downing visiting Sanford (45-23), host Gorham (51-26), visiting South Portland (55-24) and visiting Westbrook (64-34, Friday night).

The Stags, who lost a heartbreaker in last year's quarterfinals, to Sanford, won their first five games this winter, downing Biddeford (68-28), Gorham (51-43), Portland (56-40), Westbrook (43-32) and Noble (52-18). After losing at Marshwood, 59-49, Cheverus bounced right back and held off visiting Bonny Eagle, 46-40 and avenged last year's playoff loss with a 31-19 victory at Sanford. Then, the schedule got tougher and the Stags struggled, beginning with a 48-36 home defeat to Scarborough. Losses at Deering (53-37) and Windham (61-58, in double overtime) followed before the Stags got back in the win column versus Massabesic, 64-50. They rallied past visiting South Portland (58-42) and downed visiting Kennebunk (67-44), but Friday, Cheverus was handed a 47-40 loss at Thornton Academy.

The teams first met in the 2002-03 season, when McAuley was the defending (and soon to be repeat) champion and as expected, the first-year Stags couldn't handle the Lions in an 88-30 loss.

McAuley continued to dominate the rivalry (please see sidebar), until Richie Ashley arrived as Cheverus coach for the 2007-08 season. That year, the teams played just once and the Lions only prevailed by six, 47-41. The following winter, the Stags went to McAuley for a preliminary round playoff game, which was a thriller. The Lions pulled it out, 33-27. Two years ago, McAuley beat Cheverus by seven and eight points, respectively. Last season, just before Christmas, the Lions went to Cheverus and somehow managed to rally for a dramatic 45-42 win. McAuley then had no trouble at home against the Stags in the rematch, 58-39.

Saturday, in the latest installment of what many allude to as the "Holy War," little came easily for the Lions, but they found a way to prevail nonetheless.

The early phase of the game featured more of the officials than the players as numerous fouls were called, causing problems for both squads.

McAuley broke the ice just 10 seconds in when Smith was fouled and made both free throws. Clement added a foul shot to make it 3-0, but Cheverus senior Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy countered with a pair from the stripe and junior Brooke Flaherty added one to tie the game, 3-3.

With 5:23 to go in the first period, Lions freshman Victoria Lux made two free throws to put the home team ahead to stay. Twenty seconds later, Clement buried a 3 for the game's first field goal. After Flaherty scored on a putback and Palazzi-Leahy made a foul shot, Clement hit a jumper and sophomore Jackie Welch buried a long jumper for a 12-6 advantage.

After Stags sophomore Georgia Ford, always a sparkplug off the bench, made a jumper, Mack made her presence felt, grabbing an offensive rebound (one of her seven in the half), getting fouled and making two free throws.

"That's what Molly Mack does," Goodman said. "She's aggressive. She gets offensive and defensive rebounds and plays great defense. She does a lot of things well."

Cheverus would close the quarter on a high note, however, as Ford made a free throw, junior Kylie Libby scored on a nice scoop shot and Palazzi-Leahy hit a bank shot to make it a 14-13 game after eight minutes.

McAuley then seized control with a 22-8 second quarter.

After Clement hit one of her patented pullup jumpers, senior Sadie DiPierro was fouled on a 3-pointer and made two free throws. Stags junior Mikayla Mayberry made a foul shot, but Lux set up Smith for a pretty left-handed layup and a 20-14 lead. Flaherty answered with two free throws, but the Lions then went on a run to seize control.

The surge started when Coulombe scored her first point, at the line. After Smith got an offensive rebound, she fed Clement, who drained a 3. Coulombe followed with a turnaround, fadeaway jumper for a 26-16 advantage.

After Flaherty made a jumper, Mack and Ford traded free throws. Clement then sank another 3-ball, as DiPierro set her up off an inbounds pass.

"I've worked on getting some arc on my shot," Clement said. "It was falling."

"(Allie) struggled a week ago, but she came in and practiced her shot and it's gotten a lot better," Goodman said. "She's working hard. I'm glad to see it go in."

With a little over a minute to go before halftime, McAuley had a possession which saw the initial shot miss, but Mack and Welch both attempted putbacks before Coulombe finally finished the job with a putback. Mack, after yet another offensive board, was fouled and made two free throws and after Ford hit foul shots at the other end, DiPierro ran the clock down before splitting the defense to make a layup as time ran out, pushing the Lions' lead to 36-21.

"The last shot of the half, Sadie let the clock tick down, took it to the hoop and made a big bucket," Goodman said.

Both teams shot a lot of free throws and had a similar number of turnovers in the first half, but the difference was McAuley's overwhelming 25-11 advantage on the glass.

Cheverus came out for the second half with a lot of energy and got a jumper from Flaherty, a driving layup from Palazzi-Leahy and a Palazzi-Leahy foul shot to make it 36-26, but Coulombe set up Smith for a layup, Coulombe made a layup after a baseline drive and Smith's puback with 3:23 to go in the third quarter made it a 42-26 contest.

The Stags again rallied as Ford made a 3, sophomore Sadie Lyons hit a foul shot and after Welch made two free throws for the Lions, Flaherty made a leaner, was fouled and hit the free throw for an old-fashioned three-point play, cutting the deficit to 44-33 entering the final stanza.

Early in the fourth, McAuley wasn't able to put Cheverus away, but the visitors weren't able to cut the deficit to single digits.

"We had to exert so much energy defensively to get stops," Ashley said. "We just didn't have enough left at that point."

Finally, after nearly three scoreless minutes, Smith was fouled and made two free throws. She added another with four minutes remaining, Lux made a layup (set up by a pass from Mack) and with 2:35 showing, DiPierro sank one free throw to make the score, 50-33, Lions.

After a Flaherty putback was answered by two Coulombe foul shots, Lux set up Smith for another layup. Stags junior Eden Monsen made a layup, but Coulombe passed to Smith for a layup and a 56-37 advantage. Lyons and Coulombe traded foul shots, before both coaches emptied the bench. Two free throws from Monsen capped the 57-40 McAuley win.

"Whenever we play Cheverus, we know we'll get their best game," Clement said. "It's always been that way and it will always be that way. No matter what anyone's record is, it will always be a good game."

"I'm glad we won," Coulombe said. "It was a good game. We got pumped up before the game, but we played like it was any other game. We expected a lot of pressure and outside shooting and the drive and kick. We did a good job executing the offense. We know we'll get offensive rebounds and second looks. "

"They came out and played good D and we missed some shots early, but my seniors and Jackie Welch and Molly Mack stepped up," Goodman added. "The girls did their job. The girls dug down and played good halfcourt D. We got in foul trouble and didn't play disciplined defense, but when it mattered most, they played good defense The girls have played much better the past three weeks. The light switch went on before the Scarborough game."

Smith, despite plenty of foul trouble early, wound up with 15 points, seven rebounds (four offensive) and a steal.

"I tried to be a little conservative with three fouls," Smith said. "I tried to avoid fouls and tried to stay up as much as I could. It wasn't just me. Everyone worked on pressuring the ball and denying the wings. It was just a team effort in the end."

"I think (Olivia's) grown a lot this past year," said Coulombe. "Before, (fouls) would have gotten to her, but she did a good job putting it behind her."

"(Olivia) did a good job playing in foul trouble," Goodman added. "We try to manage fouls. She didn't get down when things got bad. She kept coming. She's a mentally tough kid."

Clement didn't score in the second half, yet had 14 points (including three 3's), six boards and two steals.

Coulombe, who's grandfather passed away earlier this week, wasn't her usual dominant self, but still had 10 points and nine rebounds.

"It's kind of sad," said Coulombe, who leads the league in blocked shots and assists and is second in rebounds. "I tried not to think about it being my last game. I never thought (my basketball experience here) would be like what it is now. It's such a special place. So many of my friends who play basketball don't have this. I couldn't ask for four better years. I'll miss it."

McAuley certainly won't be the same without her.

"Alexa made my freshman year a lot easier," Clement said. "She leads the team completely. She knows exactly what she's doing. She'll be so successful in college. She's such a great person and I'm so lucky to have been on the team with her for two years, along with the other seniors."

"(Alexa's) had a long week," Goodman said. "I'm very impressed with how she handled the week. She's a teenage kid who had Senior Night the week she lost a special grandparent. That's tough to take. You wouldn't know it. She's a special player."

DiPierro had five points (and two steals). Mack added five points and a whopping 11 rebounds.

"I know I have to get rebounds since that's my No. 1 job," Mack said. "I'm not a scorer. Coach tells me to get rebounds."

"Molly crashes the boards all the time," Coulombe said. "She'll take me out in practice. She comes from nowhere. She doesn't get in the box score, but she's so good for our team."

Lux (eight rebounds and a blocked shot) and Welch each finished with four points.

Of McAuley's 45 rebounds, more than half (24) came on the offensive end.  The Lions did have 16 turnovers and made 22-of-34 free throws.

Normally unheralded seniors Mary Leasure, Kate Liziewski, Monia Mukiza and Morgan Wheeler seeing the floor at the end of the Senior Night contest was a nice touch.

"It meant a lot to them to get on the floor in such a big game," Clement said. "They're such great people. Everyone loves each other. We're such best friends."

"The seniors have worked hard all season in practice and they were rewarded today," Mack said. "We'll miss them a lot."

"I tried to get them in there and they all got in," Goodman said. "They do a lot for this team that no one knows about. That's why we're close."

Cheverus got yet another steady effort out of Flaherty, who had 14 points and five rebounds. Ford added nine points before fouling out. Palazzi-Leahy, four in the league in scoring and second in made 3-pointers, had eight points, but thanks to Clement's defense, didn't hit one shot from behind the arc.

"We practiced face guarding her all week," Clement said. "We didn't let her get anything easy."

"We face guarded her the whole time," Coulombe said. "Everyone that switched out on her did a good job."

Munson added four points, Libby (six boards and two steals) and Lyons each had two and Mayberry finished with one.

The Stags turned the ball over 18 times and sank 17-of-28 foul shots.

"I'm happy with the way we played," Ashley said. "I thought we played hard. I'm proud. The bench was awesome. We had great attitudes. I was happy for the kids who got in. I thought we scrapped and played 32 minutes. They hurt us inside. Offensive rebounds and second chances killed us. They're a good team. They're undefeated for a reason. I think their size hurt us a little bit. We missed some free throws. The game wasn't indicative of a 20-point score. Overall, I was pleased."

Two left

Cheverus (now seventh in the Western Class A Heal Points standings) finishes the regular season with a big home test versus Deering (the other team the Stags have never defeated) Thursday and a home tilt with Portland Friday.

Based on the confidence gained from Saturday night's effort, Cheverus hopes to finish strong and be a factor as it seeks its first ever victory in the tournament (which begins Monday, Feb. 20).

"Hopefully we'll stay seventh and get a prelim game and get the monkey off our back," Ashley said. "We want to be playing well at the end of the season and see what happens. If we continue with the attitude we have, who knows? It's difficult to play in here. For all the high school gyms for girls, this is the biggest advantage any team has. If we play at the Civic Center or Expo, maybe it's a different story."

McAuley will lock up the top spot if it wins its final two contests, at Portland Tuesday and at South Portland Friday.

The Lions have lived up to billing as a top contender and appear to peaking at the optimal time, but they still can improve over the next several weeks.

"I'm very excited," said Clement. "I think we are still going strong, but there's always room for improvement. Hopefully, we'll have our best game March 3rd at the Civic Center (in the state final). We have to definitely work on not fouling. We're known for good defense. We have to get back to where we have been. "

"We need to get better rotation on defense and move the ball on offense," Coulombe said.

"We still have work to do," said Mack. "We'll have tough games. We have to play hard in practice."

"It's been just an amazing ride," Smith said. "It feels like we just started. We have another month, hopefully. We have to keep our heads. We can't be too confident."

"We can definitely improve on tonight," Goodman added. "We've been slowly getting better since the Scarborough game. There's still more to go. We have two more games to work on stuff, then the tournament starts. The record's nice, but the key is getting better."

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at mhoffer@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

Photo: Jason Veilleux / For The Forecaster

Cheverus junior Brooke Flaherty goes up for a first half shot while McAuley freshman Victoria Lux defends. Flaherty led the Stags with 14 points.

Photo: Jason Veilleux / For The Forecaster

McAuley freshman Victoria Lux runs in to the tough defense of Cheverus junior Brooke Flaherty.

Photo: Jason Veilleux / For The Forecaster

Cheverus senior Alexandra Palazzi-Leahy looks to shoot over McAuley junior Molly Mack. Mack came off the bench to grab 11 rebounds.

Photo: Jason Veilleux / For The Forecaster

McAuley sophomore Olivia Smith floats a shot over Cheverus defenders. Smith, despite foul trouble, led all scorers with 15 points.

Photo: Jason Veilleux / For The Forecaster

McAuley sophomore Allie Clement attempts to shoot over Cheverus junior Brooke Flaherty.