Guarded by Villa Maria’s Marissa Picinich, Mount senior forward Grace Gelone looks to pass the ball back out of the paint. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

The old adage says that it’s very difficult for one team to beat a given opponent three times in succession. Unfortunately for Mount St. Joseph basketball fans, Villa Maria Academy was able to accomplish that feat against the Magic, although it took a free throw late in overtime last Saturday night to do it.

After Villa (15-8) recorded a pair of eight-point victories over the Mount (10-13) during the regular season, the second-seeded Hurricanes were pitted against number three Mount St. Joe in the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies playoff semifinals last weekend.

After leading by six points at halftime, the Magic were ahead 50-43 a few minutes into the fourth quarter. Villa caught up and it was the Mounties who had to make a free throw at the end of regulation play to send the contest into overtime at 58-all. The Mount went up by four points in OT, but the Hurricanes drew even once more and then hit a foul shot in the final 10 seconds to pull out a 64-63 victory.

Mount senior Julie Hoover scored a game-high 22 points and a fellow guard, junior Grace DiGiovanni, rang up 20, while seniors Sarah Rothenberg and Ashley Smith gave the Magic seven and six points, respectively.

Villa Maria received 55 of its 64 points from freshmen and sophomores. Hitting double figures were two forwards, freshman Paige Lauder (20 points) and sophomore Abby Walheim (15), as well as ninth-grade guard Morgan Warley (13).

Led by Natalie Kucowski, a 6’2″ post player who has signed with Lafayette College, undefeated St. Basil Academy (22-0) had nailed down the top seed for the AACA tournament. Villa was second with a 9-4 league record, and the Magic were 8-5 (the odd number of regular-season games is due to the fact that tiny Country Day School of the Sacred Heart only plays the other league teams once instead of twice).

Gwynedd Mercy, the 2016 AACA champ, also went 8-5 in the regular season, but their two losses to the Mount this winter consigned the Monarchs to the fourth spot in the tournament seeding. Playing in the first of last Saturday’s semifinals, Gwynedd almost pulled off a huge upset over St. Basil. In a defensive struggle, the Panthers were down a point at the three-quarter mark, but came back to prevail 28-25.

For the second game, Villa Maria had starting guard Murrin Tague out with an injury, but was able to plug in another senior, Erin DiDonato.

Although the Mount’s Hoover converted off of a steal to get the scoreboard rolling, over the next five minutes or so Walheim netted a three-pointer and a lay-up off an inbounds play to help the Hurricanes stake out a 9-4 advantage.

The Magic called time-out with 2:10 to go in the opening stanza, and DiGiovanni subbed in and had an immediate impact. She scored off of a rebound and later drove the right baseline for a lay-up at the buzzer, sending the Magic on into the second round with only a one-point deficit.

The junior then launched the new period with an “and-one” play to move the Mount ahead.

The action was frenetic, with cascading turnovers back-and-forth. At times, both teams had so much trouble holding onto the ball that it seemed like all the players had dipped their fingers in oil before the game got underway.

As the second quarter progressed, DiGiovanni continued to produce for the Magic. Another free throw, a three-point field goal, and a score off a steal by the junior from Mt. Airy were supplemented by a baseline jumper from Rothenberg, putting the Mounties up 19-13 as the middle of the period approached.

They kept on going from there; freshman guard Lauren Vesey made a successful drive down the lane while being fouled, and also made the free throw. Villa picked up two points from the charity stripe courtesy of freshman forward Marissa Picinich, but a reverse lay-up by Hoover and a flawless one-and-one by junior guard Deirdre Regan resulted in the only double-digit lead for either team all night, at 26-15.

But while Mount St. Joseph had gotten into the bonus, Villa Maria was already in the double bonus, and four straight made free throws helped the Hurricanes steady themselves. A little later, two buckets by Lauder formed part of a 6-0 spurt that got Villa back within three points of the leaders, 28-25.

The halftime score was set at 31-25 after MSJ’s Hoover completed an old-school three-point play with a fraction over four seconds remaining. She had 11 points in the book at the break, and DiGiovanni had 13.

Fouls were a fly in the Magic ointment though; six different players each had acquired two personals during the first two quarters. The large rotation that Mount has employed all season and the relative parity of the players well down the bench helped blunt the effects of this, though.

Hoover, who was accepted early at the University of Pennsylvania in December, scored in transition to start the second half, and after Villa recouped those two points through free throws by Lauder, MSJ’s Smith bagged the first of her two three-pointers to give the Mount the largest lead either team enjoyed after halftime, 36-27.

The Hurricanes’ Lauder would add two more free throws and two field goals while DiDonato, the senior who had just stepped into a starting role, threw down a “three” and a shorter jumper to help get Villa back in it. Early in the final minute, Lauder penetrated along the baseline and scored to tie the contest at 42-all, then a lay-up at the other end by Rothenberg gave the Magic a two-point edge for the start of the fourth quarter.

The first Villa foul of that fourth frame put Mount St. Joe in the bonus, and Hoover would sink six of eight free throws over the course of the period. Countering for the ‘Canes was Warley, who netted nine points in the fourth round with two three-pointers, a lay-up in transition, and one free throw.

Warley’s two triples got Villa right back on the Mounties’ heels after the Magic went up 50-43 in the initial two-and-a-half minutes. Villa evened it up at 52-all and then led 56-54 with just under two minutes to play. The Mount’s DiGiovanni then squeezed inside to grab an offensive rebound and went back up to hit a reverse lay-up.

On this play Villa’s Lauder committed her fourth foul, and DiGiovanni made that shot, too, giving her team a 57-56 edge with 1:54 on the clock. Both teams had several players pick up four personals, but only one would acquire a fifth, and that was at the very end of overtime.

Over the next minute, the Hurricanes’ Lauder and Warley each made one of two foul shots for a 58-57 edge. Fouled with 19.9 seconds on the clock, the Mount’s Hoover made the first of two free throws to tie it up. The missed second shot was rebounded by Lauder, but at the far end the ball went out over the baseline off of the ‘Canes, and the contest proceeded into a four-minute overtime at 58-all.

The only point added during the first two minutes came on a free throw by Walheim. Mount’s Rothenberg went in for a lay-up, and the ball teetered on the front of the rim briefly before falling in. The Magic senior had been fouled, and she completed the “and-one” play. Next, DiGiovanni was fouled with 62 seconds left, and her two successful tosses put the Mounties up 63-59.

Villa senior Emily Gillin penetrated for a lay-up, but missed a free throw awarded to her. Mount St. Joe rebounded that miss, only to commit a travelling violation. With 38 ticks to go, Walheim drove in to tie the game for Villa at 63-63, and when the Magic’s set offense bogged down at the opposite end, they called time-out with 11.7 seconds showing.

The brief strategy session didn’t have its desired effect, as the Mounties came back out to turn the ball over and then foul the recipient of their gift, Lauder. In a high-pressure situation, the freshman missed the first shot, but she made the second with 7.8 seconds showing. The Mount got the ball over midcourt on the right side, but a final shot that was flung at the basket was off the mark.

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