by Tom Utescher

Catholic Academies rivals Mount St. Joseph and Gwynedd Mercy Academy seesawed through last Tuesday’s league basketball opener, host Gwynedd leading at the end of the first period, the Mount ahead at the end of the next two, and then Gwynedd moving in front by two points near the end of the fourth quarter.

Down a point early in the final minute, the MSJ Magic turned the ball over and then fouled Monarchs senior Carly Heineman, who hit a free throw that gave her team a 39-37 advantage with 24 seconds left. The Mount came down the floor and moved the ball around on offense, and from the top of the set senior guard Grace DiGiovanni let fly with a three-point shot that clinched a 40-39 victory for the visitors.

“I’m very excited; it was a big game against Gwynedd with a packed gym,” DiGiovanni said afterward.

“These girls play hard all the time, right to the end,” first-year Mount head coach Jim Roynan attested. “They have a great attitude; they work very hard in practice and it shows on the floor.”

DiGiovanni led the winners in scoring with 11 points, with sophomore Lauren Vesey netting eight points and senior Deirdre Regan and sophomore Kelly Rothenberg adding seven points apiece. The fifth starter, freshman forward Grace Niekelski, scored four points and recorded the game high in both rebounds (11) and blocked shots (four).

Mount St. Joe, which had won its two games at the Methacton High School Tip-Off Tournament the previous weekend, improved to 3-0 overall.

Gwynedd senior guard Maura Conroy, who led her team’s fourth-quarter rally, rang up a game-high 13 points while junior forward Alyssa Martin provided seven points and sophomore guard Sarah White contributed six. Senior Bridget Casey accumulated three points and a team-high 10 rebounds for the Monarchs, who had opened their season with a non-league victory over Conestoga High School.

For Tuesday’s Athletic Association of Catholic Academies debut the Gwynedd gym was stuffed with supporters of both teams, gussied up in their fan finery. Later, the feeling among Mount rooters would be similar to that of Braveheart’s big buddy in the movie version of the battle of Stirling: “Well, we didn’t get dressed up for nothing!”

After Gwynedd got on the board with a steal and lay-up by White, MSJ’s DiGiovanni scored in transition. Later, she would sink the last three-pointer of the night, but the first belonged to GMA freshman guard Kaylie Griffin, the daughter of the St. Joseph’s University coach and a St. Philip Neri grad.

With a free throw by junior Lauren Cunningham and lay-ups by Vesey and senior Megan Dodaro, the Mount kept pace up to 7-7, then the Monarchs put up the last five points of the opening quarter.

It became a 9-0 run for Gwynedd when buckets by Conroy and Martin started the second period, and Mount St. Joe called its second time-out of the contest, now down 16-7.

“There was that big crowd, and I think we were nervous,” DiGiovanni recounted. “Once we made our run later in the second quarter, we were fine after that.”

Having coached not that far away at Lansdale Catholic, new Mount mentor Roynan was aware of the emotions surrounding Mount-Gwynedd games.

“It’s a huge rivalry; I called a couple of early time-outs to settle the girls down,” he said. “Before long, we were right back in the game.”

Following the second Mount time-out, the action resumed with a little over six minutes remaining in the half, and it was as if a switch had been flipped. GMA did not score the rest of the second quarter, and a lay-up and free throw by Rothenberg spearheaded a Mountie charge that had the visitors ahead 22-16 at the intermission.

Niekelski scored on an inside move and Vesey converted off a steal, and each added a free throw. DiGiovanni then drove the lane to give the Magic their first lead of the night, 18-16. She scored again off of a pass from Rothenberg, and with eight seconds left in the period Rothenberg hit a lay-up assisted by Niekselski in transition.

The theme in the halftime locker room, DiGiovanni related, was “keep our composure and do what we know how to do. We felt that the way we had played early in the first half was not representative of our team.”

Coach Roynan added, “I told them at halftime that Gwynedd was bound to make a run. We would need to respond to that, and luckily we did.”

Rothenberg scored the initial field goal of the second half before Gwynedd ended an 0-17 drought with a lay-up by Conroy. From here on the point swings would not be as dramatic as they were in the first half, but by the end of the third round the Magic had added another point to its lead. Three-pointers by Regan and Vesey and then a drive by Regan in the final seconds helped send the Magic into the final frame up by seven points, 33-26.

MSJ’s Roynan noted, “In the fourth quarter we didn’t handle their defensive pressure as well as earlier in the game, and we turned the ball over a couple of times.”

Regan struck again to make it 35-26 early in the first minute of round four, then Conroy went to work for Gwynedd. The senior made good off of a steal, and she went on to penetrate for two more lay-ups and then a short jumper from the lane as she led the Monarchs back to a 37-37 tie with 1:22 on the clock.

“Conroy was phenomenal getting to the basket,” Roynan remarked. “We told the girls to keep her out of the lane, but we couldn’t do it – she’s that good of a player.”

After GMA coach Tom Lonergan called a time-out a little later, Conroy was fouled and made one of two shots to nudge the hosts ahead with one minute remaining. This was Mount St. Joseph’s ninth team foul of the half.

The Magic came down the court looking for a go-ahead bucket, and instead they turned the ball over going into the lane with around 40 ticks to go.

The clock then paused at 24.6 when DiGiovanni committed her third personal foul of the game, sending Heineman to the line to make the first of her two shots in a double-bonus situation. Now down 39-37, the Mounties needed two points just to stay alive.

They came down the floor one last time and seemed remarkably relaxed as they worked the ball around. There was a reason for this.

“We thought there was more time,” DiGiovanni confessed. “None of us realized how little time was left – we were like, let’s just play.”

The positive aspect to this was that the senior did not feel rushed as she squared up to the hoop from a few steps to the right of the top of the key. The shot dropped right through.

“I assumed that we had tied the game,” she said, “but the next thing I knew we had won it and everybody was mobbing the court.”

Coach Roynan would undoubtedly be working on his team’s game-situation awareness at some point, but for the moment he was happy to let his Mounties celebrate a dramatic victory at the start of the AACA season.