McAuley takes care of business against Gorham
PORTLAND—You might be able to hold the McAuley Lions in check for awhile, but not for 32 minutes and once these Lions start to roar, it's something to behold.
Monday evening in a Western Class A girls' basketball quarterfinal, top-ranked, two-time defending state champion McAuley was flustered for over a quarter by No. 8 Gorham. The Lions led by a mere point, 9-8, heading for the second period and after the Rams tied it on a free throw and almost put McAuley behind in the tournament for the first time in nearly two calendar years, the Lions hit their stride.
A jumper from junior standout Allie Clement put McAuley ahead to stay and sparked a half-ending 17-2 run to give the Lions a 26-11 lead at the break. McAuley never looked back from there and went on to a 46-31 victory, its 45th in a row.
Clement and junior Jackie Welch (who canned four 3-pointers) led the way with 12 points apiece, while freshman Sarah Clement added 10 as the Lions improved to 19-0, ended Gorham's year at 12-8 and advanced to square off against fourth-ranked Scarborough (16-3) in the semifinal round Friday at 6 p.m., at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
"We started out slow," said McAuley coach Billy Goodman. "Again. We haven't started games off good this year. Once we got going and started moving the ball, it got much better."
McAuley's quest for a third straight championship, something last done in Class A almost 20 years ago by the Cindy Blodgett-led Lawrence Bulldogs, began with a series of easy victories, as the Lions defeated visiting Noble (77-12), visiting Kennebunk (84-30), host Portland (74-25), visiting Marshwood (75-24), host Bonny Eagle (71-41), host Biddeford (60-19) and visiting Windham (72-32). As expected, rival visiting Deering gave McAuley a test in a matchup best remembered for poor floor conditions causing an overnight suspension, 43-35. The Lions then defeated host Massabesic (86-44), Thornton Academy (64-38) and Cheverus (51-30), visiting Scarborough, 65-42, visiting Gorham (72-38), host Sanford (61-35), host South Portland (75-48), host Westbrook (67-37), visiting Portland (68-33) and visiting South Portland (53-11) to finish the year 18-0 and earn the top seed for the second straight winter.
Gorham, which was ousted in the preliminary round last season, went 11-7 this year, good for the No. 8 seed. The Rams overcame an 0-3 start to the year and had win streaks of three- and four-games. Wednesday, in the preliminary round, Gorham punched its ticket to the Expo with a 58-47 home win over No. 9 Windham.
Monday, Gorham played its heart out and even made the Lions sweat for awhile, but McAuley finally dialed it up in the second period and never looked back.
The Lions scored first on a jumper from Allie Clement. After the Rams tied the game on two foul shots from sophomore Abby Hamilton, Welch started to heat up, taking a pass from junior Olivia Smith and making a 3. Hamilton answered with a pullup jumper, but Smith scored after a spin move and Clement got a jumper to drop after it hit the rim.
Gorham finished the quarter strong, however, as senior Lexi Merrifield scored on a leaner, then on a putback to cut the deficit to 9-8.
"We've gotten off to bad starts," Welch said. "We have to fix that. We were stagnant the first quarter-and-a-half. We didn't move the ball sufficiently and weren't hitting our shots."
When Merrifield went to the line 22 seconds into the second period, she had a chance to do something not seen the past couple seasons.
After tying the score with her first attempt, Merrifield could have put McAuley behind in a tournament game for the first time since 1:11 remained in the epic Western A Final versus Deering Feb. 28, 2011. Ever since last year's Miss Maine Basketball Alexa Coulombe converted a three-point play with that much time on the clock to put the Lions ahead to stay in that instant classic, McAuley hadn't trailed for a single second in the tournament, a span of all or part of six games.
Merrifield was unable to end that remarkable streak, however, as her second free throw was no good.
Allie Clement then kicked the Lions into gear with a jumper with 7:30 to go in the half.
By halftime, the contest was all but over.
That's because McAuley put all its skills (with a dash of luck mixed in) on display.
After Sarah Clement extended the lead with a 3, Welch took a pass from inbounder Allie Clement and threw up a 3 that hit the rim, took an unexpected bounce, then dropped through the net. At the other end, a Gorham layup hung on the rim but fell harmlessly off, suggesting that the Expo baskets are in awe of the Lions as well.
Allie Clement made a leaner after a steal while being fouled and added the free throw to complete an old-fashioned three-point play, Smith hit a leaner and in a gorgeous display of fastbreak basketball, Welch passed to sophomore Victoria Lux, who hit Sarah Clement for a layup with the ball never touching the floor.
"We showed how good we can be (at times) and we also showed why we need to get back to work tomorrow," Goodman said. "When we move the ball like that and our guards play with confidence, it helps."
Sophomore Laura Holman, who gave her team strong minutes off the bench added a layup after a nice spin move and just like that, McAuley had a commanding 26-9 lead.
"We've been working really hard," Holman said. "We've practiced defense. Our offense comes and goes. It usually falls into place. I see myself as a rebounder and a defender mostly. If I do get on offense, I pass it around mostly. There's a little pressure, but I feel like we try to keep each other's heads up."
"Laura's been doing great," Goodman said. "She's really getting experience at this level. She rebounds, she plays defense. She's had a good couple weeks. Her confidence gets better every day."
With 1:12 to go before halftime, Gorham junior Emily Deluca scored on a running bank shot, finally ending the 17-0 Lions' run and a 6 minute, 26 second Rams' drought.
McAuley put it away in the second half.
Allie Clement opened the third period with a 3-pointer which rolled around the rim and in.
Gorham's Binghamton University-bound senior standout Kristin Ross then got her offense going, scoring on a short jumper before converting a three-point play to cut the deficit to 29-16, but Welch took a pass from Sarah Clement and hit a momentum-killing 3. Hamilton made a layup, but one more time, Welch buried a shot from behind the arc and it was 35-18.
"I felt pretty good shooting," Welch said. "Sometimes I don't always take advantage when I have a hot hand. I'm glad I made my shots."
"Jackie has been working on her passing and when you forget about shooting, it happens," said Goodman. "We've stressed better passing and now she's shooting."
A layup after a steal from sophomore Olivia Dalphonse was countered by a Ross layup and the Lions led, 37-20, heading for the fourth quarter.
There, Lions sophomore Ayla Tartre made a baseline jumper, Hamilton answered with two free throws, but senior captain Molly Mack made a jumper for a 41-22 lead.
After Ross canned a jump shot, Sarah Clement made a layup after a steal. The Rams pulled within 43-28 thanks to a layup from senior Erin Smith and a pullup jumper from Hamilton, but Sarah Clement (assisted by Dalphonse) hit a 3 for McAuley's final points. A putback from sophomore Ashley Woodbury and a free throw from sophomore MacKenzie Bowers allowed Gorham to make the final score, 46-31.
It was McAuley's second closest game of the season and the win didn't come easily, but the first bridge to another championship had been crossed.
"I don't think we have pressure," Goodman said. "I just don't think we executed today. You have to give Gorham credit. They played tough, physical defense on us and caused us to not be comfortable."
The Lions placed eight girls in the scoring column as Allie Clement and Welch each had a dozen points, Sarah Clement added 10, Smith had four and Dalphonse, Holman, Mack and Tartre two apiece. Lux didn't score, but had four assists, four rebounds and two steals.
"We're lucky that we're building depth," Welch said. "We're eight deep, but we'd like to go nine or 10. Depth makes all the difference in the world."
McAuley made seven 3-pointers to none for Gorham, had a 23-16 rebounding advantage (Smith led the way with five, while Holman, Lux and Welch all collected four) and forced 16 turnovers, while committing 15. The Lions made just 1-of-6 free throws.
Gorham was paced by Hamilton's 10 points. Ross had a quiet nine as the Lions' defense managed to neutralize her effectiveness for much of the game.
"Ross was our main focal point," Welch said. "I doubled down on her. We were keying on her."
"We played man-to-man and if she attacked, we had help," Goodman said. "Olivia did a good job on her to start the game. Molly did a great job on her. That's what Molly does."
Merrifield added five points, while Deluca, Smith and Woodbury had two apiece and Bowers finished with one. Merrifield led the team with six boards, while Ross added five. Ross blocked two shots. The Rams made 7-of-13 free throws.
McAuley will return to action Friday, at the Civic Center, where it has enjoyed so much success over the years (a 25-4 record since 2000). In addition to trying to keep their season and win streak alive, the Lions will enter on a mind-boggling run of 161 minutes and 11 seconds of not trailing in the postseason.
"I don't think about that stuff," Goodman said. "You have to give the girls all the credit. They're the ones doing it."
The Lions have beaten Scarborough on four straight occasions, including 61-43, in last year's regional final, the lone prior playoff meeting between the schools.
In the regular season game, McAuley wound up winning by 23, but the Red Storm was within single digits in the second half and will certainly give the Lions a test.
"We'll look to press break against Scarborough because they're so scrappy and quick," Welch said.
"Hopefully the next game, we'll come out and execute better," said Goodman. "(Scarborough will) bring it. Gorham played us tough like Scarborough will play us tough. We know what we'll get. They're well-coached and have players who know how to win. After tonight, we won't take anything lightly."