McAuley ends Portland's run, two wins from four-peat
PORTLAND—Two wins to go.
To reach basketball immortality.
The juggernaut McAuley girls' basketball team, the three-time defending Class A state champions, were a group on a mission Friday evening at the Cumberland County Civic Center, bound and determined to immediately end any upset hopes of the Portland Bulldogs in the teams' Western Class A semifinal round tilt.
Fifty-eight seconds into the game, Lions' senior standout Allie Clement hit a 3 and her team never looked back.
McAuley went on a 20-0 run in a stretch which spanned the first and second periods, as Clement hit from the outside and post standouts, senior Olivia Smith and junior Victoria Lux, got the job done down low.
The Lions had the win in hand as halftime neared, when the game suddenly took a backseat, as Portland's dynamic and scrappy junior guard Elizabeth Donato went for a rebound, collided with McAuley junior Ayla Tartre, then hit the floor hard and stayed down before being taken away by ambulance (late reports had her recovering at Maine Medical Center).
Once play finally resumed, the Lions never let up, their reserves got in on the fun in a big way and McAuley went on to a 70-38 victory, leaving it two wins from what would be a record-tying fourth straight Gold Ball.
Clement led the way with 16 points, Smith added 15 and 11 different Lions got in the score sheet as McAuley improved to 19-1, ended Portland's storybook season at 14-6 and advanced to meet Cinderella Windham (14-7) in the regional final Saturday at 7 p.m., at the Civic Center.
"We came out better than we have all season," said Clement. "We played good defense. Everyone was moving and talking. That's what we always rely on. We have an advantage because we've played here multiple times. It's a fun floor to play up and down on. Once you adjust, it's not as different as you think it is."
In a six-year stretch between 2000 and 2005, McAuley and Portland met four times in the postseason, with the Lions winning all four times (the Bulldogs won two meetings back int he 1980s, see sidebar for history), but as the Lions have remained the state's gold standard, Portland struggled for several seasons before returning to form this winter.
The Bulldogs won 11 of their first 12 outings this winter, but went just 2-4 down the stretch. As the No. 4 seed, Portland won its first quarterfinal in a decade Monday, holding off No. 5 Gorham, 47-42.
McAuley failed to go undefeated this winter for the first time since the 2010-11 season, but the Lions' 17-1 mark still made them the top seed in Western A and Monday, McAuley pulled away to deny No. 8 Deering, 52-30, in its quarterfinal.
McAuley and Portland met just once in the regular season, an easy 79-47 victory for the Lions back on Jan. 24 in a game played at the Portland Expo.
McAuley entered Friday's tilt on a 13-game postseason win streak (seven of those wins came at the Civic Center) and as the heavy favorite, the Lions didn't let the Bulldogs entertain any upset hopes.
Clement set the tone 58 seconds in with a 3. After Portland got on the board on a putback from senior Brianna Holdren 2 minutes, 50 seconds in, the rest of the first quarter belonged to McAuley, as Smith made a pretty reverse layup after a drive, junior Olivia Dalphonse converted an old-fashioned three-point play, Clement hit another 3 and Smith scored on a leaner for a 13-2 advantage.
In the first eight minutes, the Bulldogs turned the ball over 11 times.
"I thought we played good defense," said Portland coach Jan Veinot. "It wasn't our defense, our offense just wasn't there. That's probably jitters, hesitation, fear. We had opportunities. It's the first time we've been here."
The second period was more of the same.
Sixteen seconds in, off an inbounds set, Clement set up Smith for a layup. After Smith passed to Lux for a layup, Lux returned the favor and fed Smith for a layup and a 19-2 lead. Then, on the fastbreak, Dalphonse set up Lux for a layup the lead was 19.
"That was our main goal, to come out strong and do what we do best," said Lux. "We've focused on reversing the ball and playing defense. When we're patient and reverse the ball, the high-low is easy. It's fun. Portland's strong. We had to go at them strong and finish."
Veinot called timeout, but it didn't help as Smith made a leaner for a 23-2 lead.
Finally, with 4:58 left in the half, senior Mariana Angelo made a free throw for the Bulldogs to snap McAuley's 20-0 run and an 8 minute, 12 second drought.
Goodman used his reserves in abundance for the remainder of the half.
Junior Mary Furlong took a pass from freshman Ally Tillotson and made a jumper. After Portland freshman Kate Johnson hit two foul shots, Clement made a leaner.
Junior Gabby Wagabaza made two free throws, but Clement set up Welch for a 3 and a 30-7 lead. Holdren countered with a three-point play and sophomore Cierra Burnham banked home a shot to cut the deficit to 18, but senior Pam Mukiza made a free throw and the Lions took a 31-12 lead.
Right before halftime, after Holdren missed a free throw, Donato, going for the rebound, collided in midair with McAuley junior Ayla Tartre, hit the floor hard and after first writhing in pain, she lay still as a hush came over the building.
"When she went down, I saw her shaking with her eyes back and I said immediately to the (athletic) trainer, 'Get out here!'" Goodman said.
After staying prone for several minutes (it was believed she suffered a seizure and/or concussion), Donato (joined by assistant coach Morgan Brownlee) was taken away by ambulance as the teams were sent to the locker room with 3.3 seconds still on the clock.
"They went up in the air together and when (Elizabeth) came down, she whacked her head," Veinot said. "She's responsive and they're doing tests. (The girls are) all so close to Elizabeth, so it was very difficult. I gave them the option of not playing since it's just a basketball game, but they wanted to play."
Veinot and several Bulldogs were in tears during the ordeal and at one point, Goodman went over to comfort his counterpart.
Portland wasn't the only team shaken up.
"It was really tough on us," Clement said. "We were really worried about Elizabeth. She's a friend of ours. We've played AAU together. It was scary. It helped that we had a little bit of time to get back into things."
"I just walked into the locker room and gave them an update on her medical condition and said I really didn't want to talk about basketball," Goodman said. "We just kind of sat there, then we reviewed the first half."
Clement had 10 points and Smith eight in the first half. Holdren had five for Portland, which committed 15 turnovers.
Prior to the start of the second half, Bulldogs freshman Taylor Sargent shot Donato's free throws and made them both, which were technically assigned to the second quarter.
The third quarter began with a layup by Holdren, but Welch countered with a jumper, Lux made two free throws, Dalphonse set up Clement for a jumper and Smith made two free throws for a 39-16 lead.
Holdren made two foul shots for Portland, but Lux answered with one and Clement scored on a putback.
After Angelo made a jumper, Clement made a layup after a steal. Wagabaza sank two free throws after being fouled on an offensive rebound, but Smith made a free throw and Clement made another layup after a steal and the lead was up to 25, 47-22.
Late in the frame, Johnson made two free throws and after McAuley junior Margaret Hatch hit one, Hatch set up Lux for a layup and it was 50-24 heading for the fourth.
There, Holdren put on an individual show, but the Lions closed things out.
After Welch drove for a layup, Burnham made a free throw. Welch drove for another layup and Smith made two foul shots, but Holdren managed to get a hook shot to find the hoop. Mukiza then took a pass from junior Amanda Spink and made a layup.
Mukiza is a fan favorite and her (along with her fellow reserves') success was well received.
"It's so much fun because everyone's so supportive," Mukiza said. "Everyone was cheering for me. I just make the most of it and have fun. I try not to take myself too seriously."
"That was so awesome," Clement said. "Everyone got in the game and everyone contributed. We had people making 3s and doing little things. Everyone was coming out of their seats because we were so excited for them."
"Whenever I get a chance to reward girls who work hard in practice, I want to," Goodman added. "Tonight was a good feeling to let those girls get good recognition."
After Holdren scored on a driving layup and Angelo hit two free throws, Holdren stepped back and knocked down a 3 to make the score 58-34.
At the other end, Spink countered with a 3 and after Holdren banked home a shot, McAuley senior Lauren Coulombe buried a 3, Spink scored on a driving layup, Mukiza made two free throws and junior Mikayla Moran made a layup after a steal to account for the Lions' final points.
In the final minute, a hook shot from Portland sophomore Merritt Ryan produced the 70-38 final score.
"We made sure we were ready," said Mukiza. "I'm impressed every game. I love my team. We work hard to bring it every day. We wanted it."
"We knew Portland was scrappy and aggressive and that they never give up," Clement said. "We had to make sure we were ready for their pressure. We worked on that in practice."
"We try to play team basketball and I felt we did that tonight," Goodman added. "We missed some shots, but we moved the ball nicely. Our defense was really good and that helped. They have a lot of girls who can score. They're athletic and can play good defense. We knew we had to play good defense to stop that. They're a great team. They had a great year. My team respects them."
Clement, a Miss Maine Basketball semifinalist, led the way for McAuley with 16 points. She also had four steals, two assists and two rebounds.
Smith, another Miss Maine Basketball semifinalist, continued her stellar postseason play with 15 points, eight boards, two blocks and a steal.
Lux (12 rebounds, a steal and a block) and Welch (six boards, two steals) both had nine points.
Mukiza and Spink had five points apiece off the bench, Coulombe and Dalphonse added three each, while Furlong and Moran both had two and Hatch finished with one.
McAuley enjoyed a 44-29 rebounding advantage, turned the ball over 17 times, but forced 24, and made 13 of 21 foul shots.
A run to remember
Portland was led by Holdren, who bowed out with 18 points, eight rebounds and a steal.
Angelo had five points, Johnson and Wagabaza (seven rebounds, two blocks, two steals) four apiece, Burnham three and Ryan and Sargent two each.
Donato didn't score, but had four steals before having to leave the game.
The Bulldogs went 17 of 25 from the foul line.
In the end, this team was a joy to watch, waking up the echoes of glory days gone by while hinting at even more greatness down the road.
"We didn't give up," Veinot said. "I'm very proud of the girls. It was a blast. Those kids are so close and have played basketball together for years. Bri, Elizabeth, (senior) Pam (Lobor), Mariana. They're so tightly knit. It's been a pleasure. I've tried to build this program. There were some dark hours. Until public schools stay public and private schools go private, this is as far as we can get. We're kind of at an end here."
While Portland will certainly miss the departing Angelo, Holdren and Lobor, there is plenty of talent returning, including seniors-to-be Donato, Wagabaza and Sydney Frederick, Burnham, who will be a junior, and Johnson, Sargent and Abi Ramirez, who all saw key minutes as freshmen.
Look for the Bulldogs to return to the Civic Center sooner rather than later.
"The young kids got to play on this floor and got the experience for next year," Veinot said.
Windham spoiled what would have been Holy War III by rallying to stun Cheverus in its semifinal Friday, 41-36.
The Eagles were unheralded entering the tournament after an 11-7 regular season and had to down No. 10 Sanford in the preliminary round. Monday, Windham upset No. 2 Thornton Academy and Friday, it outscored the sixth-seeded Stags, 26-10, in the second half in that shocker.
McAuley dominated Windham in the teams' regular season meeting, 74-29, Dec. 30 in Portland, when Clement stole headlines by scoring her 1,000th career point.
The teams met just once prior in the tournament, a 49-33 Lions' victory in the semifinals two years ago.
McAuley knows the Eagles are on a roll and will come in playing like they have nothing to lose, making them dangerous.
"It's never easy," Lux said. "There's always competition and we like competition. We don't like easy games. We'll just play our game and play as a team. There's pressure, but we'll stay humble. We have to stay together, stay a family."
"We came into the season with one goal and we won't finish until we get it," Mukiza said.
"We'll do what we're best at and hopefully it will come out the way we want it to," Clement added. "We have to come ready to play."
McAuley has less than 24 hours to prepare for the regional final, but the Lions don't see that as an obstacle.
"There's not much you can do," Goodman said. "Both teams have the same circumstance. Nothing's easy when you're trying to win a championship."