McAuley marches past Scarborough, into regional final
PORTLAND—After steamrolling virtually every foe during the regular season, the two-time defending Class A champion McAuley girls' basketball team is finding the going a little more difficult in the playoffs.
But so far, it's nothing the Lions haven't been able to handle.
Friday evening, top-ranked McAuley was pushed by No. 4 Scarborough in a semifinal round showdown at the Cumberland County Civic Center, but thanks to their dominance on the glass and a superb defensive effort, the Lions found a way to produce their 46th straight victory.
For the sixth straight postseason game, McAuley didn't trail for a single second and raced to a 8-0 lead. The Lions extended their advantage to 26-12 at halftime, but the Red Storm didn't buckle and got as close as seven in the third period before McAuley closed on a 6-2 run to restore a double digit lead. Scarborough never seriously threatened from there and the Lions went on to a 47-38 victory, their second narrowest of the season.
McAuley got a game-high 13 points from junior Jackie Welch, 10 points and nine rebounds from junior Olivia Smith, enjoyed a 33-22 advantage on the glass and improved to 20-0, ended the Red Storm's fine season at 16-4 and advanced to set up a delicious regional final showdown with rival No. 3 seed Cheverus (18-2) Saturday at 7 p.m., at the Civic Center.
"(Scarborough) had a good game plan," said McAuley coach Billy Goodman. "They didn't rush shots and they took care of the ball. We had to play defense and that's what we did. We had turnovers in the second half, which I'm not happy with, but I don't care about offense. I focus on defense in the playoffs."
Becoming a habit
Prior to last season, McAuley and Scarborough had never met in the postseason. Friday evening's matchup was the fourth time the teams had squared off in the past 13 months and the second year in a row in the playoffs (the Lions rolled in last year's regional final, 61-43).
McAuley beat the visiting Red Storm, 65-42, Jan. 18, as part of an 18-0 regular season which gave the Lions the top seed in Western A. Monday, in the quarterfinals, McAuley handled No. 8 Gorham, 46-31.
Scarborough only stumbled three times this winter and wound up ranked fourth. Monday, the Red Storm overcame a slow start to oust No. 5 South Portland, 45-32.
Friday, the Lions carried a mind-boggling streak of 161 minutes and 11 seconds of tournament play without facing a deficit, a run that dated back to the 2011 Western A Final.
That string continued as McAuley enjoyed a strong start.
Just 23 seconds in, Welch, picking up where she left off from her huge game Monday, made a jumper to put the Lions ahead for good. Smith added a driving layup, junior Allie Clement raced coast to coast for a layup and with 4:56 to in the first, Smith took a pass from Welch and made a layup for an 8-0 advantage, forcing Scarborough coach Ron Cote to call timeout.
"For us, getting off to a good start is mainly fastbreaking," Welch said. "That's where the tempo starts. A good start is always helpful."
Scarborough broke through with 3:58 left, as senior Maria Philbrick made two free throws. Lions senior Molly Mack then took a pass from sophomore Laura Holman and countered with a layup, but senior Maria Redmond hit two foul shots to bring the Red Storm back to 10-4 after one period.
"We have been starting slow," Goodman said. "I said the other day in practice, 'I wish we could get up 12-2 some game.' We started out well. I was happy."
In the first, McAuley held Scarborough without a field goal and got two points, five boards and a blocked shot from Mack.
In the second, the Lions opened things up further.
Smith started the frame with two free throws before a pullup jumper from Redmond produced the Red Storm's first field goal. Senior Taylor LeBorgne added a layup to pull Scarborough within 12-8, but it would get no closer.
Freshman Sarah Clement scored on a putback, then took a pass from her sister and buried a 3.
"We always know where the other is," Sarah Clement said. "The chemistry between us is great."
Sarah Clement hasn't played like a freshman this year, but she did show her age prior to the game. Less than an hour before tip time, her mother, Carolyn, got a call that Sarah had forgotten her sneakers, forcing her father, Brian, to scramble home to get the necessary footwear. Sarah warmed up with different shoes than her teammates, but was good to go by tipoff.
"I think my mind was just racing," Clement said. "I was trying to be mentally prepared for the game, but I wasn't thinking about what I needed. I couldn't focus on that and had to be ready to play."
"She's a goofball," Goodman said, with a chuckle. "I told her the last time someone forgot their shoes they had a triple-double. I made that up so she wouldn't feel bad, but she could be in barefeet and play basketball."
Sophomore Victoria Lux added a fastbreak layup and the lead was double digits.
LeBorgne and sophomore Ashley Briggs countered with jumpers for the Red Storm, but Welch made two free throws, Sarah Clement set up Allie Clement for a 3 and a pullup jumper from Allie Clement gave McAuley a seemingly commanding 26-12 advantage at the break.
In the first 16 minutes, the Lions doubled up the Red Storm on the boards, 22-11.
Scarborough did not go quietly and made things interesting in the third period.
After Allie Clement displayed great dexterity scoring on a reverse layup, Briggs set up senior Courtney Alofs for a layup, Redmond knocked down a 3 and Alofs, after taking a perfectly threaded pass from LeBorgne, made another layup to cut the deficit to 28-19, which forced Goodman to call timeout.
It didn't immediately pay dividends as LeBorgne's driving layup brought the Red Storm within seven, but Welch ended the 9-0 run and a 4 minute, 41 second drought with two free throws and Mack took a pass from Lux and showed some unexpected range with a free throw line jumper.
"I've been practicing shooting a lot this week," Mack said. "Coach calmed us down. We got our heads back in the game."
Alofs countered with a jumper, but Lux took a pass from Sarah Clement and made a layup.
After running nearly the final minute off the clock, Scarborough wasn't able to get a shot off and trailed, 34-23, with eight minutes to play.
In the fourth, McAuley put it away.
After more than two scoreless minutes, off an inbounds play under the basket, Allie Clement spotted an open Lux, who made a layup. Then, on a perfectly executed fastbreak, Clement fed Smith, who passed to Welch for a layup as the ball never touched the floor.
"I got some points off the pressbreaker," Welch said. "Vic and Olivia were looking for me. We just calmed down and tried to kill their momentum."
LeBorgne countered with a 3, but Smith hit two free throws for a 40-26 advantage with 4:44 to go.
Briggs tried to rally the Red Storm with a layup, but Smith took a pass from Allie Clement and banked home a leaner. Philbrick converted an old-fashioned three-point play (layup, foul, free throw), but Welch scored on a fastbreak layup and with 1:37 to go, added a foul shot for a 45-31 lead.
Redmond kept hope alive with a 3 eight seconds later and Philbrick finished a pass from Briggs with a layup to make it 45-36 with 1:10 still to play, but 18 seconds later, Welch essentially iced it with two foul shots. Scarborough sophomore Kaitlin Prince scored on a putback in the waning seconds to account for the 47-38 final score.
"We've had really good practices the past three days," Mack said. "Coach told us to go out and pretend it was our fourth practice. We tried to block everything out and we played really well."
"We really pushed for a good start," Smith said. "We wanted to get out there and get a good start to prepare us for the rest of the game. When it got close, we got our head straight. We knew we could pull through."
"We just changed the offense a little bit," Goodman added. "How we approached what they were doing. That got the girls focused. I just worry about our defense and taking care of the ball."
Welch, who knocked down four 3-pointers in the quarterfinal round win over Gorham, hit three field goals and seven free throws to lead all scorers with 13 points.
Despite her production, Welch said she was more concerned with the defensive side.
"I was really focusing this game on defense," Welch said. "I didn't want to give Redmond anything easy. She's ridiculously fast. She has good range. Briggs and Philbrick are quick and are good shooters as well."
Smith had 10 points, Allie Clement added nine, Sarah Clement had five, Lux and Mack four each and Dalphonse two.
McAuley had 33 rebounds to 22 for Scarborough, as Smith had nine, Lux eight, Mack seven and Sarah Clement five.
"We spent the whole week preparing for rebounds," Smith said. "That was key for the game."
"Scarborough's a tough team," Mack said. "They don't have much height. Rebounding was our advantage. That and defense are our focal point. That's what wins games."
"We've had three really good practices and we've worked on rebounding every day," Goodman added. "Those three girls stepped up tonight and did what they do in practice. I'm really proud of them."
The Lions had 13 turnovers (11 in the second half) and made an impressive 11-of-13 free throws.
Nothing to hang heads over
Redmond led Scarborough in her swan song with 10 points. LeBorgne bowed out with nine, Philbrick with seven and Alofs with six. Briggs added four points and Prince had two. Philbrick was tops on the glass with six rebounds, while Alofs had five.
The Red Storm committed 12 turnovers and made all five of their free throws.
"I couldn't be any prouder of the girls," said Cote. "The effort they gave was tremendous. I thought if we made some shots, and we had some looks, we would have been right there. We were down 14 at halftime. We could have come out second half and got blown out, but we came back and made it a game. We didn't press. We changed defenses a number of times. There was one particular defense we played we hadn't shown all year that McAuley was a little confused with. We stayed with that a little longer. It packed us in and helped with their bigger players. We tried to box them out. They could go over our backs and get a rebound without fouling. Not much you can do about that."
Scarborough reached the semifinals for the fourth time in five seasons and once again made the most of a challenging offseason which saw a late coaching change.
"I told them I was so proud of them," Cote said. "They came out on this floor and battled McAuley to the end. I thought we had a tremendous year. The girls made my job easy because their attitude was super all year. They worked hard and were coachable. Not one of them had an attitude problem. They have a refuse to lose attitude and competed until the end.
"I thought we'd be in the top four or five. Had we had a little more luck we would've beaten Cheverus and maybe ended up third. I think we played to our expectations. We beat a lot of teams handily. Did we overachieve? I think we achieved what our talent was. It's a special group of seniors. They had three different coaches. Three different personalities. For them to adjust the way they have is amazing. I came in back in October. Tom (Maines) came in late last year too. How they adjusted says a lot about their makeup."
The Red Storm will have a very different look next winter after the departure of Alofs, LeBorgne, Philbrick, Redmond, Grace Farnkoff and Marisa O'Toole, but Briggs leads a returning contingent that figures to remain in contention.
"We lose the six seniors and a lot of experience and a lot of competitiveness and so forth, but I think it's rubbed off to the younger kids," Cote said. "I hope we continue to grow."
The Holy War
McAuley figures to get a stern test from private school rival Cheverus, a team that has never beaten the Lions, Saturday night.
McAuley won the regular season meeting, 51-30, Jan. 15, at the Stags.
The teams met once before in the postseason, a 33-27 Lions' victory in the 2009 preliminary round.
McAuley has had everything go its way all season, but this last regional hurdle will be challenging, especially with all the pressure on the Lions' shoulders.
"We have to focus on defense like we did today," Sarah Clement said. "Our shots didn't fall, but no matter what, you can rely on defense."
"We'll have to lock down on defense and stay disciplined," Smith said. "We have to be mentally tough."
"They'll try to dictate the tempo to us like Scarborough did tonight," said Welch. "We need to be crisp, break the press and do the little things."
"We have to take care of the ball," Goodman added. "They'll put pressure on us. We have to bring our defense. Our offense might be there, but it might not."