Mount St. Joseph junior Carly Monzo (center) chases down a loose-ball rebound. Also in the hunt is Cumberland Valley senior Jackie Falconer (right), who will play for the University of Pennsylvania. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

For the fifth time in last Friday night’s Class AAAA state tournament opener, Mount St. Joseph Academy trailed by eight points, but this time less than seven minutes remained in the game. Continuing to battle, the Magic conjured up a late rally that reduced their deficit to a single point with 42 seconds to go, but the only other shot they were able to launch was an off-target, 30-foot heave just before the buzzer.

On a neutral court at Cheltenham High School (just 10 minutes from the Mount), the 35-34 victory went to Cumberland Valley, a team that hails from just west of Harrisburg and which began the state tourney as the fifth-seeded squad out of District 3. Claiming their first PIAA tournament victory since 2003, the Eagles improved to 23-6 overall and advanced to meet another District 3 team, Manheim Township. On the same night, Manheim won its tournament opener against Philadelphia’s Central High School, the two-seed from District 12, 61-20).

Mount St. Joe, the second seed from Philadelphia’s District 1, ended its season with an overall mark of 26-3. That final win/loss figure for the Magic included a 16-0 sweep through both the regular season and the playoffs of the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies.

For all intents and purposes, it could be said that the Mount began and ended its season against Cumberland Valley. Attending the Eagles’ tip-off tournament in early December, the Magic opened their 2012-2013 campaign with an easy win over Philly’s Simon Gratz High in the tourney semifinals, then bowed to CV in the championship game, 55-50.

Before meeting the Eagles a second time, Mount St. Joe vanquished every opponent save one. The MSJ squad fell to Spring-Ford High School in a regular season contest in January, and lost again to the Lady Rams in the District 1 championship game on March 1.

As evidenced by the final scores of the two tilts between the Mount and Cumberland Valley, both teams upped their defensive intensity the second time around. MSJ junior guard Alex Louin, who led the Magic with 23 points back in December, needed only 11 points to take team-high honors last Friday.

There were three double-digit scorers for CV in the first clash, but in the rematch there was just one. Senior Jackie Falconer, a 6’1” forward headed for the University of Pennsylvania, scored a game-high 12 points for the Eagles in the state tourney opener.

As the Mounties waited to take they floor last Friday, they watched an earlier first-round game involving their former teammate, Regan Gallagher. An Upper Dublin High School junior who had played for the Magic in her first two years of high school, Gallagher saw her season wind up with a loss to defending state champ Archbishop Carroll, but not before she’d recorded a game-high 19 points and 11 rebounds.

The current MSJ line-up was affected by injury this winter, as senior point guard Kelsey Jones (a Philadelphia University signee) was only able to perform for a few weeks in the middle of the season before knee problems sidelined her once more.

Cumberland Valley also lost a guard to a season-ending injury in January, but she had never been a starter for the Eagles.

Coming out of District 1 as the fifth seed back in 2012, Mount St. Joseph reached the second round of the state tournament, where its season ended with a 38-31 loss to the district champ, Spring-Ford. As the second seed from District 1 this time around, how did the Magic draw such a tough opponent for its opening game? The answer lay in the traditional unpredictability of the playoffs in District 3, a 10-county patch centered around Harrisburg in south central Pa.

On hand at last Friday’s game was recently retired Cheltenham High School coach Bob Schaefer, whose teams made 11 appearances in the state final four and won two championships.

“You never know who you’re going to get coming out of District 3,” he remarked, “because those teams are always upsetting each other in their district tournament.”

That’s what happened to Cumberland Valley, which entered the regional playoffs as the third seed and emerged as number five following a two-point upset loss in the quarterfinals to Central Dauphin East, which was originally ranked sixth. CV had enjoyed a better season overall, but had lost to C.D. East twice during the regular season, as well.

In any event, the Mounties knew they were in for a battle in their state tourney debut.

In the first three-and-a-half minutes, a lay-up and a 15-foot jumper by junior forward Carly Monzo and a three-point field goal from the right corner by freshman guard Libby Tacka had the Mount ahead by two, 7-5. Three-pointers had been an important element of the MSJ offense during postseason play, but during the remainder of Friday’s tilt the only other trey the Magic netted came from an unusual source, sophomore reserve guard Mary Kate Ulasewicz. The Eagles had three different players produce a total of four three-point buckets, just enough to keep the Mount defense from really packing in around the three CV starters in the six-foot range, Falconer, junior Maddie Torresin, and freshman Kelly Jekot.

In the middle of the opening quarter, sophomore guard Taylor Sneidman tossed in the first of her two treys, moving the Eagles ahead, 8-5. At the same time CV tightened up its defense, and for a seven-and-a-half minute span extending into the second period, Mount St. Joe was limited to one field goal and one made foul shot.

Behind 15-9 at the quarter, the Magic picked up that lone free throw courtesy of senior forward Meg Geatens at the start of round two. Forward Meghan Rhoades, a 5’11” sophomore, came off the Eagles’ bench to score off of a rebound, and then she stuck one of two foul shots, giving her squad an eight-point advantage at 18-10.

In the last five minutes of the first half, the Mount’s Louin hit two turn-around jumpers and a pair of free throws, powering a 6-2 spurt for the locals that had them back within four points at halftime, 20-16.

When play resumed, both ballclubs maintained their defensive intensity during a low-scoring third quarter, which duplicated the 12-point total output of the second round. At times, both teams seemed almost too focused on the defensive aspect of the game; the contest was still up for grabs between two highly-successful ballclubs, but they each appeared tentative on offense, almost unwilling to take the initiative.

The period began and ended with transition lay-ups by the Mount. Senior guard Adrienne Cellucci (who will attend Ursinus College) started it off, and later Ulasewicz set the scoreboard at 27-21 for the start of the final round.

CV’s Jekot had collected her only points of the evening on a put-back during the third quarter. The talented freshman had turned in several 20-point-plus games in the District 3 playoffs, but here she looked nervous in the first state tourney appearance of her career. It’s not likely that future opponents will catch such a break.

Jackie Falconer’s younger and smaller sister, Jen (a 5’6” sophomore guard), kicked off the final frame with a driving lay-up, and for the fifth time the Eagles were up by eight, now at 29-21. Once again, the Mounties stayed alive by keeping the gap from reaching double digits. After they whiffed on a pair of free throws, an inbounds play delivered the ball to Ulasewicz, who bagged a three-pointer from the right wing.

CV’s Jackie Falconer responded with a lay-up (with 6:27 to go, it was her team’s final field goal of the evening), then a high-flying put-back by Louin and a lay-up by Monzo made it 31-28 with a little over five minutes left on the clock.

The Magic then fouled Jackie Falconer twice, and the Eagles’ lone senior went four-for-four at the stripe, first on a two-shot foul, and then on a one-and-one as CV got into the bonus with 3:50 left. The Eagles would not score again, while the Mount soon pulled back within three points of the leaders thanks to successful drives down the lane by Geatens and Monzo.

After the score closed up to 35-32 with 2:43 showing, both teams visibly grew anxious. CV missed a lay-up, and Mount St. Joe committed an offensive foul. The Eagles were nailed with a five-second call on the sideline, and on the Magic’s subsequent inbounds play they committed a back-court violation.

Called for a carry while handling the ball, the Eagles got it back with a steal by Jackie Falconer. However, when she was fouled she missed the first shot of the resulting one-and-one, now with 1:05 remaining. MSJ’s Louin hit a mid-range jumper from the left with 42 ticks to go, and the final score of 35-34 was up in lights.

The Mounties engineered another five-second call against CV on a restart. Once they went into their offensive set and sized up the Eagles’ defense, the Magic called time-out with 18.5 seconds left. Their inbounds play went awry and led to a scramble for the ball near the sideline around midcourt. CV’s Torresin saved it from going out of bounds, dribbled down towards the basket, and then travelled with the ball.

There was another time-out, but when the Magic came back out they would have to go 94 feet in 3.3 seconds. They ended up thrusting the ball into the air from way above the top of the key, and it bounced harmlessly off the top of the backboard.

In the final reckoning, MSJ’s Louin had seven rebounds and four assists to go along with her 11 points, while Monzo scored eight points and Geatens and Ulasewicz had five apiece. Tacka and Cellucci finished with three and five points, respectively.

Jackie Falconer’s 12 points paced the victors, along with seven from Torresin and six from Sneidman. The Eagles’ total was fleshed out by five points from Jen Falconer, three from Rhoades, and two from Jekot.