On this rebounding opportunity following a missed Mount St. Joe shot, the ball got away from both the Magic’s Kristen Lucas (right) and Palmyra’s Molly Gunderman. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

On this rebounding opportunity following a missed Mount St. Joe shot, the ball got away from both the Magic’s Kristen Lucas (right) and Palmyra’s Molly Gunderman. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Recovering from a five-point shortfall early in its second-round game in the PIAA state tournament, Mount St. Joseph had pulled even with the Palmyra High School Cougars, 16-16, by the end of the first quarter.

When their rivals pulled away again in the second period, the Magic could not come back, and Palmyra, the second seed out of District 3 in central Pennsylvania, kept widening the gap until the scoreboard came to rest at 57-38.

MSJ junior shooting guard Libby Tacka posted 13 of her team-high 16 points in the first half. The Magic’s scoring dropped off sharply from there, with senior point guard Mary Kate Ulasewicz next on the list with six points, while classmate Caitlyn Cunningham, also a guard, scored five. Sophomore Julie Hoover finished with four points, junior Sarah Wills had three, and senior Emily Carpenter and junior Kristen Lucas scored two points apiece.

The Cougars were led by three players scoring in double figures. Senior guard Katy McClellan divided her game-high 18 points evenly between the first and second halves, while two forwards, senior Kristen Smoluk and junior Molly Gunderman, furnished 14 and 12 points, respectively.

It was the end of the line for Mount St. Joseph’s two seniors, Ulasewicz and Carpenter. Ulasewicz, the Association of Catholic Academies MVP, will attend the U.S. Naval Academy Preparatory School in Newport, R.I., and plans to continue her basketball career. Carpenter, an MSJ starter at forward this season, is still in the process of picking a college.

Throughout the season Palmyra has had four different players average around 10 points per game. Their guards are relatively tall, and can rebound, and while their forwards lack dominating stature, they’re quick and can shoot from the perimeter.

The game-high scorer for Palmyra on Tuesday, McClellan, is headed for Smith College, a “Seven Sisters” school in Massachusetts. Her classmate Smoluk, who broke the 1000-point barrier in career scoring last month, will play Division III ball at Messiah College, just west of Harrisburg, Pa.

A third senior, Maria Tukis, scored 19 points to lead the Cougars past District 1 number-four Garnet Valley in the first round of States, but was held to five points against MSJ. An accomplished cross country and track runner, as well, Tukis will likely forgo intercollegiate athletics to pursue her academic interests at Penn State.

“I knew that we had a challenge in front of us,” stated Mount St. Joe coach John Miller, wrapping up his ninth season with the Magic. “They only lost to Cumberland Valley [the defending state champ] by one point, and most people think Cumberland Valley will be in the state championship game again.

“Their coach told me before the game that basketball is the main sport for only one of their starters,” the Mount mentor continued. “One is a great volleyball player, one is a great field hockey player, and so on. They were athletic, and they were strong.”

Palmyra will have Gunderman back next year, but the Cougars obviously wanted to get as far as possible this season with their strong senior class. Three days after knocking out the Mount, Palmyra reached the semifinal round by dispatching the District 12 champion, Cardinal O’Hara, 54-42.

For 2015-16, Mount St. Joseph will be able to build around this year’s talented juniors, starters Cunningham, Tacka, and Wills, and reserve forward Lucas, who saw a lot of playing time this winter. The Magic had quite a successful season overall, especially in light of the fact that graduation losses from the previous year included two current NCAA Division I players, along with a third senior starter. One of them, Villanova guard Alex Louin, was recently named to the Big East Conference All-Freshman Team.

Without the stars of yesteryear, the current contingent of Mounties displayed their usual intense defense and played a very team-oriented brand of basketball overall, and this allowed them to duplicate many of the achievements of the 2013-14 squad.

As they did a year ago, the Magic won both the regular season and the championship tournament within the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies, and ultimately ended their season in the second round of the PIAA tournament. The overall records between the two teams were pretty close, 27-4 a year ago, and 25-6 this time around.

“If you’d said at the beginning of the season that we would win 25 games, a lot of people would’ve raised their eyebrows,” Miller said. “The girls head people talk about the players who graduated and how expectations weren’t high for us. I think that they played with sort of a chip on their shoulder – a good chip – to show people that they were wrong.”

Where this year’s group came up short of their forebears was in the District 1 tournament. Last winter the Magic went in as the top seed, lost a semifinal bout by a single point, and emerged as the number three team. In the final week of Districts this year, Mount St. Joe sustained half of its losses for the entire season during an 0-3 slump. They entered the tourney ranked third, and came out as the eighth-seed.

The 2013-14 Magic won their first game of States in a blow-out; this year’s group had to face a District champion, but got by in overtime. In each of the two seasons, the Mount would get knocked out in the next round by the runner-up team from the District 3 tournament; last year Dover High School, and this time, Palmyra.

The Cougars and the Magic traded points early in their clash last Tuesday, and about three minutes in the Magic had a 7-6 edge with driving lay-ups by Ulasewicz and Tacka and a three-pointer from the left wing by Cunningham. The Mounties got a taste of things to come when Palmyra spurted ahead with a 7-0 run in a little over a minute.

Ulasewicz drove in to restart the MSJ offense, and the rest of the Mount points in the first period belonged to Tacka. Bagging a ‘three,’ a short banker, and a lay-up, she had the Magic back even to start the second quarter at 16-all. She scored again early in the second round, but this basket came in the middle of another offensive push by Palmyra.

Calling time-out with 4:52 to go in the first half and trailing 26-18, the Magic got a three-ball from Wills and had reserves Lucas and Hoover join in on the scoring. A lay-up by the latter had the gap down to four points going into the final minute. The Cougars’ Smolek closed the half with her second three-pointer of the evening, putting her team up 34-27 at the break.

“In the film of their game with Cumberland Valley, we saw that Palmyra ran their offense well, but they missed some open shots,” the Mount’s Miller related. “They made more shots in our game; even two of their forwards made ‘three’s’ against us.”

Palmyra whipped the ball around quickly in its offensive set, and after awhile the Cougars would catch the Magic shifting their defense a little too slowly. Palmyra found Tukis wide open for a lay-up to start the second half, and a free throw by McClellan nudged the lead into double figures for the first time, at 37-27.

The Magic played their customary man-to-man defense, and Miller remarked “What Palmyra did very well was run a motion offense where they were screening constantly in all sorts of ways. At times, we just weren’t communicating as well as we should have, and a girl got loose.”

The Lebanon County ballclub also played tough defense, and once the Cougars had observed and processed the Mount’s various offensive capabilities, the Magic found it difficult to score. They were out-pointed 11-3 in the third quarter, and Palmyra scored at the start of the fourth frame to make it 47-30.

When Mount St. Joe committed its seventh team foul with 3:37 left to play, Palmyra got nothing out of the resulting one-and-one, but on their next three trips to the line, the Cougars went six-for-six and perched on a 23-point cushion, 57-34. During this spate of free throws for the District 3 runner-up, MSJ’s Cunningham left the court with her fifth foul.

Carpenter scored the last lay-up of her Mount St. Joseph career, and at the buzzer Hoover hit from near the foul line to set the final margin at 19 points. In addition to the Palmyra scorers already mentioned, senior Katie Dembrowski and junior Josie Stovall contributed four points apiece.