McAuley senior Jess Willerson and South Portland senior Maddie Hasson do battle during Tuesday’s thrilling Class AA South semifinal. Hasson’s late heroics helped the Red Riots advance, 39-36, and set up a regional final showdown versus undefeated Gorham Friday night.

Jason Eggleston photos.

More photos below.

PORTLAND—This one was worth the wait.

Presuming you hail from South Portland.

But even if you were cheering for McAuley in Tuesday’s Class AA South girls’ basketball semifinal at the Cross Insurance Arena, you had to leave in appreciation of two evenly matched teams who needed more than 32 minutes to determine who would march on.

The second-ranked Lions shot to a quick 4-0 lead, but the third-seeded Red Riots, sparked by senior standout Maddie Hasson, dominated the rest of the first period and led, 13-7, thanks to Hasson’s eight points, after eight minutes.

McAuley then cranked up the defense, rallied and went back on top just before halftime, but with 12 seconds left, South Portland junior Lydia Henderson hit two free throws to give her team a 17-16 lead at the break.

Things remained taut in the third quarter as well, as the Red Riots built a six-point lead on a late Henderson 3, but at the horn, the Lions pulled within 30-27 on a 3-pointer from senior Sarah Clement.

Every point was precious in the final stanza and after South Portland went up by four on a free throw from freshman Katie Whitmore, McAuley sophomore Eva Mazur converted a three-point play and senior Jess Willerson scored on a putback for a 32-31 lead.

Hasson put the Red Riots back on top with two free throws and added another, but with 1:05 to play, Lions senior Brooke Howard tied the score with a layup.

After a Willerson steal, McAuley had a chance to win it in the waning seconds, but Willerson and Clement missed shot and the game went to overtime.

There, Hasson ensured her team would survive and advance.

Hasson made a free throw to start OT, then, after a pair of Willerson foul shots, Hasson drove for the go-ahead layup with just 30.8 seconds remaining.

Hasson added two more free throws with 14.3 seconds to play and after a Lions’ turnover, South Portland ran out the clock and celebrated a 39-36 victory.

The Red Riots won a semifinal for the first time in a decade, improved to 17-3, ended McAuley’s fine season at 16-3 and advanced to meet undefeated, top-ranked Gorham (19-0) in the Class AA South Final Friday at 7 p.m., at the Cross Insurance Arena.

“I think we never stopped believing,” said South Portland coach Lynne Hasson. “It could have gone either way. Hats off to McAuley, but we knew we were good enough to win and we didn’t give up. The girls were just determined to find a way.”

Two of the finest

McAuley-South Portland could have squared off in a regional final in any other year, but the presence of perfect Gorham relegated the Lions and Red Riots to the No. 2 and 3 seeds, respectively.

South Portland had a superb 15-3 regular season and held off upset-minded, No. 6 seed Scarborough in its quarterfinal last Wednesday, 49-41.

McAuley lost just twice in its regular season and as the No. 2 seed, last played Feb. 4, meaning it sat idle for 11 days.

The teams split this year, with the Lions winning at home in the opener Dec. 4, 46-37, and the Red Riots returning the favor at home Jan. 12, 57-45, a victory which snapped an eight-year, 11-game losing streak to their nemesis.

South Portland won three of the five prior playoff meetings, but McAuley won the last two, including a 39-34 semifinal round triumph a year ago.

Tuesday, in the first game this tournament to be played at the Cross Insurance Arena, the Red Riots found a way to play on.

The Lions started fast, as Willerson set up sophomore Emily Weisser for a layup and Willerson hit a runner off the glass, but the Red Riots answered on a driving layup from freshman Katie Whitmore. After Weisser added a free throw, South Portland erupted for nine straight points to seemingly seize control.

The surge started as Hasson weaved through the McAuley defense and made a layup. Hasson then pulled up for a jumper and the lead. After Whitmore added a foul shot, sophomore Meghan Graff hit a leaner and Hasson drove for another layup to make it 11-5 with 1:34 to go in the opening frame.

With 42.3 seconds showing, Howard knocked down two free throws for the Lions to end a 5 minute, 42 second drought, but Hasson spun and finished a layup with her left hand to give the Red Riots a 13-7 lead after one quarter.

In that frame, Hasson had eight points and South Portland forced six McAuley turnovers.

The Lions then dominated the second period behind their defense and roared back.

After Weisser made a layup, Willerson took a pass from Weisser after an offensive rebound, made a layup, was fouled and hit the free throw to convert the old-fashioned three-point play, cutting the deficit to a single point.

With 3:39 to play in the half, freshman Jena Leckie scored on a putback to end the Red Riots’ 4:29 drought, but Willerson made two foul shots and with 1:26 left, after a steal, sophomore Eva Mazur was fouled and made two free throws for a 16-15 lead.

It didn’t last, as with 12.8 seconds to go, Henderson hit two foul shots to put South Portland back on top at halftime, 17-16.

In the first half, Hasson had eight points, but the Red Riots missed all six of their 3-point field goal attempts.

Willerson led the Lions with seven points, but they committed nine turnovers and shot just 4 of 19 from the floor.

Yet, despite their travails and despite senior sharpshooter Sarah Clement being sidelined much of the half with three fouls, McAuley was right in the game.

There was little separation in the third period.

After Clement was fouled on a 3 and hit two free throws, Hasson banked home a shot for her first points since the first quarter and a 19-18 lead.

Weisser tied it with a free throw, but Henderson buried the game’s first 3.

Mazur then grabbed a steal, raced in and made a layup while being fouled and hit the free throw as the three-point play tied things up again, 22-22.

With 4:16 left in the third, Graff hit a jumper.

With 2:02 showing, Hasson was fouled after an offensive rebound and made one of two free throws for a 25-22 lead.

Hasson then added a layup, but Willerson scored on a putback.

Action ratcheted up at the end of the third, as first Henderson hit a 3 with 16.8 seconds to go, then, as time expired, Clement took a pass from Mazur and hit a 3 of her own to make it 30-27 South Portland with eight minutes to go. 

Nothing was resolved in the final stanza either.

Whitmore started the fourth quarter with a free throw.

Mazur then demonstrated again why she’s the best defender around, coming up with another steal, racing in for a layup while being fouled by Henderson, then completing the three-point play with a free throw.

After Hasson missed a layup at one end, Willerson put home Howard’s miss at the other and with 4:41 to play, McAuley was back on top, 32-31.

With 3:13 left, Hasson drew a foul and hit both free throws to give the Red Riots a one-point advantage.

After Clement missed a 3, Hasson was fouled again and with 2:42 to go, she made one of two to make it 34-32.

After the teams traded turnovers, Willerson was just off on a baseline jumper and Hasson got the rebound.

Graff missed a layup and the Lions got the ball back with 1:10 to play.

And they went out and tied it as Howard drove for a layup.

After a Willerson steal with just under a minute to play, McAuley milked the clock and tried to win it, but Willerson, heavily defended by Hasson, missed.

“I have experience playing against (Jess),” Hasson said. “The first game, I was in foul trouble. The second game was an awesome experience. She has a size advantage, but we worked all week on defending her.”

“Maddie wasn’t a post defender until this year,” Lynne Hasson said. “She’s had to play that this year and she’s gotten better. We depended on her to stop Willerson.” 

The rebound then bounced out to Clement, whose shot was short just before the horn, sending the game to overtime.

In Maine high school basketball, teams play four-minute overtimes until a winner is determined.

Both teams liked their chances heading into OT.

“We just said, ‘It’s your game to take’ and we told them to play hard and have confidence,” Lynne Hasson said. 

“I knew overtime would be a battle, but I hoped we’d get our offense going,” Goodman said. 

After trading turnovers, Whitmore blocked a Lions’ shot, Hasson got the rebound and drove and drew a foul. With 2:51 left in OT, Hasson missed the first free throw, but made the second to give South Portland a 35-34 lead.

After the Red Riots got the ball back on a turnover, they gave it away and after Howard missed and Willerson missed on the putback, Willerson got the rebound again and was fouled. With 1:42 showing, she made both free throws to finally put the Lions ahead, 36-35.

After a Graff miss, Howard got the rebound and McAuley had a chance to extend the lead, but Howard missed the front end of the one-and-one and that put Hasson on center stage.

Hasson got the rebound and raced down the floor, spun and made a layup with 30.8 seconds left to put South Portland ahead, 37-36.

“One of my strengths is getting rebounds and getting out in transition,” Hasson said. “I knew we needed to score and I got to the rim. I was ahead of the pack.” 

“Maddie had a few turnovers, but when push came to shove, it’s her senior year and she was going to do what she had to do,” Lynne Hasson said.

The Lions had two looks for the lead, but Weisser was off on a 3 and after the ball went out to McAuley, Weisser missed again with Hasson getting the rebound and drawing the foul.

With 14.3 seconds remaining, Hasson, who had been far from steady at the line in the game, calmly sank the front end of a one-and-one and after a timeout, she hit another for a 39-36 lead.

“All season, I’ve been consistent on free throws, but in this game, I wasn’t shooting them well,” Hasson said. “On the line there, I was confident and I just did what I always do.”

The Lions had a chance to get a tying 3-pointer, but Whitmore stole a pass and got the ball to Graff, who was fouled with 3.6 seconds left.

Graff missed the front end of the one-and-one, but smartly grabbed the rebound and that did it.

At 3:35 p.m., for the first time in a decade, South Portland beat McAuley in the tournament, 39-36, and punched its ticket to the regional final.

“Every tournament game is win or go home and I didn’t want this to be our last one,” Maddie Hasson said. “It’s the biggest win we’ve had in my four years, without question. I couldn’t have written it up any better.”

“(McAuley’s) such a strong team defensively,” Lynne Hasson said. “We tried different things. They focused on Maddie and our offense runs through her. We need more than her to step up to get on track.”

The Red Riots were led by Maddie Hasson’s game-high 21 points. She had a double-double, as she also grabbed 10 rebounds. Henderson had eight points, Graff and Whitmore four each and Leckie two.

South Portland made just 13 of 34 shots from the floor, only hit 2 of 9 3-pointers and made 11 of 17 free throws, while turning the ball over 17 times.

But the Red Riots’ defense was solid throughout.

“Our defense has been a focus all year,” Lynne Hasson said. “It got us where we are. Lydia got pressure on the ball. Meghan had another good game. We stopped their dribble penetration to the hoop.”

Too soon

McAuley, which last lost a semifinal in 2010 (to Deering), was paced by Willerson’s 13 points. The Cornell University-bound standout also had 10 rebounds.

Mazur had eight points, six rebounds and five steals. 

“Eva wasn’t feeling good,” Goodman said. “She was battling a cold, but when we needed her, she was there.”

The Lions had a 28-23 rebounding edge and hit 15 of 21 free throws, but turned the ball over an uncharacteristic 18 times, missed 36 of 46 shots from the floor and hit just 1 of 5 3-pointers.

“My team played very well,” Goodman said. “We don’t give up. It seemed like we were losing the whole game, but we kept battling back. Our shots just didn’t go in today. I told the girls thank you. I couldn’t ask for anything more as a coach. We went down swinging.”

The Lions graduate Clement, Howard, Willerson and Chelsea Rairdon, but return Mazur and Weisser and should be in contention again in 2016-17.

“All four seniors worked hard,” Goodman said. “Sarah was in pain all year. Brooke was one of the most improved players I’ve ever coached. Chelsea always worked hard. Jess worked hard to get to what she’s accomplished.

“Eva and Emily will be our experienced players next year and the rest of the girls have gotten better.”

Ram-tough challenge awaits

South Portland only lost three games this season and one of them came at the hands of Gorham, 40-38, in overtime, back on Dec. 11 at home.

The teams have no playoff history.

The Red Riots last appeared in a regional final in 2006, when they lost to Sanford, 45-29.

South Portland last reached the state final 30 years ago and would love nothing more than make a long-awaited trip back, but the Rams, led by junior do-everything standout Emily Esposito and freshman post phenom Mackenzie Holmes, won’t be an easy matchup.

“Obviously, Gorham’s a very good team,” Maddie Hasson said. “Esposito is without a doubt a top player. I feel like when we execute and play our game, we can beat anyone.”

“We have tremendous excitement around girls’ basketball in South Portland and this cements it,” Lynne Hasson said. “Gorham’s 19-0 and on paper, they’re the best team, but in the tournament, anything can happen. We have to limit Holmes inside and cover the other players. Defensively, we match up well. We have a couple days to work on things. We have nothing to lose.”

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

McAuley sophomore Eva Mazur races up the floor as South Portland junior Lydia Henderson gives chase.

McAuley senior Brooke Howard drives to the basket.

South Portland senior Maddie Hasson tries to block McAuley sophomore Eva Mazur’s shot.

McAuley senior Sarah Clement drives on South Portland sophomore Meghan Graff.

Previous McAuley-South Portland playoff results

2013 Western A semifinals
McAuley 39 South Portland 34 

2011 Western A quarterfinals
McAuley 52 South Portland 27

2006 Western A semifinals
South Portland 39 McAuley 29

1984 Western A quarterfinals
South Portland 52 McAuley 41

1981 Western A quarterfinals
South Portland 60 McAuley 51

McAuley freshman Catherine Reid fights South Portland sophomore Meghan Graff (12) and sophomore Sarah Boles for the ball.