Senior guard Bridget Higgins (left), who would score the game-winning basket last Tuesday, goes up for a shot against Villa Maria’s Kristen Walheim. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

When the hoop squads from Catholic Academies rivals Mount St. Joseph and Villa Maria square off, you might as well put two minutes on the game clock and have the teams fight it out from there.

In the AACA championship game last winter, the Mount Magic used a buzzer-beating jumper to knock of the Hurricanes. In their next meeting, on December 13, Villa was leading with 1:50 left to play, then Mount St. Joe came back to win, 34-31.

In last Tuesday’s regular-season rematch out in Malvern, Bridget Higgins went the length of the court to score a lay-up with one second left, giving the visiting Magic a 31-30 victory. The senior guard finished with eight points, six rebounds, and two assists for the Mount, which received seven points apiece from junior Kelsey Jones and sophomore Alex Louin (two assists), and six from junior Cailin Schmeer.

Barring unforeseen upsets, this was a pivotal victory for the Magic. They climbed to 13-1 overall, but just as important, they remained unbeaten in league play, at 7-0. Villa (10-4 overall), second in the AACA standings, had been upset by St. Basil’s a week earlier, and Tuesday’s setback dropped the Hurricanes to 4-3 in the league.

VMA junior Lisa Mirarchi, a lithe guard with a very quick first step, put in a game-high 11 points, and the hosts had six points each from Kellie O’Rourke and Maddie Joyce, and five from Kelly Anthony. Mirarchi’s final field goal had given her squad a 30-29 lead in the game with 14 seconds to go.

“It was a good win – it gave us a good lead in our league and it was also important to get a win coming off of a loss,” Higgins reflected.

After a 12-0 start on the season, the Magic had lost to Spring-Ford High School three days before the trip to Villa.

“We stick together as a team, and I thought we came back hard today and everyone played well,” Higgins said. “It was good after we lost that we had a big game like this – everyone was really up for it.”

Midway through the first quarter Villa led 8-4. Schmeer then scored her second field goal for the Magic, and a lob inside to sophomore forward Carly Monzo got the visitors even at 8-all. The ‘Canes gained a 10-8 edge when Anthony converted off a rebound late in the opening frame.

Six points in the second stanza from Jones helped the visitors go up 18-12 with three minutes left in the half, but Villa chipped away at the lead and by the time the intermission arrived it was back to square one, with the combatants locked up at 20-20.

To start the second half, MSJ’s Louin lofted a jumper from beyond the foul line, but this would prove to be the only field goal of the third quarter as the defenses grew especially stingy. Jones added a free throw for the Mount, but Villa drained four shots from the stripe to enter the final eight minutes with a 24-23 advantage.

During the first half, the Mount’s player rotation and help defense prevented any individual from getting into foul trouble; at the break seven players each had one personal. Given the formidable task of guarding Mirarchi, Higgins picked up a second foul in the third quarter and was hit with two more in the first two-and-a-half minutes of the final frame.

“She’s a good player,” the MSJ guard said of her Villa rival. “I just tried to play good defense, and once I got four fouls Kelsey [Jones] did a good job on her, too.”

Up to that point the ‘Canes, usually deadly from the foul line, had shot four-for-nine in the second half.

Over the first three minutes of the fourth quarter, a driving lay-up by Villa’s O’Rourke had been matched by a short Higgins jumper from the left side. The scoring pace picked up slightly after the middle of the period. Higgins bagged two free throws and the Hurricanes answered with a drive by Mirarchi. Receiving a short baseline inbounds pass and almost getting trapped under the basket, the Magic’s Louin twisted the upper half of her body while in the air, getting enough of an angle to sink a lay-up. That nudged the Mount ahead, 29-28, with 1:53 remaining in the game.

That count stayed on the board as the clock cut into the final minute and the Magic missed the front end of a one-and-one at the free throw line. Villa brought the ball over half-court and called time-out with 36 seconds to go.

The ‘Canes passed the ball around in the set offense, winding down the clock and probing for an opening. Mirarchi had the ball just above the foul line and when she made a lateral move, MSJ’s Jones slipped and fell. The VMA junior zipped through the lane to score, and when the Mount got a time-out called, the board showed 13.3 seconds and a 30-29 Villa lead.

Higgins received the MSJ inbounds pass just a few feet from the defensive baseline and brought the ball up the left flank. When she crossed midcourt, she sensed that she had an opportunity to penetrate to the basket.

“It’s something we usually do on a fast break,” she said. “I saw that I could go all the way in.”

Off of her lay-up, the ball perched tantalizingly on the back of the rim, then fell through the net. The buzzer sounded during the ensuing turmoil, and the officials put 1.1 seconds back on the clock for a final Villa inbounds play. The Hurricanes heaved the ball to O’Rourke a few yards over midcourt, but it was impossible to get off a viable shot before the horn.