McAuley's still the city champ, wins decisively at Portland
PORTLAND—The roar has been restored.
Two weeks after its season was at a crossroads following its first loss in three years and a lackluster effort in an ensuing victory, McAuley's girls' basketball team has returned to form and delivered that message in a big way Friday evening in a venue in which the Lions hope will be a springboard next month to a fourth straight Class A state championship.
Visiting a feel-good, but banged up Portland team that has been hot on McAuley's heels all season, the Lions made a statement by racing to leads of 5-0, 14-2 and 21-3 in the first quarter.
McAuley made an early statement inside, as senior Olivia Smith blocked several shots and junior Victoria Lux cleaned the glass. The Lions then put on a display of passing and shooting in the second period, as they extended their lead to 44-21 at halftime. They never looked back from there and went on to an impressive 79-47 victory.
Lux wound up with 16 points and 18 rebounds, Smith had seven points, eight rebounds and eight blocks, senior sharpshooter Allie Clement had 16 points and senior Jackie Welch added 14 as McAuley improved to 13-1, took over the top spot in the Western Class A Heal Points standings and dropped third-ranked Portland to 11-3.
"After the South Portland game, the team (turned it around) themselves," said Lions coach Billy Goodman. "They came to practice as a team, cheering for each other, upbeat. We talked about our weaknesses, we've worked on them every day and the product is starting to get better. Earlier in the year, we struggled playing team basketball. (The girls have) turned it around and deserve all the credit."
City bragging rights
Sometime around the turn of the millennium, McAuley eclipsed Portland as not only the city of Portland's elite team, but the squad that would run roughshod on Western A.
The changing of guard began in February of 2000, when the Bulldogs, in the midst of their 20th straight winning season (and owners of three state and 11 regional titles in that span), were shocked by the Lions in the quarterfinal round of the tournament, 54-37. McAuley barely made the tournament that winter, but that victory served as an appetizer to one of the most improbable runs to the title game in state history, as the Lions weren't denied until they ran into Mt. Blue in the state final.
That run, of course, begat McAuley Mania.
Sarah Marshall showed up the next season and in 2001-02 and 2002-03, the Lions won their first two championships.
Portland, meanwhile, trended in the other direction, suffering a .500 campaign in 2000-01 and failing to make it past the semifinals again before missing the postseason in seven of the past eight years, including each of the past three as McAuley was hoisting Gold Balls to the heavens.
This year, the gap has been closed.
Portland came into the year expecting to contend, but it exceeded everyone's wildest expectations.
The Bulldogs opened by downing visiting Massabesic (59-36) and Noble (78-29), host Marshwood (76-55) and visiting Gorham (63-50). After holding off host South Portland, 50-46, Portland finally fell from the unbeaten ranks, 51-35, at Thornton Academy. After closing 2013 with a 62-60 home win over Cheverus, the Bulldogs beat visiting Westbrook (64-45), host Sanford (55-52), visiting Biddeford (47-27), host Bonny Eagle (61-44) and then visiting Deering (60-55). Tuesday, in its first game without injured junior sparkplug Elizabeth Donato, who was sidelined with a knee malady, Portland dropped a gutwrenching 61-59 decision at Scarborough.
McAuley, meanwhile, has won almost all of its games, but things haven't come as easily as they have the past two seasons.
The Lions 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. After decisive home wins over Windham, 74-29, and Biddeford, 60-25, the Lions rallied from a second half deficit to beat visiting rival Cheverus, 47-39. Then came a trip to Saco Jan. 8, when McAuley went to Thornton Academy and let a 15-point third quarter lead slip away in a stunning 50-49 setback. After holding off visiting South Portland's upset bid, 41-36, in a win that left the Lions acting like they'd lost, McAuley had no trouble with host Scarborough (59-30) and Sanford (69-33) and visiting Westbrook (65-28).
"We've tried extra hard since the loss," Lux said. "We've done more team stuff and it's helped us."
"There were a lot of factors that went into it," said Welch. "We're still kind of a young team and we couldn't dwell. We had to have a short memory in getting over a bad game."
Heading into Friday night, over the past decade, the Lions had beaten the Bulldogs in 13 of 15 meetings (please see sidebar, below), including the past five. Portland's last victory over McAuley came Jan. 14, 2010 (49-45 at the Expo).
This time, the undermanned Bulldogs played hard, but the Lions continued their upward trajectory.
Lux and Smith laid down the law early.
Just seconds in, Smith blocked a shot at one end, leading to a fastbreak at the other and Lux took a pass from junior Olivia Dalphonse and made a layup to put McAuley ahead to stay. Lux then put home a missed shot and Dalphonse sank a free throw for a quick 5-0 advantage.
"We've practiced all week to come out strong early," Lux said. "We knew Portland would give us pressure and that we'd have to come out strong."
Portland got on the board with 5:06 to play in the opening stanza on a putback from junior Gabby Wagabaza, but Welch scored on a putback, Lux hit a jumper, Welch buried a jumper just inside the 3-point arc, junior Ayla Tartre scored on a putback and Welch hit a foul shot to cap a 9-0 run.
The Bulldogs got a free throw from sophomore Cierra Burnham, but Smith delivered a pretty pass to Lux for a layup and Clement heated up as the quarter wound down, sinking a 3, then scoring on a putback for a commanding 21-3 advantage after eight minutes.
Portland opened the second period with consecutive hoops, as senior Mariana Angelo made a layup and Wagabaza scored on a putback, but Lux made a layup while being fouled and sank the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play.
Smith added a jumper for her first points and after Bulldogs freshman Kate Johnson made a jump shot, Smith hit a free throw. Johnson, who has stepped up big-time in Donato's absence, made a 3, but Welch set up Clement for a 3 (which rattled home), then Welch fed Dalphonse for a corner 3 and a 33-12 lead.
Portland senior Brianna Holdren countered with a 3, but Lux fed junior Mary Furlong for a layup. After Burnham made a free throw, Clement took a pass from Welch and made a layup and Welch, after faking out a defender with a nice move, scored a fastbreak layup for a 39-16 advantage.
"When I struggle shooting, I still try to have the assists and have the rebounds," Welch said. "I try to be versatile every game. I felt pretty good about how I played tonight. I do like playing at the Expo. It helped us in fastbreaks. We could exploit (the length of the court)."
"That's the best game Jackie's played," Goodman said. "She made some unbelievable passes. That's a champion playing a champion's game."
After Burnham converted a three-point play, Welch scored on a runner, but Portland sophomore Merritt Ryan took a nice pass from freshman Abi Ramirez and made a layup. As time wound down, Tartre made a free throw and Dalphonse set up Smith for a layup, which made it 44-21 Lions at halftime.
In the first 16 minutes, McAuley forced 10 turnovers, ruled the paint thanks to Lux and Smith, and rained home outside shots when necessary.
Any Portland comeback hopes were quickly dashed in the third quarter.
After Wagabaza opened the scoring with a layup, Dalphonse hit a 3 and Lux scored on a putback. Junior Sydney Fredrick made a long jumper for the hosts, but Dalphonse made two free throws. After Holdren scored on a leaner, Tartre hit a long jumper, Dalphonse found sophomore Margaret Hatch in transition for a layup, Welch knocked down a jumper and Clement, who left the game for a short spell early in the period, after apparently injuring her ankle or foot, returned with no lingering effects and sank two free throws to push the lead to 59-27.
A Burnham layup stemmed the 8-0 Lions' run, but Welch countered with a 3 and after a steal, Clement showed that she still had her nonpareil speed, racing in for a layup. A layup after a steal from Ramirez in the waning seconds pulled the Bulldogs back to 64-31 with eight minutes to play.
While the result was academic, both teams played hard in the final stanza.
A layup after a steal from Johnson opened the fourth quarter, but McAuley senior Pam Mukiza scored on a leaner, Lux scored on a putback and after another steal, Clement made a layup to make the score 70-33.
Portland got a 3 from freshman Taylor Sargent, but Lux made a foul shot. After Johnson scored on a putback, Lux set up Smith for a layup, ending the night for the Lions' starters.
Wagabaza scored on a putback and Holdren converted a three-point play to cut the deficit to 73-43, but Tartre made a jumper for McAuley. After senior Haley Nelson made two foul shots for the Bulldogs, Mukiza showed some range by burying a 3. A jumper from sophomore Gianna Gaudet gave Portland its final points. A foul shot with under a second to go from Lions sophomore Brooke Howard then accounted for the 79-47 final score.
McAuley put three players in double figures, as Clement and Lux both had 16 points and Welch finished with 14. Dalphonse had nine points, Smith and Tartre seven apiece, Mukiza five, Furlong and Hatch two each and Howard one.
"We take a lot of pride in being eight to 10 players deep," said Welch. "Versatility is our best weapon."
The Lions enjoyed a 46-31 advantage on the glass, as Lux led with a whopping 18. Smith added eight.
"(Portland's) missing one of the best players in the league, so my team knew they had to focus on boxing out," Goodman said.
McAuley had nine steals, as Clement had a game-high four, and blocked 10 shots (Smith had eight of them).
The Lions had 21 turnovers, most coming in garbage time, and made 11 of 20 free throws.
Despite the one-sidedness of the victory, McAuley paid notice to the Bulldogs.
"They've always been competitive," Welch said. "In my mind, they've been the best team in the SMAA. The scores are finally showing it."
"They can score a lot of points," Goodman said. "We have a lot of respect for them."
Portland was paced by Johnson, who had nine points. Holdren and Wagabaza each had eight, Burnham seven, Sargent three and Angelo, Fredrick, Gaudet, Nelson, Ramirez and Ryan two apiece.
Burnham and Wagabaza each had a team-high nine boards. Holdren, Nelson and Ramirez each had three of the Bulldogs' 16 steals. Wagabaza blocked three shots.
Portland turned the ball over 16 times and made just 6 of 14 foul shots.
"We knew we had our hands full," said Bulldogs coach Jan Veinot. "We're adjusting. We've had people out. We had some good moments. Our offense picked up a little bit. It was awful the first quarter. We were back on our heels. It's the first game that we've come out tentative. McAuley's probably the best fastbreak team in the SMAA. Now we know what we have to do. We've got to shoot the ball when we're open. We've got to get back on defense on missed shots. We've got to get the ball out quicker. We're a very fast team, but you're not seeing that on our fastbreak."
Two weeks left
Portland's remaining schedule is daunting, but the Bulldogs can still secure a top three seed if all goes well. Portland visits dangerous Windham Tuesday, hosts South Portland Thursday (Senior Night), then closes at Biddeford (Feb. 4) and Deering (Feb. 7).
If the basketball fates allow, the Bulldogs might even have Donato back for the tournament.
"We're waiting for the MRI Monday," Veinot said. "We don't know. If it's not the ACL, she could be back for playoffs. That would be fine by me.
"We have two big games, Windham and South Portland. A win against Windham puts them below us. Another win against South Portland keeps them below us. We've got to have one of those games."
McAuley, meanwhile, goes to Bonny Eagle Tuesday, welcomes Marshwood for its Senior Game Friday of next week, then closes with games at Deering (Feb. 3) and Cheverus (Feb. 7).
The Lions say that they don't care about being number one entering the playoffs, just being the top-ranked team when the hardware is handed out.
"We don't worry too much about 1 or 2," Welch said.
"We still have to get better at the basics, shooting, passing, boxing out," Lux said. "Defense wins games for us. When we do that, we're unstoppable."
"I'm a firm believer that whatever it is it is and that you don't wish for anything," Goodman added. "We have to continue to play like we did tonight. There's a big dropoff when we don't. I feel that we've focused on what we need to do to play good playoff basketball. We'll constantly work on that the next month. We realize if we don't do the little things, we're vulnerable."
Even if the Lions didn't look it Friday night.
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.
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