Lions roar into playoffs after slaying Stags again
PORTLAND—The McAuley girls' basketball team has been defined by a lot of numbers over the years.
Number of state championships.
Number of wins in succession.
Numbers of standout players who go on to play at the next level.
Too many to count.
But near the top of any list of numbers vitally important to the program is this:
As in McAuley 21 Cheverus 0.
Friday evening, the three-time defending Class A state champion Lions made that figure a reality by passing yet another challenge from the Stags on Senior Night at Keegan Gymnasium.
In a physical, contentious affair, McAuley opened up a 15-3 lead after one quarter and was truly never challenged from there.
The Lions managed to get the job done inside, as junior Victoria Lux and senior Olivia Smith both had moments of dominance, and outside as well, as seniors Allie Clement and Jackie Welch reigned supreme. Then there was unheralded junior Olivia Dalphonse, who played smothering defense and distributed to her teammates and all of that proved too much for the Stags to handle as McAuley pulled away to triumph, 56-35.
The Lions were paced by 17 points from Clement and 15 from Lux. They forced 26 turnovers and improved to 17-1, locked up the top seed for the upcoming tournament and dropped Cheverus to 12-6 in the process.
"We treated this like a playoff game," said Clement, who is now a ridiculously sensational 81-3 in her high school career. "We could easily play them again in the playoffs. They're a really good team. We've prepared for them for awhile. It's always going to be a game with them, no matter the teams' records. (Never having lost to them isn't) talked about a lot, but it's something everyone knows. No one here wants to let a (Cheverus win) happen under their watch. It's everyone's responsibility. We knew we had two games against them this year, potentially three with the playoffs, and we had to find a way. This means a lot to us. It's the most important game to us. We all motivated each other, honestly."
Playoffs start early
As is always the case when Cheverus and McAuley meet, whether the month is December, January or February, there was electricity in the gym and a postseason feel.
Not only are the Lions and Stags two of the finest girls' teams in the league, but their proximity makes for both familiarity and contempt.
On the floor, it's been all McAuley since the Cheverus varsity program began in the 2002-03 season (please see sidebar, below, for complete results and links to prior game stories).
The Stags had come close on many of the previous 20 occasions, most notably last year's regional final (which was much closer than the 47-36 final score) and a game played Jan. 4 at McAuley (which the Lions held on to prevail, 47-39).
That previous meeting was one of many entertaining games played by each squad during the regular season.
Cheverus opened by downing visiting Windham (46-33) and host Bonny Eagle (68-29) before stumbling at Thornton Academy (47-42). After a 75-29 home romp over Massabesic, the Stags won at Deering (65-42), then couldn't hold a halftime lead and lost at Portland (62-60) and fell just short despite a valiant effort at McAuley. Cheverus then bounced back with a vengeance, winning at Gorham (42-40), at home over Noble (75-38) and Sanford (51-39) and at Westbrook (39-19) before losing at home to South Portland, 72-56. A late rally got the Stags back on track in a 48-41 home win over Marshwood. They then won at Scarborough (50-41) and handled visiting Biddeford (63-22) and Deering (44-29) before letting an 18-point lead slip away Tuesday night at South Portland in a frustrating 49-46 defeat.
McAuley, meanwhile, beat visiting Thornton Academy in the opener, 51-36, 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. Then came a trip to Saco Jan. 8, when McAuley went to Thornton Academy and let a 15-point third quarter lead slip away in a stunning 50-49 setback. After holding off visiting South Portland's upset bid, 41-36, in a win that left the Lions acting like they'd lost, 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) and host Deering (62-39).
Friday, in a game which saw bodies flying, coaches chirping and referees uncertain which end was up, ultimately, McAuley's balance, depth and big-game experience proved to be too much.
Prior to the game, seniors from both schools were honored and Cheverus went with an all-senior starting lineup, which meant that Georgia Ford, Cassidy Grover and Sadie Lyons were in familiar roles, but MaryKate Slattery and Alisha Starbird (in her first action this season after sitting out with a concussion) were not.
"I was really happy for the seniors," Stags coach Richie Ashley said. "It's a special bond with all of them."
On the floor, both teams were tight in the early going and it took nearly three minutes for a point to be scored.
Lux did the honors with 5:13 remaining in the first quarter, when she was fouled after an offensive rebound and made one of two free throws.
A minute later, Lux scored on a left-handed layup while being fouled and added the free throw for an old-fashioned three-point play and a 4-0 lead.
With 3:22 to go in the first, Dalphonse first made her passing presence felt by setting up Clement for a long 3-pointer and a 7-0 advantage, forcing Ashley to call timeout.
If worked, as Starbird sank a 3, but Lux made a foul shot, Smith added a pair and with time winding down in the frame, Welch nailed a 3 and Clement stole the ball just before the horn and buried a jumper to open the lead up to 15-3.
"We struggled a little bit, but once we got our momentum going, it got better," Clement said. "There were times we had streaks where we had fastbreak layups and other times we couldn't hit our shots. Overall, I think we did a good job."
In the first eight minutes, Cheverus had more turnovers (nine) than shots.
McAuley didn't let up in the second quarter.
After the Stags opened the frame with back-to-back hoops from Grover (the first a layup from sophomore Jess Willerson and the second a bank shot), Smith countered with a hook shot that Kareem Abdul-Jabbar might have envied. Willerson made two free throws, but Smith set up Clement for a layup and a 19-9 lead.
With three minutes to go before halftime, Smith picked up her third foul, but the hosts couldn't take advantage.
After Willerson made two foul shots, Dalphonse countered with one and after grabbing a rebound at one end, Clement raced down and pulled up for a jump shot which doubled up the Stags, 22-11.
Willerson made a leaner, but Lions sophomore Margaret Hatch sank two free throws. After Starbird sank a jump shot just inside the three-point line, Clement scored on a leaner.
McAuley stole the ball again in the waning seconds, but Dalphonse took a pass from Welch and laid the ball in a split second after the horn sounded and the Lions went to the locker room with a 26-15 advantage.
In the first half, Clement led all scorers with 11 points, but the most important statistic was the turnover discrepancy. Cheverus committed 14 to just four for the visitors.
The Stags hoped to get off to a hotter start in the second half, but McAuley didn't let it happen.
After the hosts pulled within eight on a Willerson free throw and a leaner from Lyons, Clement made a layup after a steal and Clement stole the ball again, passed to Dalphonse and Dalphonse set up Lux for a layup and a 30-18 lead.
Willerson made two foul shots for the hosts, but Lux passed to Smith for a layup, Dalphonse set up Lux for a layup, Clement made two free throws and with 2:03 to go in the quarter, Smith, on the fastbreak, passed to Lux, who made a layup to push the lead to 18, 38-20.
Seconds after Clement ran into Grover and was staggered by the collision, Willerson grabbed an offensive rebound and scored on the putback, as Clement picked up her third foul on the play and had to leave the game momentarily.
"It's always a physical game with (Cheverus)," a sore, bloodied and bandaged Clement said, following the game. "I think last game was even more physical. I feel like I was in a car accident."
Making matters even more surreal, after Willerson completed the three-point play, the officials, to the astonishment of virtually everyone on hand, allowed the Stags to have possession and compounded matters by sending them the wrong way up the floor.
Sanity was eventually restored.
Cheverus junior Laura Holman, a former Lion, who did big damage in the first meeting, took a pass from Grover and made a layup to cut the deficit to 13, but Dalphonse took a pass from Lux, fired up a 3 from the left wing and the ball hit the rim and managed to drop into the net. A bank shot from junior Jillian Libby brought the Stags back to 41-27 with eight minutes to go.
Cheverus never could make things interesting down the stretch.
A little over a minute into the final stanza, Smith made a free throw. Dalphonse then set up Lux for a transition layup and the lead was 17, 44-27.
Libby countered with a long jumper, but Lux made two free throws, Smith did the same and Clement made a jumper to make the score 50-29.
After Ford made a 3, Lux set up Welch for a 3 and the next time down, Welch made a driving layup while being fouled and completed the three-point play to essentially end all doubt.
Ashley pulled his seniors for one final ovation and down the stretch, Holman made a free throw and sophomore Lodia Ismail made a layup after a steal to account for the 56-35 final score.
"It's a good win," Dalphonse said. "It's exciting. We're fortunate to play them at the end of the season, but we'll work hard to get ready for playoffs."
"I feel like we had to come out strong like we did and we were stronger," said Lux. "We've been practicing all week. We had to stop them from shooting. (Cheverus is) strong, they're physical. It was a great game for us to get ready for playoffs."
"We got in foul trouble tonight," added Lions coach Billy Goodman. "It was great experience for us. We learned how to play in foul trouble. We did a good job. My team showed me a lot. Vic and Olivia stepped up. Cheverus is very good in the paint. We've worked on defense and boxing out. We played disciplined defense. I'm very proud of the girls."
McAuley stuffed the stat sheet with a tremendous team effort.
Clement led all scorers with 17 points and also had six rebounds and five steals.
"It was a fun season," Clement said. "It's so weird it's already over, since it seems like it just started. Overall, I think we're happy with it."
"Allie's a three-time champion," Goodman said. "She 's unbelievable under pressure. I've never seen anything like it. I've been very lucky to coach her for three years. She's special. When the pressure gets going, she picks it up a notch. It's fun to watch."
The Lions' inside tandem of Lux and Smith excelled, as Lux had 15 points, a team-high 11 boards, three assists and three blocked shots, while Smith added nine points, nine rebounds, two blocks and a pair of assists.
Welch also had nine points, to go with six rebounds and four steals.
Then, there was Dalphonse, whose statistics didn't even begin to tell the story. She wound up with a mere four points, but had a team-high five assists and four steals.
"My job is to set up baskets," Dalphonse said. "I accept it. It gets the team hyped up."
Lux, without prompting, raved about her teammate following the win.
"She was amazing," Lux said. "Her passing, her decisions were unbelievable tonight. She was so patient. She got the ball inside."
"Olivia's amazing," she said. "She's a defensive queen. She makes really good decisions on offense. She causes turnovers. Honestly, without her on the floor, we get shaken up on defense because she's the rock and keeps us steady. She's underrated, but she does a phenomenal job. I don't think other people realize that, but we do."
Goodman continued the theme.
"Olivia does it all," he said. "She passes, she dribbles, she plays great defense. She's probably one of the smartest players I've ever coached. To be honest, her shooting has gotten a lot better. She's making good decisions. We need her on the floor. I can't say enough about her."
Hatch added two points.
The Lions outrebounded the Stags, 41-36, had 17 steals and forced 26 turnovers, while committing 16. McAuley finished 16 of 25 from the foul line.
While McAuley didn't finish undefeated for the first time since 2010-11, it's loss might have been the best thing that could have happened, in retrospect.
"It was hard losing, but I think if we didn't lose that game, we wouldn't realize what we'd need to work on," said Dalphonse, who had faced the music and consented to an interview following the Thornton Academy setback. "We took the things we did badly in that game and we've focused on them, like boxing out, or form shooting, getting our percentage up. It really gave us the push we needed."
"That loss was a good refresh for us," Lux said. "We needed the pressure off our shoulders. I feel it's brought us together as a team."
"We had a three-game stretch where we got beat up, outplayed, outhustled, so we gave them the weekend off and the girls came back ready to play," Goodman added. "The coaches and players were great. We've worked on little things for a month. It's gotten better. Boxing out, better shot selection. The little things we weren't doing. We're getting there. I give the girls credit for working at it."
Cheverus was paced by Willerson, who had a dozen points and a game-high 12 rebounds.
Starbird made the most of her first action with five points and a steal.
"Alicia played hard and she played tough," Ashley said. "I was happy for her."
Grover (nine boards) and Libby both had four points, Ford and Holman had three apiece and Ismail and Lyons both added two.
The Stags made 9 of 15 foul shots.
"McAuley played unbelievably good D," Ashley said. "That's the best I've ever seen them play defense. They were especially active. We didn't have good composure initially.
"We went 12-6 this year after graduating six seniors, including the Player of the Year (Brooke Flaherty) and another player (Kylie Libby) who started for four years. I thought these seniors did a good job. I'm proud of them. We had a couple games that could have gone either way. We don't grow Division I players on trees around here. I'm proud of the girls."
Despite its 12-win season, Cheverus is ranked sixth and will have to win a home preliminary round game Tuesday or Wednesday to get to the Expo for the quarterfinals Monday, Feb. 17. The Stags will face No. 11 Bonny Eagle (6-12). The teams have no playoff history.
"Everyone's 0-0 now," Ashley said. "No matter who you lost to or who you beat. It's one-and-done. I think we can make a run. This group can play. We'll fine tune some things. We'll get some rest. It will help to be home."
McAuley will be the No. 1 seed for the third year in a row and will face No. 8 Deering (8-10) or ninth-ranked Scarborough (7-11) in the quarterfinals. The Lions have eliminated the Red Storm from each of the past two postseasons and last faced the Rams in a regional final for the ages, which McAuley won in 2011.
This group knows it will ultimately be defined by whether or not it cuts down the nets and joins Westbrook (1978-81) and Lawrence (1991-94) as Class A girls' programs to win four championships in a row (Gorham won four straight in Class B, also from 1978-81).
These Lions are ready to meet the challenge.
"We need to keep focusing on the little things, playing as a team," Dalphonse said.
"We're a family," Lux said. "We're ready."
"Hopefully, we'll have another run," Clement added. "We have to stay together as a team. We have to be more consistent shooting. We have to stop fouling. That will be important. We'll rest up this weekend and get back to practice next week."
Goodman, who is 61-1 with two state titles in his two-plus seasons with McAuley, knows another Gold Ball won't come easily.
"Tonight was like a playoff game," he said. "It got us ready. It's tough to win in the playoffs. If we have foul trouble and shoot badly, we know we can win, because we did it tonight. It's different this year. We have girls coming off the bench with no experience. There's a lot of good teams. We'll get ready."
Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.
Previous McAuley-Cheverus results
@ McAuley 47 Cheverus 39
@ McAuley 57 Cheverus 40
@ McAuley 46 Cheverus 39
McAuley 50 @ Cheverus 42
@ McAuley 48 Cheverus 33
Western A preliminary
@ McAuley 33 Cheverus 27
McAuley 47 @ Cheverus 41
McAuley 59 @ Cheverus 41
@ McAuley 57 Cheverus 32
@ McAuley 77 Cheverus 33
McAuley 67 @ Cheverus 51
@ McAuley 73 Cheverus 37
McAuley 73 Cheverus 50
McAuley 70 @ Cheverus 24
@ McAuley 85 Cheverus 31
@ McAuley 88 Cheverus 30