They shrieked and hugged and twirled the basketball nets they just cut down. The girls of the McAuley basketball team acted like this was absolutely the best moment of their young lives Saturday.
Because it was.
Beating Oxford Hills 67-41 and winning a Class A state championship still matters, even if Allie Clement and Olivia Smith and Victoria Lux and their McAuley teammates play in a much bigger world.
They played at the Cumberland County Civic Center for their teammates, their families and the greater McAuley family that almost filled one side of this cavernous arena.
They played for the moment and played to win. As opposed to playing for their future by showcasing their individual skills for the college coaches, scouts and gym rats who are drawn to basketball showcases and all-star games that have become too important.
Later Saturday night, the Portland High boys did the same by beating Hampden Academy 54-40, ending an unbeaten season.
They are the daughters and sons of Maine communities, not commodities in a marketplace.
Saturday’s games, like all of the tournament games, were played in the spirit of the high school game. AAU basketball is the business of selling young basketball players.
It’s the evolution of the sport, or any sport for that matter. Here in Maine, some don’t see the parallel universes of youth sports, are in denial, or believe it creates more opportunities for the best.
Saturday was one wonderful example of how exceptional kids can balance the joy of the game with the marketing of themselves.
“I’ll think of just how great this team is,” said Lux when she was asked what she’ll take away from Saturday’s win. “We’re just like family. This was for all of us.”
Lux is a 6-foot-1 junior who plays controlled, physical basketball with a light touch that belies her size. She has a future playing in college, but that wasn’t what Saturday was about. Not when she was a human pogo stick after the game ended.
Oxford Hills had the upper hand for the first four minutes, playing with the poise of three-time defending state champions when, in fact, that was McAuley’s role.
“It was chaos out there,” said Lux.
Big crowd, big noise, big stakes. Oxford Hills was the fresh face in this crowd and the decided underdogs. When emotion and adrenaline trots in tandem with talent, anything can happen. Witness what happened when Portland took its up-tempo game to Hampden Academy, the only other undefeated Class A boys’ team.
McAuley turned to Clement, the senior guard who had become perhaps the face of McAuley because she’s not only talented, she leads.
Clement was on and off the court because of early foul trouble. With seven seconds left in the first half and Clement on the bench, Coach Bill Goodman turned to her when time was stopped: You’re in the game. She took the inbounds pass, dribbled across midcourt and calmly took a 3-pointer, the ball dropping through the basket. Then she ran off the court with her teammates to the locker room with a 25-20 halftime lead.
“We wanted to win and we knew (the game) was on the line,” she said afterward. “I’m so proud of my teammates.” Her words didn’t sound trite or rehearsed.
Later, Goodman stepped out of the locker room. He held up his cell phone to show videos from Friday’s practice in the McAuley gym. His players were everything but serious, cheering and dancing and applauding teammates’ baskets. Above the noise you could hear the laughter.
The better players and the elite are in a perpetual tug-of-war between their coaches in high school and their coaches on AAU or club teams. If they’re lucky, they won’t have one coaching them in one ear and another in the other ear in the same season. The unlucky ones get both, one voice shouting from the bench, the other shouting from a seat on the opposite side of the court. I’ve seen it, I’ve heard it.
I hear of ultimatums. Miss an AAU practice to play for your high school tennis or soccer team, and you’ll ride the bench for your AAU team. Choose, the players are told. Choose between the moment with your classmates and community or your future, however clear it might be.
Saturday, it was nice not to see the tug of war.
“Have I played in front of a crowd like this in AAU? No, never,” said Lux. She turned away. There were more people to squeeze.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: