PORTLAND — Michelle Rowe lynchpinned a 46-44 Gorham victory over South Portland in the AA South Final at the Cross Insurance Center on Friday night, the 24th. No doubt any such triumph can best be described as a team effort, but a trio of critical Rowe plays, including a pair of perfect frees, really reeled in the W – not to mention a return trip to States this weekend.

“Most people would call Michelle a role-player, but I don’t think she is,” Gorham head coach Laughn Berthiaume said. “She understands what she needs to do for this team, and she’s ready to do it. If we need some points, she’s probably going to go get an offensive rebound and a putback, and she is very comfortable at the free-throw line.”

“I feel amazing,” said senior Co-Captain Kaylea Lundin. “That’s a huge win for us. I’m very proud of this team. I wouldn’t have wanted to do it with anyone else.”

Rams superstar Emily Esposito began the scoring with a bucket that looked all-too-easy – a two from the paint on her trusty jumpshot – just nine seconds in. South Portlander Meghan Graff promptly answered, however, knocking down a three that looked roughly as easy. Suddenly, the action took on a portentous feeling: This could come down to the wire.

Espo added another two on another jumper, but again the Riots retorted with a three – this one by Lydia Henderson. South Portland scooted to a little lead then, assembling a six-point run that culminated in two by Eva Mazur. 

Unflappable, Espo knocked down a three to tear a chunk off Gorham’s deficit, and soon enough kicked off a pretty combo-play – she dished to Kaylea Lundin, who dished in turn to Mackenzie Holmes, who added her first basket of the night to tear off another chunk. But Mazur closed the quarter with a two, putting the Riots back out front by five, at 14-9, as the second arrived.

“We haven’t been down very much this year,” Berthiaume said. “So it’s always a concern, how the team is going to respond, having to climb out of a little bit of a hole. But, you know what, it might sound cliché, but one play at a time is really what happens. The key is, you’ve got to make sure you’re having a good defensive stand each time.”

“Our coach said, ‘Don’t panic, once you get in that position,’” Lundin said of falling behind. “Which I think is the best thing you can do. Hearing that and having that seed planted in our head, that we just need to play calm, take it possession-by-possession, and slowly whittle our way back into the game. Once you’re there, it’s just keep pushing from that point on.”

A pair of quick Holmes twos – the first on a Rowe assist and the second following a Rowe d-reb – and a pair of Holmes frees finally gave Gorham a leg up, 15-14, to start the second. From there, the lead ping-ponged: Katie Whitmore made it 16-15, SoPo; Holmes made it 17-16, Rams; Maggie Whitmore made it 19-17, SoPo. 

Gorham was turning the ball over far too often, as Mazur’s next points, a three, and Katie Whitmore’s, a two, amply demonstrated. Berthiaume called timeout. 

“It was a concern,” Berthiaume said of his girls’ sloppier moments. “We had a few against MGA the other day too that I thought were easy giveaways. That’s something that we continue to work on. But a lot of it is a credit to South Portland. They’re very active. Mazur’s long; she’s one of the best defenders. Everybody on South Portland played an exceptional game.” 

Whatever Berthiaume said to his girls in those 30 seconds had at least something of the intended effect, as they closed the half with five more. Lundin hit a three and Espo another two to keep the score tight at 26-22 heading into the break.

Likewise, whatever Berthiaume said to his girls during the intermission fired them up further, because upon their return to the court, they drained a pair of quick threes – one by Lundin and another by Espo – to surge ahead at 28-26. 

Again the action began to seesaw: the Riots jumped back out front on a trio of threes by Graff and Katie Whitmore; another Espo downtowner inched Gorham ahead; Graff tied things up with a two; Courtney Brent put the Rams up 33-31 from the line. Gorham maintained that narrow advantage through to the end of the quarter, Brent with a three and Holmes with a two securing 38-36 at the buzzer.

“Courtney hit a big three that got us back in the game,” Rowe said. “I think we had the momentum at one point in the third, and we just rolled with the momentum.”

The first few minutes of the fourth unfurled, and a triplet of South Portland turnovers – on a double-dribble, a travel and a throwaway – allowed Gorham to pull ahead 42-36 on a pair of Lundin buckets, though SoPo scrabbled even again on a Henderson o-reb/two and a quartet of Mazur frees. 42-42. 

“I think we played really well,” said Lundin. “Overall, we could’ve done some things better – such as rebounding, not allowing second-chance points. But we really played in the present, took it possession-by-possession.”

“If we played our game,” Lundin said, “we knew we had a better chance than if we tried to play it to their pace. For us to pull that win off was really huge for us.”

The action by now had taken an interesting turn: Gorham had committed seven, eight, nine fouls and landed themselves in bonus territory. SoPo, on the other hand, had played impressively clean, committing just one.

In such a tight game, then, the Rams couldn’t afford to send the Riots to the line willy-nilly. And for the Riots to be able to send the Rams to the line purposefully – in an attempt to regain possession – they would need to tack on infractions at a jackhammer pace.

“I think we were in the bonus and they had one foul,” Berthiaume said. “That meant, if we took the lead, they were going to have to foul us a number of different times, but we also had to not give up any easy fouls about 90 feet from the hoop. If they were going to be fouls, they had to be ones where we were not allowing a layup.”

Then, with a mere 44.2 seconds remaining, Rowe snatched a huge steal; she charged the length of the court looking for a layup – but Graff fouled her instead. She nailed both her free attempts. 44-42. Roughly 20 seconds later, she found herself inbounding the ball – and she found Espo with a precision delivery that Espo converted into a gorgeous layup.

“Michelle made three championship plays at the end,” Berthiaume said. “She stole that ball, she made two free-throws that – they were dead-center – then she threw that out-of-bounds pass for a layup out of a timeout.”

Lundin echoed her coach: “Michelle had some really critical plays,” she said. “I think without her that would’ve been a different outcome for us, only because they had the chance to go ahead. They had the ball, they had possession, it was tied … Without her big plays, her couple of big free-throws and that steal on the inbounds pass – I mean, she really stepped up.”

“As long as we were ahead by a few points, it would give us a little bit of a cushion, of confidence,” Rowe said. “And then they would have to make a play. We stepped up big on defense.”

In possession once again, a desperate SoPo couldn’t seem to find the inside of the hoop: Their shots just would not fall. Mazur did add two more from the line, but Gorham managed the last five seconds expertly, and time expired on the Riots’ hopes. 46-44 the final.

“Toward the end, we started to run our stall offense,” Lundin said. “Once we settle in in our stall, that’s pretty much it for the other team. We’re very strong ball-handlers.”

Espo led the scoring with 17; Holmes contributed 12, along with seven rebounds and a pair of blocks. Lundin hashed 10 and assisted twice; Brent added five and Rowe two, as well as three rebounds, a steal and an assist. The Rams will meet Oxford Hills in the State Final on Saturday night, March 4 at the Augusta Civic Center.

Adam Birt can be reached at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @CurrentSportsME.

Michell Rowe knocked down this pair of frees to give the Rams a 44-42 lead late in the fourth.

Mackenzie Holmes lofts a ball toward the rim vs. South Portland on Friday.

Emily Esposito sails up and away toward the net.

Mackenzie Holmes gets air over a SoPo defender on Friday night.

Kaylea Lundin shovels the ball ahead on the run for Gorham vs. SoPo last Friday night.

Emily Esposito leaps into a layup attempt vs. South Portland.

Gorhamite Courtney Brent drives through the paint vs. South Portland.

Kristen Curley slices upcourt on the attack for Gorham.

The Lady Rams pose with their AA South Championship plaque following their triumph over South Portland on Friday night.

Michelle Rowe drew a foul on this layup, leading to a pair of critical late-game free-throw attempts.