by Tom Utescher
For Mount St. Joseph Academy basketball fans, there had been too much drama over the last week-and-a-half of the regular season: a one-point game, a scoring milestone, an overtime game, and so on.
Magic supporters had a chance to catch their breath at the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies semifinals last Saturday, when the top-seeded Magic gained a 25-16 halftime lead and then limited number four St. Basil to just eight points throughout the second half on the way to a straightforward 46-24 victory.
The Mounties advanced to this week’s championship game to take on archrival Villa Maria, the team that beat them in overtime in last Tuesday’s regular-season swansong.
“We’re really excited to be playing Villa in the finals,” said 6’1” senior Steph Smith following the Magic’s semifinal victory on Saturday evening. “We were more focused in this game because we wanted to come off that loss with a win. We held onto the ball more tonight and looked for better shots; we were forcing things the last couple of games.”
One positive for the Mount in the loss at Villa Maria had been seeing Smith pass the 1000-point mark in career scoring. The Loyola University (Md.) signee had achieved the feat just before the halftime buzzer.
“There was so much weight lifted off my shoulders once I did it,” she said. “It’s nice to have people pulling for you but the whole thing makes you nervous. Now I can just concentrate on what we want to do as a team.”
The Mount made a rocky landing at the end of their regular-season journey, losing two of their last three AACA games. The Magic still wound up with the best league record (12-2) and the top seed for the playoffs, and thus were able to avoid a semifinal meeting with the ballclubs that had recently defeated them.
Those two teams, Villa Maria and Nazareth, faced each other in the first of Saturday’s playoff games, after both teams ended the regular season with 11-3 records. Playing without senior starter Maggie Borski (concussion), Nazareth stayed with Villa most of the way before finally succumbing, 44-37.
Mount St. Joe split home/away games with Villa and Nazareth in the regular season, and the Magic beat St. Basil twice, having to come from behind to win the second time. St. Basil split with Villa, Nazareth, and Gwynedd Mercy to wind up with a 9-5 league record and the fourth seed for the playoffs.
St. Basil actually had the Mount down 9-1 in their second regular-season meeting, but last weekend an 8-4 advantage was the best the Panthers could manage before the Magic went ahead for good.
In the first half, the Panthers found that defending against the Mount was like playing a game of Whack-A-Mole; deal with one creature on the opposing offense, and another sticks up its head elsewhere. Senior Mary Jo Horgan fired the Magic’s first two field goals of the night, then junior Bridget Higgins hit a midrange jumper and a three-pointer. Next, it was over to Cailin Schmeer for a baseline bucket, and back outside for a trey by fellow junior Maddie Kohler.
Smith, who kept a low profile in the opening period with a lone free throw, rose up in round two to bag a field goal and four free throws. The Panthers’ had ended the first quarter with just a three-point deficit (15-12) thanks to nine points by senior point guard Jackie Thompson, but she was limited to five points the rest of the night. The Mount led 25-16 at halftime, when Higgins and Smith each had seven points.
It the third stanza, it was once again Horgan’s turn to punish the Panthers. She started out with a three-pointer, added two lay-ups, and then assisted on a fast break by Higgins. Near the end of the period, the Mount had a 34-23 lead and was bringing the ball across midcourt. The last seconds seemed to tick away more quickly than the Magic expected, and Horgan had to fling up a “Hail Mary Jo” shot from 10 feet beyond the top of the three-point arc.
The ball plummeted through the hoop to make it 37-23, and the rest of the game things went the Magic’s way. They defended well against Thompson’s drives for St. Basil, forcing the small guard to take lay-ups that were more like little hook shots. The Panthers hit no field goals in the final period, just a solitary free throw by Thompson with 1:31 left to play.
The fourth-quarter scoring for the Mount consisted of seven free throws (out of nine attempts) and a lay-up by freshman Regan Gallagher with 12 seconds remaining.
Horgan led all scorers with 18 points, and Higgins had 11 while Smith scored seven points and collected seven rebounds. Schmeer took care of a lot of little details at both ends of the floor and emerged with four points, six rebounds, and four assists. Three points for Kohler, two for Gallagher, and one for freshman Alex Louin rounded it out for the Mount.
Thompson scored 14 points for the Panthers, and Jill Lynch and Anyssa Flores added five points apiece.