A team four the ages...McAuley does it again!
PORTLAND—You never want to corner a Lion.
Certainly not one with its legacy at stake.
That's a lesson the Oxford Hills girls' basketball team learned the hard way Saturday afternoon in the Class A state final at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
The upstart Vikings appeared to have McAuley in an ideal scenario six-plus minutes in, leading 12-4 and seeing the fouls pile up on the Lions' best players, but this McAuley team is a team in every sense of the word and some unheralded Lions helped their team claw back.
A spark from four reserves: juniors Mary Furlong and Ayla Tartre, sophomore Margaret Hatch and freshman Ally Tillotson, turned the tide and despite two fouls apiece on seniors Allie Clement and Olivia Smith, two on junior Victoria Lux and an uncharacteristic six turnovers, McAuley only trailed by four points after one period, 13-9.
The Lions then hit their stride.
A rare four-point play from Clement gave McAuley its first lead early in the second quarter. After Oxford Hills retook the lead, Lions senior Jackie Welch scored five straight points. The Vikings rallied to tie the game one final time, 20-20, but a pullup jumper from Smith put McAuley ahead to stay and as time wound down in the first half, Clement raced the length of the court for a momentum-turning 3-ball which put McAuley up, 25-20, at the break.
After closing the first half on a 21-8 run, the Lions put on an absolute clinic in the third quarter, one that will live on in program highlight reels for years.
Clement set the tone 13 seconds in with a layup after a steal and McAuley never looked back, eventually scoring the first 11 points of the second half, capped by a Lux layup, to break it open.
By the end of three quarters, the Lions were in command, 50-30, and the fourth period turned into an eight-minute coronation, punctuated by baskets from beloved senior reserves Lauren Coulombe, Carolyn Liziewski and Pam Mukiza, as McAuley went on to a 67-41 victory and dribbled its way into history and destiny as just the third Class A team to ever win four straight Gold Balls.
Lux had 19 points and nine rebounds, Clement added 17 points, Welch finished with 11 and nine different players scored in all as the Lions finished 21-1, made it a mind-boggling 69 wins in their last 70 outings, ended the Vikings' campaign at 17-5 and secured not only their sixth championship all-time, but also cemented their status in the pantheon of Maine girls' basketball excellence.
"It's amazing," said Clement, who went 85-3 in her high school career and had every season end with a Gold Ball celebration. "I thought winning the first three was a cool feeling, but nothing tops this. It's not something I can describe, but everyone who's won a Gold Ball knows what it feels like. After winning a third and knowing there was one more, I wanted it so bad. I knew if I didn't win a fourth one, (the others) wouldn't mean as much."
Prior to Saturday afternoon, in the nearly four decades that the Maine Principals' Association has sanctioned a girls' basketball tournament, only three teams had won four successive state titles: Westbrook (1978-81) and Lawrence (1991-94) in Class A and Gorham (1978-81) in Class B.
Then, a couple hours before the Lions took the floor, Washburn in Class D won its fourth in a row.
McAuley is always in the limelight, but its glare seared harsher than ever this winter and the Lions, despite injuries and other sundry challenges, rose to the occasion time and again, even though for the first time in three seasons, they weren't perfect (see sidebar, below, for previous game stories).
The tone was set in the opener, way back on Dec. 6, when McAuley was pushed by visiting Thornton Academy, but awakened in the second half to prevail, 51-36.
A stretch in that game directly affected Saturday's events, as Lions coach Billy Goodman, desperate to establish depth, played everyone on his roster in the heat of battle, something which paid huge dividends nearly three months down the road.
The Lions 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 Cheverus, 47-39, to start the new year.
Then, on Jan. 7 in Saco, McAuley's 56-game win streak came to a stunning end as the Lions let a 15-point third quarter lead slip away in a 50-49 setback.
After holding off visiting South Portland's upset bid three nights later, 41-36, the Lions were at a crossroads, but befitting their legacy, they pulled together and finished with eight straight impressive wins.
"We never lost faith," Lions junior defensive standout Olivia Dalphonse said. "We knew that loss would motivate us to work harder. It did. We learned a lot from (the TA) game."
"Honestly, our team came together at that point," Clement said. "We focused on what was to come and forgot about what had happened. We had a good week of practice, then a good streak of games. We never looked back."
McAuley had no trouble with host Scarborough (59-30) and Sanford (69-33), visiting Westbrook (65-28), host Portland (79-47), host Bonny Eagle (78-28), visiting Marshwood (75-44), host Deering (62-39) and host Cheverus (56-35).
The Lions earned the top-seed for the regional playoffs for the third year in a row and advanced with relative ease.
After being pushed for 10 minutes or so by No. 8 Deering in the quarterfinals, McAuley rolled, 52-30. In the semifinals, the Lions ended No. 4 Portland's fairy tale run, 70-38, and in the regional final, against Cinderella No. 7 Windham, McAuley gradually pulled away in the second half to punch its state final ticket, 50-28.
Oxford Hills, meanwhile, wasn't favored to get to the Civic Center.
The Vikings actually lost three of their first four games: at Edward Little, at Brunswick and at Lewiston, before going 13-1 down the stretch, falling only at home to Cony.
Oxford Hills earned the No. 3 ranked in Eastern A and stayed hot, ousting No. 6 Skowhegan (47-43), No. 7 Messalonskee (35-33) and top-ranked Edward Little (54-34), with surprising ease, to advance.
While the Vikings had played in just one previous state final (a 55-43 loss to Deering six years ago), the Lions have been regulars this century, winning five of nine tries between 2000 and 2013 (see sidebar, below, for more).
The Lions and Vikings came into Saturday's contest with no countable history, but the teams did meet in a close scrimmage in the preseason.
McAuley knew Oxford Hills would give it a battle, but the Lions (especially their seniors) weren't about to bow out with anything short of Gold.
Not that there weren't some harrowing moments.
McAuley set the tone for a challenging first quarter when it turned the ball over on its first possession.
At the other end, the Vikings, who didn't show any early jitters, took a 2-0 lead when junior Mikayla Morin set up classmate Anna Winslow for a layup.
The Lions answered, as Smith fed Lux for a layup, but Oxford Hills then rattled off seven straight, as senior Crystal West buried a pullup jumper, Morin added a contested 3-pointer and with 3:02 to go in the first, Winslow made a layup while being fouled (by Clement, her second), forcing Goodman to call timeout.
Winslow missed the free throw and at the other end, Smith fed Lux for a layup, ending the 7-0 Vikings' run and a 4 minute, 25 second McAuley drought, but the Lions weren't able to sustain momentum.
With 1:41 to play in the opening frame, Winslow passed to West, who was behind the 3-point stripe, and West let a shot fly that found nothing but net and just like that, Oxford Hills, improbably, had a 12-4 advantage.
The underdogs had the momentum, the Vikings' crowd was wild and the Lions were somewhat staggered.
Making matters worse, Smith picked up her second foul with 1:26 remaining in the quarter.
With 1:04 to go, an unlikely offensive source, Dalphonse, the defensive dynamo, was left open on the right sideline and fired a 3 that rattled home.
"They left me wide open," Dalphonse said. "Some teams do that and it gets me excited. I hit it, the crowd and the team got excited and we fed off that energy."
After a turnover, Lux finished another feed from Smith and the deficit was just three, but with 12.2 seconds remaining, Lux was whistled for her second foul and Winslow made one of two free throws to make it 13-9 Oxford Hills after eight minutes.
As the first quarter gave way to the second, with Clement, Lux and Smith all sidelined with a pair of fouls, Furlong, Tartre and Tillotson all stayed on the floor after they all helped keep the Lions alive.
"I just knew I had to go out there and play really good defense," Tartre said. "When I come off the bench, I know I have to bring energy and fire. It was nervewracking, but we slowly got into our stuff. All of us were a little shaken up, but we kept our eye on the prize. We knew what we had to do. Our hard work really paid off. It's great to know that we can bring as much energy as the starters."
"It makes me really proud," Coulombe said. "It shows a lot when you have a strong starting five, but you can go to your bench without hesitation and they produce just as well. I think it shows just how hard we work."
The starters were well aware of how much the reserves contributed.
"This whole playoffs, the bench has gone in and there hasn't been a dropoff whatsoever," Clement said. "They know their roles and they know what they need to do and they've done so well. They deserve the recognition finally, because they work so hard in practice and in the games they get into. For them to have this success is so awesome."
"There was a little bit of concern, but I knew the bench would pull through," Smith said. "They produced even better than I would have done."
"We were concerned, particularly because we had three big players in foul trouble, but we had faith in the bench," said Welch. "Tartre, Hatch, Furlong, Tillotson. They made a big difference in the game. We try to have depth."
"I was most worried when all three of us had double fouls," Lux said. "t was kind of nervewracking, but we kept our heads in it. We battled together and got back in it. When Ayla first came in, she brought it. That's when we started playing our game. Ayla, Marge, Ally Tillotson, the bench, they came in and earned it tonight."
"It's all about my bench," Goodman added. "They get as much practice time as the starters. I knew they'd come out and battle hard. I was hoping they'd keep (the deficit) under 10 and then they got the momentum. I'm so happy for those girls. Furlong was amazing. Tillotson, Hatch. Ayla's just been amazing all season. I've prepared for a game when we'd get in foul trouble. The girls know their job. They went in and they did their job and then some."
McAuley opened the scoring in the second period on a jumper from Tartre 53 seconds in and after returning to the game, Clement, taking a pass from Tartre, who had kept possession alive with an offensive rebound, hit a 3 while being fouled and added the free throw for the rare four-point play, which gave the Lions their first lead, 15-13.
"I've never had a four-point play in my life," Clement said. "I shot it, I was hoping it would go in, (Winslow) hit me and I was hoping they'd call it. Then, I was like, 'Yes, I made the foul shot.' It was pretty cool."
With 4:44 left in the half, the Vikings went back ahead (for what would prove to be the final time) when sophomore Tiana Sugars got an offensive rebound and fed West for another 3, but 22 seconds later, Welch took a pass from Clement and hit a jumper for her first points and a minute later, Dalphonse set up Welch for a 3 and a 20-16 advantage.
"I don't think I played badly (the past couple games), but I hadn't been lighting it up, so I thought I was due and I'm glad I shot better tonight," Welch said.
Oxford Hills wouldn't buckle, however, as Sugars scored on a putback and Morin added two foul shots (Clement was initially given her third foul, but after Goodman protested, it was correctly assigned to Furlong) to make it 20-20.
With 1:13 remaining before the break, Smith hit a pullup jumper and McAuley was ahead for good, 22-20.
As time wound down in the half, the Lions showed what makes them so special, excelling in the little things in pivotal spots.
First, after a Vikings' miss, Furlong tied up Oxford Hills junior Shannon Kriger and with the possession arrow pointing McAuley's way, the Lions had one more crack on offense.
Goodman put Clement back on the floor and she made him look like a genius, taking the inbounds pass from Dalphonse, then racing through the Vikings defense (with a little help from a great, legal pick from Hatch) before firing a 3 that was true, giving McAuley a 25-20 lead at the break.
"We had seven seconds left and Coach Goodman said, 'Allie, go in,'" Clement said. "I figured he'd set up a play, but he didn't. I saw open space, weaved through some people, threw it up, hoped it would go in and it did. If we'd gone in only up two, we might have been freaked out a little more mentally. Going up five helped us."
"It gave us a lot of excitement and energy going into halftime," Goodman said.
In the first 16 minutes, Clement had seven points, Lux six and Welch five. After committing six first quarter turnovers, the Lions only gave the ball away once in the second.
Oxford Hills got eight points from West and five each from Morin and Winslow, but the wind had gone out of the Vikings' sails.
The Lions then punced, big time, in quarter number three.
Oxford Hills got the ball first, but Clement stole the ball from West and raced in for a layup to extend the lead to seven.
That was just the beginning of the onslaught.
Dalphonse, who inexplicably wasn't named to the Southwestern Maine Activities Association All-Defensive team, then showed she has no peer on that side, stealing the ball before making a layup for a 29-20 advantage.
Vikings coach Nate Pelletier called timeout, but it didn't help.
Clement set up Smith for a hook shot, Smith, after another Dalphonse steal, fed Welch for a layup, Clement, after a steal, passed to Smith and she made a layup while being fouled and added the free throw for an old-fashioned three-point play and in the blink of an eye, a five-point lead had ballooned to 36-20.
"We went into the locker room and knew the third quarter was ours," Dalphonse said. "We wanted to come out and show them we wanted it more than they did and we did that."
"The third quarter was fun," Smith said. "Fun was the key word. At halftime, we realized that this was our last game. It kicked in that all our work all year came down to this. We produced as a team. So many people went in and produced so well. It feels great."
"It's all about ball movement," Welch said. "We beg other teams to press us, just to be able to run up the floor. The third quarter was where the difference was made."
"The bench kept us in it in the first half and I have five special starters who, when they move the basketball like that, it's awesome to see," Goodman added. "They all helped. I'm so proud of all of them. The second half started with Olivia and Vic. They handled pressure and showed patience. They made good decisions and moved the ball around. That's a big reason why we won."
With 4:12 remaining in the third, Winslow stemmed the 16-0 Lions' run and a 5:19 Oxford Hills drought with two free throws, but at the other end, Welch passed to Clement in the corner and the standout buried a 3.
"I was a little frustrated (at the start of the game), but I knew we had to get the jitters out quickly and move on and we did," Clement said. "I'm really proud of how we passed and did everything in the third period. We had a good enough margin where we had a good time out there and let the game come to us and that was a big part of our success tonight."
The next time down, McAuley continued to keep the ball moving and unselfish play flowing, as Welch passed to Smith for a short hook shot and again Pelletier called timeout to try and stem the tide, but it was far too late.
Out of the timeout, Lux scored on a putback and the run was 23-2 and the lead was up to 43-22.
"The third quarter was our quarter," Lux said. "Before it started, Coach Goodman said to make it our quarter and we did. We just played our game."
With 2:51 remaining in the frame, Morin hit a 3, marking the first time the Vikings made a field goal in 6:22, was fouled and finished off the four-point play, but that only cut the deficit to 17 and Clement got three of the points back with a long range bomb of her own.
After Oxford Hills senior Brooke Murch scored on a putback, Clement answered with a runner. Dalphonse then found Lux for a fastbreak layup and a 22-point lead.
A jumper from Winslow in the final second made the score, 50-30, after three periods.
Thanks in large part to 10 points from Clement, the Lions won the third period, 25-10, and for all intents and purposes ended the competitive phase of the contest.
The fourth quarter proved to be one long celebration for the state's premier program.
After Winslow made a free throw, Welch took a pass from Clement and hit a long jumper. Lux then scored back-to-back hoops, on a driving layup and a putback, and with 5:55 to play, the lead was 56-31.
After Winslow scored on a leaner, Lux took a pass from Clement and made a layup for her final points and after a Clement steal and feed, Welch made a layup for the final points of her high school career.
Oxford Hills got five quick points from Winslow, two at the line, two more on a layup and another at the charity stripe, but that only cut its deficit to 60-38.
Then, down the stretch, the less heralded of McAuley's seniors got their time in the limelight.
With 2:47 to play, Liziewski banked home a shot, triggering a rousing ovation from the Lions' bench and cheering section.
The next time down, Mukiza, who became a fan favorite during the tournament, buried a 3 and the lead was 65-38.
After Murch made two free throws and sophomore Jayden Colby added another for the Vikings' final points, Coulombe, best known as the younger sister of standout Alexa Coulombe her first two seasons, but in truth, a tremendous contributor and leader throughout, fittingly brought the curtain down with a jump shot.
"The other three special seniors we have all scored," Goodman said. "Carolyn, Lauren and Pam, those three work so hard every day in practice. To see them step up, I'm so happy for them."
With the clock showing 5:28 p.m., the final horn sounded and for the fourth year in a row, McAuley danced on the court, celebrating a title, this time by the score of 67-41.
"It feels amazing," Coulombe said. "We're all really close. It's just so special. We're all so supportive of each other. It just shows. It doesn't matter who's in the game, everyone cheers just the same. I'm just happy to be a part of it. I don't think there was ever any doubt. Part of being a family is going through hard times and good times. That makes the good times so much better."
"It's just unbelievable," Tartre said. "We really stuck together. We became really close as a team. We knew nothing would break our bonds."
"We were pretty fired up," Dalphonse said. "We had a great week of practice and we came in ready. We all just looked at each other and knew we had to play as a team. We couldn't give up. We were a little concerned initially, but we have faith in each other. The entire team. The starting five, the bench. The bench worked really hard this season. They really helped in our success. It feels like we really earned it this year. We had ups and downs and to come out this strong in the last game is incredible.
The Lions wound up atop the heap, but it didn't come easily.
"It was tough this year," Goodman said. "The bench players got a lot of time at the beginning of the season and we added (Olivia Smith) halfway through and everyone had to get acclimated. We had that lull in the beginning of January, but give the girls credit. They went back to basics and got better. Everything we worked on, we needed today."
Lux, despite being saddled by foul trouble in the first half, managed to lead all scorers with 19 points and all rebounders with nine boards.
"Vic had to sit a lot in the first half," said Goodman. "Coming back and getting the lead bought me time for the second half. It she struggles, she fixes it and she gets better."
Clement, whose accolades are too numerous to list, overcame a slow start with 17 points. She had four of McAuley's seven 3-pointers, added six assists, four steals, a rebound and a blocked shot.
While Clement is always the focal point on the floor, in her typical fashion, she deflected praise to others.
"I've had amazing coaches," said Clement, who will play Division I basketball at Marist College next winter. "Coach Goodman is so involved. He's always there for us. My teammates have been amazing. I couldn't have done it alone. I'm so lucky to be where I am. I'm honored to be with these teams. It's really hard to do something like this. We've worked as hard as we possibly could. I'm so happy to be part of this community. I couldn't have had a better high school career. I'm so blessed. I never imagined this."
The odds-on favorite to win the Miss Maine Basketball Award Friday night in Bangor has etched her name in school and state lore.
"Allie played good D, she made the key steal, she made the shot at the end of the half, she moved the ball and she was aggressive," Goodman said. "She's a four-time champion. She's a special kid. She works hard and she's gotten her due."
Welch, often overshadowed, but always valuable, joined Clement as a four-time champion (she got on the floor for the final 22.5 seconds of the state final as a freshman). Welch, who will play at Bates College next year, had 11 points, five rebounds, two assists and a steal and as always, played tenacious defense.
"If you had told me freshman year, I'd win four, no way I'd have believed it," Welch said. "I'm celebrating all four. As sophomores and juniors, even if you win, in the back of your mind, you know there's one more. I'm ready to reflect back on my career. I'm proud of this. It's a great way to finish."
"I told Jackie yesterday, 'You're shooting. Go down swinging,'" Goodman said. "She's a special player. I knew the way (the Vikings) were going to play defense that we'd need her. That was one of the best games I've seen her play."
Smith, who missed the early part of the season with a knee injury, then worked her way back into standout form, had six points, seven boards, three blocks and a steal in her final game before taking her game to Dartmouth College, where she will play next year.
"Missing the first half of the season gave me a new perspective on the game and how much I valued being on the floor," Smith said. "I don't take it for granted. My teammates helped me get used to the flow of the game. My time at McAuley has been the best. I couldn't imagine myself anywhere else. It's been the greatest experience. I've learned so much from the coaches and everyone who's been around to help us. I'm so thankful."
"Olivia sacrifices her body every day," said Goodman. "She fought so hard to get back. She's the most improved defensive player I've seen in my life. Her being on the floor is huge for us."
Dalphonse, who might just get the acclaim she so richly deserves next winter, had five clutch points, three steals, two rebounds, a pair of assists and put on yet another display of lockdown defense.
"My assistant coach, Wade Millett, noticed something in the first half and said, 'Put Dalphonse on Morin,' and that turned the energy," Goodman said. "Dalphonse is amazing. I feel like she showed everyone just how good she is."
Mukiza added three points, while Coulombe, Liziewski and Tartre all contributed two.
The Lions, as they have all season, got the job done with depth, offense (they were first in the league) and defense (where they ranked second).
McAuley had a 36-25 rebounding advantage, an 11-3 edge in steals, only turned the ball over 10 times (just four coming after the first quarter) and made 2 of 5 free throws.
Oxford Hills, which has a very bright future and could be seeing McAuley again in the near future, was paced by Winslow, who had 17 points. Morin finished with nine points, West eight, Murch four (and six boards), Sugars two (to go with seven rebounds) and Colby one.
The Vikings committed 18 turnovers and made 13 of 20 foul shots.
One for the thumb?
McAuley is close enough to setting an all-time Class A standard a year from now, but rest assured, the loss of Clement, Coulombe, Liziewski, Mukiza, Smith and Welch will be felt in a big way by the program.
"The seniors are phenomenal," said Tartre. "There's nobody like Allie, Olivia and Jackie. I've learned from them to be smart with the ball and take care of it and to always put your heart out on the floor."
"I've learned infinity from them," Lux said. "I can't list one thing. Playing with them and friend-wise, it's been great."
While the void left by the departing seniors will be enormous, this program has the pieces in place to return to the pinnacle.
While the SMAA figures to have several contenders, the return of Dalphonse, Lux, Tartre and junior-to-be Sarah Clement (who missed this season with a knee injury) ensures the Lions have reason to believe they'll carry on the program's legacy.
"It's going to be hard being away," Allie Clement said. "But I'm going to have my Dad tape games and send them to me and send me updates. I'm hoping for the best for them next year. I think they can do it again."
So do the returning Lions.
"Knowing I'll play more next year and that the team will be absolutely amazing is really exciting," said Tartre.
"I think we have a lot coming back," Dalphonse said. "Me and Vic, Mary Furlong and Ayla and Sarah coming back from her injury. The kids that played smaller roles this year will step up big-time next year."
"We'll have a great team next year," Lux said. "I'm not done. The rest of us aren't done. We have to start from day one and keep working like we did this year and I think we can get there."
Goodman, always the coach, isn't quite as certain.
"We have to get better," he said. "All those girls coming back know what they need to do to get better. There are a lot of good teams coming back. We just want to be in the mix next year."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.
Previous McAuley stories
Previous McAuley state games
Cony 46 McAuley 41
McAuley 50 Nokomis 39
McAuley 67 Cony 61
Nokomis 53 McAuley 43
Mt. Blue 54 McAuley 41
Previous Oxford Hills state game
Deering 55 Oxford Hills 43