Mount St. Joseph Academy senior Adrienne Cellucci probes for a gap in the defense. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

When top-seeded Mount St. Joseph Academy brought a 14-0 league record into the Catholic Academies semifinals last Sunday, not many people thought the Magic would have much trouble getting past number four Merion Mercy, which finished the regular season in the league at 7-7 and had to win a special play-in contest just to secure the final playoff spot.

In the afternoon outing at Philadelphia University, MSJ fans were treated to a lot more drama than they were anticipating, since Merion’s Golden Bears were still within three points of the Magic (41-38) with a little over half-a-minute to play.

Still, Mount St. Joe had enough of an edge that Merion had to foul to try and regain possession of the ball, and four-for-five free throw shooting pushed the Magic across the finish line to a 45-40 victory. The Mount climbed to an overall record of 21-2, and Merion slipped to 14-10.

Playing with three fouls for the entire second half, MSJ junior Alex Louin posted a game-high 17 points, one ahead of another 11th-grade guard, Merion’s Tina DiGiacomo. Senior forward Meg Geatens garnered a dozen points and junior forward Carly Monzo scored eight, helping propel the Mounties into this Wednesday’s championship game against Villa Maria, which won the other semifinal over third-seeded St. Basil, 44-28.

The late winter flu bug that has been making the rounds of high schools around the region had visited the Mount earlier in the week, causing the hoops team to cancel a pair of practices.

“I was not going to bring that up,” said Mount coach John Miller when asked about the effects of the ailment. “I’d like to give credit to Merion Mercy, because I thought they played very well today.”

Although Mount St. Joe hadn’t lost a regular-season league contest, there had been a few close scrapes, such as a pair of overtime wins against Villa Maria, and a one-point victory in the Magic’s second encounter with Gwynedd Mercy.

As usual, the Mount and the Villa Hurricanes were joined in the four-team league tournament by St. Basil, but the fourth entry, Merion Mercy, was an unfamiliar presence. The Golden Bears were a fixture in the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies playoffs back in the 1990’s, but fell by the wayside in the early years of the new Millennium, making their last postseason appearance in the 2002-2003 season.

After that, once-lowly St. Basil rose up to become a regular member of the tournament cast. Nazareth Academy had been a playoff team for many seasons, but not this year. The Pandas fell into the league basement, sharing the cellar with Sacred Heart as each team finished 1-13 after splitting their home/away series and losing to everyone else.

Meanwhile, Merion and Bucks County’s Villa Joseph Marie each won on the road against one another during the 2012-13 regular season, and wound up with identical 7-7 league records. With the first tiebreaker (head-to-head results) gone by the boards, the two teams met in a play-in game last Saturday afternoon. It was Merion’s Golden Bears (14-9 overall) who made the cut, coming from behind in the fourth quarter to defeat the Jems, 36-31.

At the start of the week, Mount St. Joe had wrapped up the regular season by stopping Sacred Heart, 63-22. It was on to the playoffs and – as the Mounties eventually learned – a third meeting with Merion.

In their regular season series with the Main Line ballclub, the Magic had gotten a bit of a workout on the road in mid-December, winning 54-43, but when the teams clashed again on January 23, the Mounties rolled, 53-31.

In the third encounter last Sunday, MSJ’s Louin earned mixed reviews in the first half. Shut out in the opening quarter, she came on to lead all scorers for the first half with nine second-period points, but she also acquired three personal fouls. Merion was not immune to the refs’ whistles; mainstays DiGiacomo and Christina O’Shea picked up two personals apiece, and the Golden Bears piled up 10 team fouls.

All of those Merion violations came on Mount shots, and initially the Magic punished the Bears at the free throw line. They made eight of their first 11 attempts, and the last two “makes”, launched by Louin, put the Mount up by 10 points (22-12), with 4:15 to go in the first half.

The Mounties had only led by three points at the end of the first quarter, 11-8, and after spreading the gap to double digits in the middle of the second round, they found themselves back to just a three-point edge at halftime, 23-20.

Coming off the Merion bench, sophomore guard Caroline Corzel knocked down all six of her foul shots in the last three-and-a-half minutes of the second quarter. The second of her three trips to the line came courtesy of Louin, and the MSJ star immediately took a seat with 1:54 left in the half. On the sideline, she mulled over her third personal foul while sophomore Mary Kate Ulasewicz performed in her stead.

In addition to her output at the free throw line, Merion’s Corzel scored a lay-up off a steal late in the second quarter, and her Golden Bears were very much in contention as they filed into the locker room at the break. Mount players had continued to earn appearances at the foul line in the last few minutes of the first half, but only found the net on one of their seven shots.

“We didn’t shoot fouls well today,” Coach Miller admitted. “Fatigue could’ve been a factor; I only played six girls, so four girls played all 32 minutes. We also didn’t shoot fouls well in our last [regular] season game with Sacred Heart (six-for-17). There’s not always an explanation for those types of things.”

Merion kept pace in the third quarter and Corzel continued to produce. With 5:02 left in the period she canned a three-pointer from the left wing and the Bears led for the first time since the opening minutes, 28-27. Louin had started the second half for the Mount, and she immediately bagged a jumper from just beyond the foul line.

After Merion inched ahead a few minutes later, MSJ’s Geatens scored inside off a feed from Louin, then the Bears went up one last time on a spin move by DiGiacomo. Monzo provided a spark for the Magic at exactly the right moment, netting a jumper from outside the foul line, then stealing the ball back near the top of the key at the other end and galloping down to score a breakaway bucket.

Next, it was Geatens stringing together important plays on defense and offense, getting back to block a lay-up by a fast-breaking Corzel, and turning a subsequent Mount steal into two points. In the final seconds, Louin took the ball into the lane and pulled up for a short jumper, sending the number one seeds into the fourth frame with a 37-30 lead.

Merion still would not go away, and over the first four minutes of the final period DiGiacomo and senior Julie D’Orazio led the Bears back within two points, 39-37. Monzo delivered another key bucket for the Magic, driving the baseline from right to left for a reverse lay-up.

D’Orazio hit the second of two free throws to bring Merion back within three points, but less than a minute-and-a-half remained in the game. As the clock kept clicking down, the Bears had to foul several times to put Mount St. Joe in the bonus.

Only 33 seconds were left when that occurred, and the Magic’s fortunes at the free throw line began to improve. Louin pulled both points out of a one-and-one, and on a shooting foul with 18.7 seconds showing, Geatens got both shots to drop for a 45-38 tally.

Fouled at the other end, the Bears’ DiGiacomo made two tosses with nine seconds left. Soon after that the Magic missed a one-and-one chance, but Merion had no time to do anything but heave up an errant shot just before the final buzzer.

For the winners, the output of Louin, Geatens, and Monzo was supplemented by four points apiece from senior Adrienne Cellucci and freshman Libby Tacka, who are both guards. Corzel came away with 11 points for Merion and D’Orazio finished with five.

“Today we weren’t at our best,” summed up Miller. “We’re not going to be able to beat Villa Maria playing like we played today. The girls have played very well all season, and now we just need to get back to our regular brand of basketball.”