McAuley senior Jess Willerson and South Portland freshman Jena Lecki keep their eye on the ball during the Lions’ 46-37 victory in Friday’s regular season opener.

Mike Strout photos.

More photos below.


McAuley 46 South Portland 37

SP- 5 10 3 19- 37
M- 6 17 7 16- 46

SP- Graff 6-1-16, Magnuson 4-0-9, Henderson 2-0-5, Hasson 2-0-4, Whitmore 0-2-2, Lecki 0-1-1

M- Willerson 8-4-20, Howard 4-4-12, Reid 2-3-7, Rairdon 1-1-3, Mazur 0-2-2, Weisser 0-2-2

SP (5) Graff 3, Henderson, Magnuson 1

SP- 23
M- 20

Free throws
SP: 4-8
M: 16-22

PORTLAND—This winter, for the first time in a long time, McAuley’s girls’ basketball team isn’t viewed as the favorite.

And the Lions are just fine with that.

Friday evening, McAuley kicked off a new season without several key players from a year ago and without another who is expected to be a standout this winter, but one thing the Lions always boast is a smothering defense and visiting South Portland became the first squad to learn this season that a cornered Lion is the most dangerous.

While McAuley, playing without senior standout Sarah Clement, sidelined by concussion symptoms, struggled on offense in the first quarter, going 5 minutes, 21 seconds without a point, it hung tough behind its defense and went ahead to stay on consecutive baskets from senior Brooke Howard to lead, 6-5, after one period.

The Lions then pulled away in the second quarter, completely stymieing Red Riots senior standout Maddie Hasson at one end and getting a dozen points from senior star Jess Willerson on the offensive side to pull into a 23-15 lead at halftime.

McAuley extended its advantage to 30-18 after three quarters and went up by as many as 15 points, 39-24, in the fourth period en route to a 46-37 victory.

Willerson led all players with 20 points and 10 rebounds, Howard added 12 points and freshman Catherine Reid debuted with an impressive seven point performance as the Lions avoided losing their season opener for the second successive season and beat South Portland yet again.

“We had opening night jitters and we have a lot to work on, but I’m very happy with the way we played defense tonight,” said McAuley coach Billy Goodman, who is now 85-3 with the program. “We struggled in the preseason, but we’ve gotten better in three weeks. It’s not easy and the girls did a good job. I’m very proud of them.”

New faces

Both teams came into Friday’s contest with very different rosters from a year ago.

South Portland, which got to the Western A semifinals last season before losing, 39-34, to McAuley to finish 15-6, not only lost several key players to graduation, but saw sophomores Abby Cavallaro and Grace Soucy transfer to Cheverus and senior Meghan Doyle, a potentially dominant post presence, suffer a knee injury at the end of the soccer season which could keep her out until late January, if not longer.

McAuley, meanwhile, saw its four-year stranglehold on Class A come to an end last season when it was beaten, 41-31, by Thornton Academy in the regional final, ending its season at 19-2. The Lions then graduated standouts Olivia Dalphonse and Ayla Tartre and lost senior Margaret Hatch to Portland and junior Ally Tillotson to Cheverus.

If that didn’t make things challenging enough, Clement, who missed her entire sophomore year with a knee injury, then had to miss the end of the 2014-15 campaign when she re-injured it, suffered a concussion while taking a charge during the preseason and wasn’t available to play in the opener.

As a result, it took McAuley awhile to hit its stride and while South Portland was hoping for its first win over the Lions in nearly eight years (Feb. 1, 2008), McAuley went out and beat the Red Riots for the 11th straight time.

When Willerson took a pass from sophomore Emily Weisser and made a layup 17 seconds in, it appeared McAuley was off to a good start, but the Lions wouldn’t score again until 2:22 remained in the first quarter.

South Portland had a great opportunity to seize control, but despite a pair of foul shots from freshman Katie Whitmore and a banked-home 3-pointer from junior Lydia Henderson, it couldn’t pull away.

Howard, who is playing a much bigger role this winter, got the Lions off the schneid with a putback, then, as time wound down in the period, she took a pass from sophomore defensive wizard Eva Mazur and hit a jump shot for a 6-5 lead after one quarter.

“I love basketball and I want to help out the team as much as I can,” Howard said. “We were all a little nervous about our first game. We wanted this. We all came together and it worked.”

The teams combined for 18 turnovers in the quarter (the hosts had 10).

McAuley started the second period with a pair of Howard free throws before junior Erica Magnuson made a layup for the Red Riots, snapping a 5:32 drought.

South Portland couldn’t regain the lead, however, as Willerson hit a bank shot, Weisser sank two free throws, Willerson made two foul shots, Willerson finished a feed from Mazur with a layup and with 4:29 to go before halftime, Willerson hit a jump shot for an 18-7 lead, forcing Red Riots coach Lynne Hasson to call timeout.

It helped initially, as sophomore Meghan Graff sank a jumper to end a 16-2 Lions’ run, but senior Chelsea Rairdon made a free throw and Weisser set up Willerson for a fastbreak layup and a 21-9 advantage.

“Jitters were a factor in the first quarter,” Willerson said. “I was nervous. Everyone was nervous.”

After Hasson scored her first points, on a putback with 3:06 left in the half, Willerson got an offensive rebound and finished for a 23-11 lead. South Portland then got a free throw from Graff and as time expired, Graff hit a 3 and the visitors were only down eight, 23-15, at halftime.

In the first half, McAuley got 14 points and four rebounds from Willerson, six points and three boards from Howard and while Mazur didn’t score, she did have five steals, four rebounds and three assists.

The Red Riots got six points from Graff, but were hindered by 13 turnovers.

After Rairdon set up Willerson for a layup to start the second half, South Portland got a free throw from freshman Jena Lecki and a layup from Hasson after a nice move to pull within 25-18.

The Red Riots wouldn’t get any closer.

Reid first made her presence felt with a long jumper with 1:48 left in the third quarter. Reid then set up Rairdon for a layup and Willerson tacked on a free throw to make it 30-18 heading for the final stanza.

Where the Lions answered every foray.

A long Henderson jumper started the fourth period and Magnuson scored on a putback as it seemed South Portland might make a run, but Reid scored on a leaner while being fouled and added the free throw to complete the old-fashioned three-point play for a 33-22 lead with 5:27 remaining.

“It was nervewracking at first, but it was easy for me to adjust because the team is really supportive and so were the fans,” Reid said. “After the game started, I got more used to it. Coach Goodman has told me to shoot whenever I’m open and be aggressive, so I’ll shoot it. It was fun.”

It didn’t take long for the baby-faced 5-foot-3 Reid to make an impression at the varsity level.

“Catherine did a great job shooting,” Willerson said. “We knew we’d have to replace Sarah’s shooting somehow and she was on fire.”

“Catherine’s been great for our team,” Howard said. “She’s unselfish. She’s confident in her shot. I think she’ll do great things for us this season.”

“(Catherine) has a great attitude,” Goodman added. “She doesn’t get too high or too low. She stepped up when we needed her.”

A Willerson putback extended the lead to 13. After Magnuson made a layup, Reid sank two free throws and Howard drove for a layup to make it 39-24.

With 3:21 to play, Graff sank a 3 and with 1:48 left, Hasson set up Graff for a layup, cutting the deficit to 10, but 15 seconds later, Hasson fouled out and Willerson made a free throw. After Graff’s bank shot made it 40-31 with 1:23 to go, Howard made both ends of a one-and-one, then Howard converted a layup with 46 seconds showing to make it 44-31 and essentially put it away.

Down the stretch, Graff and Magnuson sandwiched 3-pointers around a pair of free throws from Mazur and McAuley prevailed, 46-37.

“We didn’t start out well, but we rallied together and worked together and that helped us win,” Willerson said. 

“I think we’re very unselfish,” Howard said. “We have great ball movement. It’s a team. There’s no ‘I” and I think that’s great for us.”

The Cornell-bound Willerson led all players with 20 points and 10 rebounds, the first of likely many double-doubles this winter.

“Jess did great,” Goodman said. “She went 20-10, but her attitude to want to work on things has made her even better this year. I like that.”

Howard also finished in double figures with 12 points. 

“Brooke did a great job,” Willerson said. “She works hard in practice and that’s paid off for her.”

“Brooke’s worked so hard,” Goodman said. “She really came on this summer. She’s learned to take care of the ball and make good decisions. I’m happy for her.”

Reid debuted with a seven-point performance, Rairdon added three points (to go with four rebounds and a blocked shot) and Weisser and Mazur both had two (Mazur also had six steals, five rebounds and three assists).

McAuley didn’t make a 3-pointer and committed 20 turnovers, but found a way to prevail, thanks to a 24-19 advantage on the glass, strong foul shooting (16 of 22) and a stellar defensive effort, most notably on Hasson.

“We knew (Maddie) was a key factor, so we doubled up on her and tried to play the best defense we could,” Willerson said. 

“Hasson is one of the best players in the state,” Goodman said. “It took a village to play defense on her. She got in some foul trouble which hurt her playing time, but we had to pay attention to her.”

Rough start

South Portland was led by Graff, who had 16 points.

“Meghan played really well,” Lynne Hasson said. “She came up big down the stretch. She’s a good basketball player.”

Magnuson added nine off the bench, Henderson had five, Hasson four, Wihtmore two and Lecki one.

The Red Riots were doomed by 23 turnovers and shot just 4 of 8 from the free throw line. 

“Obviously, we didn’t run an effective offense and we didn’t get much in transition,” Lynne Hasson lamented. “They’re tough to rebound against, so we didn’t get many second opportunities. We weren’t patient and we didn’t knock down open shots. We’re normally a good shooting team, but we live and die by it. Tonight, we died by it. We had a hard time stopping Willerson and we got into some foul trouble which caused us to change our game plan a little bit.

“Maddie not scoring really hurt us. They keyed on her and at times, she tried to do too much. She didn’t get a lot of open looks. That’s going to happen to her all year long. When we run our offense well, she’ll get open looks within the offense. She’ll get opportunities.”

Fun’s just beginning

South Portland looks to get in the win column Tuesday when it battles Deering in its home opener. Friday brings a visit from preseason favorite Gorham.

“It’s too early to panic,” Lynne Hasson said. “We want to play well in this tough opening stretch.”

McAuley, meanwhile, is hoping to have Clement back in the lineup next week.

“Sarah has never had a bad attitude about anything,” Howard said. “We can’t wait until she’s back out with us playing. All the seniors are going to leave it all on the court this year.”

“Losing Sarah is a big deal,” Goodman said. “She handles pressure well and she’s a good player. We miss her. She’s worked so hard to get on the floor, so to go down in the preseason taking a charge, I feel badly for her.”

The Lions hope to improve to 2-0 Tuesday when they go to Massabesic. Friday brings a trip to Bonny Eagle.

“We need more help defense,” Howard said. “We need to talk more on defense. I think we’ve executed well on offense. We’ll get through it.” 

“We feel like we have something to prove,” Willerson said. “That’s a motivating factor.”

“I think we’ll only get better from here,” Reid said. “We’ll work on everything we need to.”

“There are a lot of good teams in our division,” Goodman added. “South Portland, Thornton, Gorham. I heard Bonny Eagle is doing well. Massabesic’s coming on. There are a lot of good teams in the north too. There are a lot of good players and we have to be ready every night. There isn’t much room for error. We have to play smarter basketball to win games.”

Sports Editor Michael Hoffer can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter: @foresports.

McAuley sophomore Emily Weisser lunges for the ball.

McAuley sophomore Eva Mazur lines up a shot.

McAuley senior Brooke Howard is fouled by South Portland senior Maddie Hasson on a drive to the basket.

South Portland junior Lydia Henderson defends McAuley sophomore Eva Mazur.

South Portland junior Erica Magnuson lines up a shot.

South Portland sophomore Meghan Graff is defended by McAuley sophomore Eva Mazur.

South Portland freshman Bela Cloutier grabs a rebound from McAuley freshman Catherine Reid.