AUGUSTA, Maine — Max McHugh knows pressure situations all too well.
The Central High School junior gave legions of Red Devils fans something to celebrate last fall when her game-winning goal gave the school its first-ever state soccer championship.
On Saturday night, McHugh was in a similar situation, this time on the Augusta Civic Center foul line, her team trailing by one in the closing seconds and a loud Hall-Dale crowd screaming behind the basket.
How’s that for pressure?
“I had been struggling very much, and getting on that line I wasn’t confident but I knew what I had to do,” McHugh said.
What McHugh did was sink both free throws, capping an outstanding Central comeback and giving the Red Devils’ girls basketball program its first state title since 1983 with a 40-39 win over the defending state champion Bulldogs.
Central, which trailed by as many as 13 in the second half, finished at 19-3 and Hall-Dale at 18-4.
Early in the second half, it appeared the Bulldogs were heading toward a second straight title, as they turned a 15-12 halftime lead into a 25-12 bulge thanks to five points from Wendy Goldman.
But coach Diane Rollins reminded the Red Devils they had a height advantage, and she settled her team down.
“I think they were still nervous being here,” she said. “But, I knew they’d come out of it. They’re a great team, a hungry team and a wonderful group to coach.”
Central started to chip away, and closed the gap to 29-24 by the end of the third, and that run continued into the fourth, as Samantha Brownell’s follow-up basket gave the Red Devils a 30-29 lead with 5:48 to play.
The Devils’ 2-3 matchup zone started closing out on the Bulldogs’ shooters as the game wore on, and coach Brandon Terrill’s club grew frustrated.
“We never found an answer to their halfcourt zone, and I blame myself for that,” he said. “I never had an answer for the girls.”
The Bulldogs lived up to their nickname, forging ahead 37-32 with 3:10 to play, but the Red Devils came roaring back again, scoring the next six points, with freshman Brianna Skolfield’s putback putting Central up 38-37 with 35 seconds left.
After Hall-Dale’s Allison Crockett connected on a backdoor layup with 24 seconds left to put the ‘Dogs up 39-38, Central called a timeout and the stage was set for McHugh, who drove to the hoop and was fouled by Carylanne Wolfington on a layup with 11.4 seconds left, sending Wolfington to the bench with five fouls.
“Whether it was Wolfington or whether it was [Kristina] Buck, or whoever was on me i was supposed to attack the hoop, and that’s what I did,” said McHugh.
Goldman’s shot as time expired was off the mark, and the Bulldogs struggled to find an open look.
Central’s defensive intensity was a huge factor in its comeback, as the Devils did a better job closing out on the Bulldogs’ shooters and on the backboards.
“We put a lot of pressure up top with our defense and made sure that they didn’t get any open looks unless they were outside,” said McHugh. “On offense we really started driving to the basket.”
Skolfield had 17 points and eight points to lead Central, scoring 11 of those in the second half. McHugh had eight points, five steals and three assists.
“There’s not a word to express what I’m feeling right now,” said McHugh. “I am the luckiest girl to have the team that I have.”
Both teams struggled to find offensive consistency early on, particularly in the second quarter where the Red Devils and Bulldogs scored only two points apiece, both in the final 1:45.
Goldman led the Bulldogs with 14 points, and Wolfington was held to six on 3-of-16 shooting thanks to McHugh’s defensive efforts. Wolfington also had nine rebounds.