Cheverus comes oh-so-close, but lionhearted McAuley finds a way to extend streaks
PORTLAND—After 10 years of trying and 19 straight losses, it looked as if the Cheverus girls' basketball team was finally going to break through against powerhouse McAuley Saturday night.
The visiting Stags came out and took it to the three-time defending Class A champion Lions from the get-go, matched them basket for basket and oozed intensity and drive.
Cheverus led by a point at halftime and extended its advantage to 30-25 early in the third period behind dynamic post play from sophomore Jess Willerson and junior Laura Holman, who spent her first two years at McAuley.
You just can't stop a team that has the heart of a Lion, however, and in the end, McAuley did what it always does when it lines up against the Stags.
The Lions pulled even just before the end of the third on a layup from junior Victoria Lux. Then, in the fourth, senior standout Allie Clement reminded everyone why she's the best, most clutch player in the state.
Clement opened the final stanza with a 3-pointer, then, after the Stags tied the game on a 3-ball from their talented senior Georgia Ford, Clement sank another 3 to put the Lions on top to stay.
Down the stretch, McAuley made just enough plays to hold on and went on to a 47-39 victory, its eighth in a row this winter and 56th straight dating back to February of 2011.
Clement led all scorers with 22 points, Lux added a dozen and the Lions improved to 20-0 all time against the valiant Stags, who fell to 4-3 on the season.
"It was definitely scary," said Clement, the prohibitive Miss Maine Basketball favorite. "We came together. We realized if we didn't get a hold of things, we might lose the game and none of us were willing to let that happen, especially to Cheverus."
No stopping the roar
While much attention is paid to the "Holy War" (a designation disliked by both schools), it has been completely one-sided for its decade-long existence (please see sidebar, below, for complete results and links to prior game stories).
Cheverus' first varsity meeting with McAuley in the 2002-03 season resulted in the defending and soon-to-be-repeat champion Lions romping, 88-30. The first nine meetings in fact, saw McAuley win by an average of 36 points.
The Stags began to make things competitive in the 2007-08 campaign, the first for coach Richie Ashley, when they took McAuley to the wire in a 47-41 loss at Cheverus. The next season, the Lions won by 15 at home in the regular season, but the teams met again in the preliminary round and this time, McAuley only prevailed by six, 33-27.
The Lions won by seven and eight points respectively in 2009-10 and then the Stags had their best chance at victory four days before Christmas in the 2010-11 season. Host Cheverus led most of the way and McAuley didn't go on top for good until Rebecca Knight converted a three-point play with a mere 30 seconds left. Clement, then a freshman, added a foul shot and the Lions held on, 45-42. They took the rematch at McAuley, 58-39.
Two years ago, the Lions won the only meeting with relative ease, 57-40, at home, and last winter, McAuley had no trouble at Cheverus in the regular season, 51-30. The teams met again in the Western A Final and a game that appeared early as if it would be a Lions' romp instead turned very interesting down the stretch as twice the Stags pulled within four, but McAuley hit its free throws to win, 47-36.
While the Lions have owned Cheverus, they've pretty much run roughshod over everyone else as well and entered the game on a three-year, 55-game win streak, which included seven in a row to start the 2013-14 campaign.
McAuley pulled away in the second half to beat visiting Thornton Academy in the opener, 51-36, then dispatched visiting Massabesic (68-22) and rallied late to edge host Gorham, 65-59. A 46-33 victory at Deering and a 72-18 romp at Noble followed. Monday night, the Lions put forth an impressive effort in routing visiting Windham, 74-29, a game best remembered for Clement surpassing the 1,000 career point mark. Friday, McAuley had no trouble with visiting Biddeford, 60-25.
Cheverus, meanwhile, opened by downing visiting Windham (46-33) and host Bonny Eagle (68-29) before stumbling at Thornton Academy (47-42). After a 75-29 home romp over Massabesic, the Stags won at Deering (65-42), then couldn't hold a halftime lead and lost at Portland (62-60).
Saturday, in front of a full and boisterous house in Lionland, McAuley was staggered early, but showing its champion's heart, dug deep and made the plays when it mattered most.
Willerson set the tone just 13 seconds in, sinking a jump shot for a quick 2-0 lead. Ford then scored on a putback with 7:16 to play in the first period and Lions coach Billy Goodman quickly sent junior Ayla Tartre into the game to provide a spark.
Tartre, who started while senior Dartmouth College-bound standout Olivia Smith was recovering from a knee injury, did that very thing, getting fouled after an offensive rebound and making a free throw to put her team on the board.
The Stags bounced right back to go up, 6-1, as junior Laura Holman, who played at McAuley as a freshman and sophomore, took a pass from senior Sadie Lyons and made a layup.
The hosts then got their offense going, as Clement made her first of five 3-pointers and with 3:39 to go in the frame, senior Jackie Welch set up Tartre for a 3 and the Lions' first lead, 7-6.
"Olivia's going D1, so I'm more than happy to give up my starting spot," said Tartre. "I knew I was a fresh pair of legs out there and I had to amp it up."
"Ayla's started a lot of games for us," said Goodman. "She does so much for the team. She tries so hard. I've loved coaching her. She does her job very well."
After Cheverus went back on top on a Holman jumper, Tartre made a free throw, Lux scored her first point from the line and Smith scored on a pullup jumper in transition, but Lyons hit a free throw and with 38 seconds left, junior Jill Libby set up senior Cassidy Grover for a layup which deadlocked the game, 11-11, after eight minutes.
There was little separation in the second quarter as Cheverus continued to let everyone on hand know it wasn't going to go away.
Clement took a pass from Welch and sank a 3 36 seconds in, but Willerson countered with a putback. After a layup from Lux, Holman made a jumper and Willerson managed to bank home a spinner to give the visitors a 17-16 lead.
The Lions went back on top when Smith fed Clement for a highlight reel left-handed layup, but Holman made a free throw and Lyons scored on a putback for a 20-18 Stags' advantage.
With 2:42 to go before halftime, Clement sank another 3 (again assisted by Welch), but the hosts wouldn't score again before the break and a pair of Willerson free throws made it 22-21 Cheverus at the half.
The Stags got eight points from Willerson and seven from Holman and enjoyed a 22-13 rebounding edge in the first 16 minutes, which allowed them to overcome 11 turnovers and 11 points from Clement.
McAuley hadn't played well and the Lions heard about it in the locker room, as Goodman evoked a former star player as inspiration.
"I walked in the locker room and said, 'Where's Molly Mack?' Goodman said, alluding to the recently graduated team leader, who is now playing at St. Joseph's College. "They knew what that means. Bottom line, I got on Allie, Vic and Olivia and I feel they responded nicely."
"In the first half, we were slacking on blocking out and that was a huge problem," said Clement. "They were getting putbacks and that shouldn't have been happening. We weren't shocked, but we were disappointed in how we were playing. We wanted to come out and prove ourselves. We needed to wake up and play defense and get back to what we knew how to do."
Forty-five seconds into the second half, Smith was fouled after Welch kept play alive with an offensive rebound and sank two free throws to put McAuley back on top, 23-22, but again, Cheverus responded as Holman hit a jumper and Willerson banked home a shot. Clement set up Smith for a layup, but Willerson banked home a shot over Smith's outstretched arms and with 4:43 to play in the third, Willerson knocked down a baseline jumper for a 30-25 lead.
Suddenly, the prospect of an upset and history being made were in play, but the Lions were about to reassert control.
A Lux free throw started to turn the tide. Lux then banked home a long shot to cut the deficit to two. After Willerson set up Holman for a jumper, Lux and Willerson picked up their third fouls. Lux stayed on the floor, however, and took a pass from Clement for a layup, then took a pass from Smith and made a left-handed layup to tie the score, 32-32, heading for the final stanza.
There, Clement reminded everyone why she's been one of the best and most clutch players in the state since she first put on a McAuley uniform.
A mere 13 seconds into the fourth, off an inbounds play, Clement took a pass from junior Olivia Dalphonse and calmly buried a 3 for the Lions' first lead in almost seven minutes.
Lux was then whistled for her fourth foul before Ford took a pass from Grover and canned a 3 to make it 35-35 with 6:31 to go.
Clement wouldn't be denied, however, using a Smith screen to get free for another 3 and she found nothing but net with 5:46 left and McAuley had the lead for good, 38-35.
"I looked for my shot," Clement said. "It just kind of worked out that way. I knew we needed points. Vic and Olivia were struggling a little bit. I took some shots and was happy they went in, then everyone got involved. That rubbed off on everyone.
The game was far from over, however.
First, Libby set up Holman for a fastbreak layup to make it a one point game.
With 4:01 to go, Clement got a jumper to rattle in, restoring the three-point cushion, 40-37.
Eighteen seconds later, Clement made a driving layup for a little breathing room.
With 2:40 to go, Libby set up Grover for a layup to make it 42-39, but that proved to be the Stags' final hoop.
With 2:19 showing, Lux, ignoring her foul issues, took a pass from Welch, made a nice spin move, then finished to make it a five-point game, 44-39.
"I had to play smart, knowing I had four fouls," Lux said.
"(Vic and Olivia) had a rough time in the post, but finally got it going," said Clement. "We needed some easy buckets. We passed around the perimeter then got it in to her."
After Grover missed at the other end, Smith got the rebound and Tartre was fouled. She missed the front end of a one-and-one, however, and the Stags had another chance, but Willerson was finally off target (barely) and Lux got the rebound.
With 1:01 to go, Clement went to the line, but she kept the door open by missing the front end of a one-and-one.
Cheverus wasn't able to get the ball back, however, as Smith managed to get the rebound.
Then, with 53 seconds to play, Lux made two free throws and the Lions were close enough to taste victory.
After a Stags' turnover, then a miss from Willerson, Clement went to the line with two seconds to go and brought the curtain down on the 47-39 victory with one free throw.
McAuley had been pushed to the limit, but survived.
"We had to put it together," Lux said. '(Cheverus) came to play. They always give us a great game. We always love to play them. The first half wasn't our half. The second half was ours though. We wanted it more. It's our homecourt. We did what we had to do. We play as a team. We're a big family. We're all sisters. The coaches are great to us and really help us."
"We know how much we work," Clement said. "We have each other's back. We had so much motivation from the bench. Everyone keeps us positive. We have a lot at stake, but we like to put in the work to maintain what we have. No matter our records, we know that Cheverus will be a good game for us. It will be high intensity. We have to bring it every time."
"It was really exciting," said Tartre. "Cheverus was really determined and so were we. It was a really good game. It was a good, even match. The defense was a really big part of it. We got stops. We knew the points would come. Shutting them down on defense was key."
"We struggled in the first half, then we found a way in the second half," Goodman added. "My top three players really struggled in the first half, then acted like champions in the second. Cheverus has a lot of good players. They have one of the best players in the league in Willerson. I knew it would be a close game. This year's team needs to learn how to win close games. A lot of talent's graduated. This year, girls are helping out who didn't have a lot of experience on varsity."
Clement wound up with a game-high 22 points, 15 of which came on 3-pointers. She also had five rebounds, four steals and four assists.
"We're proud of (Allie)," said Lux. "We needed her. She shot when she needed to shoot and helped us a lot."
"Allie got everyone involved," Goodman said. "She kind of took over in the second half. That's what three-time champions do. We freed her up for stuff. I'm very proud of her."
Lux added 12 points and a team-high seven boards. Smith had eight points, four rebounds, a steal and a blocked shot and Tartre wound up with five points and four boards.
The Lions made just 9 of 18 free throws, but only turned the ball over nine times.
For Cheverus, Willerson continued to emerge as one of the special local players with 14 points, three rebounds and three blocks. Holman made her return to McAuley a triumphant one with 13 points, a game-high nine rebounds and a block.
"She's a Cheverus kid," said Ashley. "She believes in what we are and what we stand for. I'm really happy she's with us. I think she is too. I think she battled. She was one of the best players on the floor. Good things happen to good people. Our girls are happy for her. It's not easy to come back here. I thought she handled it well."
Ford had five points, Grover four (to go with three blocks) and Lyons three (to go with six rebounds).
Cheverus enjoyed a commanding 41-24 advantage on the glass, but turned the ball over 21 times. The Stags were 4 of 6 from the line, but didn't attempt a free throw in the second half.
"We didn't back down," Ashley said. "Allie just made some plays. She was the difference. (The effort's) a lot of consolation because we only have Georgia back. The perception in the community is that we reload, but as far as significant minutes on varsity in crunch time, Georgia's the only one. I'm happy, the girls are happy, they played hard."
Business at hand
The teams will play again in the regular season finale Feb. 7 at Cheverus (with perhaps a third meeting occurring at the Cumberland County Civic Center), but each squad has plenty of heavy lifting looming in the interim.
The Stags (sixth in the Western Class A Heal Points standings) have a makeup game versus Noble Monday at 6 p.m., then have the daunting task of playing at Gorham Tuesday. Cheverus is back home Friday to face Sanford.
The Stags figure to learn from this close loss and will only improve.
"We'll get better," Ashley said. "We'll be fine. We have a tough stretch. Three games in four days. Mother Nature's not helping us. We look forward to seeing (McAuley) again. We'll show up."
As for the Lions, still second in the standings, they have to play at top-ranked Thornton Academy Tuesday, a daunting test. McAuley is back home Friday to face dangerous South Portland.
Nothing is coming easily for the Lions in their "Roar for Four," but they welcome every challenge.
"We're ready for the next game," Lux said. "We don't stop. We'll keep working hard. We still need to improve."
"We have to get back to basics on shooting," Goodman added. "We've struggled the last couple games. We need to box out. We need to get back to basics on a lot of things and hopefully give Thornton a game."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.
Previous McAuley-Cheverus results
@ McAuley 57 Cheverus 40
@ McAuley 46 Cheverus 39
McAuley 50 @ Cheverus 42
@ McAuley 48 Cheverus 33
Western A preliminary
@ McAuley 33 Cheverus 27
McAuley 47 @ Cheverus 41
McAuley 59 @ Cheverus 41
@ McAuley 57 Cheverus 32
@ McAuley 77 Cheverus 33
McAuley 67 @ Cheverus 51
@ McAuley 73 Cheverus 37
McAuley 73 Cheverus 50
McAuley 70 @ Cheverus 24
@ McAuley 85 Cheverus 31
@ McAuley 88 Cheverus 30