by Tom Utescher
For the second time in less than a week, the Penn Charter girls were trying to level the playing field with the Academy of Notre Dame. On January 27, the Quakers had avenged a December loss to the Irish, pulling even with the Villanova-based ballclub for second-place standing in the Inter-Ac League.
Two days later, Notre Dame completed a home/away season sweep of 2015 league runner-up Episcopal Academy, and last Tuesday on their home court, the Quakers needed to accomplish the same task in order to keep pace with AND.
In early January, Charter had pulled out a 49-46 road win at Episcopal, but in the recent rematch on School House Lane the Churchwomen held a modest lead at the end of each of the first three quarters. PC tied the game at 38-all early in the fourth round, but over the next three-and-a-half minutes EA took command with a 13-3 surge. With a late push, the Quakers cut the lead to four points, but two free throws at the end gave the visitors a 59-53 victory.
League champions in 2013 and 2014 and a close second last season, Episcopal had arrived at Penn Charter with a 3-5 record in the Inter-Ac, but still had the capability of affecting the fortunes of higher-ranked teams.
After the game, the Quakers were 6-3 in the league (15-8 overall) with three Inter-Ac games to go, the last of them against undefeated league leader Germantown Academy. PC is due to face the Patriots on Friday, February 12, while Notre Dame (9-2 at the end of last week) will play its second game against GA two days earlier.
In addition to its graduation losses from last year, Episcopal went into the current season without one of its best returning players, tall and athletic guard Dylan Higgins. EA’s recent loss in its Notre Dame rematch (31-29) was one of a number of close setbacks for the Churchwomen, including a 49-46 defeat at the hands of GA on January 22.
Veteran EA head coach Chuck Simmonds explained “A lot of times it came down to certain possessions and to certain sections of games where we lost some opportunities. We have a number of kids who have been trying to grow into roles they weren’t asked to play before this year. It was nice to get this win today, especially because of those other close games that we let get away.”
Surehanded with her midrange jumper, EA sophomore forward Luca Mamula (daughter of former Philadelphia Eagle Mike Mamula) led all scorers with 23 points, and 13 were added by the Churchwomen’s 6’2” junior post player, Elodie Furey.
“Even as the game went on, we never seemed to realize which of their players were the big threats to score,” said first-year Quakers head coach Joe Maguire. “We kept letting the big girl catch the ball on the blocks and then in turn in to the right, which is what she wanted to do. We had gone over that we needed to try and make her go left.
“We also just kept leaving Mamula open to shoot,” PC’s skipper continued. “In their last game they scored 29 points against Notre Dame and they had 59 against us today. That says a lot about our defense and our ability to take care of the ball – I think we turned it over 20 times.”
Before the game, Penn Charter held a brief ceremony honoring its three departing seniors, guards Hannah Fox and Ayanna Matthews and forward Taylor Zahairagunn.
Both Fox and Matthews are fifth-year starters for the Quakers, and each drained an three-pointer to help give PC an 8-5 edge midway through the first quarter of the game. Mamula got going with a traditional three-point play, and later she finished the first round with a baseline jumper that gave EA an 11-8 edge.
Early in the second stanza Charter junior forward Mireyah Davis scored her first two field goals, but they were matched by Episcopal’s Furey.
The Churchwomen got a three-pointer from sophomore Katie Weaver and a little later a 15-footer from junior Reilly Wright pushed EA ahead to the largest lead of the first half, a seven-point margin (20-13) with five minutes still on the clock.
The Quakers’ Fox stopped the slide with a coast-to-coast gallop off of a defensive rebound and then hit two free throws with just over a minute left. Down the stretch, though, the visitors sandwiched two scores by Mamula around a drive by Matthews, making it 24-19 at the break.
Seven minutes after play resumed for the third quarter, Episcopal had inched ahead by another two points at 38-31, but in the last 47 seconds Charter’s Davis hit a pair of free throws and then found the hoop on an inside move with five seconds on the clock. PC had drawn within three points of the leaders for the start of the final round, 38-35.
EA’s Simmonds related, “We told our kids that we needed to try and get [defensive] stops after we scored, because a lot of the game we would score and then let them come back down and score. We needed to put a couple of stops together so that we could really break out of that pattern of just trading points.”
This would happen for the Churchwomen later on, but early in the fourth round Matthews netted one of two free throws for the Quakers, and then Fox scored off a steal to tie the match at 38-all with five-and-a-half minutes remaining.
On what was only Penn Charter’s second team foul of the half, Episcopal’s decisive offensive thrust began with two free throws by Furey, who followed up with a lay-up. Just after that, though, the EA forward committed her fourth personal foul.
Quakers junior guard Lexi Hnatkowsky then popped in a three-pointer to get the hosts back within one (42-41) with four-and-a-half minutes on the clock. EA’s Mamula countered with a midrange jumper and a lay-up in transition, and then senior forward Lily Kuntz, who’d scored the first five points of the game for the Churchwomen, notched her second “three” of the day.
Charter was down by eight and had to start fouling to keep the visitors from using up too much of the clock. It took awhile for PC to put their rivals in the bonus, but eventually Mamula went to the line and hit a pair of free throws for a 10-point Episcopal advantage, 51-41, with under two minutes left.
Fox revived the home team with a long three-pointer from above the keytop, and over the next 30 seconds Matthews drove in for a Penn Charter lay-up while Episcopal extracted just two points from three trips to the foul line.
The next foul that the Churchwomen committed sent Furey to the bench with five personals. The victim, Davis, made two foul shots, and after EA senior point guard Margaux Paolino made one of two from the stripe, Davis netted another pair with 38 seconds left to pull the Quakers within four points of the leaders at 54-50.
Charter fouled EA senior guard Courtnie Williamson, who made two double- bonus free throws. After the Quakers tossed a pass out of bounds, they had to foul Williamson again and she put in one of two tosses. PC got all three points back when Fox struck from more than a yard outside the three-point loop on the right wing.
Now there were only 3.5 second left, and the clock was down at 2.1 seconds when Penn Charter committed one last foul and Paolino converted both shots to lock in a 59-53 final tally.
Both Paolino (three points total) and Williamson (three points) are blue chip field hockey players who have signed with Duke and North Carolina, respectively. Kuntz, who plans to play basketball for Middlebury College, wound up with eight points, while Weaver finished with five and Wright and sophomore Seanna McNamara each contributed one field goal.
Speaking of Paolino, Simmonds observed, “She helped us with her speed in the press-break late in the game, and I thought she did a pretty good job of covering Hannah Fox, who can be a handful.”
Of his high scorer, Mamula, he said “She’s becoming a more and more consistent shooter and she’s playing with confidence. She’s at the point now where she always shows up as a scoring threat for us.”
Penn Charter received a team high of 19 points from Fox, who’s headed on to Division III basketball power Amherst College, the 2011 NCAA champion. Also in double figures were Matthews (15 points) and Davis (14). Hnatkowsky and junior forward Julie Webb recorded three and two points, respectively.
Speaking of Episcopal’s fourth-quarter breakout, the Quakers’ Maguire remarked, “All of our bad habits we had early in the game and that we kind of got away from in the third quarter came back out again. There are some mistakes we made early in the season that we seemed to grow out of in the last couple of weeks, but today we were doing some of those same things. Now we just need to finish up strong and try to get the best possible seed for the independent schools tournament.”