In Mount St. Joe’s first District 1 playback game last Wednesday, senior guard Mary Kate Ulasewicz (center) finds herself sandwiched between Upper Dublin forwards Demi Balasa (left) and Julie Cross. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

In Mount St. Joe’s first District 1 playback game last Wednesday, senior guard Mary Kate Ulasewicz (center) finds herself sandwiched between Upper Dublin forwards Demi Balasa (left) and Julie Cross. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

This year, Mount St. Joseph Academy played more home games in the PIAA District 1 tournament than the team ever had before, but that did not translate to a successful outcome for the Magic, who began as the third seed in Class AAAA.

They actually would’ve made fewer appearances on their own court if they’d pulled out a win in last Monday’s quarterfinal game and progressed to the semifinal round at a neutral site, but instead the Mounties’ fourth-quarter rally fell short, and they lost to 11th-seeded Downingtown East High School, 52-47.

That dropped the Mount out of the main draw and into the playback bracket for places five through eight, and as the highest seed among those four ballclubs, the Magic would host two more games.

They faced two other public high school teams that, like Downingtown, were accustomed to playing in much larger, more modern facilities. Both opponents made themselves right at home in the Mount’s “vintage” gym, as the locals fell first to number seven Upper Dublin on Wednesday evening, 38-30, and then to eighth-seeded North Penn, 51-38, on Saturday afternoon.

The net result was that out of the 10 District 1 teams advancing to the PIAA state tournament, the Mounties were seeded eighth, now with an overall record of 24-5. They start ‘States’ this Friday against Nazareth High School. A senior-driven team with a 20-6 record, the Blue Eagles are the champions from District 11 up in the Lehigh Valley.

Looking back on a very rocky week, veteran Mount head coach John Miller said, “I just didn’t recognize us; we didn’t look like Mount St. Joseph’s. We earned the third seed for Districts and got to play at home, but we clearly didn’t take care of our own court. We not only lost three in a row, which we have not done in nine years, but we lost in our gym.”

The Magic’s five-game homestand in the District 1 tourney began well enough with a 45-31 win over the 30th seed, Methacton High. In a second-round bout against 19th-seeded Radnor High School on February 18, Mount St. Joseph fell behind 8-0, but was able to come back for a comfortable 20-point victory.

There was another slow start by the Magic last Monday’s in quarterfinal contest, and this time the Mounties got a lot further behind against a significantly better team.

After 11th-seeded Downingtown East went up 27-8 a little under 14 minutes into the game, Mount St. Joe came all the way back to within one point of the leaders, down 48-47 with 18 seconds to go. The Magic never got over the hump, though, as their ninth and 10th team fouls resulted in four made free throws for the Cougars, who prevailed 52-47.

Downingtown’s go-to player for almost everything, six-foot junior guard Paige Warfel, put up a game-high 25 points, scoring the first 10 during the Cougars’ early outburst, and the last 10 during the final four-and-a-half minutes of the game. A smaller guard, senior Kaelyn Johns, made a pair of three-pointers and reached double figures with 10 points.

MSJ junior guard Caitlyn Cunningham spearheaded the Magic’s rally in the second half, depositing 13 of her team-high 18 points after the intermission. Next in the scoring column were junior forward Sarah Wills, with eight points, and senior forward Emily Carpenter, with seven points.

Although Warfel is the focus of all defenses opposing Downingtown East, she did not score at the Mount until midway through the first quarter. By that time, three-pointers by Johns and Aryah Aungst and two free throws by Lindsay Kent had the Cougars out to an 8-2 lead, with a 15-footer by Carpenter represented on the home side of the scoreboard.

The visitors had good overall size, with four other players besides Warfel listed at 5’10” or taller. Their true guards did not handle the ball particularly well, looking to pass it to Warfel as quickly as possible in the offensive transition. Down the stretch, she carried her team to victory through force of will; she was clearly tired, but some of the Mounties looked gassed, as well.

Falling behind 11-2 over the first six minutes, the Magic looked to establish a little offensive traction with a jumper and foul shot by Cunningham, but the visitors got an ‘and-one’ of their own from Warfel, and led 14-5 at the quarter.

After Downingtown chalked up three more field goals in the second period to make it 20-5, the MSJ crowd was once again hoping for a turning point when junior Kristen Lucas, a reserve forward, put in the rebound of her own miss and was fouled. She knocked down the free throw, too, but the momentary gain for the hosts quickly vanished as the Cougars’ Johns jacked up her second “three’ of the evening.

Warfel scored in transition, then the Magic committed their seventh team foul (on a field goal attempt) with 2:19 to go in the first half, and Johns hit both shots from the stripe to make it 27-8. Finally, the Magic made some genuine progress during the final two minutes of the half. Cunningham popped in a short jumper from the lane, then Wills lobbed in a long three from a few feet above the top of the key.

Downingtown’s Warfel completed a 12-point first half with a flawless one-and-one, but the Magic came back with another extra-long ‘three’, this one targeted by junior Libby Tacka and producing a 29-16 halftime tally.

The Mount’s second half got off to a promising start, beginning with a 15-footer by Carpenter from the right elbow. The Cougars countered with a baseline shot, but then two field goals by the Mount’s Cunningham were sandwiched around a pair of free throws by the Magic’s senior point guard, Mary Kate Ulasewicz. It was now just a seven-point affair, at 31-24 with more than five minutes remaining in the third quarter.

Here is where the Magic were going to take over the game – but they didn’t. The Cougars absorbed this 8-2 blow and came back later in the third round to finish with a 40-27 advantage. There had been a zero net gain for Mount St. Joe during the period.

Finally, in the fourth quarter, the Magic were able to gain ground and hold it. Over the first five minutes, an 11-2 MSJ surge started with a steal and fast-break lay-up by Cunningham, and ended in the same manner thanks to Ulasewicz. That made it a four-point game, at 42-38.

The Cougars got three back on a drive and free throw by Warfel, but Cunningham countered with a ‘three’ from the left wing and then Wills grabbed a rebound in the middle of the lane and put the ball back up and in. The visitors called time-out with 54 seconds left, clinging to a 45-43 advantage, but they added two more points when Warfel aced a one-and-one after being fouled on a rebound.

Cunningham scored a field goal off a rebound, but the Mount had to foul again. This time, a tired Warfel missed the second of two shots, making it a three-point margin with half-a-minute remaining. The Magic missed on a drive at the other end, but Lucas gathered the rebound, drew a foul, and hit both ends of a one-and-one, setting the score at 48-47 with exactly 18 seconds left on the clock.

Just after that Downingtown’s Johns swished one free throw and bounced in her second, and with seven seconds left the Mount missed a pair of foul shots at the other end. The Cougars were now in the double bonus, and Warfel gave them their last two points from the foul line.

Mount St. Joseph’s first opponent in the playback bracket, Upper Dublin, was coming off a 55-40 quarterfinal loss to the highest-seeded team left in the main draw, number two Central Bucks West. This was actually a respectable outcome – the Bucks would bury Downingtown East by 25 points in their semifinal clash.

The Cardinals arrived at the Mount with a better-balanced offense than Downingtown, and fortunately for MSJ fans, the Magic did not dig themselves an immense hole as they’d done two nights earlier.

They did fall behind 11-6 in the opening period, but after that they held the line in the second and third quarters, which each ended in a 7-7 standoff. The Cardinals (21-6 overall) kept the MSJ defense guessing by having five different players strike from the three-point loop over the course of the game. They even got one from 6’2” senior Julie Cross, who will follow her two older sisters to the lacrosse program at Syracuse.

Cross led all scorers at the half with seven points, and junior shooting guard Allison Chernow had five for the visitors, who led 18-13. Cunningham, who canned two treys of her own, had six points at the break for the Magic, who also marked down a ‘three’ for Wills and two regular field goals for Ulasewicz.

After the Cardinals bumped the lead up to seven points early in the third round (21-14), the Mount’s Lucas hit a lay-up and later knocked down a pair of free throws for a 21-18 tally. UD sophomore Demi Balasa popped in a three-pointer from the left corner, then Ulaswwicz drove the lane to score for the Magic.

A Cross free throw had the Cardinals ahead 25-20 for the start of the fourth quarter, but that lead disappeared in just 53 seconds. Ulasewicz fed the ball ahead to Tacka for a transition lay-up, then Tacka, in turn, set up a bucket by Wills. Fouled on the shot, Wills deposited the free throw to level the scoreboard at 25-all.

The Upper Dublin shooters then buckled down and churned out a decisive burst of offense. Cross canned a shot from the right baseline, and Chernow struck from opposite sides of the court for back-to-back three-pointers. Over in the left corner, Josie Barrett also hooked up from the arc, sending the Cardinals into the final two minutes with a 36-25 bulge.

A seventh team foul by Upper Dublin gave the Magic a chance to halt their slide, but they got nothing from the one-and-one. Instead, the Cardinals now got into the bonus, and Chernow netted both points to make it 38-25 with one minute and 14 seconds to play.

After this, the visitors missed the first shot of two more one-and-one’s, but the Mount couldn’t score, either. Finally, Cunningham drilled a triple from out on the right wing, but now only 21 ticks remained. At the end a field goal by Ulasewicz stamped the final score in the book.

The Cardinal defense didn’t allow any MSJ players to reach double figures, as Cunningham came away with nine points, and Wills with six. Chernow fired four three-pointers and scored a game-high 16 points, and Cross contributed 10.

The next arrival at the Mount was North Penn (20-8), which finished second to eventual District champ C.B. West in the Continental Conference of the Suburban One League.

The Maidens’ veteran mentor, Maggie deMarteleire, is the mother of former Chestnut Hill College women’s basketball coach Jackie deMarteleire, who was in attendance.

The Central Bucks West squad also has some area connections through its coaching staff. Heading the program is former Germantown Academy assistant Terry Rakowsky, and one of his assistants is Claire Perry, a 1000-point scorer at Mount St. Joe’s (’03) who went on to captain the team at Cornell University.

After Rakowsky’s club bounced out Downingtown East in the District 1 semifinals, the Cougars rebounded to secure the District’s third seed by beating 2014 state runner-up Spring-Ford High School, 48-31. C.B. West went on to defeat Abington High School in the championship game of the District 1 tourney, which some Bucks fans have called “The Munger Games” after senior guard Nicole Munger, a University of Michigan signee.

Last Saturday at the Mount, the Magic knew they needed to contain North Penn shooting guard Sam Carangi, but by halftime she had 10 points in the book and her team led, 24-20. Before then, the lead changed hands several times. Wills opened the game’s scoring with a midrange jumper, the Maidens inched ahead, then a Tacka free throw gave the hosts a 5-4 edge. North Penn was in front 11-7 at the quarter, but the second stanza opened with consecutive three-pointers by Ulasewicz and Tacka and a Lucas lay-up off a steal.

In the middle of the period, the game was tied at 15-all and then 17-17 before the visitors went ahead for good, stringing together a pair of lay-ups with Carangi’s second three-pointer of the half. Mount St. Joe finished up on a better note, as Wills flung in a long ‘three’ of her own from the left wing, getting the home team back within four at the intermission.

Tacka had paced the Magic with six points over the first two periods, while Carangi’s output for North Penn was almost matched by guard Jess Huber, who had eight points at the break.

Different offensive threats emerged for the Maidens in the second half. As if putting halftime instructions into action as soon as play resumed, guard Irisa Ye went hard to the hoop and scored, en route to netting all eight of her points for the day in the last two quarters. On the inside, forward Mikaela Guiliani rose up as a scoring and rebounding force, going from a total of four points in the first half to a dozen in the second.

Mount St. Joe scavenged the last four points of the third quarter, but up to that point, the Magic had been outscored 13-2 in the period.

“We didn’t handle adversity well,” MSJ’s Miller admitted. “North Penn played very physically and we had a hard time executing, and when we did have open shots, we weren’t making them. We became frustrated and discouraged.”

The visitors’ Guiliani, who tabbed eight points in the final frame, began the fourth quarter with back-to-back lay-ups that put her team up 41-26, and from there on North Penn could just operate in maintenance mode. Carangi, with a game-high 17 points for the winners, was closely followed by Guiliani, with 16. MSJ’s Tacka and Wills scored 10 apiece.

Without the number of Division I recruits they’ve had in many past seasons, the Magic were able to be successful for much of the winter campaign by playing intense, team-oriented basketball.

“I don’t know why we forgot that we have to play hard and play smart,” Miller mused.

He would give his charges a few days off, until practice on Tuesday.

He related, “I told the girls, let’s see if we can come back and get focused for the fourth part of our season, which is the state tournament.”