Mount St. Joe sophomore Julie Hoover (right) sends a pass by Abby Ward of Lansdale Catholic. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Mount St. Joe sophomore Julie Hoover (right) sends a pass by Abby Ward of Lansdale Catholic. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Mount St. Joseph Academy saw out the old basketball year in its usual fashion, extending its long string of championships at the George W. Snear Tournament in the cozy confines of the Fellowship House in Conshohocken.

Rolling over Agnes Irwin School, 70-31, in a semifinal contest on Monday, December 29, the Magic then fought off a spirited second-half rally by Lansdale Catholic to take Tuesday’s final, 48-34. Near the end of the first half, Mount St. Joe led by almost 30 points, but the Crusaders narrowed the gap to 10 points several times in the fourth quarter before the Magic sealed the victory.

Junior guard Libby Tacka scored 15 of her game-high 17 points in the first half, and her companion in the back court, senior Mary Kate Ulasewicz, put up 14. The Magic claimed their ninth straight title at the event, which grew out of the old Catholic War Vets Tournament that was held at the now-defunct Kennedy-Kenrick High School.

One of the other schools in the 2014 Snear tournament, Pope John Paul II High School of Royersford, Pa., was the product of the 2010 merger of Kennedy-Kenrick with Pius X High School in Pottstown. Pope John Paul became the victim of a 19-11 fourth-quarter rally by Lansdale Catholic in their semifinal meeting on Monday, losing 48-45. The following evening, PJP defeated Agnes Irwin, 64-46, in the tournament’s consolation game.

The Mounties’ tournament triumph carried them into 2015 with an overall record of 8-1. Their only loss was a five-point setback on the road against Bayard Rustin High School, a team the Mount had defeated in the third-place game of the 2014 District 1 tournament.

Mount St. Joe graduated three starters off of last year’s squad, two of whom are now on NCAA Division I teams. Many predicted a “down” year for the Magic this season, but the players themselves were believers.

“We played together in the off-season and we were together for workouts,” related Ulasewicz, one of two current senior starters along with forward Emily Carpenter. “We knew we were a good team and we didn’t pay attention to what anyone else said.”

“The team’s been playing well,” continued the 5’5” Ulasewicz, a sprightly, intense competitor who will attend the U.S. Naval Academy Preparatory School. “We’ve had a few games where we got tested, games where we had to come back. We got tested really well against Lansdale Catholic tonight. We have some big games coming up against Gwynedd [an important early Catholic Academies clash] and against Bonner-Prendergast, and I think we’re feeling confident going into those games.”

The Magic weren’t pushed hard in their Snear Tournament opener, building a 45-19 halftime lead over the Irwin Owls and then cruising home. Tacka led the scoring with 20 points, while junior classmate Caitlyn Cunningham, another guard, recorded 17 points and eight steals. Ulasewicz had 11 points and nine assists, and junior forwards Sarah Wills and Kristen Lucas added eight points apiece.

The following night, Lansdale Catholic came in against the Mount with an overall record of 5-3. Early on this season, an injury deprived the Crusaders of their marquee player, Taylor Herd, a junior guard who was one of the top scorers in the Philadelphia Catholic League a year ago. The team had responded well, registering an encouraging win over aforementioned Bonner/Prendie along the way.

However, the first half of Tuesday’s Snear final was anything but uplifting for LC fans. With three early lay-ups, Ulasewicz was one of four Mounties who scored in the first quarter, which ended with a baseline buzzer-beater by Carpenter that spread the score to 15-2.

Kim Talley, a junior forward who had fired in 16 points to lead Lansdale past Pope John Paul, scored the first basket in the championship game, but her ballclub wouldn’t manage another field goal until there were just 28 seconds to go in the first half. Even with that late three-pointer by senior Sammi Winslow, the Crusaders were looking at a 32-6 shortfall in the halftime huddle.

Tacka had thrown in one three-pointer along with shorter jumpers and lay-ups, while shooting four-for-four at the foul line, and Ulasewicz totaled eight points in the half. Wills chimed in with a “three,” and Carpenter, Cunningham, and Lucas each furnished a field goal.

LC’s Talley launched the third quarter with a steal and a lay-up, then converted off an offensive rebound later in the first minute. Quickly, a 15-footer by Cunningham and two Carpenter free throws got the Magic’s lead back to its halftime level, making the score 36-10 with 6:32 left in the third round.

From there, though, the Crusaders constructed a 16-0 run that extended into the fourth period, with the scoreboard pausing at 36-20 at the three-quarter mark. Scoring all seven of her points for the evening during this streak was LC senior guard Erin Brokans. Brokans’ older sister, Michelle, played on the famed Fencor AAU ‘89’s team along with Elena Della Donne (Delaware/WNBA) and Caroline Doty (Germantown Academy/UConn), then played college ball at University of Maryland, Baltimore County.

MSJ’s Ulasewicz freely credited the Crusaders for their gritty rally.

“They just played very aggressive defense, and it took a little while for us to respond,” she explained. “In the huddle, we just said ‘We can do this, just one score at a time and one defensive stop at a time and we’ll pull it out.’ ”

She never doubted her team’s ability to respond to the challenge, stating “We don’t freak out; if we make a turnover we just try to get over it and play good defense the next time.”

With 4:50 remaining in the game, one of the Crusaders came up empty on a pair of free throws that could’ve made it an eight-point contest at 36-28. Instead, Tacka was soon fouled at the other end and made both of her freebies, then Ulasewicz fed the ball to Lucas for a lay-up that levered the lead back to 14 points.

Lansdale’s Talley hit a short baseline shot and then made two foul shots (as her team got into the double bonus), paring the lead down to 10 points again, with 2:26 now on the clock. In transition, the Magic’s Ulasewicz drove the lane for a lay-up, then got to the line for a flawless one-and-one.

Crusaders junior Abby Ward and talented freshman guard Lauren Crim got LC to the brink of single figures one last time at 44-34, but now there was only a minute to go, and a fast-break score by Wills and a Ulasewicz jumper finished out the win for Mount St. Joe. Wills wound up with five points, and the Mount got four points apiece from Carpenter, Cunningham, and Lucas.

Tacka was named the tournament MVP, and a sportsmanship award was presented to Lansdale’s Talley, who finished with a team-high 10 points.