SACO — Thornton Academy girls basketball coach Eric Marston said that junior forward Ashley Howe admittedly did not have her best season last year.

She didn’t start out this season on fire either as she went scoreless in the first half of Friday night’s season opener against defending Class A state champion McAuley. But Howe led the Trojans’ charge in the second half, as she scored 13 points in a 37-34 victory at Linnell Gymnasium.

“She had what she felt was a little bit of an off-year last year, and she’s really taken it upon herself, put a ton of hours in the gym,” Marston said of Howe. “And as a result, it’s really paid off. It was really nice to see that ”¦ that was kind of the spark, certainly, that turned us around.”

The Trojans trailed 20-12 at halftime, but steals and layups by Howe and freshman guard Alex Hart cut the deficit to 20-16. Howe did the same thing again early in the fourth quarter to tie the game 28-28 and the Trojans never trailed after that point.

“The whole team was playing good, solid defense in the second half, but it was a couple of those off-the-ball steals that she got that really sparked us,” said Marston.

Thornton scored the first three points of the game as senior center Victoria Lux ”“ who spent the first three years of her high school career at McAuley ”“ made a driving layup and Abby Strickland made 1-of-2 free throws.

Those were the only TA points for the majority of the opening quarter, however, until Barrett Campbell made a layup with eight seconds left to cut McAuley’s lead to 8-5.

The offense didn’t improve much in the second quarter for the Trojans, who were 1-of-9 from the free throw line in the first half. The Lions, on the other hand, were 9-of-12 from the stripe.

“I didn’t expect we were going to set the world on fire, offensively, by any means; I was hoping for a little more than 12 points in the first half,” said Marston.

Lux missed on an elbow jumper to open the second half, but Howe and Hart followed with their respective defense-into-offense plays on the next two possessions.

“I just didn’t have any open shots in the first half. I really attacked the basket well in the second half,” said Howe.

Turning defense into offense was the key for the Trojans in the second half, Marston said, and the suffocating man-to-man defense stalled McAuley’s attack. The Lions opened the second half with six straight turnovers, giving Thornton a chance to rally back ”“ which it did.

McAuley head coach Billy Goodman called his second timeout of the third quarter just ahead of the midway point, and just before Howe stepped to the free throw line with the Trojans down 20-18. Howe made both fouls shots to tie the game, and a put-back of a Hart miss on the next possession gave TA its first lead since it was 3-0 to start the game.

Olivia Dalphonse made a pair of free throws to put McAuley back on top 23-22 with 1:52 left in the third quarter, and that score stood heading into the final quarter.

Howe had some help in the fourth from new teammate and old friend Lux, who scored six of her eight points in the final eight minutes ”“ to go along with a few key rebounds and other hustle plays.

“I played with her when I was younger, and just being back on the court with her was great,” Howe said of Lux. “She’s just such a big presence inside, and an open target that we always look for her.”

Howe came to Lux’ aid with just over a minute left in one of the biggest plays of the game. Lux missed a tough-angle layup, and Howe did the same after corralling the rebound. But Howe’s second attempt went in while getting fouled, and the three-point play put Thornton up 35-30.

The Lions made it interesting after a pair of Lux free throws made it 37-32 in the final minute as Ayla Tarte hit a 3-pointer ”“ which was later ruled to be just a long 2-pointer ”“ with eight seconds left. But Lux  calmly threw a long inbounds pass to Howe in the offensive end, and Howe held on as the final seconds ticked off.

“Against a great team like McAuley, you never really know, because they’re so good,” Howe said of not feeling like the lead was ever safe near the end of the game.

The Thornton players stormed the court after the win, as a game with so much hype leading up to it ”“ according to Howe ”“ lived up to its billing.

“It’s two pretty good basketball programs going at it in the first game. The atmosphere was electric,” said Marston. “It means we’re 1-0, but at the same time it is McAuley. The girls are certainly very happy with beating the four-time defending state champions.”

The Lions were led by 13 points from Jess Willerson, who dueled with former teammate Lux down low all game long. Willerson hit five free throws, but missed two in the fourth quarter when McAuley went cold from the line, hitting just 5-10.

— Sports staff writer Wil Kramlich can be contacted at 282-1535, ext. 323 or [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @WilTalkSports.

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