by Tom Utescher
Last week Mount St. Joseph Academy fans learned that their favorite basketball squad would be back in the Class AAAA state tournament this year, but would not be returning to the District 1 championship game.
With Wednesday’s home court win over 12th-seeded C.B. East (18-6), number five Mount St. Joe reached the quarterfinal round of the district tournament and assured itself of a place among the nine District 1 teams that will advance to the state playoffs. On Saturday, the Magic’s bid to repeat as district champion went by the boards in a dramatic encounter at Downingtown West High School. There, the fourth-seeded Whippets scored the final nine points of the game over the last two minutes, chalking up a 42-35 victory.
While the district seeding committee had not forecast a final-four appearance for fifth-ranked Mount St. Joe, it had predicted better things for number one Cheltenham High School. However, the Panthers also lost on Saturday, and will play the Mount this week as part of a four-team bracket that will determine the fifth through eighth positions for the district in the state tournament seeding process.
After Saturday’s loss, MSJ coach John Miller commented, “Both teams played hard and we just came out on the short end. Now we’ll be playing for seeding in the state tournament, and sometimes you can’t tell by the order which is the most advantageous. Last year we had the top seed in the district and wound up with a difficult draw. We started with Harrisburg and Cheltenham, and then even if we’d beaten Boyertown we would’ve played (state runner-up) Archbishop Carroll after that. So I told the girls to keep their heads up, and that this one game doesn’t predict where we’ll be at the end.”
In terms of size, the Magic didn’t match up well last Wednesday with second-round rival C.B. East, which had three players in the 6’0” to 6’2” range. Fortunately for the Mount, East didn’t pose enough of an outside shooting threat to prevent to Magic from focusing on their interior defense. In this regard, the MSJ forwards got some welcome assistance from 5’11” sophomore guard Alex Louin, who often was able to disrupt East’s attempts to lob the ball inside in the set offense.
Early on, the Patriots were able to get down the floor and have center Lindsey Kelly score before the Magic were fully assembled on defense. She hit three lay-ups in the first period, but a baseline jumper and a three-pointer by senior guard Bridget Higgins helped the Mount take an 11-8 advantage into the second round.
Back-to-back baskets by visiting guard Courtney Webster gave East a 12-11 edge, forcing an MSJ time-out with 6:08 to go in the first half. A three-pointer by junior forward Meg Geatens and a Higgins jumper off of a pass by Louin got the Magic back on track. The only other points that East scored before the break came from the free throw line, where Kelly shot four-for-four, helping create a 20-16 count at the half.
As it turned out, the Patriots would only score one more field goal all evening. It came with 2:03 left to play on a transition lay-up by Webster, who would foul out in the final minute.
The Magic were not exactly scoring up a storm, either. Louin hit a “three” and senior forward Cailin Schmmer sank a shorter jumper in the first 72 seconds of the third quarter, but that was it for the Mount until the period ended at 25-20. With a little over four minutes remaining in the game, the hosts called time-out with the tally at 27-22. Geatens drove past a larger but slower defender to score, and a technical foul on the East bench resulted in two made free throws by Louin.
The Magic weren’t seriously threatened after that, as Louin finished with 13 points and Higgins with 10. Six from Schmeer, five from Geatens, and two from junior guard Kelsey Jones completed the winning total, while East was led by Kelly, with 13 points, and Webster, with six.
Saturday’s tilt at Downingtown lived up to expectations for a match-up of two tough defensive teams seeded one place apart. With their victory, the Whippets’ win streak was stretched to 20 games, with the only stains on their 25-2 overall record coming in December against the top two District 1 seeds, Cheltenham and Council Rock South.
After guard Brittany Sicinski scored the first two field goals on Saturday evening, her Downingtown team never trailed in the first half, although the Magic matched those first two buckets for a 4-4 tie. Sicinski, a senior who stands just under 5’10” and has committed to West Chester University, would register the game-high in both points (22) and rebounds (eight), along with three steals. After she scored all of the points that gave the Whippets a 7-6 edge at the quarter, she was held to a driving lay-up and a free throw during the second stanza, but other buckets in the paint by Kayla Feairheller and Lindsay Galczynski gave the hosts a 14-9 lead a little over four minutes in.
Downingtown West got a five-second call against the Mount on the Magic’s defensive baseline, then Feairheller hoisted a jumper from the left edge of the foul line for a seven-point advantage (16-9), the largest lead of the night until the final score reflected an identical margin.
MSJ’s Geatens converted off a rebound for her second field goal of the evening. Later, the Mounties eliminated most of their remaining deficit in the last 35 seconds of the half, when Higgins scored on a drive and Schmeer deposited a baseline jumper for a 16-15 halftime tally. Louin, who had started the Magic off with a transition lay-up, added a 15-footer and a three-pointer to lead the visitors with seven points at the break.
While Downingtown had enjoyed the lead for almost the entire first half (with just the one tie at 4-4), the last two quarters of the game featured six lead changes and three ties.
West had hit just one three-pointer before the break, but the Whippets immediately started out the third quarter with a triple by Allison Shaw. The Magic responded with regular baskets by Higgins, Louin, and Geatens, gaining their first lead of the evening, 21-19, with 4:40 left in the period. Two Louin free throws created a four-point spread, then West went up 24-23 with an effective inside-outside burst, scoring on a drive by Feairheller and then kicking the ball out for a three by Shaw next time down the floor.
In the middle of the period, both MSJ’s Higgins and West’s Devin DiFranks picked up a third personal foul, then with 1:27 left Shaw went down with an apparent ankle injury and had to leave the game.
Since only the Whippet starters tend to score in close contests, freshman replacement Maddie Dew was a relative unknown for the Mounties. She would supplement the two three-pointers of injured junior Shaw with a pair of treys of her own during the decisive fourth quarter. All this long-range offense by West took the Mount a little off-guard.
“I guess it can be dangerous to take a solid viewpoint of a team from watching one game,” admitted Miller, “but from what I saw they were not an outside shooting team. In the game I watched, I don’t think they even attempted a three, but obviously their outside shooting helped them tonight.”
The Magic netted a big three-point bucket of their own with one second left in the third round, when Higgins struck from the left side to send the Mount into the fourth quarter with a 28-26 profit. A series of steals and re-steals started off the final frame, then Galczynski charged into MSJ’s Jones, adding to West’s mounting foul problems.
A “J” by Louin made it 30-26, then for the second time since the intermission the Whippets overcame a four-point shortfall with a drive-it-in, kick-it-out series of possessions. Sicinski supplied the lay-up, and Dew drained the three-pointer to move the hosts ahead, 31-30.
The eighth and ninth team fouls by West produced one made free throw by Higgins and two by Schmeer for a 33-31 Mount lead with 4:30 left to play. Two minutes later a lob inside led to a lay-up by Sicinski, but with 2:15 on the clock the Magic answered. Higgins hit a runner along the right side of the lane to push the visitors ahead one last time, 35-33.
With 1:58 showing, Dew knocked down her second big trey for the Whippets, and after Sicinski sank two free throws at 1:21 to make it 38-35, Mount St. Joe turned the ball back over with a walk. A few minutes earlier West fans had been riding the refs about a 9-2 team-foul discrepancy working against their team, but now it favored the Whippets. The Magic had to foul for possession, and precious seconds ticked away as they boosted their team total up to seven.
Finally, Sicinski went to the line to hit both ends of a one-and-one with 36 seconds left. On an extended possession that included two offensive rebounds, the Mount missed a short jumper and two three-point attempts. After the third shot the ball was tied up and the arrow pointed West’s way with nine seconds remaining. With six ticks to go MSJ’s Higgins left the court with her fifth foul, and the Whippets’ Sicinski tacked the final score on the board with two more free throws.
Miller concluded, “Downingtown West is very well-coached and they do a good job of running their offense, and to beat a team like that we have to make a better percentage of our shots.”
Louin came away with 15 points and five rebounds and Higgins had 10 points, four assists, and four steals for the Magic, who also marked down six points and five boards for Geatens, and four points and three steals for Schmeer. Backing up Sicinski’s performance for the Whippets were Dew, Feairheller, and Shaw, with six points apiece, and Galczynski, with two points and five rebounds.