by Tom Utescher

Mount senior forward Steph Smith heads inside during last Tuesday’s round-of-16 game, when she scored a game-high 16 points in a win over Cheltenham. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

In the top half of the Class AAAA tournament bracket, the general consensus was that the road to a berth in the 2011 PIAA state finals would have to go through District 12 champion Archbishop Carroll, but unfortunately for Mount St. Joseph Academy basketball fans, the MSJ Magic didn’t make it that far in their journey.

After beating storied PIAA programs like Downingtown East, Council Rock North, and Cheltenham High in the District 1 playoffs and the early rounds of the state tourney, the Mount was upset by the seventh-seeded team from its own district, the Boyertown High School Lady Bears.

In a tooth-and-nail tussle in which neither team was ever ahead by more than four points (and only once by more than three), the Magic led for the last time at 39-38 with a minute to go. Boyertown went up by three on a lay-up and two free throws, and a drive by senior guard Mary Jo Horgan pulled the Mount back within one with 13 seconds left. The Bears then had their first miss from the free throw line all night on the front end of a one-and-one, but a final three-point attempt by the Magic dropped short of the hoop and Boyertown prevailed, 42-41, leaving both teams with overall records of 28-4.

In the second game of the twin bill at Spring-Ford High School, Archbishop Carroll cruised by Reading’s Wilson High, 58-34.

Three nights earlier, Mount St. Joe won a second-round bout against Cheltenham, 52-37. Horgan had ten points in the game, while fellow senior Steph Smith led all scorers with 16 points and junior Maddie Kohler collected a dozen points by nailing four three-pointers.

As that Tuesday tilt at Wissahickon High School got underway, Cheltenham had the Mount’s major offensive threats well guarded, but the Panthers weren’t prepared to deal with the perimeter marksmanship of Kohler. The compact starting guard usually plays tough defense and hoists the occasional three-pointer, but in this contest she easily exceeded her per-game scoring average before halftime.

“Where’d she come from?” exclaimed a Cheltenham fan who had seen the Mount play during the District 1 tourney.

The Panthers received three standard field goals from guard Ciara Andrews in the first quarter to finish with a 15-14 edge, but Kohler’s two triples had kept the Mount from developing a significant deficit. Cheltenham’s Tiffany Johnson opened the second round with a score off a rebound, but Kohler’s third trey tied it at 17-all and then the Magic went ahead for good on a free throw and a converted rebound by another 11th-grader, forward Cailin Schmeer.

Midway through the period the Panthers were still just one point behind, but the Mounties finished the half with a 10-3 burst. Kohler and Horgan nailed three-point shots, and Horgan and junior Bridget Higgins hit from closer range to make it 30-22 at the intermission.

Kohler had all of her 12 points by the break and Horgan scored nine of her ten over the first two quarters, while Cheltenham’s Andrews already had eight of her team-high 12 points in the books. MSJ’s Smith, who recorded four points prior to the intermission, bagged eight points in the third quarter to help stave off the last meaningful Cheltenham rally.

She scored twice off of dishes from Higgins, and added a foul line jumper and a pair of free throws.

The Panthers cut the lead to four points at the outset, 30-26. The Magic then went up by 10 on six straight points by Smith, but buckets by Johnson, Austin Hamler (seven total points), and Andrews got Cheltenham back within four once more (36-32) with 90 seconds left in the period. A three-pointer from Higgins helped the Magic take a seven-point spread (41-34) into the final frame.

Freshman Alex Louin started the fourth round in place of Kohler, but the junior was soon back on the floor alongside the ninth-grader when Horgan committed her fourth personal foul and took a seat for a few minutes. However, the Panthers’ Andrews was done scoring for the night, and Cheltenham only managed one short jumper and one free throw during the final quarter. Both teams gave their reserves some playing time in the concluding minutes, and Mount fans cheered wildly when crowd favorite Megan Black, a senior bound for Penn, knocked down the game’s final field goal from out along the left baseline.

In anticipating a possible state semifinal match-up with Carroll the following week, it would’ve been easy for the District 1 champion Mounties to overlook quarterfinal foe Boyertown, a school better known for its PIAA postseason performance in girls lacrosse than in basketball. The Bears had lost close games to Downingtown East and to Upper Dublin High School in the district tournament, while in the same five-day time frame the Magic defeated Downingtown by 21 points and upended Upper Dublin by 20.

The fact that Boyertown ended up ignoring or even feeding off of these documented results against common opponents (as well as their relatively low seeding) showed admirable mental fortitude.

Asked about the possibility of his team looking past the Bears, Mount coach John Miller said, “That might be natural, but I don’t really think that fact affected the way we played tonight. That was a non-factor.”

The Mount’s veteran mentor observed, “Even though they took us out of our comfort zone at times when they double teamed us, I still thought that we missed a lot of shots that we normally make. Also, give Boyertown credit for shooting better from the free throw line than we did tonight.

“We had a hard time matching up with their size,” he continued. “I think at times [on defense] we were a little too aggressive in the post game where they were beating us with their dribble. In a close game that comes down to one point, all those little things are factors.”

The 6’1” stature of MSJ senior forward Steph Smith was matched by Boyertown’s beefier Kaitlyn Eisenhard, and the rest of the Bears’ starting line-up consisted of two 5’10” and two 5’9” players. The Mount sent out two players at 5’8”, one at 5’7”, and one at 5’4”. The Mount gained a little more size when they subbed in the 5’11” Louin.

The Magic found themselves down 10-11 at the end of the first quarter, but they had also trailed by a point at the same stage of each of their first two state tourney games. Hints of trouble cropped up after that. In the second stanza the Magic, normally solid and sometimes outstanding from the free throw line, collected just three of a possible eight points. Their high-pressure man-to-man defense had gradually worn down opposing teams and caused numerous turnovers, but it wasn’t quite so effective against Boyertown.

As in the first period, the Bears edged the Magic 11-10 in the second round to lead 22-20 at halftime.

The MSJ coaching staff had seen Boyertown play twice in person and had watched videotapes of two other games.

“We knew what to expect,” Miller said, “but if one thing did surprise me, it was that they handled our man-to-man pressure better than I thought they would. Because they were big and strong, I didn’t think they would be as good with the ball as they were.”

The Magic opened the third quarter with their best offensive stretch of the night, an 8-2 run that included a short bank shot by Higgins, a midrange jumper by Schmeer, a strip by Smith that led to a lay-up by Horgan, and two free throws by Smith herself. This gave the Magic the largest lead enjoyed by either team all evening, – four points at 28-24.

The gap was quickly reduced to a single point with a lay-up and free throw by Boyertown’s Krista Schauder, and at the end of the period the Mount was still up by one, 30-29.

Throughout the game, the Bears proved more accurate at the free throw line than the Magic. The respective scoring leaders for the two squads, Horgan for the Mount (22 points) and senior guard Jess Schlesman for Boyertown (18 points) were each seven-for-seven at the stripe, but while Schlesman’s teammates made seven of their eight foul shots, the remaining Mounties went 5-for-11.

Five minutes into the fourth quarter, two Boyertown free throws by Brooke Mullen (six points total) tied the game for the tenth and final time, now at 36-all. The Mount turned the ball over on a walk, and a drive by Muller moved the Bears ahead. The Magic passed the ball around in their set offense but couldn’t see an opening, calling time-out with 1:36 remaining in the game.

When play resumed, the Mount eventually got off a three-pointer from the left wing. On this shot by Kohler, the ball hit the front of the rim, hopped a few feet up into the air, and fell through the net to give Mount St. Joe a 39-38 edge as the clock dropped under the one-minute mark.

Boyertown came down the floor and lost the ball out of bounds at the baseline, but on the subsequent inbounds play by the Magic, Boyertown’s Schlesman stole the ball and flung up a lay-up, putting her team in front for good with 43 seconds left. The Mounties turned the ball back over with an offensive foul, and just after that they committed another infraction, which happened to be both the fifth personal on Schmeer and the seventh team foul by the Magic.

Schlesman nailed both shots of the one-and-one with 26 seconds remaining, making it 42-39. Horgan drove the lane with 13 ticks to go, getting the Magic back within one. The Magic had to foul and Smith committed her fifth violation, leaving the game with 9.6 seconds left to be replaced by freshman forward Carly Monzo.

After 14 straight “makes” the Bears finally missed a free throw on the front end of the final one-and-one, but by the time the Magic got the ball over midcourt they only had time for Horgan to heave a desperation three-point shot, which didn’t reach the rim. Smith and Kohler each finished with six points for the night, and Higgins with four.

“Once the sting of this wears off, the girls will realize they can be very proud of the season that they had,” the Mount’s Miller stated afterwards. “They’re all crying right now, but back in November if you’d told us we were going to go 28-4, win the Academies championship at the buzzer, win the district quad-A championship and then go to the Elite Eight in the state, I think we would’ve said ‘Hey, we’ll take it.’ “