McAuley senior Jess Willerson, left, and sophomore Emily Weisser try to wrest the ball from Cheverus sophomore Deirdre Sanborn during the Lions’ 43-25 win Thursday night. McAuley stayed perfect all-time versus the Stags behind Willerson’s 18 points.
Mike Strout photos.
More photos below.
C- 7 8 6 4- 25
M- 2 14 13 14- 43
C- Cavallaro 2-0-5, Malmquist 2-0-5, Sanborn 2-0-4, Poulin 1-0-3, Briggs 0-2-2, McElman 1-0-2, Soucy 1-0-2, Tillotson 1-0-2
M- Willerson 8-2-18, Rairdon 2-3-7, Mazur 3-0-6, Clement 0-5-5, Howard 1-0-3, Joyce 1-0-2, Weisser 1-0-2
C (3) Cavallaro, Malmquist, Poulin 1
M (1) Howard 1
PORTLAND—Every girl who comes through the McAuley basketball program dreads being part of the first team to lose to rival Cheverus.
For nearly 15 years, the Lions have gotten the better of the Stags in every meeting and Thursday night, in the final game of the regular season and more importantly, in the final installment of the “Holy War” as we know it, McAuley had a lot to play for.
The Lions not only had to beat Cheverus again for bragging rights and school pride, but they hoped to continue their late season surge and earn a bye into the Class AA South semifinals and thanks to a tremendous effort from their four seniors, they accomplished all of the above.
McAuley did virtually nothing on offense in the first quarter, scoring a mere two points, but the Lions came to life in the second period and took the lead for good when senior Chelsea Rairdon made two free throws with no time remaining in the first half.
McAuley still clung to a three-point lead two minutes into the second half, when senior Brooke Howard drained a 3-pointer and that opened the floodgates.
By quarter’s end, the Lions, thanks to a late layup from senior Jess Willerson, had a 29-21 advantage.
Then, in the fourth period, McAuley scored the first dozen points, thanks to a team-wide contribution, sparked by three free throws from senior Sarah Clement, and the Lions blanked the Stags for nearly nine minutes during a 14-0 run that put the game away.
McAuley, which was paced by 18 points from Willerson, went on to a 43-25 victory, beat Cheverus for the 25th straight time, gave coach Billy Goodman his 100th win with the program and capped another terrific regular season at 16-2, ending the Stags’ regular campaign at 10-8 in the process.
“I’m really proud of my team,” Goodman said. “The things we’ve worked on the past three weeks, they really executed tonight. Our seniors really stepped up. We tried to stick to what we’re best at. We’ve struggled at times this season scoring, but defensively to have them only score in the 20s is amazing. I could not be prouder of a group of girls.”
Cheverus went co-ed in 2000 and the Stags started playing McAuley, by then the state’s premier girls’ basketball power, in the 2002-03 season. The Lions won the first meeting, 88-30, and have taken every game since.
McAuley made it 24 in a row back on Jan. 2, but had to rally from being down six points heading into the fourth period to do so. Willerson had 16 points and Howard (who had six successive points to put her team ahead for good) added 13 in that one.
That win was part of another stellar season for the Lions.
McAuley opened with a 46-37 home victory over South Portland, then won at Massabesic (48-34), Bonny Eagle (59-38) and Noble (71-29), avenged last year’s playoff loss by downing Thornton Academy, 41-31, then closed 2015 with a 63-44 victory at Scarborough. The Lions kicked off 2016 by rallying to beat host Cheverus, 56-44, then downed host Marshwood (49-41) and visiting Windham (61-52), but the road got rocky, as McAuley lost to host South Portland for the first time in nearly eight years, 57-45, then suffered consecutive losses (with a 53-48 home setback against Gorham) for the first time since January, 2010, as its 39-game home streak which dated to February of 2011 was also snapped. The Lions righted the ship with an 81-49 home victory over Massabesic, then won at Deering (52-43), at home over Portland (58-36), Scarborough (43-38) and Sanford (64-43) and Tuesday at Portland (70-41).
Cheverus started fast this winter, crushing visiting Noble (70-19) and winning at Portland (56-46) and at home over Bangor (49-37), before coming back to Earth, losing at home to South Portland (58-34) and at Edward Little (57-41), before getting back on track, 67-49, over visiting Oxford Hills. After a 59-42 loss at Deering, the Stags fell at home to McAuley (56-44) and at South Portland, 55-29. Cheverus then turned it up a notch, beating visiting Bonny Eagle (57-35), visiting Scarborough (60-57, in overtime), host Sanford (65-47) and visiting Lewiston (65-59). After a 62-47 loss at Windham, the Stags sprung a 44-40 upset at defending regional champion Thornton Academy and prevailed at Massabesic, 51-28, but they met their match Tuesday in visiting Gorham, 64-36.
With McAuley giving up its religious affiliation following this school year, the 25th meeting between the Lions and Cheverus marked the final true “Holy War,” but this rivalry won’t cool anytime soon.
Thursday, as is often the case between these two, offense was at a premium early.
It took 3 minutes, 26 seconds for a point to be score and Cheverus junior Kaylin Malmquist did the trick with a long 3.
McAuley’s first points came with 3:06 to go in the first quarter, on a Willerson putback.
Cheverus then got a driving layup from sophomore Deirdre Sanborn and a pair of foul shots from junior Alayna Briggs to take a 7-2 lead after one period.
The offense picked up in the second period.
The Lions awakened from their slumber to score the first eight points and take their first lead of the night, as Willerson made a layup, Clement set up sophomore Emily Weisser for a layup, Weisser passed to Willerson for a layup and Clement made two free throws for a 10-7 advantage.
“It was the emotions early, Senior Night, the “Holy War,’ but we showed up in the second quarter and showed them how we can play,” said Willerson, who played for Cheverus her freshman and sophomore seasons. “We had good ball movement and we had good offense and rebounded a lot.”
Cheverus answered with a baseline jumper from Sanborn, snapping a 4:46 drought and a 3 from sophomore Abby Cavallaro put the Stags up two, 12-10.
After Willerson made a free throw, Cavallaro stole the ball and set up sophomore Emme Poulin for a 3 and a 15-11 lead, but McAuley closed the half on a 5-0 run.
First, Rairdon made a free throw.
Sophomore Eva Mazur added a bank shot on a drive and as time expired, Rairdon grabbed a missed shot and was fouled on the putback, sending her to the line.
All by herself.
Since time was out, Rairdon had to shoot the free throws alone with all eyes on her and she showed great poise, draining both attempts to put the Lions on top to stay, 16-15.
“Although I was alone on the line, I knew my team was behind me,” Rairdon said. “It was lonely, but it was good. That felt like a momentum shift.”
It appeared to be anyone’s game entering the second half, but McAuley dominated most of the way.
In the first minute of the third quarter, Weisser set up Willerson for a layup, but Malmquist answered with a driving bank shot, cutting the Lions’ lead to 18-17.
McAuley then closed the period on an 11-4 surge to finally gain some separation.
First, Willerson banked home a contested shot.
Howard then found the range for her lone points, a 3-pointer, for a 23-17 advantage.
“In the first half, I was a little slow,” Howard said. “At halftime, a couple teammates came up to me and gave me a pep talk. That really helped me and I got out there and hit a shot and that got my confidence up.”
Cavallaro countered with a runner with 5:36 to go in the quarter, but Willerson set up Rairdon for a backdoor layup and Mazur drove for a layup and a 27-19 lead.
With 1:38 to go in the quarter, Cheverus junior Brooke McElman made a leaner, but the Stags wouldn’t score again for a long time.
With 8.1 seconds remaining in the third, Mazur set up Willerson for a layup and the Lions took a 29-21 advantage to the final stanza.
Where they quickly ended all doubt.
After Willerson made a foul shot, Mazur stole the ball and drove for a layup and a double digit lead.
With 5:24 to play, Clement was whacked while attempting a 3-point shot and she subsequently sank all three free throws to extend the lead.
“They were guarding me pretty tight around the perimeter, so I understood I had to take a different role and do whatever I could to help us win,” Clement said. “I think our whole team came together and I wanted to hit those foul shots to continue that and celebrate with my team.”
A layup from Rairdon (set up by Howard), a Willerson layup (set up by Howard) and a Willerson putback pushed the lead to 20 points, 41-21, with 1:39 left.
After Goodman pulled his seniors en masse to a rousing ovation, the Stags finally snapped an 8:59 drought and the Lions’ 14-0 run when sophomore Grace Soucy knocked down a jumper just inside the 3-point line with 39.4 seconds to go.
A layup after a steal from junior Ally Tillotson capped Cheverus’ scoring and as time wound down, McAuley junior Maddy Beaulieu fed freshman Jill Joyce for a layup and that served as an exclamation point on the Lions’ 43-25 victory.
“It’s huge for our school,” Clement said. “That’s what drove us, doing it for our school. I think we’ve really come together and have learned a lot about the game and each other.”
“It means a lot,” Willerson said. “We were ready for this game. We don’t ever want (Cheverus) to win. That’s what drove us.”
“It was a team effort tonight,” Howard said. “We all know defense wins games. With great defense comes even better offense.”
The Lions were paced by Willerson’s 18 points and nine rebounds.
“Jess started slow, but she’s on to the next play,” Goodman said. “She gets hot, then keeps working hard. She works on her weaknesses in practice.”
Rairdon produced one of her best games, scoring seven points, grabbing four rebounds and snaring a pair of steals.
“Senior Night meant a lot to me,” Rairdon said. “My whole family and the team was here to support me. They supported me. It was awesome.”
“It’s a long season and girls have ups and downs,” Goodman said. “A month ago, Chelsea was struggling, but she worked hard and her hard work has paid off. She’s worked on her shot and defense and was a leader out there tonight.”
Mazur had her typical strong game with six points, seven boards and a pair of steals.
Clement didn’t make a field goal, but had five points and nine rebounds.
“Sarah wants to win,” Goodman said. “One game she leads us in rebounds, one night she leads in assists. The other night, she had 17 points. She does what she needs to do.”
Howard finished with three points, but grabbed six rebounds, had a pair of assists and a steal.
“Brooke does so many things out there and you don’t see the stats,” Goodman said. “Her rebounding and defense has been awesome. In one year, she’s been one of the most improved players I’ve seen.”
Joyce and Weisser had two points apiece. McAuley only made one 3-pointer, but had a 37-20 rebounding advantage, overcame 18 turnovers and hit 10 of 16 free throws.
Following the win, Goodman was hailed for his milestone.
“(Coach has) done an amazing job teaching us about life and basketball,” Clement said. “He’s done a great job balancing it all.”
“I’ve had a lot of good players,” Goodman said. “I had good training at Deering with Mike D”Andrea and Jack Coyne. I never thought I’d be a varsity coach. I’ve been very lucky here and I had a good run at Greely (51 victories). It was nice for people to acknowledge it.”
Cheverus’ top scorers were Cavallaro (three rebounds and two steals) and Malmquist (five boards, two steals), who both had five points. Sanborn added four, Poulin finished with three and Briggs, McElman, Soucy and Tillotson (five steals) all had two. The Stags made both of their foul shots and gave the ball away 14 times.
“We were ready to play and defensively, we had a great effort,” Cheverus coach Steve Huntington said. “Our halfcourt defense is getting better and better, but it’s not lasting a full game. Our pressure isn’t where we want it. They scored inside and that hurt and that affected what we did on the offensive end. We weren’t getting the shots we wanted. We shot too many 3s and those 3s weren’t coming from touches in the paint first. We were easy to guard.”
Cheverus and McAuley have always been in the same region for the tournament and twice met in the playoffs, but the only way they’ll do battle this winter will be in the newfangled Class AA Finals.
The Stags will be the No. 5 seed in Class AA North and Wednesday will travel to Augusta to meet fourth-ranked Deering (11-7), a team Cheverus knows well.
The teams’ lone regular season meeting came Dec. 30 at Deering, a 59-42 Rams’ victory. The only prior playoff encounter saw Cheverus prevail, 33-31, in the 2013 Western A semifinals.
“This hurts, but we have to look forward,” Huntington said. “I do like where our mindset is right now. We’re not executing as well as we’d like on the floor, but the girls are in a good place overall moving forward. It’s not a physical or a skill thing. We have to make good decisions. It’s about who’s hot and matchups. Can we get shots and shoot well? We’re in a better place mentally than the last time we played them. I look forward to it.”
The Lions look like they’ll be the No. 2 seed in Class AA South and should earn a bye into the semifinals, Tuesday, Feb. 16, at the Portland Exposition Building. McAuley will meet either No. 3 South Portland (15-3) or the No. 6 squad, which will be Scarborough (7-11) or Bonny Eagle (8-10).
The Lions split with the Red Riots this winter, winning at home in the season opener, 46-37, and losing at South Portland (57-45). The Red Riots have won three of the prior five playoff meetings, but the most recent, last year’s semifinal, went McAuley’s way, 39-35.
The Lions beat the Red Storm twice this year, 63-44 at Scarborough and 43-38 at home. McAuley beat Scarborough in the 2012 regional final and again in the 2013 semifinals.
The Lions won at Bonny Eagle way back on Dec. 11, 59-38. The teams have no playoff history.
Whatever happens between now and a week from Tuesday, look for McAuley to be in top form on the big stage.
“We’ve come a long way,” Clement said. “I’m excited we’re in the playoffs and we can show we know how to play.”
“We need communication,” Willerson said. “If we keep our good shooting going and our defense, we’ll be good in the tournament.”
“We’ve forgotten about our losses,” Howard said. “We have a lot to prove to people. We feel good going into the tournament.”
“Sixteen wins with these girls, a lot of them new to varsity, I’m very proud of them and our record, but they want more,” Goodman added. “I feel like we need to stick to what we’re doing. I respect every team that’s in the playoffs. Whoever we get next will be the toughest team. There are a lot of good teams and we need to be ready. We’ve been the underdog in some games this year. We have nothing to lose. If they give me all they’ve got, that’s all I can ask for.”
McAuley 56 @ Cheverus 44
McAuley 57 @ Cheverus 46
@ McAuley 55 Cheverus 42
@ McAuley 57 Cheverus 40
McAuley 45 @ Cheverus 42
@ McAuley 58 Cheverus 39
@ 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