Roar for four needs one more...McAuley ends Windham's run
PORTLAND—Hoops immortality is just 32 minutes away.
McAuley's girls' basketball team, the three-time defending state champions, earned the right to play for a fourth when it ended the Cinderella run of the Windham Eagles in the Western Class A Final Saturday evening at the Cumberland County Civic Center.
While drama was at a minimum, the Lions put forth another spectacular display of defense, team basketball and desire to excel.
McAuley, the top-ranked team in the region, never trailed, and held the seventh-seeded Eagles scoreless for nearly 10 minutes in the first half, but the Lions only had a 19-13 lead at the break.
Windham, which rallied from 11 points down at halftime Friday to beat Cheverus in the semifinals, had the game at its pace and had to feel good about its chances, but McAuley came out in the third period and ended the competitive phase of the contest.
The Lions won the quarter, 15-2, as senior standout Allie Clement went off for 11 points, and the Eagles never got closer than 18 points the rest of the way as the Lions went on to a 50-28 triumph, their 15th straight in the postseason.
McAuley got 23 points from Clement (matching her uniform number), 14 from junior Victoria Lux and while senior standout Olivia Smith only had two points, she managed 11 rebounds and four blocks as the Lions improved to 20-1, ended Windham's year at 14-8 and advanced to the Class A state final to face Oxford Hills (17-4) Saturday at 4:05 p.m., at the Civic Center.
"I've dreamed about things like this for a long time," said Clement, who is now 84-3 in her sensational career. "There are things in life you shouldn't be greedy about, but this isn't one of them. We have three and we want more. I knew in my high school career that there would be eight opportunities for (regional championship) plaques and Gold Balls and I want to get every single one."
Opposite ends of the spectrum
McAuley is the state's gold standard when it comes to girls' basketball programs, having won three straight titles, 67 of its past 68 contests and 83 of 86 over the past four seasons entering Saturday night. The top-seeded Lions had no trouble with No. 8 Deering (52-30) or No. 4 Portland (70-38) in their first two playoff games.
Windham, on the other hand, wasn't considered a serious contender when the tournament began, but the Eagles beat Sanford in a prelim (35-23), then upset No. 2 Thornton Academy (34-32) in the quarterfinals and rallied from a large halftime deficit Friday to stun No. 6 Cheverus in the semifinals, 41-36.
While some were disappointed to be deprived of Holy War III in the regional final, the Lions knew Windham would pose a test.
"Personally, I was expecting Cheverus, but it didn't matter who we played," Lux said.
"Either way, it would have been a good game," Clement said. "Cheverus would have been really hyped up. Physically and mentally, it would have been different. It would have been fun, but Windham was on a great roll."
The Lions routed the visiting Eagles, 74-29, back on Dec. 30. That night, Clement scored her 1,000th career point and McAuley raised its 2013 championship banner.
The teams had met just once prior in the postseason, a 49-33 Lions' triumph two years ago in the semis.
This time around, the Eagles hung tough for a half, but ultimately the Lions roared again.
McAuley struck first on a driving left-handed layup by Clement, but Eagles senior Haley Batchelder tied the score with a jumper. Junior Olivia Dalphonse then hit a jumper to put the Lions on top for good.
After nearly two scoreless minutes, Smith set up Lux for a layup and the next time down, Lux was set by Smith for a jumper, making it 8-2, which is how the first period ended.
Early in the second quarter, Lux made a free throw and after being the victim of a hard foul, junior Ayla Tartre made one as well. Dalphonse then threaded a beautiful pass to Clement for a layup and a 12-2 advantage.
With 4:40 left in the half, after a drought of 9 minutes, 49 seconds, sophomore Katie Herzig made a jumper after a steal and pass from senior Sam Frost to end the Lions' 10-0 run and make it 12-4.
Tartre countered with a 3 before junior Luisa Sbardella hit a jumper in the lane, then sank a 3. Batchelder made it 15-10 with a free throw, but senior Jackie Welch and Clement both made a pair of free throws before Sbardella made another 3 with time winding down to pull Windham within six, 19-13, at the break.
Sbardella had eight points in the half, but the Eagles turned the ball over 11 times. McAuley, paced by six points from Clement, five from Lux and four from Tartre, also gave the ball away an uncharacteristic 11 times.
The pace was certainly in Windham's favor in the first half, but McAuley got things going more their speed in the second, as Clement had a tremendous third period to help the Lions pull away.
It took 2:09 for either team to score and the Eagles missed an opportunity to make things interesting. Finally, Clement hit two foul shots and McAuley was off and running.
Smith got in the scoring column with a putback and Lux fed Clement for a layup, making it 25-13 and forcing Windham coach Brody Artes to call timeout.
"We knew we needed to break through on offense and on the defensive side," Smith said. "We had to reverse the ball and take time on offense. That helped us out. We had a new attitude coming out of halftime."
With 4:37 to go in the third, Eagles standout sophomore Sadie Nelson scored her first point, on a leaner, but Clement hit a pullup jumper, Clement fed Lux for a spinning left-handed layup, Clement hit a pullup jumper and Clement took a pass from Tartre and canned a 3 to cap her 11-point quarter and McAuley's 15-2 surge, which put the Lions on top, 34-15, heading for the fourth period.
"In the second half, it finally came together," Clement said. "In the first half, we weren't ourselves. The game was physical and I don't think we were mentally ready for that. We regrouped at halftime and focused on reversing the ball and defense. We got it under control. The third quarter's always our favorite and we wanted to come out strong."
"(Allie) was huge for us tonight," said Welch "She's invaluable. I can't describe it."
"(Allie's) a great teammate," Smith said. "Tonight, Allie took charge. We all really appreciated that."
"Our bugaboo is we have shooting slumps some games and in the first half, nothing went in, but give Windham the credit," McAuley coach Billy Goodman added. "They're a very good defensive team. I asked Allie to take over. I thought she was a little passive in the first half. I asked her to be aggressive. Not shoot every time, but be aggressive, and she was. She's a special player and we're very lucky to have her on the team."
In the final period, McAuley put it away.
First, Dalphonse set up Lux for a left-handed layup. Clement added a baseline jumper before Nelson scored on a putback while being fouled and added the free throw for the old-fashioned three-point play. Nelson then took a gorgeous pass from Frost and made a layup to cut the deficit to 18, but Clement took a pass from Dalphonse and made a layup, giving the Lions a 40-20 lead.
On the play, Sbardella ran into a legal screen by Smith, landed hard, hurt her neck and after laying on the court for 20 minutes, she was taken away by ambulance for precautionary reasons (Sbardella was quickly released from the hospital and returned to the Civic Center later in the evening).
It was the second night in a row a Lions' opponent had to be taken away by ambulance. Portland's Elizabeth Donato was hurt Friday.
Once play resumed, McAuley finished off its win.
Lux converted a 3-point play. After Frost hit a 3 for Windham, Clement made a baseline jumper and Clement set up Lux for a layup and a 47-23 advantage.
After senior Lonnie Staten made two free throws for the Eagles, junior Mikayla Moran hit a 3 for the Lions' final points.
In the final minute, Windham junior Erin Malloy made three free throws and that brought the curtain down McAuley's 50-28 victory.
"Every year is different, but it's a great feeling," said Lux.
"It was a good game," Smith said. "A lot of fun. Everyone contributed. It's always a really great feeling to come out on top. Some people wanted to play Cheverus because of the rivalry, but this game was equally as good. We knew (Windham) would give us a good fight and they did. We knew they'd give us their best shot and come out strong. We took that into account."
"We were very concerned (about playing Windham)," Welch said. "You have to be wary when a team has such momentum. We tried to keep them from getting on a roll. They're a tough team. They never give up. We've worked all week on reversing the ball and tried to get better looks."
"It's really exciting," Clement said. "It's a different team every year. We've adjusted. We've had different roles on each one. It's most exciting to have this feeling again."
"You can't buy this feeling," Goodman added. "It's the best. (Back in January,) we struggled three games in a row, but everything's turned around since. We've played good defense, boxed out and moved the ball around consistently. We went back to basics and it's paid off."
Clement has been one of the special players in Maine high school basketball history since first taking the floor as a freshman. Despite being a bit under the weather, she managed to lead all scorers with 23 points and also had four rebounds, two steals and two assists.
"I haven't been feeling well, but I forgot about it when I got on the court," said Clement. "I'm drinking a lot of water."
Following the game, for the second year in a row, Clement was named the winner of the Edward "Red" McMann Award, as the regional tournament's outstanding players/sportsperson.
Clement joins former teammate Alexa Coulombe as a repeat McMann Award winner. Lions legend Sarah Marshall won three in a row and Tara Beaulieu was also honored once.
"It's a cool accomplishment to know I helped my team that much to get honored, but I'm just happy the team won," Clement said.
Lux had 14 points, 12 boards and a steal.
Tartre had four points, Moran three and Dalphonse and Welch (seven rebounds) two apiece.
Smith also had two points, but she did much more than that, grabbing 11 rebounds, blocking four shots, dishing out four assists and grabbing a couple of steals.
"I don't mind only scoring two points," Smith said. "It was a great team win."
"At halftime, I asked Vic and Olivia to calm down," Goodman said. "They got rebounds and moved the ball. When those two move the ball, good things happen. Olivia can do things in different areas. Some games she scores, some games she needs to do other things to help the team and she's willing to do that."
"Olivia's rebounding and passing were what we need," said Lux. "Points don't really matter. As long as we work as a team, we'll be fine. We work together and we get those rebounds and get the passing down. There's chemistry there."
McAuley enjoyed a 41-20 rebounding advantage, turned the ball over 16 times, while forcing 17, and hit 9 of 12 foul shots.
Windham's effort was paced by Sbardella, who had eight points off the bench before leaving with injury. Nelson finished with seven points (and two blocks). Batchelder had three points, a team-high 10 rebounds, two steals and two blocks. Frost also had three points, while blocking three shots and grabbing two steals. Malloy had three points off the bench and Herzig and Staten (five rebounds, four steals, two blocks) each finished with two.
The Eagles went 7 of 9 from the line.
Only two teams in Maine girls' basketball history: Westbrook, starring Lisa Blais, from 1978-81, and Cindy Blodgett-led Lawrence, from 1991-94, have gone back-to-back-to-back-to-back and now the Lions have a chance to join that lofty company.
It won't be easy Saturday against a 17-4 Oxford Hills squad, which enjoyed a memorable run through the Eastern A field. The third-ranked Vikings ousted No. 6 Skowhegan (47-43), No. 7 Messalonskee (35-33) and in surprisingly easy fashion, top-ranked Edward Little (54-34), to advance.
The Lions and Vikings have no history, but the teams did play in a preseason scrimmage, which was close.
"We scrimmaged Oxford Hills at the beginning of the year," said Welch. "We didn't feel good about how we played. They're a scrappy team. We won't take them lightly. We won't be complacent. We'll go out and execute and do our best. It means more as a senior. Every year, my role keeps getting bigger. As a freshman, and even as a sophomore, I never dreamed I have this role. We come out every game like it could be our last. Next week will be."
"We're playing a very good team," Goodman said. "They played us to a close game in the preseason. They're very well coached and they have good players. We have a week to get focused and hopefully put two good halves together."
Oxford Hills lost to Deering in the 2008 state final (55-43), its only prior trip to the big game.
McAuley will be pushed hard Saturday, but you've got to believe that nothing will prevent this poised, proud and determined group from cutting the nets down once more.
"I'll be nervous, but we're confident," Lux said. "It will be a good game."
"It's sad (that it's the seniors' last game)," Smith said. "We have to keep our minds where they are right now, have a really good week of practice, not let up, work hard and get ready."
"This is the way I wanted to end," added Clement. "We have to mentally prepare ourselves. We played them in a scrimmage and it's funny we're playing them now. We just have to get back to what we do best, reversing the ball and playing defense. Everyone has to get on the same page and we have to come out like we do in the third quarter in the first quarter. If we do, we can get the job done."