by Tom Utescher
While some lower-ranked teams from PIAA District 1 cruised through their opening-round games in the Class AAAA state tournament last Friday, the top-seeded Mount St. Joseph Academy Magic encountered a stubborn squad from Harrisburg High School.
The Cougars (17-9) were a lowly seventh seed out of District 3 in central Pennsylvania, but with four minutes to go in the state tourney opener at Wissahickon High School, they were still just seven points behind the Mount. Down the stretch, the Magic went 10-for-14 at the free throw line to come away with a 55-44 victory, upping their overall record to 27-3.
While the Mount entered the tournament as the District 1 champion, Harrisburg squeaked in by obtaining the last of the seven bids issued to teams from District 3. In a playoff game for that final spot, the Cougars defeated Manheim Township High School on a put-back at the final buzzer.
With last Friday’s win, the Magic advanced to play nearby Cheltenham High School, which also won its first-round contest over a District 3 school, third-seeded Governor Mifflin from outside of Reading.
While the Panthers pounded Mifflin, 74-46, the Magic’s meeting with Harrisburg didn’t go as smoothly.
“They were really fast,” commented Maddie Kohler, a junior starter at guard for Mount St. Joe. “We were told to contain them on defense, but they were very quick and definitely played better than a seventh seed. It’s good that we got this out of our system now, and that we know what to expect in the tournament.”
Fouls proved to be the Cougars’ downfall, and the Mount exacted quite a penalty for those infractions by the mid-state ballclub. The Magic didn’t shoot a free throw for almost 10 minutes at the start of the game, but after that they went 30-for-36 from the liberty line.
Senior guard Mary Jo Horgan had half of the Mount’s 12 field goals in the game, including one three-pointer, and she made eight of 12 foul shots for a game-high 21 points. Her classmate, forward Steph Smith, put up 19 points and gathered a dozen rebounds.
Smith was deadly from the foul line; after scoring two field goals in the first quarter, she missed her first free throw with about five-and-a-half minutes left in the second round. She didn’t err again from the stripe, going 15-for-16 for the evening.
Kohler made one of two free throws, and fellow juniors Cailin Schmeer and Bridget Higgins had eight and six points, respectively. Duquesne University recruit Stasia King, an agile six-foot forward, paced Harrisburg with 16 points, and Ty Porter and Briana Sye stuck eight points apiece on the board for the Cougars.
Mount St. Joseph led 13-10 going into the last minute of the opening period, but a jumper from the lane by Taqiyya Burns (four points total) and two free throws by King moved Harrisburg ahead, 14-13. The Cougars were unable to extend their lead at the start of the second quarter, turning the ball over twice on travelling calls in the first 90 seconds.
Then the MSJ parade to the foul line began with Higgins hooping two tosses. Horgan made one of two free throws, then Smith sank four of five to put the Magic up 21-14 midway through the period.
Harrisburg never regained the lead, but neither did the Cougars simply fade away. King singlehandedly powered an 8-2 burst that got her club back within one point of the Mounties, but a jumper by Schmeer and two more Smith free throws made it 27-22 at the half.
At district and state tournament games, cheering sections from various schools are often assigned to certain sections of the bleachers, but the administrators for Friday’s game couldn’t seem to decide where to station the vociferous purple-clad cadre of MSJ students.
Starting out on the north side of the arena, the Mounties were moved over to one end of the south stands, and then down to the other end on the same side. Like swarming starlings, they flowed en masse from one spot to another, swirling, expanding and contracting as if guided by some innate choreography.
At the team’s halftime talk, Kohler related, “Coach Miller said just to keep up with the defense, because that was going to win the game, and that’s what happened.”
The Magic cut King’s scoring from a dozen points before the interlude to just four the rest of the way. With two-and-a-half minutes remaining in the third quarter, Mount St. Joe was still up by five points, 35-30. Then, the Mount appeared to take total control with an 8-0 run. It ended with the Cougars’ King committing her fourth personal foul with 48 seconds left in the period, and Schmeer converting the resulting free throws to make it 43-30.
Harrisburg rallied, bridging the third and fourth quarters with an 8-2 surge. The last four points came on a baseline jumper and a drive by Porter, who scored all of her eight points in the second half. The tally was now 45-38 with 4:26 to go, but while the Magic didn’t score a field goal in the fourth quarter, they kept getting to the foul line.
Horgan and Smith each deposited a pair of free throws to widen the gap to double digits once more at 49-38, and Harrisburg never got closer than eight points the rest of the way.