Championship games are not always decided by star players.

On a team with Emily Esposito and Mackenzie Holmes – two of the state’s top five players – Michelle Rowe carved her name into Gorham High’s championship lore Friday night.

Rowe made three game-changing plays in the final 50 seconds to help top-ranked and undefeated Gorham hold off second-seeded South Portland 46-44 in the Class AA South girls’ basketball championship game at Cross Insurance Arena. Rowe, a junior forward, made a steal with the score tied, hit two foul shots to break the tie and then assisted Esposito on what turned out to be the winning basket.

“Michelle made three championship plays at the end,” said Gorham Coach Laughn Berthiaume. “She did a number of different things for us at the end to really help us win that game.”

The win was defending Class AA state champion Gorham’s 41st in a row and lifted the Rams (20-0) into the state championship game against Oxford Hills at 6 p.m. next Saturday at the Augusta Civic Center.

“This means everything,” said Esposito, a senior guard who is going to Villanova. “I was thinking about this game this morning and thought if we won, it would be sweet. Then I thought if we lost … I couldn’t even think about that, I got sick to my stomach. I couldn’t fathom losing.”

Esposito, who led the Rams with 17 points, was named the winner of the Edward “Red” McMann outstanding player/sportsman award for the second consecutive year. She suffered an injury to her right knee in the game’s final second after a collision with South Portland’s Meghan Graff but said afterward, “I’m OK.”

The win didn’t come easily. South Portland’s defense was exceptional, forcing 19 turnovers. And the Riots came out hitting 3s to build an early eight-point lead. An 8-0 run late in the second quarter pushed South Portland into a 26-22 halftime lead.

Then …

“We know how important the first three minutes of the third quarter are,” said South Portland Coach Lynne Hasson. “And they owned the first three minutes. And that hurt us.”

Back-to-back 3-pointers by Kaylea Lundin and Esposito put the Rams ahead. South Portland got its last lead at 29-28 on a foul shot by Katie Whitmore with 5:41 left.

With contributions from Courtney Brent and Holmes (12 points, seven rebounds), Gorham built a 42-36 lead with 5:04 remaining. But South Portland came back.

A jumper by Lydia Henderson and four consecutive foul shots by Eva Mazur (15 points, five steals) tied it at 42 with 3:09 left.

Then Rowe made her steal in front of the Riots’ bench with 50 seconds left. “Just got in the passing lane and got lucky, I guess,” said Rowe. She was fouled on her shot and calmly swished both free throws for a 44-42 lead with 44.2 seconds left.

“It’s just a free throw and I shoot it every day,” she said. “This one’s no different from any other one.”

After a South Portland miss, the Rams had the ball at midcourt following a timeout. Rowe inbounded the ball and passed to Esposito for a layup that made it 46-42 with 23 seconds left.

“It’s pretty exciting,” said Rowe. “To be able to do this two years in a row is something not many teams get to do.”

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