by Tom Utescher
After a disappointing 0-3 stretch to wrap up the District 1 Class AAAA tournament, Mount St. Joseph Academy regrouped and advanced out of the first round of the PIAA state tournament last Friday night, defeating a number-one seed in overtime at Freedom High School in Bethlehem, Pa.
The eighth-seeded team coming out of District 1, the Mount Magic nonetheless led most of the night against District 11 champion Nazareth High School, but the contest went into overtime at 37-all before the locals secured a 48-43 victory.
The junior class provided all the points for the Magic, which climbed to an overall record of 25-5 while the Blue Eagles ended their season at 20-7. Libby Tacka had 10 of her game-high 16 points in the first half and five of them in overtime, while Caitlyn Cunningham and Sarah Wills each scored 14. Coming off the bench, forward Kristen Lucas furnished the other four points for the Mounties.
Going into the District 1 tournament as the number three seed, the Magic won their first two games to attain an overall record to 24-2 and secure a spot in the state tournament. Things started to go south in the District quarterfinals two weeks ago. There, the Magic fell to 11th-seeded Downingtown East High School, and then they lost a pair of playback bracket games over the next few days, thus descending to the eighth position among the 10 District 1 teams going to States.
The Magic had a find a way to shake off the negative thoughts and emotions experienced during that three-game slide.
“We weren’t patient; we kept trying to force things in those games,” related Cunningham. “Coach [John Miller] said just forget about it and think about all the games we won. Think about beating a good team like Gwynedd to win our league, and know that we could definitely play with Nazareth.”
Regarding the Blue Eagles in particular, the junior guard said, “We watched one of their games on YouTube® and we saw they like to use a one-three-one press. We worked on that in practice and we knew how to handle it.”
Nazareth had been one of just eight schools in the entire District 11 Class AAAA tourney. The number two Blue Eagles proceeded through the quarterfinals and semifinals, then won the championship game over the top-seeded team, Easton Area High School, 42-27.
This winter, the two top-ranked teams throughout the Lehigh Valley actually belonged to the triple-A class. Within that grouping, Allentown Central Catholic lost in the district finals to Bethlehem Catholic, which had beaten Nazareth during the regular season, 59-44.
Last Friday, a relatively small group of MSJ fans made the trip to the north side of Bethlehem, while Nazareth High supporters, travelling just over five miles to the game, were more plentiful. That’s one of the benefits of a strong performance at the district level.
Mount family members and fans who’d made the trip up on their own milled around in the gym lobby, anxiously awaiting the arrival of the players themselves. The team bus had gotten tied up in traffic, and finally arrived little more than half-an-hour before the scheduled game time. Fortunately, a tight battle in an earlier game at the same venue ran longer than expected; Easton fell to the fifth seed from District 3, Mechanicsburg, 37-35.
In the second minute of the nightcap, Tacka drove the lane to get the Mount on the board first, then Nazareth started out with a backdoor lay-up from senior Taylor Unmar. The first of Wills’ three first-half three- pointers soon moved the Magic ahead, but later in the opening period the Blue Eagles drew even at 7-7.
This would be the last time the Blue Eagles would tie the Mount until the fourth quarter, and the Magic took a 10-7 advantage into the second period thanks to a trey from the right wing by Cunningham. As the second round commenced, one ‘three’ by Tacka and two by Wills were answered by just one short jumper for the designated “home” team, and the downstate side was up by 10 points at 19-9.
Nazareth got back within four, 23-19, but in the last 40 seconds a put-back by Lucas and Tacka’s second triple of the half sent the Mounties into the locker room with a 28-19 lead.
Nazareth had six seniors on its roster, but one of them, point guard Lauren Kresge, had been sidelined by illness. A lot of the ballhandling chores fell to a talented six-foot sophomore forward, Tessa Brugler.
She would record six of her nine total points in overtime, but in the third quarter it was another 10th-grader, Jessica Durnin, who rallied the Blue Eagles. After recording one field goal before halftime, Durnin scored the rest of her team-high 12 points in the third period, hitting three times from the floor and going four-for-four at the foul line.
After her first two free throws, MSJ’s Wills knocked down her fourth three-point bucket of the evening, putting the Magic back up by 10 at 31-21. Nazareth’s surge started with a steal and lay-up by senior Kassie Behler, and the Blue Eagles would add several buckets out of their transition game. The period ended the way it began, with two more Durnin free throws rounding out a 14-6 quarter, and pulling her team within one point of the leaders, 34-33.
No one scored a field goal for the first half of the fourth quarter, but the Magic’s sixth and seventh team fouls sent Brugler to the free throw line twice. She missed both attempts the first time, then on a one-and-one with 4:20 left in regulation, she netted both shots and nudged her team ahead, 35-34. It would be Nazareth’s only lead of the night.
Cunningham quickly erased the Blue Eagles’ advantage with a trey from the left corner, then with three minutes remaining junior Alexa Itsines tied it for Nazareth at 37-all. The Magic slowed things down and were fouled on the open floor several times, but the Blue Eagles finished the fourth frame with just five team fouls, and the Mount never got to the line.
The issue would be decided during a four-minute overtime session. After managing just three points over the previous eight minutes, the Mounties now scored 11 in half that time.
“We picked each other up,” said Cunningham. “We moved the ball a lot better, and that helped us get open shots.”
The 37-37 tally endured for more than a minute in OT. A Nazareth miss was rebounded by Tacka, and at the other end she fired in a three-pointer from the left flank. This would give Mount St. Joe the lead for good.
Nazareth had Brugler bag one of two free throws, then the Magic went back down and got the ball to Lucas on the right baseline. She slipped a pass inside along the boundary to set up an easy lay-up for Wills, and the Mount led 42-38 with 1:43 left. A 15-footer by the Blue Eagles’ Behler made it a two-point game once more.
Inside of a minute to go, a missed three-point attempt by Mount St. Joe was rebounded by the Blue Eagles, who promptly fumbled the ball back to the Magic. Two straight Nazareth fouls put the Mount in the bonus, and with 31 seconds left, Cunningham shot a flawless one-and-one.
At the other end, an errant outside shot by the Blue Eagles produced a long rebound that came out to just above the foul line, where Brugler grabbed the ball and drove in for a lay-up. Her team called a time-out, trailing 44-42 with 13.5 seconds left.
The Mount’s Cunningham was fouled again, and she serenely secured both points from the one-and-one with 11.4 ticks to go.
“I’m used to it; when we played Gwynedd I was in the same situation,” she explained, referencing her five-for-five effort from the stripe in the second half of the Magic’s three-point win in the Catholic Academies final. “I knew I would make my foul shots if I remained calm and focused. I just tuned everyone out.”
The Blue Eagles Brugler wasn’t done, though. From a few steps past the three-point loop on the right wing, she nailed a shot that made it a one-point affair (46-45) with 3.3 seconds showing. After a Nazareth time-out, the Magic were able to inbound the ball to Tacka, who was fouled and went to the line with exactly two seconds remaining.
After she tossed in two shots to tack the 48-45 final on the board, the Blue Eagles only got the ball a third of the way up the floor before making a final heave at the hoop that fell well short of the goal.
Following Durnin in Nazareth’s scoring column were Behler, with 11 points, Brugler, with nine, Itsines, with eight, and Unmar, with five.