by Tom Utescher
Mount St. Joseph passed its second major Catholic Academies test of the season last Tuesday evening, getting by St. Basil Academy, 33-27, on the road.
Up 16-11 at halftime, the visiting Magic then led by nine points several times in the third quarter, but the Panthers pulled back within four points (30-26) early in the final minute of the game. In the last 34 seconds, Mount St. Joe had junior guard Libby Tacka make three of four free throws while in the foul double bonus, while St. Basil’s missed two field goal attempts and completed its scoring with a foul shot by Lindsay Joyce.
Both Tacka and classmate Sarah Wills finished with seven points and the team-high for the winners came from senior guard Mary Kate Ulasewicz, who registered eight of her nine points in the second half. Juniors Kristen Lucas (forward) and Caitlyn Cunningham (guard) rounded out the Mount’s total with six and four points respectively.
Mount St. Joseph’s record rose to 13-1 overall and 5-0 in the AACA, while St. Basil’s came away 10-5 overall and slipped to 5-2 in league competition, where its other setback came against Gwynedd Mercy Academy, 48-32.
The host Panthers were the runner-up team in the 2014 AACA tournament, and this season they’re considered one of the two top challengers to two-time defending champ Mount St. Joe, along with Gwynedd Mercy. On January 8, the Magic handed Gwynedd its first loss of the season, 48-43, then on Saturday, January 10, Mount St. Joe came from behind to claim an important PIAA Class AAAA win over Cheltenham High School.
Entering St. Basil’s quaint little gym last Tuesday, the Magic knew about the Panthers’ two primary offensive weapons. One of them, junior forward Karen Lapkiewicz, was St. Basil’s high scorer in the 2014 AACA finals. The other is a 6’2” sophomore center Natalie Kucowski, cousin of Maddi and Audrey Hinchey of Norwood Fontbonne Academy and Springside Chestnut Hill.
“We wanted to play good weak side defense because they cut back-door a lot,” explained MSJ’s Tacka. “We also knew their big girl was a decent outside shooter, so we had to stay aware of that. Basically, it was just a question of playing honest defense on her, and not stepping off.”
Lapkiewicz was limited to one field goal and two free throws in the game. Kucowski sent up the occasional three-point attempt, going one-for-five from the perimeter, but the trey she made touched off a Panthers rally in the final minutes of the game.
The young post player scored the first points of the contest from the free throw line, and Tacka quickly got the Magic on the board with a ‘three.’ Buckets by Liz Napierkowski and Lapkiewicz contributed to a 6-5 Panthers lead in the middle of the opening quarter, but then the Magic put together a 9-0 run that had them up by eight points (14-6) three minutes into the second period.
Not all was well in Mountie land, though; Tacka had picked up two personal fouls, and had to come out of the game for a stretch.
“Karen [Lapkiewicz] was going a good job posting me up, and I got myself caught behind her a couple of times,” the MSJ junior said. “I didn’t have myself in a good position to play defense without fouling.”
The Magic’s Lucas and the Panthers’ Kucowksi traded baskets to keep it an eight point game at 16-8, but over the last three minutes of the first half St. Basil’s made three of six free throws, lowering its deficit to a manageable fives point by halftime, 16-11.
Hitting a jumper and then successfully driving the lane twice, Ulasewicz helped the visitors tack two more points onto their lead over the course of the third quarter. They entered the fourth frame leading 24-17, and five-and-a-half minutes later they were up by eight, 28-20.
This is when Kucowski connected from the three-point line at the top of the key, and after a time out at 28-23 with 2:22 remaining, St. Basil’s committed its sixth, seventh, and eighth team fouls of the half. MSJ’s Cunningham got both points out of her one-and-one, but the other opportunity was fruitless for the Magic.
There was a foul by each squad just before the clock clicked under one minute; Lindsay Joyce garnered a point for the Panthers, while Mount St. Joe came up empty once again. Kucowski drove to the hoop to make it a four-point game at 30-26, and St. Basil’s called another time-out.
In the Mount huddle, Tacka revealed, “We mostly talked about protecting the ball, because we knew they were going to press us. We needed to get open and give each other options if they were trapping us.”
The Panthers’ tenth team foul yielded one point by Tacka with 33.9 on the clock. St. Basil’s missed a field goal attempt, but when an MSJ player grabbed the rebound she walked with the ball. Fouled on a drive, Joyce made the first of two shots for the Panthers, but Tacka made two from the charity stripe with 10.8 ticks to go.
The visitors were now ahead by half-a-dozen points, and the Panthers couldn’t find the hoop on their final drive of the evening.
Players don’t go into a game hoping it’s a nailbiter, but if that happens, at least there are some benefits.
“Playing close games does help,” Tacka asserted, “because when playoffs and Districts come, it’ll be good to already know how to play in tough games. We’ve been doing a pretty good job in those situations, and I think it says something about the character of our team.”