Reason said it was just a season opener, a long cold winter away from any title game.

But with two teams banging for every rebound and contesting every inch of hardwood, it wasn’t hard to project that Friday night’s 51-36 win by three-time Class A champ McAuley against veteran Thornton Academy was a sneak preview of a postseason girls’ basketball showdown.

“First game of the season, they’re very good. They’re a good team,” McAuley senior Jackie Welch said of Thornton. “The first half they boxed out. They got the loose balls. That was the difference between the first half and the second half.”

McAuley extended its winning streak to 49 games despite playing without two key contributors in last season’s run to a third straight title.

Sophomore guard Sarah Clement will miss the season with an ACL injury to her right knee. Senior Olivia Smith, a 6-foot-3 forward who has committed to Dartmouth, is expected back in mid-January. Smith also is recovering from knee surgery.

But as Thornton Coach Eric Marston said in the preseason, there’s no reason to think McAuley is going to take a drastic fall this season.

Not as long as 2012-13 Telegram and Gatorade Player of the Year Allie Clement (team-high 16 points) is running the show and junior Victoria Lux brings a powerful consistent presence down low.

But on this night it was two less-heralded players who made big second-half contributions as McAuley pulled away after leading 20-18 at the half.

Welch, a returning starter, sparked an 8-0 run with two baskets and two steals. The first steal was a backcourt swipe that produced a layup of her own. The second started a transition chance that Marist-bound Clement finished.

“I play with two (future) Division I players. I’m often overlooked but I do see (my role) as giving that spark,” said Welch, who finished with 10 points. “We have a couple girls like that. We’re extremely lucky.”

The play of junior Ayla Tarte also stood out. She earned the fifth starting spot with her defensive effort and an excellent week of practice, McAuley Coach Bill Goodman said.

Her defensive assignment in her first career start was to contain Thornton 6-foot forward Olivia Shaw, who was held to seven points and none from the floor.

Asked at halftime by Goodman to be more forceful at the offensive end, Tarte responded with 11 points, including a pair of strong takes to the rim out of half-court sets.

“I didn’t want her to be out there and not be a threat,” Goodman said. “She made a lot of decisions. It’s great to see a kid practice all week and then produce in a game. I’m very happy for her. She’s been a part of this program for three years, worked her way up from first team to JV to varsity and she wants it bad.”

Thornton hung close in the first half on the strength of Kaitlyn McCrum’s solid shooting (11 of her game-high 17 points) and making 9 of 13 foul shots.

But McCrum was the only Thornton player to make a basket through three quarters, with Hannah Murphy finally breaking that string with a deep two-pointer with 5:44 to play after McAuley led 37-24.

“It wasn’t like our effort wasn’t there, it was more just our execution,” McCrum said, echoing the sentiments of Marston. “We couldn’t really get into any offenses to get any good shots, which was a problem for us.”

Clement found her range in the second half, making all four shots and scoring 11 in just over nine minutes.

Steve Craig can be reached at 791-6413 or at:

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