McAuley survives mighty scare from Cheverus
PORTLAND—The McAuley juggernaut cut down another pair of nets, but it's fair to say that two teams left the Cumberland County Civic Center as champions Saturday evening.
In a Western Class A Final that will be remembered for myriad reasons, the top-ranked, two-time defending state champion Lions ended up where everyone expected them, on top, but the No. 3 Cheverus Stags, making their first ever appearance in a title game, pushed them to the very end in a contest that started slowly, but crescendoed into a classic, in an effort that will long be remembered and hailed.
McAuley's big-game experience was evident early as the Lions raced to a 10-0 lead, as the Stags simply couldn't hit a shot. When McAuley sophomore Victoria Lux made two free throws with 3:20 to go before halftime, the Lions were up, 18-4, and a blowout seemed a likely result, but valiant Cheverus finally came to life.
After pulling within five at halftime, the Stags fell behind by 13 midway through the third quarter after a driving layup from McAuley junior standout Allie Clement, but Cheverus began heating up from behind the arc and when senior Victoria Nappi, who made the Civic Center her personal playground this weekend, knocked down an NBA-range 3-pointer, the Stags trailed by a mere four points, 37-33, with just over two minutes to play.
The Lions answered on a layup from Lux, but a driving layup from Cheverus senior Kylie Libby made it a four-point contest again.
Then, McAuley, showing its poise, salted away the win at the free throw line, making all eight of its attempts in the final 1 minute, 20 seconds to finally punctuate its 47-36 victory.
Clement led the team with 15 points, Lux added 12 points, to go with eight rebounds and two blocked shots, and a 15-3 advantage from the foul line proved to be the difference as the Lions improved to 21-0, extended their win streak to 47 games over three seasons, continued their utterly improbable run of not trailing in a postseason game to 257 minutes, 11 seconds, ended the Stags' finest season ever at 18-3 and advanced to set up a state final showdown with Eastern A champion Bangor Saturday at 4:05 p.m., at the Augusta Civic Center.
"It was nervewracking, but I have a lot of confidence in my teammates," said Clement, who was named the Edward "Red" McCann Award winner as the regional tournament's outstanding player-sportsperson. "Cheverus battled back. They have a talented team, but we've been in games like that before. We know what it's like. We have experience. We weren't going to back down. We kept playing. We just had to stay strong."
Biggest stakes yet
Back in the preseason, many felt this would be the regional final.
McAuley, which overcame the graduation losses of 2012 Miss Maine Basketball Alexa Coulombe (who is now playing for Boston College) and defensive standout and team heart-and-soul Sadie DiPierro (now enjoying postseason success at the University of New England), was hardly tested in the regular season, winning all 18 games with varying degrees of ease, including a 51-30 triumph at Cheverus Jan. 15. The Lions earned the top seed for the second year in a row and although tested, advanced past No. 8 Gorham (46-31) and No. 4 Scarborough (47-38).
The Stags posted their best record ever, 16-2 (the only other loss came at home to Deering), went in ranked third and after winning a quarterfinal round game for the first time, 31-26, over sixth-ranked Sanford, outlasted No. 2 Deering in a grueling affair Friday night in the semis, 33-31.
While the McAuley-Cheverus series has been completely one-sided on the court, make no mistake, passions run high on both sides and the Lions and Stags need no extra incentive when they square off.
That's what made Saturday night so compelling. Not only was Cheverus seeking its first ever win over McAuley, the Stags were trying to parlay history with a trip to a first ever state game, while the Lions were hoping to make it 47 straight victories.
The teams met once before in the postseason, a 33-27 Lions' victory in the 2009 preliminary round.
Saturday, after another rousing rendition of the national anthem from McAuley's Elsa Curran, Cheverus just couldn't score early and the champions built a lead as their amazing streak of not trailing in a tournament game continued.
After the Stags had their chances to go ahead early, but failed to knock down shots, Lions senior Molly Mack finally broke the ice 2 minutes, 38 seconds into the game when she took a pass from Smith and knocked down a rare 3.
According to McAuley coach Billy Goodman, it was just Mack's third 3 of the whole season.
Clement finished a pass from junior Olivia Smith and made a layup and after blocking a shot at the other end, Lux was fouled and made two free throws for a 7-0 lead.
With 1:03 left in the first, Clement took a pass from her freshman sister, Sarah, and canned a 3 and McAuley was in command, up, 10-0.
The Stags finally broke through with 42.3 seconds remaining in the period as Libby made a driving layup.
In the first period, Cheverus shot just 1-of-11 from the field.
The Lions built the lead in the second quarter, but just before halftime, the Stags got some momentum.
A baseline jumper from junior Jackie Welch (assisted by Sarah Clement) opened the period. Nappi, the hero of the semifinal round, answered with a jumper on an inbounds pass from junior Georgia Ford, but Smith hit a leaner, Allie Clement made two free throws and Lux added a pair for an 18-4 lead with 3:20 left before halftime.
McAuley wouldn't score again and the Stags got a jumper from senior Brooke Flaherty and a 3-ball from Nappi to pull within 18-9 at the break.
"Give McAuley credit," said Cheverus coach Richie Ashley. "We couldn't get points. We were a little tentative, but we were only down nine at halftime."
In the third, both offenses finally heated up and while Cheverus pushed the Lions, they pushed right back.
A Lux layup (set up by Mack) was answered by a long jumper from Ford and a Flaherty turnaround jumper to make it 20-13.
McAuley got a leaner from Lux, but Flaherty answered with two foul shots to cut the deficit back to seven.
Welch then heated up from behind the arc, nailing consecutive 3s, both set up by Allie Clement, to make it 28-15.
Flaherty made a driving layup, but Allie Clement did the same. Flaherty (from sophomore Jill Libby) then canned a 3, but Lux (again assisted by Mack) made a layup to make it 32-20.
Jill Libby countered with a 3, but again, the Lions answered as Allie Clement made a pullup jumper.
In the final minute, Nappi knocked down another 3 to keep Cheverus' hopes alive and pull the Stags within eight, 34-26.
McAuley finished it off in the fourth, but not without some very anxious moments.
A heads-up play from Stags' senior Danielle Kane on an offensive rebound led to a Flaherty leaner which rattled in with 6:07 to play to cut the Lions' lead to six.
Smith countered with a free throw, but senior Mikayla Mayberry set up Flaherty for another leaner and the score read 35-30 with 4:55 still to play.
Cheverus got the ball back and Ford had a good look at a 3, but it came up short. Clement then countered with a pullup jumper, but with 2:03 left, Nappi let sail a long 3-pointer that hit nothing but net and suddenly it was a 37-33 game.
The Stags had all the momentum, but these Lions weren't going to let it slip away.
Lux got a pass and fought her way past a defender to score on an extremely difficult up-and-under layup to push the lead back to six with 1:43 remaining.
"It was intense," said Lux. "It got kind of close, but we were relaxed and reversed the ball. It was a team effort tonight. I had to have the confidence that the coaches have been giving me. I had to take it to the rim. There was a lot of pressure, but I was confident."
"We got it back into the post," said Goodman. "Allie handled the pressure great. Sarah and Jackie did a great job feeding the post all night. We got back to what worked. It was a great team effort."
At the other end, Kylie Libby drove for a layup to again cut the deficit to four, 39-35, with 1:31 still to play.
Clement then drew a foul with 1:20 to go and with all eyes on her, sank the front end of a one-and-one, then made the second for a 41-35 advantage.
"It's hard, but once you get there and you know how much your team is counting on you, it's simple," Clement said, of clutch foul shooting. "You block everything out, you shoot and you have confidence that they're going in. I have confidence in my teammates. I know they'll make theirs. Confidence at the end of the game is critical."
The Stags looked to counter, but Libby missed on a drive and Smith got the rebound.
With 48.4 seconds left, Sarah Clement went to the line for the biggest free throws of her life to date and like her sister, she made both ends of the one-and-one for a little breathing room and a 43-35 lead.
"We run a lot before we shoot foul shots everyday in practice," Goodman said. "We want the girls to feel like it's the fourth quarter, so we always shoot after we run."
After Ford missed a 3, Lux got the rebound, but McAuley turned the ball over.
With 30 seconds to go, Flaherty was fouled and she made one of two free throws to make it 43-36.
The inbounds pass came to Lux, who was fouled immediately and like the Clement sisters, Lux made both free throws to almost put it out of reach. After a Mayberry miss, Smith went to the line and she too made both foul shots.
That made it official.
McAuley 47 Cheverus 36.
"It's an awesome feeling," said Lux. "I love it. I feel like we play with more intensity when we have tough competition. Cheverus played really well tonight."
"We played very good defense in the first quarter, then we kind of let up," said Welch. "We had some miscommunication on 3-pointers. They're a tenacious team. The fact that it was a close game and that it's Cheverus makes it so much better."
"This is a new group," said Goodman, who got a wonderful 44th birthday present, one he called his best ever. "We lost Alexa and Sadie, who were champions. These younger girls all year have faced the other team's best effort. We knew we'd get Cheverus'. We knew they'd get pressure. I don't like the way we ended the half playing defense. At halftime, we figured we were back to zero. It isn't easy. You come down to it, Cheverus has very good players and they play great defense. You still have to score. I give my players and my coaching staff the credit. They push the kids everyday in practice not to settle."
Allie Clement, who is playing at far less than 100 percent with a foot malady, to no one's surprise, came up huge on the big stage with 15 points, eight rebounds and six assists.
"It doesn't hurt having Allie leading the charge," Goodman said. "The girl's playing on one foot. I'm sure it doesn't feel good every time she explodes and stops. For her to perform like she did tonight, to handle the ball, give us points, good passes and play D, wow, what a champion she is."
Clement said she was honored to win the McMann Award, but as she always does, she deflected praise to her teammates.
"It really means a lot," Clement said. "It was very cool. I'm excited, but it's a credit to my teammates for giving me all those opportunities."
Lux was stellar as well, with 12 points, eight boards and two blocks.
Welch continued her superb postseason play with eight points. Mack and Smith (five boards) had five each and Sarah Clement added two.
McAuley had a 29-22 advantage on the glass. The Lions committed an uncharacteristic 19 turnovers, but more than made up for those miscues with their 15-of-20 foul shooting.
Heart of a champion
After its victory, McAuley couldn't stop raving about Cheverus' effort. Rest assured that this is a fierce rivalry on the floor, but after the final horn, hugs and platitudes were commonplace.
"I don't think people are going to underestimate Cheverus anymore," said Welch. "They came together and jelled the past couple games."
"They've done fantastic," said Clement. "They're a really talented team. I'm friends with a lot of those girls. They're nice girls and they're hard workers. Cheverus is always going to be competitive. It's just that rivalry between us. They have seniors. They wanted to win. They battled back. They have a talented team."
"Cheverus has a special team, we knew that," Goodman added. "They don't get enough credit for how good of a defense they play. They didn't quit. They made tons of good shots. They weren't going to go lightly. I didn't feel any lead would be safe. I have to give Ashley credit, he did a great job."
Flaherty capped her brilliant season and career as a four-year starter with 16 points, three rebounds and two steals. Nappi had 11 points and three steals. Kylie Libby, whose value can't be quantified by mere stats, had four points, four boards and a block. Jill Libby added three points and Ford had two.
Cheverus took great care of the ball, only turning it over 11 times, but got to the line for just four free throw attempts (making three).
For the game, the Stags were whistled for 18 fouls, to just four for the Lions.
"McAuley's heart rate went up a lot," Ashley said. "They've got a great team and they knew they were in a game. We started knocking down some shots, but the deficit was just a little too much. You have give them credit for knocking down free throws. A bounce or two one way or the other and it's a different game. They made the plays at the end, but I wouldn't trade anybody on my team for anybody on any other team. My girls had the heart of a champion and I'm awfully proud of them."
Pride was the overwhelming emotion for those in purple and gold (dwarfing the sadness that will quickly dissipate). In just a couple of weeks, Cheverus went from being a team saddled with a reputation for not being able to win the big one, to winning several big ones in dramatic fashion.
As a balanced and talented unit.
And as a family.
"Right now it's sad, obviously, but I talked to the girls about thinking about all they accomplished," Ashley said. "Eighteen wins, two playoff wins, but more importantly, the lessons they learned. Being part of a team, a family. The girls believe in that no matter what.
"It's a tribute to the seniors. They didn't let us down. They scrapped and battled and made shots. Mikayla played good defense on Allie. Kylie and Brooke are two small college guards, who two nights in a row played against two big-time low post players. They bought into what we sold. Everything we talk about when it comes to being Cheverians, they bought. Putting team first. The name on the front of the uniform meaning more than the name on the back. They believed it and brought us where we needed to go. I talked to each of the seniors individually and told them what they meant to me personally and what they meant to the program. It's sad we lost, but for me it's sad that I don't get to coach them anymore. It's hard, but we got that first plaque and even though it's runner-up, it's the first we've earned."
Undoubtedly, the loss of Flaherty, Kane, Libby, Mayberry, Nappi and Casey Honan will be deeply felt, but this program has now established itself as one that will be knocking at the door every winter.
It won't be long until it's the Stags who are raising a Gold Ball to the heavens.
"The juniors and underclassmen don't want to let the seniors down," Ashley said. "They want to continue building on what we've done."
McAuley will face an unfamiliar foe in next weekend's state final as it goes for a three-peat (or a "three-Pete" as they're calling it, in honor of scorekeeper Peter Litman), something last done by the Cindy Blodgett-led Lawrence Bulldogs when they took four in a row between 1991 and 1994.
The Lions have never faced Bangor, (17-4), which is appearing in its first state game since 1982.
The Rams, seeded second in Eastern A, advanced by virtue of regional tournament wins over No. 7 Skowhegan (61-48), third-ranked Mt. Ararat (56-44) and Cinderella No. 9 Cony, the reigning regional champion (57-43).
Bangor features a similar brand of size, speed and shooting acumen, so Saturday should produce high drama.
McAuley is one win from immortality and isn't about to stop now.
"They have two 6-footers, I know that much," Welch said. "I'm sure coach will get around to watching some game tape."
"Now, we'll start worrying about Bangor," Goodman said. "We've been taking it one at a time."
"A lot of people think we just walk into games and win, but we practice hard all the time," said Clement. "We know it won't be easy. We come into games with a lot of strategy. We plan for everyone. We don't take anyone lightly. We have to work for everything. We're very excited. We're not satisfied. We'll watch film. We'll go to Augusta and practice. We have to come out and play defense like we've been playing and I think the game will come to us. We have one game left and we're not willing to lose it."