by Tom Utescher
On a grand stage at the 2014 Play-by-Play Classic last Saturday, Mount St. Joseph Academy’s best performance of the season netted its most significant victory, a 39-34 defeat of defending PIAA District One and Class AAAA state champion Spring-Ford High School.
The two highly-ranked teams drew down at high noon in the event at Philadelphia University, where the Magic saw a seven-point halftime advantage dwindle to three points by the three-quarter mark (24-21). Mount St. Joe never relinquished the lead, though, getting into the foul double-bonus at the beginning of the fourth period and making 12 of its 18 free throws in those final nerve-jangling eight minutes.
The Mount’s game MVP, Villanova-bound senior guard Alex Louin, finished with 11 points, and close behind with 10 points apiece were two other backcourt players, junior Mary Kate Ulasewicz and sophomore Libby Tacka. Carly Monzo, a senior forward headed to Loyola University (Md.), scored six points, and senior forward Colleen Steinmetz and sophomore guard Caitlin Cunningham each added one free throw.
Spring-Ford’s offense was also guard-driven, with senior guard Sammy Stipa ringing up a game-high 13 points and sophomore Amy Roth right behind with an even dozen.
The Magic and the Spring-Ford Rams have a long history of match-ups in this event. Until two years ago, the Magic owned a string of close wins over their non-league rivals. In 2012, the Rams broke through to beat the Mount at the Play-by-Play, and later they ended Mount St. Joe’s season in the second round of the state tourney.
Spring-Ford topped the Mounties two times last winter, as well, first in the Classic, and then in the District 1 championship game, which Spring-Ford won, 51-30. The Rams team that went on to win the 2013 state title graduated several strong players, but the Royersford franchise still returned a talented, experienced line-up that included the Lafayette-bound Stipa.
With longtime assistant coach Mickey McDaniel moving up to the head spot, the Rams entered last Saturday’s event at 11-1, their lone loss coming against Archbishop Molloy, from Queens, N.Y. Unbeaten in the Philadelphia area, Spring-Ford was ranked at the top of numerous regional polls.
Mount St. Joe also brought an overall record of 11-1 into the Play-by-Play, but the Magic’s 35-25 league loss to a rebuilding Villa Maria squad had cost the team its number-two pre-season ranking. Even in many of its victories over the first month of the season, Mount St. Joe appeared to lack the team chemistry to fashion a truly potent blend of the considerable individual talent on hand.
Eventually, loyal followers of the Mounties saw an inkling of the level of play they could achieve when they came from behind to top previously unbeaten league rival St. Basil on Tuesday of last week, 47-39.
Trailing after an undistinguished two quarters of basketball, the Mounties heard head coach John Miller tell them “Sometimes I just scratch my head because I don’t recognize the team that’s out there.”
After that Miller related, “We came out and executed very well on both offense and defense. I told the girls to remember what this feels like and what you did in the second half, and let’s use that as a spark.”
Two days later the Magic bumped their Catholic Academies record up to 6-1 against a struggling Villa Joseph Marie team (44-19), but the clash with Spring-Ford was never far from anyone’s mind.
“We worked on things offensively and defensively just for this game,” Miller related. “That was due to the nature of our opponent, in that Spring-Ford double-teams so well. We kept our offense wide so it would be harder for them to double-team, and when they did, we tried to see it right away.
“The girls kind of looked at me when I told them to do the opposite of what I usually preach to them, which is to be patient on offense,” the Mount’s mentor continued. “I said that as soon as we get you the ball after a double-team, lots of times you’re going to be open for a shot. I wanted them to catch the ball already thinking about shooting, which you could tell Mary Kate and Libby did today.”
Tacka started off the scoring with a three-ball from the right baseline, and although Spring Ford never fell very far behind, the Magic would lead the rest of the way. Two buckets by Louin and one by Monzo figured into a 9-3 lead, but near the end of the period Stipa got going with a three-pointer to make it 9-6 at the quarter.
The standout guard from Spring-Ford has played AAU basketball with MSJ’s Monzo for quite a while.
“We were played Fencor together for a couple years, and then we both moved to the Rebels at the same time,” Monzo explained. “It’s fun to play against someone that you know.”
Monzo was not directly responsible for guarding her AAU teammate, but she and fellow forward Steinmetz had other threats to defuse down in the paint. One of them was Rams senior forward Shelby Mueller, who had spearheaded Spring-Ford’s win over the Mount at last year’s Play-by-Play.
“Shelby’s hard to stop when she’s got the ball in the paint, and Maggie Locke [a six-foot junior] is dangerous in the paint and outside,” Monzo pointed out. “We had me and Coll just kind of shuffling to make sure those two were covered at all times.”
Field goals by Tacka and Monzo and single foul shots from three different sources helped the Mount stay ahead of the Rams during the second quarter, while a three-pointer from Roth made up half of Spring-Ford’s total for the period.
With the Magic still holding a modest lead as the end of the half approached (16-12), Ulasewicz passed the ball to Tacka on the left wing, and the sophomore sharpshooter fired a “three” with 11 seconds to go, setting the score at 19-12 for the interlude.
Early in that last minute Louin picked up her third personal foul and came out of the game, but she returned for the start of the second half and didn’t commit her fourth infraction until the middle of the fourth quarter. At that stage Spring-Ford, overall, was in a lot more foul trouble than the Mount.
MSJ’s Ulasewicz hadn’t scored in the first half, but she deposited three points in the third quarter and a crucial seven points in the fourth. She’s a new starter this year, but she was the first guard to sub in for the Magic last season.
“We have three returning starters and also people used to playing a lot of the bench, so we meshed pretty easily,” the junior explained. “Today we wanted to bring our highest level of basketball and really put a full game together. This was the best competition we’ve faced, and we upped our game for it.”
Three-point buckets by Roth and junior guard Abby Beyer helped Spring-Ford carry the third quarter, 9-5, tightening the score to 24-21 for the start of the fourth quarter. In addition, Tacka took a hard tumble to the floor late in the third round and had to leave the court (she would return with her left elbow wrapped early in the fourth stanza).
However, team fouls had been gathering like storm clouds on the horizon for the Rams, and their first infraction of the fourth quarter would put Mount St. Joe in the double bonus. Through careful preparation, the Magic had been able to turn the aggressive man-to-man defense they faced to their advantage.
Monzo pointed out, “A lot of our [offensive] sets are made to run against man-to-man, and we were able to have our guards drive and shoot, or drive and kick the ball back out. We just wanted to keep some motion going to stay out of their double-teams.”
The Mounties’ determination not to remain static paid other dividends.
Miller said he told his charges, “If they rotate hard, you’ve got to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket. We remained aggressive, and that’s one of the reasons there were all those fouls against them in the second half.”
At the start of the fourth quarter, the Rams’ 10th team foul sent MSJ’s Cunningham to the line to make one of two tosses. By swinging the ball rapidly on the perimeter, or by penetrating inside and kicking out as described by Monzo, the Magic found Ulasewicz wide open on the left wing several times. Off a pass from Louin, she knocked down a three-pointer, then she stole the ball back and drew a foul, making both free throws for a 30-21 lead in the second minute of the period.
Over the next few minutes, though, the Magic only added a lone Louin free throw, while the Rams picked up a baseline jumper and two free throws from Stipa, and two more made foul shots from Locke. That made it a four-point game (31-27) with under two minutes remaining, but the Magic were able to double their lead on trips to the free throw line by Louin and Ulasewicz.
The Rams’ compact dynamo, Stipa, drove into lane twice, first putting in a conventional lay-up, and then hitting a runner to bring the gap back down to four points again with 37 seconds left. Spring-Ford called time-out, and the main topic of discussion had to be which players could still afford to foul without earning an ejection.
Freshman Sydney Wagner got the call, and sent the Magic’s Tacka to the line. Her first shot teetered on the iron and then fell in, and her second attempt was also successful. Louin missed two free throws, but she grabbed the rebound of her second shot and drew another foul, this time collecting two points for a 39-31 tally with 23 ticks to go.
With 14.7 seconds showing, the Ram’s Roth was fouled on a three-point attempt, and from the stripe she put the 39-34 final score on the board. On a tie-up the ball went back to Spring-Ford, but in the final seconds Stipa’s try for a trey missed, and Tacka blocked a second shot by Roth.
“This was a really nice win for our program,” Miller summed up. “Even the girls who didn’t play today did such a great job in practice, helping us try to simulate what Spring-Ford was going to do. I told them in the locker room that this win belongs to all 12 of them.”