Mount basketball finishes January with a 3-0 week

by Tom Utescher
Posted 2/3/21

The Mount St. Joseph Magic improved their position considerably in the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies basketball standings last week. The Mounties rang out the month of January with three …

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Mount basketball finishes January with a 3-0 week

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The Mount St. Joseph Magic improved their position considerably in the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies basketball standings last week. The Mounties rang out the month of January with three straight victories, climbing to a record of 4-2 that included home court wins over Merion Mercy (50-38) and Nazareth Academy (56-26) on Monday and Friday. In between, the Magic went on the road Wednesday and came from behind in the fourth quarter to top Villa Maria out in Malvern.

Gwynedd Mercy, which defeated the Mount 60-52 in the season opener on January 13, finished the month still undefeated at 6-0. Defending champ St. Basil was 3-1; its game against the Mount originally scheduled for January 19 had to be postponed.

Mount St. Joe's other loss had come against Villa Joseph Marie, but the Magic have played more games than the Jems, and were positioned third in

the AACA while Villa Joe was fourth with a 2-2 mark. Merion and Villa Maria headed into February tied for fifth place (both 2-5), and Nazareth (which lost its best player due to a knee injury at the start of the season) had an 0-5 record.

Sacred Heart Academy, the smallest AACA school, participates in the league in most sports, but its basketball team is playing against Bicentennial Athletic League opponents this winter.

Last Monday at the Mount, Merion Mercy arrived with a 1-4 record that included weaker performances than the Magic against common opponents. Nevertheless, it wasn’t until late in the third quarter that the hosts began to take control of the contest.

Senior co-captains Paige Metzler and Grace Niekelski led the MSJ offense with 10 points apiece. Niekelski had not played in the Mount's two previous games due to a sore Achilles tendon. She started against Merion, but spent some periods on the bench throughout the game.

The two seniors scored from beneath the basket to get the Mounties on the board, but the Golden Bears then forged ahead, 6-4, as sophomore Julia Richardson scored on a follow and also bagged a three-point field goal. Freshman Emily Birmingham got the Mount back even at 6-6, then later the Magic were down a point before sophomore Chloe McGrorty netted a “three” from the left wing to give the hosts a 12-10 edge at the end of the quarter.

There was still just a two-point gap between the teams less than 30 seconds before halftime. Sophomore Kiersten Pumilia scored twice in the last 17 seconds, first making a lay-up after recovering a loose ball, and then scoring in transition off a pass from Niekelski. At the intermission, the tally was 21-15.

Merion junior forward Lucy Curry, very conservatively listed at 5’11” on the Merion online roster, scored nine of her team-high 13 points during the second half. The Mount would never lose its halftime lead, but after Curry hit a lay-up midway through the third quarter, she stole the ball near midcourt and went in for a basket that got the Golden Bears back within three points of the Magic. The tally was now 28-25 with a minute-and-a-half remaining in the period, and Metzler responded quickly for the Mount with a transition field goal.

Birmingham struck from the right baseline to give the home team a seven-point advantage. After Niekelski capped the third quarter with a jumper that spread the score to 34-25, she also accounted for the first two baskets of the fourth period.

Starting with Metzler’s field goal late in the third round, the Magic would put together a 16-0 run that extended until the middle of the fourth quarter. The count was now 44-25. Merion made up a little ground during the final phase of the game, but did not seriously threaten the leaders.

Sophomore Georgia Pickett posted seven points in the victory, and McGrorty and Pumilia each scored six. Five points came from sophomore Lauren Hoffman, four from Birmingham, and two from senior Ilsa Maguire.

Backing up Merion’s Curry were Richardson, with 10 points, and Mary Kate Gray, with nine.

The Mount and Villa Maria have a history of hard-fought battles in a number of sports, and in Malvern last Wednesday the host Hurricanes held just a one-point edge at halftime, 20-19. Hoffman had put away two treys and scored a total of 10 points over the first two periods.

By the three-quarter mark, Villa had opened up an eight-point gap, at 31-23. The Magic's four points in the period all came from the free throw line.

The Mount's fourth quarter comeback started with defense.

"We switched defenses, applied some pressure, went into a little bit of a trap," head coach Matt Feeney explained. "Our kids had never stopped playing hard, and in the fourth quarter we showed some real toughness."

As the Mounties created turnovers, they also drew fouls from the frustrated Hurricanes. Led by a six-for-six effort at the line by Pumilia, the Magic made 13 of their 16 free throws. Niekelski, who had been held to three points on foul shots over the first three frames, came on to score nine points in the final stanza, including a three-pointer.

She totaled 12 points on the afternoon, while Hoffman registered a game-high 16 points and Pumilia added 10.

During the two early games when the Dartmouth-bound Niekelski sat out to rest her Achilles, younger teammates had to step up to pick up the scoring slack.

"It was a good growing experience for them," Feeney said.

He added that when his senior standout returned, "The girls realized that they were going to get some good shots because the other teams were going to be back focusing on Grace."

After Wednesday's dramatic and spirited road win at Villa, the Mount would face a team it had defeated handily just two weeks before. There was definitely the possibility of an emotional letdown in Friday's bout against Nazareth.

That didn't happen. The Pandas did get on the board first with a three-pointer by Timoney Lamplugh, but after that, six different Mounties contributed to a 14-0 run that pretty much put the game away. Nazareth freshman Devon Cheeseman rattled in a three-point buzzer-beater at the end of the quarter to make the score 14-6, then Mount St. Joe pulled away to a 30-11 halftime lead.

"We'd been talking about this, that we can't afford to have a letdown," Feeney commented. "We're not good enough to just show up and beat anybody. We've got to continue to play hard."

Niekelski recorded nine points in the first half, and would finish with 11. McGrorty, one of the sophomores, had five points in the book before halftime. In the first three minutes of the third quarter, she funneled in two lay-ups and a three-pointer, and went three-for-three at the foul line. She would finish with a game-high 15 points.

Later on, Nazareth scored the last four points of the period, but the Pandas were still doubled up at the three-quarter mark, 44-22.

The first bucket of the final frame was a reverse lay-up by junior forward Devon Diehl, and the Magic continued to pull away. Dylan Conroy, a six-foot sophomore who began the season on the JV roster, showed a nice touch as she hit a pair of jump shots.

Diehl came away with six points overall, as did Metzler and Pumilia. The Mount figured in two points apiece from Birmingham, Maguire, Metzler, and Pickett.

The Magic were due to start February with a rematch on the road against the league leader, Gwynedd.

Thinking back to the initial meeting, Feeney said, "We need to defend better this time - we gave up 23 points in the second quarter. They're a good team with good shooters, and if you get down by more than a few baskets it's very hard to come back against them."

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