Mount splits with Gwynedd, Nazareth in first week of hoops

by Tom Utescher
Posted 1/20/21

The basketball season finally got underway for Mount St. Joseph Academy last week after three scheduled games before Christmas were postponed due to the State of Pennsylvania's response to a surge in …

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Mount splits with Gwynedd, Nazareth in first week of hoops

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The basketball season finally got underway for Mount St. Joseph Academy last week after three scheduled games before Christmas were postponed due to the State of Pennsylvania's response to a surge in COVID-19 cases. Playing twice on their home court, the Magic lost to Gwynedd Mercy Academy on Wednesday, 60-52, then rebounded with a 45-22 victory over Nazareth Academy on Saturday afternoon.

The Mounties had been supposed to play their January opener at Nazareth on Monday, but Coronavirus containment measures taken by the City of Philadelphia caused that game to be postponed (Nazareth is the only member of the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies that is located within the city limits).

Mount St. Joe, which lost seven players off of last year's varsity roster, received a game-high 26 points on Wednesday from senior guard/forward Grace Niekelski, who will go on to play for Dartmouth College. Gwynedd, one of the more experienced squads in the AACA this winter, marked down 22 points for senior forward Sofia Coleman and 18 for her classmate Kaylie Griffin, the Monarchs' point guard.

Gwynedd had been able to open its season on Monday, traveling to Jenkintown to chalk up a 38-34 victory over three-time defending league champ St. Basil Academy.

On Wednesday at the Mount, the Magic's Niekelski followed her own shot to open the game's scoring, then she made a lay-up and also a free throw awarded on the play. After Lauren Hoffman drove the lane to score, fellow sophomore Georgia Pickett converted off an offensive rebound to put the Magic up 9-0 a little over three minutes into the game.

Gwynedd head coach Tom Lonergan let his Monarchs know that they needed to raise their game right away, and Kaylie Griffin (who will play for St. Joseph's University) soon penetrated to the hoop to get the visitors on the board. By the end of the first quarter, the Mount's lead had faded to just a single point, at 14-13.

After GMA's Maddie Newell and MSJ sophomore Chloe McGrorty traded field goals in the first minute of the second round, the visitors went ahead when Griffin nailed a three-pointer from near the top of the key.

Coleman added another three-point bucket, and when the younger Griffin sister - sophomore Hannah - made a successful baseline drive, Mount St. Joe called time-out. The hosts were down 23-16 with five minutes left in the first half, and they proved to be unable to slow their slide.

Coleman went on to accumulate 13 points in the second quarter and the older Griffin finished the half with a total of 15 as the Monarchs led 36-22 at the break. Niekelski had registered 10 points for the home team.

The MSJ senior made two free throws and scored off a rebound as the third period got underway. Later, both she and sophomore Kiersten Pumilia popped in three-pointers. A pair of Hoffman free throws and a fast-break basket by McGrorty also figured into the mix as the Mounties climbed back within four points of the leaders (36-40) and forced a Gwynedd time-out with two minutes remaining in the third stanza.

The Monarchs didn't let the Mount get any closer at this stage, and they took a 48-43 advantage into the fourth quarter.

Trying to tamp down the Magic's resurgence, Gwynedd had put the Mount into the foul bonus late in the third round. In the final eight minutes, though, the hosts would go to the free-throw line only twice, netting just one point.

That free throw, by Pumilia, was part of a 7-2 run for the Magic early in the fourth quarter. Niekelski and Pickett each hit a lay-up, and Pickett then stuck a short jumper from the right side to tie the game at 50-50 with 2:38 to play.

Following a time-out, the Monarchs went back into the lead for good, starting with an inside basket by Coleman and a three-pointer by Hannah Griffin. The only MSJ points after that came on a drive by Hoffman, while Gwynedd, now in the one-and-one itself, added three points from the foul line. That made it 58-52, and as the clock ran down a Magic turnover led to a bucket by Newell to lock in the final margin at eight points.

For Mount St. Joe, Niekelski's output was complemented by nine points from Pickett, six apiece from Hoffman and McGrorty, and five from Pumilia. Following the two GMA scoring leaders on the Monarchs' stat sheet were Hannah Griffin, with nine points, Bianca Coleman (Sofia's twin) with five, Newell, with four, and Jenna Mangan, with two.

Prior to arriving at the Mount on Saturday, the Nazareth Pandas had launched their season in another road game, falling 38-33 to Merion Mercy Academy.

In a game-time decision on Saturday, it was determined that Niekelski would not play for the Mount. Instead, she would rest a sore Achilles tendon that had been bothering her for a while. Along with Wednesday's starters, Hoffman, McGrorty, Pickett, and Pumilia, Feeney cast freshman forward Emily Birmingham in her first starting role for the team.

In the second minute, Pickett stole the ball near midcourt and went in to score for the game's opening points, but the Pandas quickly responded. Freshman point guard Devon Cheeseman scored on a fast break and later put in a three-pointer to lead a 9-1 run for the visitors (Birmingham scored the lone MSJ point from the foul line).

The Mount's offense restarted with a put-back by Hoffman, who then scored a transition lay-up and added a free throw. Toward the end of the opening period, McGrorty made good on a fast break, sending the Magic into the second quarter with a 10-9 edge.

The Magic hadn't shut down the Nazareth offense by reconfiguring their defense, according to second-year head coach Matt Feeney.

"We just got them to settle down," he said. "This was a great test for a very young team taking the court without our best player [Niekelski]. We had a pretty good plan going in. We just needed to calm down and execute it and once the girls did that, they did a really nice job.

"We started four sophomores and a freshman today," he continued. "There are still a lot of things that are new to them about our system, and about following it in actual game conditions."

On offense, junior forward Devon Diehl penetrated for three field goals in the second quarter. The Mount led 21-11 at the half, allowing Nazareth a lone lay-up near the end of the second frame.

In the halftime huddle, Feeney said the message was, "We just need to keep playing defense. We did a nice job of locking down, and keeping up the intensity."

Five different Mounties scored in the third frame in a 9-0 Mount surge. As in the second period, Nazareth hit a lay-up near the end to make it 30-13 at the three-quarter mark. As Mount St. Joseph got all of its players out onto the floor for significant minutes, the Nazareth offense fared a little better in the fourth round.

Still, the hosts widened the gap slightly for a 23-point victory. Cheeseman led Nazareth with eight points on the afternoon, while the Magic picked up eight points apiece from four different players: Diehl, McGrorty, Pumilia, and senior co-captain Paige Metzler. Hoffman was close behind with seven points, and the total was rounded out with two points each from Birmingham, Pickett, and guard Clare Moxey, a senior who attended Norwood Fontbonne Academy.

What was Coach Feeney's overall impression of the first week of competition?

"Not enough practice time," he responded. "I think other coaches would agree with that, since we're all in the same position. I think the little bit of sloppy play we're seeing is a direct result of that, and we'll continue to improve as our schedule becomes more consistent."

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