by Tom Utescher
After notching two relatively routine league victories in the middle of last week, Mount St. Joseph Academy engaged in a contest with PIAA playoff implications on Saturday afternoon.
At the annual Scholastic Play-by-Play Classic at Philadelphia University, the Magic just couldn’t get running on all cylinders, falling to defending District 1 Quad-A champion Spring-Ford High School, 39-32, for just their second loss of the season.
Both teams suffered an early defeat in the 2012-2013 campaign, but have been very successful since.
After a setback against Cumberland Valley in their second outing, the Magic (12-2) put together 11 straight victories leading up to last weekend’s appearance at Philly U. Following an opening-day loss to the Academy of Notre Dame at another high school showcase, the only stumble for Spring-Ford (11-2) occurred against St. Anthony’s High School, from Long Island. The Lady Rams also honed their game during a holiday trip to a Florida tournament, where they went 3-0.
Going into the Play-by-Play event, each team was 7-0 in league play, Spring-Ford in the Pioneer Athletic Conference, and Mount St. Joe in the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies.
Facing a team with one clear standout on the roster, the approach adopted by most ballclubs is to not let that player completely take over the game, while clamping down defensively on all of her teammates. Spring-Ford achieved that goal last Saturday, when highly recruited MSJ junior guard Alex Louin rang up 18 points, but none of the other Mounties managed more than three points in the game.
The Magic looked a little frazzled at times, and could’ve benefitted from the depth and the court savvy that injured senior Kelsey Jones provided until recently. The seasoned point guard, who signed with Philadelphia University in November, suffered a season-ending knee injury late last month.
Rams junior Shelby Mueller, a solidly built 5’10” forward with a quick first step and a soft touch, produced a game-high (and career-high) 20 points, and 6’1” senior Sarah Payonk also made use of the Rams’ height advantage by depositing another 11. It was the 300th career victory for coach Jeff Rinehimer, who is in his 19th season at Spring-Ford.
Mount St. Joe, who knocked off Villa Joseph Marie on Tuesday (41-27) and dispatched Sacred Heart two days later (52-26), held an early 3-2 edge against Spring-Ford thanks to a Louin free throw and midrange jumper from senior Adrienne Cellucci. That’s when Mueller started to heat up, and she remained at a boil for much of the contest.
The Rams power forward is one of those coveted players who is an almost automatic scorer when she receives the ball at her sweet spot in the paint. The only way the Magic were able to stop her was to foul her, and she made them pay by shooting 12 for 18 from the free throw line.
After a lay-up, two free throws, and a transition bucket by Mueller, the Mount called time-out, down 8-3 with 4:38 left in the opening quarter. The Magic made several runs after that, but the Rams never relinquished the lead. Ahead 20-15 at the intermission, Spring-Ford stretched the lead to seven as the third quarter got underway.
Then, in the space of two minutes, MSJ’s Louin netted a three-point field goal, two shorter jumpers, and a pair of free throws, singlehandedly powering a 9-5 spurt that got the Magic within three points of the leaders, 27-24. Spring-Ford came up with timely baskets throughout the game, and here Payonk contributed a lay-up in the middle of the period to help stop the Rams’ slide.
Freshman Libby Tacka gave the Magic a three-pointer later in the third round, but at the foul line the Rams’ Mueller went four-for-four, while the Mount only converted on two of their four tosses. Still, at the end of the quarter the Magic were one point closer than they’d been at halftime, now trailing 33-29.
Louin hooped one of two free throws to open the scoring in the fourth frame, then Spring-Ford sophomore Maggie Locke, who had not scored in the game, canned an important three-pointer. MSJ junior Carly Monzo (three points total) deposited a lay-up to bring the lead back down to four points (36-32) with 4:23 on the clock, but that was it for the Magic. Two final free throws by Mueller and one by Payonk rounded out the tally in a low-scoring final period.
If the Mounties needed a wake-up call, this wasn’t a bad time for one. After a home-court AACA clash with Nazareth Academy this Tuesday, Mount St. Joe heads out to Malvern on Thursday for a visit with the second-place team in the league, Villa Maria. At the Mount back in mid-December, the Magic came from behind to defeat Villa in overtime, 41-33.