by Tom Utescher
During the tenure of Coach John Miller, now in his seventh season as basketball mentor at Mount St. Joseph Academy, the Magic had tasted defeat more than once at the hands of league hyper-rival Villa Maria, but they’d never lost on their home floor to the Malvern, Pa. ballclub.
That streak certainly appeared to be in jeopardy last Thursday evening, when the visiting Hurricanes turned a 21-14 halftime lead into an 11-point advantage late in the third period.
However, the resilient Magic ended the third quarter with a three-point field goal and started the fourth the same way, eventually sending the game into overtime at 33-all. The MSJ defense held the Hurricanes to just four points in the last quarter of regulation play and shut them out entirely in the four-minute OT, when eight made free throws helped the hosts seal a 41-33 victory.
The important Athletic Association of Catholic Academies encounter came in just the fourth game overall for the Mount (3-1) and only the second for Villa (1-1). Each team had one league win under its belt; the Mount topping Nazareth Academy and Villa downing Merion Mercy.
“We have some fresh blood filling some spots and playing, and obviously we did not play well in the first half,” Coach Miller said. “They never got frustrated when things weren’t going well – they held in there together. It’s a great win for us.”
Heralded junior guard Alex Louin got into first-half foul trouble but still produced a game-high 16 points, along with eight rebounds. When she had to take a seat following her third personal foul, it gave a rising star an opportunity to shine. Freshman guard Libby Tacka quickly made herself indispensable at both ends of the court.
She handed out two assists and scored all of her nine points during the second half and the overtime period, and on defense she took over the role of guarding premier Villa guard Lisa Mirarchi, who hit 10 of her team-high 14 points in the first half.
In the Magic’s late turnaround, Miller noted, “Everybody deserves credit because we played good help defense and we called the switches, but I think a little bit extra credit has to be given to Libby Tacka, who was a freshman guarding one of the best players in our league. For a freshman not to be intimidated guarding a very talented senior says a lot for her character.”
The fact that such a key contest appeared so early on the schedule didn’t faze the Magic.
“We’ll take the big games whenever they come,” Louin said. “It doesn’t matter to us.”
The Mount won the regular-season home/away series between the teams last year, but Villa avenged those two loses in the league championship game, and on Thursday the Hurricanes picked up where they’d left off. Slashing inside to either hit lay-ups or draw fouls, Villa never trailed as it accumulated a 21-11 advantage going into the final minute of the first half. Louin had picked up her third personal foul with 5:40 to go until the intermission, but after a spell on the bench she returned in time to make the final field goal of the half, a trey from the left wing that settled the score at 21-14 for the break.
“I think we were forcing outside shots,” the junior observed, “and defensively, we were letting them drive and we weren’t really helping each other out. That’s not how we usually play.”
Miller related “I told the team at halftime that we had to try to correct two things.”
The first was on the defensive end; the Magic’s customary goal is to keep opponents in the mid to high 30’s in total points, and Villa already had 21 at the interlude.
Secondly, the coach said, “We were just settling for outside shots and we weren’t taking the ball to the basket, and consequently in the first half we took just two free throws.”
Another standard MSJ objective is to try and make more free throws than the opposing team attempts.
One field goal each by junior forward Carly Monzo (nine rebounds, three steals) and senior guard Adrienne Cellucci (four points total, two assists) allowed the Magic to trade points with Villa early in the third period, but then a midrange jumper by Mirarchi and a lay-up by Mora Fetterolf put the Hurricanes up 29-18. MSJ’s Tacka then came to life at the end of the quarter, letting fly from the left corner for a three-pointer that brought the margin back down to single digits (29-21) for the start of the final frame.
Two more triples, by sophomore guard Mary Kate Ulasewicz (three steals, two assists) and by Louin, were combined with a drive down the lane by Monzo in an 8-2 surge early in round four, while Villa netted just a pair of free throws from Jackie Carlin. When the ‘Canes had tried to pare some time off the clock from their offensive set early in the period, Monzo came up with a steal that led to her lay-up.
VMA’s Mirarchi drove to the hoop with 3:18 remaining in regulation for a 33-29 lead, but the visitors would not score again the rest of the way. While the Magic were still taking outside shots, as they had earlier in the game, they were making these attempts more wisely, and were balancing them with dribble penetration and passes into the paint.
Ulasewicz fed the ball inside for a lay-up by Tacka, who later drove in from the right side for another score, tying the game at 33-all with 27 seconds left. After Villa turned the ball over out of bounds on its next possession, the Magic missed their final shot of regulation, so a four-minute overtime ensued.
The Magic only had three team fouls at this point and were already in the bonus themselves. In the first minute of the extra session a lone Louin free throw moved the Mount ahead for good, and a little later senior forward Meg Geatens hit a pair of foul shots.
The rest of the way Louin added three points and Tacka scored two, all from the free throw line. In all, the Mount went eight-for-12 from the charity stripe in the overtime stint.
“It kind of was us all coming together in the end,” Louin said. “Each person just picked it up at different points. We did a good job guarding their flex offense and we switched well on their screens so they had trouble running plays.”
Geatens pulled in a game-high 10 rebounds and finished with seven points and two assists. Following Mirarchi’s 14-point performance on Villa’s scoresheet were Molly Namiotka with seven points and Carlin with six.