SACO, Maine — All good things must end.
But no one saw the fabled win streak of the McAuley girls’ basketball team culminating quite this way.
Tuesday evening, in an instant classic between the two top teams in the Western Class A Heal Points standings at Linnell Gymnasium, the Lions finally met their match.
For the first time in 57 games and for the first time in almost three years.
Facing host Thornton Academy, a team which hadn’t beaten McAuley this century and a squad the Lions beat by 15 points at home just a month ago, form held for most of three periods, but in the end, McAuley wasn’t able to take care of business.
The Lions led, 13-11, after one quarter and 25-19 at halftime. When senior Jackie Welch made a layup after a steal to cap a 9-0 run to start the second half, the lead was 15 and win No. 57 appeared to be in the books.
Until it wasn’t.
To the shock of virtually everyone on hand, the Golden Trojans’ dormant offense finally sprung to life, courtesy of a secret weapon named Isabella Robinson. The poised freshman spearheaded a quarter-ending 17-0 run that allowed the hosts to go ahead, 36-34, heading for the fourth and final stanza.
There, Thornton Academy appeared to deliver the knockout blow when it went on top, 46-38, with 3:31 to play, capping a jawdropping 27-4 run, but the proud champions from Stevens Avenue weren’t about to surrender.
McAuley’s rally was also sparked by an unlikely hero, junior Olivia Dalphonse, who hit a 3 and made a layup after a steal and when senior Olivia Smith hit two foul shots with 1:15 to go, the game was tied, 47-47.
The Golden Trojans retook the lead on a foul shot from Robinson with 34.6 seconds left, but Lions junior Ayla Tartre made two free throws with 16.7 seconds to play and it looked as if McAuley would survive after all.
Not on this night.
After senior Hannah Murphy had a shot blocked, junior Katie McCrum got the rebound and was fouled with 1.3 seconds showing. McCrum then went to the line and coolly hit both free throws and after a last-ditch Lions’ prayer was well short, the upset was in the books with Thornton Academy prevailing, 50-49.
McCrum and Robinson both had 14 points, negating 14 from Clement, as the Golden Trojans improved to 7-1 and McAuley dropped to 8-1 as its spectacular 56-game win streak is now a thing of the past, leaving it 20 shy of the unofficial mark held by Westbrook in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
“It’s the highlight of my career so far,” said McCrum. “It means so much to us. We wanted to be here from the beginning. This was a goal. We finally achieved it. They’re a great team. We knew they’d be good, but we had to be tougher.”
“My team showed a lot of guts taking the lead at the end, but all the credit to Thornton,” said McAuley coach Billy Goodman, who suffered his first loss in 53 games with the program. “They made shots. The bottom line was that they were disciplined and we weren’t.”
Slow start, stunning finish
McAuley rarely had to break a sweat en route to the 2012-13 championship, but this winter has been another story altogether.
In addition to the loss of team heart-and-soul Molly Mack, who graduated and is now playing at St. Joseph’s College, an offseason ACL injury claimed sophomore Sarah Clement for the season and a pair of Division I-bound standouts, Allie Clement (Marist) and Smith (Dartmouth), were hampered by maladies as well.
As a result, the Lions appeared mortal when the season began, yet while they’d been pushed, they hadn’t stumbled.
McAuley pulled away in the second half to 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 rally Saturday to beat visiting rival Cheverus, 47-39.
Thornton Academy bounced back from its loss at McAuley by beating visiting Deering (41-27), visiting Cheverus (47-42), host South Portland (53-43), host Sanford (27-25), visiting Portland (51-35) and visiting Scarborough (42-27).
Entering Tuesday’s matchup, the Golden Trojans hadn’t beaten the Lions since the 20th century. In addition to McAuley’s win last month, it also won its last visit to Saco, 64-38, last winter.
The Lions — who had last lost, 38-35, at home to Deering Feb. 11, 2011 and last lost away from home six days prior, 37-27, at Gorham — had been pushed many times during their 56-game streak, which began in the 2011 regional tournament, but had always found a way to prevail.
This time, however, McAuley would find itself on the wrong end of the scoreboard.
McCrum hinted at a special night to come when she scored on a driving layup 54 seconds in, but for most of the night, the Golden Trojans wouldn’t have much luck generating offense.
The Lions’ first hoop came courtesy Smith [assisted by Clement], a layup which tied the score, and Smith added two free throws for a 4-2 lead, but Thornton Academy tied the game when McCrum fed Murphy for a layup, then took a 7-4 advantage on an old-fashioned three-point play — putback, foul, free throw — from McCrum.
McAuley got a free throw from junior Victoria Lux, but senior Olivia Shaw hit a runner to give the hosts their biggest lead of the first half, 9-5.
Back-to-back hoops from Welch — a floater and a putback — tied the score, Lux made two foul shots and Tartre did the same for a 13-9 lead. A late bank shot from junior Abigail Strickland ended the Lions’ 8-0 run and pulled the Golden Trojans within 13-11 heading for the second quarter.
Points were at a premium for most of the second quarter.
After Clement got her first points on a putback, neither team scored for over two minutes until Shaw scored on an up-and-under layup with 4:18 to go before halftime.
A Clement pullup jumper was countered by a pair of McCrum free throws.
Clement then got a jumper to rattle home, but Shaw took a pass from Murphy and made a layup to pull Thornton Academy back within a basket, 19-17.
Tartre hit a pair of free throws and Clement made a layup after a steal to push the lead to six. After Robinson first made her presence felt with two foul shots, Clement set up Lux for a layup and McAuley had what seemed like a safe 25-19 advantage at the break.
The biggest difference in the first 16 minutes was ballhandling, as the Lions only turned it over five times, while the Golden Trojans committed 14 turnovers.
By the midway point of the third quarter, consecutive win No. 57 seemed all but assured, as Smith opened the second half with a bank shot, Clement got an offensive rebound, banked home a shot while being fouled and made the free throw, Lux made a layup after an offensive rebound and Welch made a layup after a steal for a seemingly commanding 34-19 advantage.
The way Thornton Academy was struggling to hold on to the ball and put it in the basket made a comeback improbable, but the Golden Trojans were about to make history and perhaps change the trajectory of their season in the process.
The fun began with 3:55 left in the third, as McCrum made two foul shots. After a McAuley turnover, Shaw made a layup and McCrum hit two free throws to cut the deficit to just nine, 34-25.
The freshman took a pass from McCrum and made a layup to make it a seven-point game. Then, after a Lions’ turnover and a Goodman timeout which didn’t achieve the desired result, McCrum found Robinson behind the 3-point arc and she calmly buried her shot to make it a four-point contest.
“It just clicked,” Robinson said. “We knew we could compete better. We knew it wasn’t a 15-point game. We changed momentum and played our hearts out. After I hit my first two shots, I was feeling good, feeling the rhythm.”
“I’m so proud of her,” said McCrum. “She shot the ball with confidence and it showed. I love having her. She gives me a break on defense. She can guard the tough players just like I can.”
“We knew she’s capable of doing that,” Thornton Academy coach Eric Marston added. “She was the spark in our last game against Scarborough. Even though she’s a freshman, she’s a big-game player. She’s got a tremendous amount of heart and she’s not afraid of anything. She was feeling it, hitting shots and guarding Allie pretty well at the other end. I just can’t say enough about her play.”
Late in the stanza, sophomore Kaylee Burns made a free throw, McCrum hit Robinson for a tough angle layup in transition and as time wound down, McCrum set up Shaw for a 3 and astonishingly, the tables had been turned and Thornton Academy enjoyed the lead, 36-34, heading for the fourth.
“We knew we weren’t playing our best at all and that we could improve,” McCrum said. “A lot of people had their heads down, but I’m a captain and I had to keep my head up. I knew we could do it.”
“We were down 15 and I called timeout and told the girls to play one possession at a time and to forget about the scoreboard and to chip away,” Marston said. “They literally did that. They really believed.”
The roller-coaster ride of emotion was only just beginning.
The Golden Trojans kept the momentum, as just nine seconds into the fourth period, Robinson hit a jumper for a 38-34 lead.
With 7:34 to play, a Lux free throw finally ended the 19-0 run and a 4 minute, 43 second drought. After a Clement steal, Smith hit a leaner and the Lions crept back within a point, 38-37.
Undaunted, Robinson again came up huge, draining a jumper with 6:46 showing and Strickland added a free throw 22 seconds later to make it 41-37.
Smith prevented the deficit from growing any further when she blocked a backdoor layup attempt by McCrum and with 4:46 to play, after a steal, Clement made one of two free throws to cut the Golden Trojans’ lead to 41-38.
Again, Robinson single-handedly countered, hitting a baseline jumper. Then, with 3:31 remaining, Murphy scored on a driving layup while being fouled and added the free throw for the three-point play and a 46-38 advantage, which capped an impossible-to-get-your-mind-around 27-4 run.
“We let them get back in game,” said Dalphonse. “We started rushing shots. We tried to match what they were doing and it got out of hand.”
That surge seemingly finished off the champions.
But not so fast.
It was time for a McAuley unsung hero to step to the fore.
Dalphonse, who played her freshman year at Bonny Eagle before coming to McAuley where she has played an important but largely supporting role in the Lions’ success, reminded everyone on hand that she could be one of the league’s shining stars if she needed to be by knocking down a 3, then, after a Clement steal, making a layup for five points in a 14-second span which cut the deficit to a manageable 46-43 with 3:02 still to play.
McCrum hit the front end of a one-and-one six seconds later, but missed the second.
The Lions would eventually catch up, but it took awhile.
First, Tartre missed a 3 and the hosts got the rebound, but turned the ball over. Smith then missed a shot, Welch kept the possession alive, but was called for being in the lane three seconds, giving the ball back to Thornton Academy.
Welch stole it right back, however, only to see Clement miss a shot. The hosts got the rebound, but Welch stole it again and this time, with 1:46 remaining, Welch got the ball to Clement, who hit a short jumper, making the score, 47-45.
The Golden Trojans then turned the ball over again and with 1:15 to go, Smith was fouled and sank both free throws and the game was deadlocked, 47-47.
McAuley had a chance to go ahead after a Dalphonse steal, but Smith missed a shot. Dalphonse got the rebound and after a Lions’ timeout, Smith had a great look at a shot in the lane with 45 seconds left, but it went in and out.
With 34.6 seconds showing, Robinson had a chance to play the hero as she went to the line, but she only made the second of two attempts.
McAuley got the ball to Welch, who launched a 3 that was right on target, but it too went in and out.
Luckily for the Lions, Tartre was there for the rebound and she was fouled with 16.7 seconds to play.
Tartre, a Saco resident by the way, made the first free throw to tie it, then hit the second to cap an 11-2 run and give McAuley a 49-48 advantage.
“I went with a smaller, quicker lineup and we got the lead with that lineup,” Goodman said.
Suddenly, it appeared as if the Lions’ win streak might just live to see another day.
Thornton Academy called timeout to set up the final play and it would be Murphy driving to the basket. Her shot never got past the outstretched hand of Clement, however, who blocked it, but just when victory was close enough to taste, it was finally wrested from McAuley once and for all by McCrum, who was in the right place at the right time to snare the rebound and go up for a shot.
She didn’t make it, but the whistle blew and with 1.3 seconds left in a riveting game, McCrum went to the line with two shots to perhaps win the contest.
“We’re more used to the tough game situations at the end, so we knew what to do,” said McCrum. “Our play was to get to the rim, get fouled or get a basket. It was nervewracking, obviously. I just happened to be there. I knew I needed the ball right there if I wanted to win, so I got it.”
McCrum showed great form and confidence and found nothing but net on her first attempt, tying the score, 49-49.
Goodman then called timeout to ice her.
At that juncture, any McAuley fan on hand was immediately transported back to the magical night of Feb. 28, 2011, and the Cumberland County Civic Center for a regional final for the ages against Deering. On that occasion, the Lions led by a point with under a second to go in regulation, but Rams standout Kayla Burchill, that year’s Miss Maine Basketball winner, was fouled and made the first free throw. She missed her second attempt, however, after being iced and after another Burchill miss in overtime, the Lions prevailed, 41-40, and went on to the first of their three straight titles.
But this time, fate wasn’t on their side.
Out of the timeout, McCrum’s second free throw was true.
“It was do or die for us,” McCrum said. “I had to make them both. Freshman year against Marshwood, I only made one [free throw] in overtime and we wound up losing.”
“It felt so good having Kate on the line,” Robinson said. “We had so much confidence in her. ”
“What can you say about Katie knocking down those free throws?” Marston added. “There are a lot of phenomenal guards in the league, but I told her at halftime and again before the free throws, ‘I’d take you on my team any day of the week and twice on Sundays.’ I’ve never been more confident with a girl shooting free throws than I was right there. She’s just a big game player. I believe in her wholeheartedly. She has nerves of steel.”
McAuley only had time for a desperation heave. Tartre inbounded the ball to Clement, who got around McCrum, but her three-quarters court prayer never had a chance and fell well short of the mark.
At 8:28 p.m., some 1,061 days after last tasting defeat, the Lions had been vanquished.
Thornton Academy 50, McAuley 49.
Bedlam then erupted as what Thornton Academy Athletic Director Gary Stevens called perhaps the biggest ever regular season ever for the program was celebrated by the Golden Trojans and their partisan crowd, which has gotten used to streak-busting, having ended Cheverus’ record Class A football win streak at 34 back in November 2012.
“It’s crazy,” said Robinson. “It feels so good. We all dreamed of this. McAuley’s a great team, but we knew we could compete with them.”
“I don’t know if the fans have rushed the court here in recent memory in girls’ basketball,” said Marston. “I was shocked to see the celebration. I was trying to be respectful to McAuley, but I didn’t want to stand in the way of the girls’ joy of what they just accomplished.
“We shocked everybody but ourselves. We feel we can play with anybody if we play with intensity. McAuley’s a phenomenal team and their record shows that, but our girls weren’t intimidated. [McAuley’s] been in some close games, but the majority of their games are blowouts, so I told the girls to have confidence because every game is a close game for us. We don’t blow teams out. We were confident we’d know how to play down the stretch. We knew we’d have to play a good game and I think we played pretty well. We protected our gym.”
McCrum and Robinson both had 14 points to spark the victory. Shaw added 13, Murphy had five, Strickland three and Burns one. The Golden Trojans finished with a 35-26 edge on the glass, as McCrum and Strickland shared game-high honors with nine apiece. Shaw added eight. Shaw also had two steals and blocked a shot.
Thornton Academy managed to overcome 23 turnovers, in large part due to its stellar 16-of-20 foul shooting.
Clement led the Lions with 14 points. Smith finished with 10, Lux had eight, Tartre and Welch six apiece and Dalphonse added five. Lux had a team-high six boards, while Clement grabbed five and Smith and Tartre each had four. Welch had four of McAuley’s 12 steals. Clement collected three. Smith blocked two shots. While she didn’t score, the return of sophomore Margaret Hatch from injury was a positive note on the night.
The Lions only committed 13 turnovers and made 16 of 21 free throws, but this time, their luck ran out.
“This one’s on me,” Goodman said. “I screwed up tonight. We had the big lead and I didn’t make sure we took good shots. We let them get back in the game. That’s my fault. We were up by 15 and we got careless with the ball. We have to do better.”
A new streak awaits
Thornton Academy — which now has a healthy lead in the Western A Heals — looks to keep the good times rolling Friday at Noble.
“This is such a confidence booster, finally knocking off a top team,” said McCrum. “We know we can contend with anyone.”
McAuley [second in the region] kicks off the second half of its schedule Friday when it hosts South Portland, which it expects will be victim No. 1 in a new streak. Next week, the Lions go to Scarborough and Sanford.
McAuley might just look back at this loss on the first Saturday in March as the best thing which could have happened to it. Sometimes a team just needs a loss to refocus. Especially when it’s carrying the weight of the world on its shoulders in the form of a long win streak combined with overwhelming expectations.
“We’re not happy about the loss, but it’s good practice for the future,” Dalphonse said. “We’ll be in situations like that. Looking ahead to playoffs, we’ll be in those situations. We’ll work really hard in practice and focus on the next games coming up. We like the pressure. We have to live up to expectations. I’d definitely like to see them again.”
“I don’t think anyone has a good feeling right now, but that’s alright,” Goodman said. “There were no awards handed out tonight.”