Midway through the winter season, playing in big games – and playing well in them – might just be more important that winning those contests.

The good teams will still be there in the post-season, when the wins and losses carry more weight, but to play well in the pressured atmosphere of the state tournament it helps to have experience in close finishes in front of roaring crowds.

South Portland’s girls basketball team played under those conditions Saturday, and though they lost on the road to unbeaten McAuley, 44-38, the Riots (7-1) outplayed the top-ranked Lions (8-0) for a half and battled their rivals to final horn.

“(The game) put a stamp on this group to say, ‘You know what? We can compete for a championship. We’re good enough,'” said South Portland coach Mike Giordano. “The coaching staff felt that way, but (the players) needed to go out and execute that type of game against that type of team, so that they believe it, and I think they do.”

The Riots immediately focused on McAuley’s top weapon, 6-foot-2 Ashley Cimino. With Brianna Hawkins, a freshman, sticking to the junior center and teammates collapsing down to surround Cimino, the visitors effectively denied the ball to her in the first quarter.

“It was intimidating because she is so much taller than me,” Hawkins said. “I just tried to keep the ball out of her hands as much as possible.”

At the same time, Hawkins was able to score three baskets inside within the span of two minutes, giving her team an 8-5 lead midway through the period.

A couple of transition hoops and a Libby King three-pointer pushed the lead to 15-9 after one, and back-to-back threes (King and Jackie Rice) at the start of the second gave South Portland a 12-point margin.

However, the turning point happened a short while later, when Cimino finally got the ball down low and scored her first points of the game. For 10 minutes she’d been held scoreless, but now the Lions’ leader spearheaded her team’s comeback.

“The whole year there’ve been double teams, so we usually starts off slow,” said Cimino. “They had Christina Aceto clog the middle, (but eventually) we reversed the ball a lot more, and when it came back to the top of the key I was wide open.”

Cimino had seven points in McAuley’s 11-4 run that closed out the half. The Riots held the lead, 25-20, but the momentum had shifted and two minutes into the third quarter a Shannon Wood three-pointer tied the score.

Five minutes later, Wood – a sophomore who ran her team’s offense with poise – sank another three to give the Lions a lead they would not relinquish.

“I think she’s the best point guard in the league,” McAuley coach Elizabeth Rickett said of Wood. “She looked for her offense a little more tonight.”

South Portland managed just three points in the third quarter and found themselves down 37-28 with six minutes to go in the game.

A pair of buckets from Rice and intense defense from Aceto sparked the Riots, and they made a late surge, cutting the gap to two with 39 seconds remaining. McAuley was 4-for-4 from the line after that to ice the outcome.

“They beat us the past few years, so we wanted to win this one,” said Cimino. “It’s still early, but it’s a big morale booster for my team to play in this atmosphere and come out with a win after being down by 12 points.”

Cimino, who averages more than 20 points a game, finished with 14. Wood had 15 to top all scorers.

“She’s quite a player, and we did a wonderful job on her,” Giordano said. “That’s a credit to (Hawkins), our freshman here, who did a great job defensively on her. She got some help from her teammates, which we needed to do. We really made her work to get the ball.”

South Portland was scheduled to host Kennebunk (5-3) Tuesday, and then to travel to Cheverus (2-6) Friday.

“We just played the game of our lives and we’re going to keep getting better,” said Aceto. “We’re going to see them in the tournament this year.”


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