by Tom Utescher
The Mount St. Joseph Academy basketball team and its fans experienced some dramatic emotional swings last week as the Magic finished one post-season tournament and started another.

Mount St. Joe senior Cailin Schmeer goes up for a shot in an AACA tournament contest. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

At Philadelphia University on Monday night, the Mount saw a 13-point lead in the third quarter slip away in the finals of the Catholic Academies tournament, and the contest ended in a soul-crushing 39-35 defeat at the hands of archrival Villa Maria. Back home on Saturday afternoon, a win in the opening round of the District 1 Class AAAA playoffs didn’t generate a great deal of excitement for the fifth-seeded Magic, who surprised no one by drubbing number 28 Radnor High School, 58-21.

If nothing else, the District 1 opener gave the Magic and their supporters something else to focus on following the disappointing league final. Attaining an overall record of 23-4, Mount St. Joe moved into a match-up with 12th seed Central Bucks East, which topped Conestoga High School, 46-40, in another Saturday contest.

MSJ senior guard Bridget Higgins noted “My freshman year we lost our league championship game and came back and won the district. This week in practice we just focused on getting off to a good start in Districts, and playing well like we did last year.”

The Magic posted convincing victories all the way through to the 2011 District 1 championship, then reached the quarterfinal round in the PIAA state tournament.

In the league finals on Monday night the Mount won the first 19 minutes, 29-16, and Villa won the final 13 by a 23-6 count. That’s how suddenly the teams’ reversal of fortune occurred during the third quarter.

“We obviously didn’t take care of the basketball, and when you don’t have the ball you can’t score,” observed Mount St. Joe coach John Miller. “We didn’t score any field goals in the fourth quarter, and we only took three shots.”

During the regular season, the Magic won their home opener over Villa, 34-31, and then hit a buzzer beater to win on the Hurricanes’ court, 31-30, on January 17.

“There were just eight points between us in three games this season, so it’s hard to find two more closely-matched teams,” pointed out Villa Maria skipper Kathy McCartney. “I think in the finals we just refused to lose, and Maddie McTigue [the game’s high scorer with 19 points] was the leader of that.”

Each team entered the game without one regular starting forward; Mount sophomore Carly Monzo and Villa senior Kristen Walheim were both out of action for medical reasons.

Monzo’s replacement for the Mount, junior Meg Geatens, pocketed two early field goals, and on two three-point attempts Higgins hit the first one and was fouled on the second try, netting all three free throws for a 13-8 MSJ lead at the close of the first quarter.

Higgins picked up two fouls in less the four minutes, but unlike in her previous clash with the Hurricanes, when she acquired four personals, she didn’t get into serious foul trouble later on. Villa put the Magic in the bonus early in the second period, and for the first half as a whole the Mount shot eight-for-ten at the line.

Two-and-a-half minutes before the intermission it was still a five-point game, now 17-12. Sophomore forward Regan Gallagher scored a lay-up off of a pass from junior guard Kelsey Jones, then Gallagher earned an assist of her own as she set up a baseline jumper by senior forward Cailin Schmeer. The halftime score settled in at 21-14 following a lay-up by Villa’s McTigue. A senior who has signed with Temple University’s lacrosse program, McTigue would play a major role in the second half.

The Hurricanes’ turnaround didn’t begin at the start of the third quarter; things actually got worse for Villa. After a 6-2 MSJ spurt that featured two free throws by Higgins and back-to-back buckets for sophomore guard Alex Louin, the ‘Canes called time-out.

“We told them there was a lot of time left,” related Villa’s McCartney, “and this was our time and we had to make a move. I actually said to them if we can get this to eight points for the start of the fourth quarter, this would be our game, and the kids bought into it.”

Villa’s veteran mentor wasn’t too concerned about her club’s defense.

“In the first half we gave up 21 points to a very good team, which was not that bad,” she said. “It was more of an offensive adjustment we had to make, and we felt like we could go to McTigue a little bit more.”

The sideline instruction didn’t take immediate effect. With 5:10 to go in the third round, Higgins hit a jumper from the lane that gave the Mounties the largest lead of the evening, a 13-point bulge at 29-16.

McCartney’s charges had listened, though, and concentrating on just reducing their deficit a little at a time probably helped them block out the alternating roars from the bleachers and the generally amped-up atmosphere in the arena. Villa’s star junior guard, Lisa Mirarchi, was playing with three fouls, but she started her club’s comeback with a drive to the hoop.

Next, McTigue tucked in a little baseline jumper and notched a free throw awarded on the play. Off of a feed from Higgins, Schmeer hit a lay-up to lift the Magic’s lead back into double figures (31-21) with 4:17 to go in the quarter, but that would be the Magic’s final field goal of the night. The tally was 31-25 at the three-quarter mark.

While Villa had settled down, the Magic seemed to be feeling the enormity of the situation and grew anxious. Unwise passes and attempts to drive through two or three defenders led to turnovers and wasted possessions.

“We collectively made some bad decisions towards the end, which isn’t like us,” MSJ’s Miller said. “We might have just got caught up in the emotion – we wanted to win so much.”

A time-out with 3:05 left to play found the Magic still holding a one-point edge, 33-32.

Villa’s McTigue stole the ball and gave her team its first lead of the night with a short baseline shot. At 1:39 Higgins hooped the final Mount points of the night from the foul line. The Magic actually clung to the resulting 35-34 lead for more than a minute.

In the paint, McTigue caught a lob pass from a fellow Hurricane and hit a lay-up, drawing a fifth foul from the Mount’s Geatens with 23.3 ticks remaining. McTigue made the free throw, as well, then at the other end she rebounded a missed Mount lay-up. Mount St. Joe’s eighth team foul sent the VMA senior to the line once more, where she bagged both ends of a one-and-one with 10.3 seconds to go, making it 39-35.

The Magic still had plenty of time to launch a shot but, in a microcosm of the last dozen minutes of the game, they couldn’t get one off.

Higgins finished with 16 points and Louin with seven for the Magic, who also got four apiece from Geatens and Schmeer and two each from Jones and Gallagher. McTigue’s game-high 19 points for the winners was backed up by ten from Mirarchi, six from Kellie O’Rourke, and four from Kelly Anthony.

“When you turn the ball over and they score, you can’t defend that,” Miller said. “The first two games we held Villa in the low 30’s, and we were on that pace until the fourth quarter. I’m still proud of the girls; I’m with them in victory and I’m with them in defeat.”

Victory seemed assured on Saturday once the Magic scored the first 11 points (all from Geatens and Schmeer) in their District 1 debut against Radnor. The Red Raiders would’ve have struggled against the Mounties even if they’d been at full strength, and two of their regular starters were out with injuries.

The visitors actually bridged the first and second quarters with a 7-0 spurt to trail by just four points, but were outscored by the Mount 18-8 in the remainder of the first half. Jones popped in two three-pointers and a pair of free throws, and Louin logged three lay-ups in the second quarter. Louin scored the rest of her 14 points (tying her with Schmeer for the game-high total) in the third quarter, when the Magic took complete control to carry a 49-19 lead into the fourth frame.

Geatens finished with a dozen points, nine rebounds, and three steals, and Higgins had five assists on the day. The Mount received five points from junior Adrienne Cellucci, three from senior Maddie Kohler, and two from Gallagher. Lindsay Price paced Radnor with seven points.

Talking of her team’s rebound from the AACA championship game, Higgins said “It was a tough loss, but you can’t let it bother you for too long. You have to clear your head and get back on track.”