McAuley surges past TA in second half for 49th win in a row
PORTLAND—The "Roar for Four" is underway.
Three-time defending Class A girls' basketball champion McAuley opened its quest for a history-making fourth by struggling in the first half against dangerous, visiting Thornton Academy and it clung to just a two-point lead at halftime Friday evening.
While the Lions seemingly were seeking an identity in the first 16 minutes, as coach Billy Goodman played a dozen different players, the second half saw some familiar names step to the fore.
Underappreciated senior Jackie Welch provided an emotional boost at the start of the half and senior standout Allie Clement, who battled foul trouble early, hit some clutch shots to open it up.
Then, junior secret weapon Ayla Tartre stepped up, scoring 11 points in the best game of her varsity life and McAuley pulled away for a 51-36 victory, its 49th in succession and 19th in a row on its homecourt.
Clement led the Lions with 16 points, Welch added 10 and McAuley remained unbeaten in season openers this century, dropping the plucky Golden Trojans to 0-1 in the process.
"Thornton's a very good team," said Goodman, who improved to 45-0 as the Lions' coach. "We'll get this all year. We have a new team. We have to find a way to play better. We're just trying to figure it out."
Meeting the challenge
Last winter, McAuley won its 22 games by an average of over 31 points and was never seriously tested in the fourth quarter.
The Lions were expected to run similarly roughshod over this winter's opponents, but injuries and departures have brought them somewhat back to pack.
For starters, last year's heart and soul, Molly Mack, has graduated and is now playing at St. Joseph's College. Junior Laura Holman transferred to Cheverus earlier this school year and two key contributors, senior Olivia Smith and sophomore Sarah Clement, are sidelined (Smith is recovering from an injured knee and is expected back within weeks, while Clement will miss the season with an ACL tear).
Thornton Academy, meanwhile, returned four starters from a 12-8 squad (which lost, 33-25, to Deering in the Western A quarterfinals) and appears primed to make a serious run this winter.
Entering the game, McAuley hadn't lost to the Golden Trojans this century. Last winter, the Lions won in Saco, 64-38.
This time around, McAuley showed that it will have to contend with some growing pains, but it also demonstrated that it is capable of overcoming adversity in dizzying fashion.
The first points of the new season came 14 seconds in when Lions junior standout Victoria Lux went to the line and made two foul shots.
Thornton Academy answered when junior Katie McCrum hinted at a big night to come with a putback, but Allie Clement made a floater for McAuley's first field goal of the season.
McCrum tied the score for the final time with a jump shot before Lux put the Lions ahead to stay with a free throw.
McAuley's first 3-point shot of the year came (not surprisingly) from Clement with 3:48 to play in the first period and the Lions stretched their lead to 10-4 when sophomore Margaret Hatch (a transfer from Greely) added two foul shots.
McCrum cut the deficit in half with a 3-ball, but junior Mary Furlong countered with a free throw for McAuley. After sophomore Ashley Howe made two foul shots for the visitors, Welch set up Lux for a layup and Lux, after being followed on an offensive rebound, hit a free throw to make it 14-9 Lions after eight minutes of play.
The second quarter wouldn't feature many McAuley highlights, other then constant substitutions as Goodman tried desperately to establish a rhythm.
Thornton Academy got two free throws from Shaw to start the period, but Welch made a jump shot and sophomore Brooke Howard did the same for an 18-11 advantage.
"Our biggest goal is to be a deep team," Welch said. "That's invaluable. We can go 12 deep. We have people out, but others can step up. We welcome adversity. We look forward to it, actually."
"I've got a bunch of kids battling for time," Goodman said. "I threw them out there to see who could do it. I trust every girl who goes in there to play good D. That's where it starts."
Back came the visitors again as McCrum made both ends of a one-and-one, Shaw hit a free throw, then Shaw made two foul shots to make it an 18-16 game.
With 45 seconds to go in the half, Clement set up junior Pam Mukiza for a layup, snapping a 4 minute, 44 second drought, but McCrum drained a baseline jumper with five seconds to go and the Lions went to halftime clinging to a 20-18 lead.
McAuley suddenly found itself at a crossroads and didn't panic.
"At halftime, we talked about spreading it out and calming down," Clement said. "We're usually a good, strong defensive team. We didn't play like that (in the first half)."
Just 17 seconds in, Welch stole the ball and made a layup. She then stole it again and fed Clement for a layup to push the lead to 24-18 just 30 seconds into the new half.
"Coach really emphasized that the third quarter had to be ours," Welch said. "It set the tone."
"We came out in the third quarter, which is our favorite quarter, and we came out with a bang," Clement said. "Jackie got some rebounds, steals and assists. She did a little of everything. We really needed that."
McCrum got two points back for Thornton Academy, but Clement made a bank shot and Welch converted a driving layup for a 28-20 advantage.
After Golden Trojans freshman Isabella Robinson made two free throws, Welch set up Clement for a clutch 3 and Tartre scored her first points on a layup, giving McAuley a commanding 33-22 lead after three quarters.
"I was a little nervous (in the first half) because Saco's my hometown, so it was a big deal for me," Tartre said. "I got over the nerves. During halftime, Coach told me to shoot more and be more aggressive. It did that and it paid off."
"I told Ayla she couldn't play scared," Goodman said. "She had to shoot the ball. She attacked and moved the ball around. She started out the season struggling, but she had three great days of practice. She was my best practice player. She earned her start with her defense. I love coaching her. It's great to see a kid practice well then produce in a game. I'm really happy for her. She's worked her way up through the program. She wants it bad."
Any Thornton Academy comeback hopes were immediately dashed in the fourth period as Clement weaved her way through the defense for a layup, then made two free throws to make the score 37-22.
McCrum set up senior Hannah Murphy for a jump shot (the Golden Trojans' first field goal of the second half), then kept it herself for a runner off the glass to cut the deficit to 11, but Clement set up Welch for a layup and Lux added a free throw for a 40-26 advantage with 4:18 remaining.
After McCrum scored on a runner off the glass, Tartre drove the baseline and finished with a layup, then made a foul shot to push the lead to 43-28 with 2:48 left.
After Murphy sank two foul shots, Tartre answered to push the lead back to 15. Junior Abigail Strickland made a free throw for the visitors, but Tartre sank both ends of a one-and-one, then finished another layup to make it 49-31.
Shaw hit two free throws for the Golden Trojans, but Welch scored McAuley's final two points at the line. Robinson made a 3 with 27 seconds to go, but that only pulled Thornton Academy within 15 and the Lions put the finishing touches on their 51-36 victory.
"It's great to have a game like this at the beginning," Clement said. "We know we have a lot to work on. Every game will be a tough game. TA's a great team. They battled. Katie and Olivia Shaw are awesome."
"We had to get back to basics," said Goodman. "Our defense was undisciplined. That's my fault. We moved the ball better on offense in the second half. The effort's there."
Clement led the way for McAuley with 16 points.
Tartre had a career high 11 points.
"Ayla did an incredible job on (Olivia Shaw) on defense," said Clement. "She did the little things tonight. She's worked so hard."
Welch had 10 points.
"Jackie filled the stat sheet," Goodman said. "She had steals, some assists, some points. She's one of my smartest defenders. If her shot's not there, she'll do everything else."
Lux finished with seven points, while Hatch, Howard and Mukiza all had two points and Furlong added one.
The Lions had a slight 33-29 rebounding edge, as Lux led all players with 10 (she also had three blocked shots), junior Olivia Dalphonse collected six (to go with four steals), Clement and Tartre both had five and Welch finished with four.
McAuley turned the ball over 15 times, but made 17 of 23 foul shots.
McCrum had a game-high 17 points, scoring six of her team's eight field goals. Shaw added seven points, Robinson had five, Murphy four, Howe two and Strickland one.
Shaw had a team-high seven boards, while Murphy snared six and McCrum and Strickland each collected four. Strickland had both of her team's blocks.
Thornton Academy made 17 of 25 free throws, but was hindered by 17 turnovers.
"I think there were some early game nerves, but I thought it was more our execution than our effort," said Golden Trojans coach Eric Marston. "We were quite intense from start to finish. They're the multi-time state champs for a reason. Their execution was a little better than ours. I think we matched their effort. It was a two point game at half. They got a little momentum in the third quarter. They knocked down what seemed like all their foul shots and we missed a few. We had some good looks, but we missed open shots."
Just getting started
Thornton Academy is back in action Tuesday when it opens the home portion of its schedule versus Deering in a playoff rematch.
McAuley is home again Tuesday, versus Massabesic, then has its first road test against dangerous Gorham Friday.
The Lions still have a long way to go.
"We'll be ready," Welch said. "We won't be complacent. We need to work on boxing out, not fouling. We have to jell and know the offense. Pretty much everything."
"If we all go out and play our hardest, we'll be 10 times better than we are," Tartre said. "A lot of teams want to beat us this year. That gives us more drive."