Lions roar once more
PORTLAND—Was there really ever any doubt?
The McAuley girls' basketball team completed its undefeated and inexorable march to a second straight Class A state championship Saturday afternoon at the Cumberland County Civic Center, imposing its will, balance and teamwork on the unbeaten Cony Rams.
The Lions never trailed (in fact, they didn't trail for a single second all tournament) and appeared en route to an easy victory early on, but the Rams hung tough, pulled within two points and even had two possessions with a chance to tie or go ahead in the third period before this unrivaled group flipped the switch and put the game away.
Sophomore Olivia Smith was the most dominant offensive player on the floor and her six points in three minutes helped McAuley open up a nine-point lead by the end of the third. From there, despite foul trouble, the Lions gradually gained separation and secured their fourth Gold Ball with a 54-41 triumph.
Smith led all scorers with 15 points, sophomore Allie Clement had 11 and freshman Victoria Lux 10 and the senior leadership of Alexa Coulombe and Sadie DiPierro, combined with a solid supporting effort from sophomore Jackie Welch and the unparalleled rebounding skills of junior Molly Mack allowed the Lions to finish the season 22-0 with their 26th consecutive victory, while ending Cony's year at 21-1.
"This is the best feeling in the world," said McAuley's first-year coach Billy Goodman. "You can't buy this feeling. I can't tell you how happy I am. To be a part of this, I just can't describe it."
No. 1 all the way
Unlike last year, when McAuley's Stevens Avenue rival Deering was every bit its equal, this winter was one where the Lions stood alone and got their opponents' best effort every game.
After last year's very popular coach, Amy Vachon, left after one season to become an assistant at her alma mater, the University of Maine, the veteran Lions had to get used to Goodman, their third coach in as many seasons.
"(The girls') style and our style collided a little bit, but we found a happy medium and it clicked," Goodman said. "We struggled a little in games this summer. We didn't play team basketball. We knew we had good players, but we needed to become a great team."
McAuley did just that.
The Lions started the season by defeating Noble (62-31), Kennebunk (61-18), Portland (60-19), Marshwood (58-34), Bonny Eagle (61-26), Biddeford (60-19) and Windham (41-32).
Next came a big time scare, but the Lions survived host Deering in overtime, 30-25. Home victories over Massabesic (51-26) and Thornton Academy (41-36) were followed by an impressive 49-37 triumph at then-undefeated Scarborough.
McAuley rolled from there, downing visiting Sanford (45-23), host Gorham (51-26), visiting South Portland (55-24), visiting Westbrook (64-34), visiting Cheverus (57-40), host Portland (58-30) and host South Portland (51-32).
As the top seed for the first time in five years, the Lions quickly squashed the upset hopes of No. 8 Westbrook (41-23) in the quarterfinals, fifth-ranked Windham (49-33) in the semifinals and No. 2 Scarborough (61-43) in last Saturday's regional final.
As for Cony, it had a sub-par (by its standards) 10-8 campaign in 2010-11, but came together in a big way this winter.
The Rams were tested early, but held off Brunswick (53-41), Edward Little (65-64) and Oxford Hills (38-37). After dominating Lewiston (71-41) and Erskine Academy (72-37), Cony got another scare from Mt. Ararat, but passed, 53-45.
The 2012 portion of the schedule began with a 64-35 win at Hampden Academy. Victories over Bangor (58-37), Lawrence (62-36), Skowhegan (49-36), Brewer (67-38) and Brunswick (54-34) followed. After surviving another scare from Edward Little (65-56), the Rams closed with wins over Oxford Hills (52-33), Lewiston (64-42), Mt. Ararat (56-21), Hampden Academy (38-30) and Erskine (70-46), wrapping up an 18-0 campaign, earning the top seed in Eastern A.
The Rams eliminated eighth-ranked Bangor, 57-47, in the quarterfinals, defeated fourth-seed Mt. Ararat, 46-39, in the semifinals, then escaped No. 2 Edward Little, 44-41, rallying from a 15-point deficit, in the regional final.
Cony has long been the state's premier program, winning 11 regional and seven Class A championships between 1987 and 2007.
McAuley beat the Rams, 67-61, to win its first championship back in 2002. Cony beat the Lions, 58-40, in the 2005 title tilt and did it again two years later, 46-41.
Saturday, McAuley took control early and even though things got very interesting in the second half, wouldn't be denied with the game on the line.
After missing shots on their first three possessions, but forcing turnovers on each of Cony's first three times with the ball, Smith made a layup to put the Lions on top for good.
Smith added a free throw and Clement set up Welch for a layup and a 5-0 lead.
With 4:50 to go in the first, the Rams got on the board when junior Josie Lee hit a runner. Lux came in off the bench and immediately made her presence felt when she took a long lead pass from Clement, made a layup while being fouled and hit the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play. DiPierro then passed to Clement for a 3 and with 1:57 to play, Coulombe grabbed a loose ball out of a scrum and passed to Lux for an easy layup, making it 13-2.
"We got off to a good start," said Smith. "We tried to take advantage of our height inside. It's whoever's there first. We try to balance it out. If (Alexa) gets a rebound, I hustle down and if I get a rebound, she's hustling down."
"I said to the girls before the game to get off to a fast start, something like 16-2," Goodman said. "I've never said anything like that before. It worked. I thought if it was that easy, why didn't we just do that all year. It's huge to get some hoops early. Unfortunately, I've been on the other side of that. We got off to a great start. The girls got those hoops early and it really helped."
Cony got within 13-4 by quarter's end on a Lee layup, then drew even closer in the second quarter.
Rams senior standout Mia Diplock (like Coulombe, a Miss Maine Basketball finalist) got in the scoring column with a driving layup 42 seconds in. After Coulombe set up Smith for a short turnaround jumper, the fouls started adding up on the Lions as Clement, Coulombe, Lux and Welch all were whistled for their second during the period.
With 5:33 left in the half, senior Julie Arbour managed to knock down the Rams' lone 3-pointer (out of 14 tries) in the first 16 minutes and Diplock hit a pullup jumper after a steal to cut the deficit to 15-11.
Welch stemmed the tide with a leaner that bounced twice before falling and Smith hit a leaner to make it 19-11.
After Diplock made a foul shot, Lux (from Smith) countered with a layup, but senior Melanie Guzman made two free throws and Lee hit one to cut the deficit to 21-15.
Coulombe then showed how she can affect a game like no other, blocking a potential 3 from Diplock at one end, then making a leaner at the other.
Smith added a free throw before Guzman made a pair. With 2.3 seconds to go in the half, Lux hit a free throw after an offensive foul and McAuley took a 25-17 lead to the break.
In the third, Cony made a run, forcing McAuley into a gut check situation.
Early on in the second half, while battling for a loose ball, DiPierro hit the floor hard and sat out for a couple minutes. With the Lions' best defender on the bench, the Rams were able to make a move.
"I just dove for the ball and (the other player) fell on me and my head hit the ground," DiPierro said. "I got a little shiner. It was hard to watch them come back."
With 6:18 to play in the third period, senior Bethany Elwell knocked down a 3. Guzman then scored on a putback to cut the deficit to three.
After a foul shot from Coulombe, Guzman made two more free throws with 5:13 remaining in the quarter and suddenly, it was 26-24, as Cony had all the momentum, while McAuley appeared to be staggering.
"Everything we weren't doing right, they were doing right," Clement said. "When we messed up a play, they battled right back. They took everything we gave them. They're a scrappy team. They can shoot. We knew they could drive. We knew what they'd bring."
DiPierro returned to the contest after the free throws, but the Rams would have two chances to pull even or possibly go ahead.
First Lee was unable to knock down a shot and Clement got the rebound.
Cony then got possession again, but Coulombe stole the ball and fed Smith for a pullup jumper, giving the Lions their first field goal in 5 minutes, 10 seconds.
That turned the tide.
DiPierro forced another turnover and the ball came to Smith, who was fouled. She made both attempts.
With 2:56 to go in the third, Clement took a pass from Coulombe and knocked down a 3. Clement then fed Smith for a short jumper with 1:17 to play in the period and just like that, McAuley was back in control, up, 35-24.
"It was definitely a nervous point," Clement said. "I think the team realized what was happening and we knew we worked for it all season and there was no way we were going to give it away. We picked each other up and played smart."
"We were down a little bit and weren't playing our best, but we battled back and worked hard to get ahead," Smith said.
"We called timeout and told (the girls) to keep it in Allie and Alexa's hands since they've been there before," Goodman added. "I feel like if it's in their hands we'll have the best shot. The other girls, it trickles down to them. All the girls did their jobs. We saw some nerves out there from the younger kids. They're high school kids, but the girls on the floor, I have faith in all of them. They did a great job."
Guzman made a layup with a minute to go, but the Rams had missed their best opportunity and trailed by nine, 35-26, heading for the final stanza.
Cony never made a serious run in the fourth quarter and the Lions pulled away to secure their destiny.
DiPierro opened the period with a steal and a layup, but Guzman scored on a putback and off an inbounds pass, Diplock passed to Lee for a layup, making it 37-30 with 7:02 to play.
The Rams would draw no closer.
Thirty seconds later, Mack, who had no peer on the boards all afternoon, was fouled after one of her six offensive rebounds and made two free throws. Clement then struck again, making a layup after a steal, getting fouled in the process, then canning the free throw to complete the three-point play.
Two Coulombe foul shots with 5:21 remaining, pushed the lead to 44-30.
"(Cony) really stepped up their D and they made every single shot and pass hard for us," Coulombe said. "It's something we had to work through and we did. They shot well and drove and never let up. We prepped for that all week. We just had to play smart since me and Allie were in foul trouble. We relied on our help D."
Eight seconds later, Diplock managed to bank home a 3, but Smith made a foul shot, Coulombe hit two and Welch made one for a 48-33 advantage with 3:34 left.
Guzman hit a pair of free throws for Cony, but Mack made two at the other end and wih 2:22 left, Clement, with her unrivaled burst, cut through the defense into the lane for a layup and a 52-35 lead.
Senior Julie Arbour made two free throws for the Rams, but with 1:36 remaining, Clement set up Lux for a layup and McAuley's final points of the season.
Down the stretch, after both coaches substituted liberally, Diplock made a layup for the final points of her high school career and a layup from sophomore Emily Quirion accounted for the 54-41 final margin.
At 5:36 p.m., the horn sounded and the Lions rushed the court in celebration.
"It's exactly how I wanted to end my senior year," DiPierro said. "This team has been wonderful. I love everyone. It's been a great year. It's sad it's ending, but I'm happy we went out this way. I think this year's a little different with everyone knowing their place more. We were more distributed on offense. I think it was a great, great team. It was definitely a team effort. It's a different kind of fun this year. It's awesome. I'm so excited.
"(Cony was) definitely a great team. They were one of our biggest challengers this year. They played awesome. We came out really strong, then we let them back in it. After halftime, we came out strong and at the end of the third quarter, we pulled away, which was awesome. Coach and everyone kept their calm on and off the floor. I think that's why we pulled away. We didn't get frustrated."
"It's pretty exciting," said Coulombe. "It's good we got another one. To get here again was even better. We're all best friends. It's the greatest feeling to win it again. It's almost easier to share the spotlight (like we did with Deering last year) because you don't have people gunning for you, but we handled it well. The young kids definitely learned fast what it's like and that helped us. Coach said in the locker room today that we were peaking at the right time. This game capped it off."
"I don't think it can get any better than it is now," said Clement, who in the last 12-plus months has won two state titles and was part of an AAU national champion. "I can't even remember the last time I lost a high school basketball game thanks to my team and everyone around me. We're blessed with such a great environment. Everyone cares so much about us and gives us the support we need to win. It's hard to compare. It's two different groups of people. I think the team is closer this year. We knew what it was like this year and knew what to expect."
The most poignant postgame scene came during the ceremonial cutting down of the nets ceremony where generally a team's star senior players get the last snip, then wave the net in the air in celebration.
Instead of doing it themselves, however, Coulombe and DiPierro ceded the limelight to seniors Mary Leasure and Kate Liziewski, demonstrating once more how much a team this group had become.
"They deserved that," said Clement. "They've been such great teammates. The people on the bench are fantastic. They're just as big a part of the team as anyone."
"Sadie and Alexa showed it all when they let Mary and Kate finish cutting down the nets," Goodman said. "They're the captains and they made Kate a third captain because of her dedication. The girls are really mature. I didn't realize Sadie and Alexa's drive for the team."
What a team
All season, McAuley's coaches and players stressed balance and teamwork and those elements were on full display in the biggest game of the year.
Smith had 15 points, but most of those came courtesy pinpoint passes from Clement and Coulombe. Smith also had eight rebounds and a blocked shot.
"It feels great," Smith said. "I've never done this before. It's a great experience. We won it with a lot of teamwork and heart. We faced a lot of challenges. Everyone gave us their best shot. We worked really hard."
"You have to give Olivia a lot of credit because she's worked hard in every practice," Goodman said. "She stays after. She asks questions. She's a pleasure to coach."
Clement, who elevated her game for the tournament, added 11 points (including the Lions' lone two 3-pointers), four assists, three rebounds and three steals.
"Allie, for a sophomore, is so clutch," Goodman said. "Nothing bothers her. She got in foul trouble tonight, but big deal. She makes me feel better. I'm very lucky to get to coach her. She makes a mistake, takes responsibility, moves on and just lets things go."
Lux had 10 points, four rebounds and a steal.
In her swan song, Coulombe, who should be named the finest senior girls' basketball player in the state Friday at the McDonald's All-Star Banquet in Bangor, had a quiet seven points, but controlled the glass with 10 boards, added four assists and three steals and twice swatted away Cony shot attempts, forcing the Rams to rethink the wisdom of driving to the basket.
"All I can say is that Alexa could have had 1,000 (career) points, but I don't think we'd have the record we have," Goodman said. "My first conversation with Alexa was only about the team. It was nothing about her. She's a champion. She a very good scorer, but she's a great passer. Tonight, when we needed it, she knew what to do with the ball. She's a triple threat. She does it all. She'd be my No. 1 draft pick."
Welch capped her strong tournament with five points.
"Jackie Welch had a great playoffs," said Goodman. "She came a long way this year. She was on JV last year and this year she was a starter for an undefeated, championship team. You have to give her a lot of credit."
Mack had four points and a game-high 12 rebounds.
"I'm ecstatic," Mack said. "For me, it's a little better this year because I feel like I contributed to the team more. Last year was great, but this is just awesome. We all have roles and rebounding happens to be my role. Coach tells me to be a good passer and get rebounds."
"Molly does it every game," Goodman said. "I got upset with her when she got her third foul and I told her we needed her on the floor to play defense and get rebounds. She went back in and didn't get any more fouls and got rebounds for us."
DiPierro added two points (along with a team-high four steals) and again turned heads with her defensive acumen.
"Coach put me on Diplock and I just faceguarded her like I usually do," DiPierro said. "I wasn't sure if I'd stay on her or if Alexa would help out. Alexa had my back the whole game. Clement did awesome on job on Lee. She's a great offensive player and gets rebounds."
"It all started this summer with Sadie hustling," Goodman said.
McAuley finished with a 40-28 advantage on the boards, had 12 steals and despite missing 10 of 28 free throw attempts and turning the ball over an uncharacteristic 30 times, had enough to prevail.
"It wasn't our prettiest game, but it didn't matter," Clement said. "We wanted to win and we had the heart to win. The amount of turnovers impacted the game, but no matter how you win, you just have to get there."
"(The girls) may have turned the ball over, but they got back on D," Goodman said.
The Lions picked it up a notch in the playoffs and became the powerhouse most expected.
"Early on (this season), our offense struggled," Goodman said. "As coaches, we focus on defense first. I made sure our defense would be good enough. Offensively, it started to click in January and February. I saw who did what well and we used that to our advantage and we moved the ball up the court more. The number one focus is playing team offense and team defense. Move the ball on offense and rotate on defense and it helped us in the playoffs."
For Cony, Guzman had a strong game and led her team with 14 points. She also had 11 rebounds (five coming on the offensive glass).
Diplock bowed out with 10 points, four steals and three boards.
Lee finished with seven points and tied Guzman for team rebounding honors with 11.
"Diplock and Lee were the biggest concerns for us since they're the best players on that team," said Clement. "Playing defense and stopping them was really important. Sadie is the rock of our defense, but we all know how to play defense and help each other out as a team. Everyone playing together and talking contributes to the success we have."
Arbour added five points, Elwell three and Quirion two. Junior Emily Sanford didn't score, but led all players with six steals and also blocked a shot.
The Rams turned the ball over 23 times and finished 12-of-15 from the line.
McAuley has a chance to win a third straight championship next winter, something which has only been done twice by a Class A girls' program (Westbrook from 1978-81 and Lawrence from 1991-94).
The loss of Coulombe and DiPierro will certainly be felt.
"Alexa and Sadie are great," said Clement. "It'll be so weird being without them next year. They're great people. I'm privileged to play with them."
"The seniors taught us a lot," Mack said. "They helped us in practice every single day. Alexa helped me grow as a player individually. Sadie too. She kept us working hard all the time."
"I learned so much," Smith said. "Alexa taught me how to be a good post player, instead of just an average one. Sadie doesn't focus on stats. She never gave up. She taught me how to play with heart. I can't explain how much they impacted my game."
With that said, there's loads of talent coming back and you have to like the Lions' three-peat chances.
"After tonight, with the turnovers, I told Olivia and Vic they drive me crazy, but there's so much potential there," Goodman said. "They just need to work at it. They grew up so much this year. We have Allie and Jackie coming back."
The returning players welcome the challenge and are eager to make history.
"We'll try to do it again next year," said Smith. "I think we'll have a strong team. It's sad to lose Alexa and Sadie and the other seniors, but I think we'll have good people stepping up."
"We're going for it again," Clement said. "I feel like we need to get back to where we were this season and we'll focus on getting that Gold Ball."