After stealing the ball, Mount St. Joe’s Libby Tacka (left) heads up on offense against fellow junior Brigit Coleman of Gwynedd Mercy Academy. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

After stealing the ball, Mount St. Joe’s Libby Tacka (left) heads up on offense against fellow junior Brigit Coleman of Gwynedd Mercy Academy. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

It was a major Catholic Academies clash that lived up to its advance billing. Both undefeated in league play going into last Thursday’s confrontation at Mount St. Joseph Academy, the Magic and the Gwynedd Mercy Monarchs boasted a combined overall record of 20-1.

The Mount earned a seven-point lead several times, including figures of 30-23 at the half and 38-31 at the three-quarter mark, but Gwynedd kept clawing back, trailing by just two points (45-43) early in the final minute. However, the visitors’ next team foul was their tenth of the half, and Mount St. Joe sealed its victory at the free throw line. Junior Caitlyn Cunningham made two foul shots with half-a-minute left, and fellow guard Mary Kate Ulasewicz, a senior, provided the final point in a 48-43 reckoning.

Cunningham hung 15 of her game-high 19 points on the board in the first half, and her classmate Libby Tacka, a shooting guard, also reached double digits, with 13. Mount St. Joe improved to 5-0 within the AACA and 11-1 overall, its only loss coming last month against another strong District 1 Class AAAA team, Bayard Rustin High School.

With Thursday’s result, the Monarchs suffered their first loss of the season, returning home at 10-1 overall, and 4-1 within the league. They, too, had two scorers reach double figures. Junior forward Erica DeCandido scored steadily throughout the game to lead her squad with 17 points, while senior guard Emily Sullivan (13 points) kept Gwynedd going down the stretch, netting three points in the first half and then adding two in the third period and eight in the fourth quarter.

Going in, one of the defensive keys for the Mounties would be how well they covered Gwynedd’s primary outside shooting threats, Brigit Coleman, a junior veteran, and Maura Conroy, a freshman point guard out of Glenside’s Ancillae Assumpta Academy.

“We knew what terrific shooters Coleman and Conroy are, so we had to try and take away the open ‘three,’ “ Mount head coach John Miller remarked. “Initially, we were a little slow getting out on them, and you give a player like Coleman any little space, and she’s going to knock down the three.”

The GMA junior netted nine points on three treys in the first half, but did not score again after that. Conroy made some very athletic moves to launch shots, but the ball simply would not drop for her all evening.

The Magic were well-prepared for a hard-fought contest against a challenging rival. They had survived a fierce comeback by Lansdale Catholic in the finals of a holiday tournament, then had battled past Council Rock North (47-42) and league opponent Merion Mercy (60-55).

“I think our league is very balanced this year,” Miller observed. “It was no fluke that Merion Mercy gave us a good game. You just want to try to be there at the end and find a way to win the game. I think we have confidence enough to execute at the end when the game is close.”

For Thursday’s set-to, an over-capacity crowd filled the seats and lined most of the walls in the Mount’s antique gymnasium. Never the silent type, Gwynedd Mercy mentor Tom Lonergan was in full voice very quickly, as a foul was called on DeCandido just a dozen seconds into the game.

MSJ’s Cunningham was off and running five ticks later with a 10-footer from the right baseline. On the scoreboard, Gwynedd’s goose egg vanished when senior Maggie Cameron drove the lane to score two of her four points. Gwynedd’s lone lead of the contest came when Coleman hoisted a three-pointer from the top of the key, but Cunningham quickly responded with her own trey to tie the contest at 5-5.

Tacka scored directly off a steal and fellow junior Sarah Wills (six points) bagged a jumper from the left side of the lane to make it 9-5. Gwynedd never led after that, but the Monarchs never trailed by a truly significant margin, either.

“Gwynedd never went away,” Miller said. “It’s gratifying to win a basketball game when you know your opponent played very well.”

The Monarchs were back within a point, 8-9, when Coleman tossed in another trey, with a screen giving her just enough time to release the ball. Tacka targeted a triple, as well, and after DeCandido stuck a midrange shot, the quarter ended at 14-10 as Tacka pirouetted in the paint to free herself for a successful jumper at the buzzer.

The Mount junior pocketed a steal to start the second stanza, and this led to a lay-up and accompanying free throw for Cunningham. This was the fourth team foul for the visitors; both DeCandido and Conroy would pick up two in the first half and each had to sit for a spell.

After a lay-up and a little “J” from the lane, the Mount’s Cunningham capped a 10-point period with a three-pointer from the left wing that closed out the half at 30-23. Wills added a field goal, and junior reserve forward Kristen Lucas put in two lay-ups. As usual, Lucas made a number of tough hustle plays that don’t always show up in the stats, but are appreciated by coaches.

Both teams began the second half with their original five starters, and fought to an 8-8 draw in the third quarter. Over the first four minutes of the final frame, Gwynedd shaved two points to trail by five, 39-34. A Monarchs foul with 3:28 left to play put the Magic in the bonus, and Ulasewicz made both shots.

After Gwynedd sandwiched field goals by Cameron and Sullivan around a lay-up by the Mount’s Cunningham to make it 43-38, a seventh MSJ foul with 1:57 on the clock sent DeCandido to the line, where she pulled both points from the one-an-one to get Gwynedd within three of the leaders.

When the visitors’ full-court press produced a tie-up, the ball went to the Mount, who turned it over and then quickly got it back thanks to Ulasewicz.

The senior was fouled just after her steal, and she made both shots for a 45-40 tally with 1:38 showing on the board. Gwynedd missed what looked to be an easy lay-up on an inbounds play at the baseline, then Mount St. Joe whiffed on the front end of a one-and-one. The ball was tied up on the rebound of the miss, and the arrow now pointed to Gwynedd, which called time-out with 1:01 remaining.

At 49 ticks, the Monarchs’ Sullivan came up big with a three-pointer from the right corner, and suddenly it was a two-point affair. Gwynedd now had to foul, though, putting the Mount in a double bonus situation that yielded two points from the stripe by Cunningham with 30.8 seconds to play.

The Monarchs missed two shots from under the basket, but then they stymied the Magic on a baseline inbounds attempt, forcing the hosts to call a time-out with a four-point advantage and 12.5 seconds left. This time Ulasewicz got the ball in to Lucas, who passed it right back to the senior. Ulasewicz was fouled, and put the final score on the board by making the first of two shots with 9.2 seconds up in lights.

Gwynedd’s final possession was disrupted when Cunningham tipped a pass out of bounds with 4.7 seconds left. The Monarchs made one last frenzied drive toward the hoop, but even if their last shot hadn’t been well off-target, it still would’ve left them three points short.

Ulasewicz and Lucas each ended up with five points in the winning cause.

“I thought we played well, I thought we played smart, and I thought we played together on both offense and defense,” Miller summed up. “We communicated on defense when we had to switch, and we communicated on offense when we were getting double-teamed. We never panicked when they made a run at us, and I put that down to the veteran leadership we have on our team.”

UPDATE: Two days after the Gwynedd game, Mount St. Joe improved to 12-1 overall with a 69-58 win against Cheltenham High School in the Scholastic Play-By-Play Classic. Down 33-26 at halftime in the event at Philadephia University, the Magic had edged ahead by the end of the third quarter, 42-40.

A quick start by the Mounties in the fourth period widened the gap, then the Panthers had to foul in the late minutes. Eight-for-11 free throw shooting helped Tacka accumulate a game-high 21 points, while Wills piled up 18 points and seven rebounds and Cunningham scored 16 points.