by Tom Utescher
Naturally, the basketball players of Mount St. Joseph Academy were a bit disappointed last Saturday afternoon when they finished second in the District 1 Class 5A tournament, but until pretty recently few people thought the 2016-17 Magic would get close to the district championship game at Villanova University.
After last season, the Mount lost its successful coach of 10 years, John Miller, and graduated a strong senior class that included players now performing in each division of the NCAA. This winter, Mount St. Joe came in third in the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies and lost in the semifinals of the league tournament.
Seeded seventh for the restructured District 1 tournament (which now features six “class” divisions instead of four), the Mount opened up with an overtime win against fellow AACA member Merion Mercy, the 10th seed.
Then the Magic began to surprise people. First they knocked off number two Henderson High School in another OT contest to assure themselves of a spot in the PIAA state tournament. Then, last Tuesday, they advanced to the district championship game with a 51-49 victory over the sixth seed, Bishop Shanahan.
On Saturday the Mounties led top-seeded Springfield (Delaware County) High School for most of the first half, but the Cougars caught up at 12-12 just before the intermission. The teams were last tied at 20-20 in the third quarter, then Springfield slowly pulled away to win, 37-28.
Asked when this year’s Mounties begin to realize they could make a run deep into the district tourney, first-year coach Claire Perry (MSJ ’03) revealed, “It may not have been evident from our record, but I think the belief was always there. It was a question of how we could put it all together.
“It’s been fun to progress as far as we have,” she continued. “Composure is something we talked about as we went into Districts, and we’ve shown that a lot of times. Grace Gelone [a senior out of Norwood Fontbonne Academy] had that shot against Henderson to get that game into overtime. Then we lost a big lead we had on Shanahan but we were able to survive that late run they made at us.”
In the semifinal bout against Shanahan a strong start served the Magic well, as they built up a 26-14 lead over the first two quarters and then narrowly survived a determined rally by the Eagles in the second half. The Mount’s margin was down to six points at the end of three quarters, 35-29. Shanahan kept coming in the fourth period but never was able to draw even with the Magic, who pulled out the victory and advanced to the district championship game.
Ashley Smith, who dropped five three-pointers, led the Mounties with 17 points, while fellow senior Julie Hoover also landed in double figures with 10 and junior Grace DiGiovanni was close, with nine points. Seniors Gelone and Sarah Rothenberg provided six and five points, respectively, and the Magic marked down two apiece for senior Kieran Glowacki and junior Megan Dodaro as they leveled their overall season record at 13-13.
It was on to Villanova, where 2014 Mount grad Alex Louin is a starter for the Lady Wildcats and recently received honorable mention in the All-Big East Conference selections.
There were more Mount ties to the Pavilion, where in 2011 the Magic easily upset the number one seed, Council Rock North, to win the District 1 tile. Smith’s older sister Steph, who went on to play at Loyola University, had put up a game-high 17 points in that contest.
The elder Smith was a senior that year, and back then the Magic were playing among the largest high schools in Class 4A. This year the Mounties’ 5A grouping put them one step down from the top of the enrollment scale, with Class 6A encompassing the most populous schools.
Springfield High arrived at Villanova last Saturday with an overall record of 22-4 under the leadership of head coach Kylynn McNichol, a former Inter-Ac League standout and the daughter of longtime Academy of Notre Dame mentor Mary Beth McNichol. Three of her seniors had made their college choices, but all were going to be playing lacrosse; Erika Biehl at Bloomsburg University, Maggie O’Connell at La Salle, and Bridget Whitaker at Temple.
As usual, Mount St. Joseph started its five seniors; Gelone, Glowacki, Hoover (Penn), Smith (Catholic University for basketball), and Rothenberg.
The scoreboard at Villanova’s Pavilion, which had been slumbering since the Wildcats’ last home game one week earlier, did little more than yawn and rub its eyes during the first quarter, as the Mount and Springfield only required it to display a total of eight points.
Both teams exhibited some early jitters. Hoover hit a lay-up in the opening minute and scored on a baseline drive almost midway through the period, but in between a number of MSJ shots from the paint failed to fall. The Magic gave themselves extra opportunities with a strong rebounding effort at both ends of the floor.
“Kieran [Glowacki] was tough for us on the boards, and other girls, too,” Coach Perry said. “It was a lot lower-scoring than our other district games, but I’ll take that, since part of that is because we were working hard on defense.”
A baseline jumper by Gelone put the Mounties up 6-0 with a little over a minute left in the period. Springfield, which had been content to launch the ball from the outside without any success, finally decided to drive, and with a dash down the lane incorporating a spin move, sophomore Jordan D’Ambrosio got the Cougars on the board with 31 ticks to go in the first frame.
The 10th-grader found the hoop in transition early in round two for a 6-4 tally, but Mount St. Joe stretched its lead out to six points once more as a play from the set offense produced a lay-up by Smith and then Gelone drained a pair of free throws about 90 seconds in. At this point Perry made her first substitution for the Mount, sliding in DiGiovanni for Smith.
Over the next four minutes, the Cougars closed within two points on drives by freshman Alyssa Long and by D’Ambrosio, then the Magic posted their last points of the half when Glowacki scored off a rebound on the third shot of an offensive sequence.
Straddling the one-minute mark, a charge to the hoop by O’Connell and a score off a steal by Biehl tied the game for Springfield, and after a miss by the Mount in the final seconds the score settled in at 12-12 for halftime.
Two free throws by Long gave Springfield the lead for the first time as the second half got underway, and MSJ’s Gelone got one point back from the line about two minutes in for a 14-13 tally.
Having had some success penetrating to the hoop late in the first half, the Cougars now seemed to regain confidence – and competence – shooting from the perimeter. From the right baseline, sophomore Belle Mastropietro bagged a three-pointer and a shorter jumper to move her team ahead by half-a-dozen (19-13) midway through the third stanza.
Gelone, scoring inside off a pass from Glowacki, deposited the first Mount field goal of the second half, then Mastropietro made one free throw and the Magic missed a pair to make it 20-15 heading toward the close of the quarter. The Mount was back within three for the change of periods after another deft Glowacki pass found DiGiovanni in the paint for a lay-up with two seconds left.
Glowacki then scored a bucket from under the basket herself to launch the fourth quarter, and with 7:02 left on the board Hoover hooped the second of two free throws. The Magic had climbed back to a 20-20 tie and at 6:23 Springfield called time-out. However, it turned out that Glowacki’s early lay-up would be the Mount’s only field goal of the quarter until just half-a-minute remained.
The Cougars came back out after their chalk talk to run off six straight points. Knifing in from the right side, D’Ambrosio banked in a runner and drew a foul in the process, making her free throw, as well. Springfield then went outside for a triple from the right flank by senior Amanda Hopkins. In addition to becoming more sure-handed in their shooting, the Cougars were now performing much better on the boards than they had for most of the first half.
At the five-minute mark Hoover handed the Magic two made foul shots, then the Cougars’ Long leveraged one of two from the charity stripe to click the board up to 27-22 as Dodaro came onto the court for Mount St. Joe.
Unfortunately for the painted and primped Magic fans cheering from the south stands, their team would commit its seventh foul of the half with 3:46 on the clock and then put the Cougars in the double bonus with 2:05 remaining. While the clock ran down and eventually dipped into the final minute, D’Ambrosio, O’Connell, and Biehl combined to shoot 10-for-13 from the line, while the Magic answered only with two Gelone free throws and now trailed 37-24.
The Mount finally acquired its second field goal of the fourth quarter on a drive by DiGiovanni with 31 seconds left, and after that Gelone converted an offensive rebound with seven seconds left to stick the final score on the board.
In this low-scoring affair only two players finished with totals in double digits, the Mount’s Gelone, with 11 points, and Springfield’s D’Ambrosio, with a game-high 14. Next for the Magic was Hoover, with seven points, followed by Glowacki and DiGiovanni, with four apiece, and Smith, with two points.
The Cougars received six from Mastropietro, five each from Long and O’Connell, four points from Biehl, and three from Hopkins.
“Springfield was steady and competitive, and it was a good learning experience for us,” remarked MSJ mentor Perry.
The coach was pleased to see the Mount St. Joseph community turn out in force to get behind the team.
“The physical presence of the students, the teachers, the administration, parents, and alumni meant a lot to everyone on the team,” she said. “For the players, that showing of support drove home the fact that this is a season they’re going to remember.”
For the state tournament, the Magic’s runner-up finish in District 1 lined them up against a familiar Philly area opponent, Archbishop Carroll. Carroll, the third seed out of District 12 with an 18-5 overall record, defeated the Mount, 43-33, during the Play-by-Play Classic at Philadelphia University back in mid-January.
“That was one of a number of tough non-league games we had back in the middle of the season, and we’re now having those kind of games again,” Perry pointed out. “We know their personnel a little bit now, and we should be able to execute our game plan against them better than we did the first time.”
The Mount Magic will play the Carroll Patriots at 4:00 PM on Saturday (March 11) at Cheltenham High School.