by Tom Utescher

NEW HEIGHTS FOR “HIGGY” – Mount St. Joe junior Bridget Higgins played great defense against Council Rock point guard Devin Gold while also scoring a game-high 15 points in the District 1 finals. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

In regular season home games, the Catholic Academies tournament, and in the PIAA District 1 playoffs, Mount St. Joseph Academy never lost a basketball game that was preceded by guard Maddie Kohler’s skillful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. But in last Friday’s district championship game at Villanova University, the junior starter for the second-seeded Magic had to defer to a duo from top-seeded Council Rock North High School, who performed the anthem at the Pavilion.

The Mount was able to make do without its lucky songbird, cruising to a 45-23 victory over the Indians to seize the District title and attain a season record of 26-3. Rock’s junior point guard, Lauren Gold, had torn two knee ligaments in the semifinal round two days earlier, and seldom did a team miss a single player so much.

There is often a one-game phenomenon whereby everyone else on a team exceeds their normal limits right after an injury to a key comrade, but it didn’t happen for Council Rock (25-2), which trailed the Mount 31-4 six minutes into the third quarter of Friday’s game.

Two days earlier, the Magic’s victory over third-seeded Downingtown East High School was not so one-sided in the early going, but the Mount still won quite comfortably, 48-27. Logging the 600th and 601st victories of his long coaching career, Mount mentor John Miller had claimed back-to-back wins against two storied coaches in the Quad-A class in District 1, Downingtown’s Bob Schnure and Council Rock’s Lou Palkovics. In their five district tourney games, the Magic triumphed by an average of 25 points.

Miller remarked, “The way we won these games through the district, number one, really surprised me, and secondly made me think that not many teams face the type of hard-nosed man-to-man defense that we see almost day in and day out in the Academies League. I think our league and the [Philadelphia] Catholic League both play a real physical, in-your-face style of game, and some of the teams we played recently did not seem to adapt to that very well.”

The Magic never trailed in Wednesday’s semifinal game, grabbing a 9-0 lead on a three-pointer from the left corner by Kohler, a converted steal by senior Mary Jo Horgan, and two free throws and a 15-foot jumper by 11th-grader Cailin Schmeer. Kaitlyn Dougherty got Downingtown on the board with a lay-up almost five-and-a-half minutes into the action.

Mount St. Joe led 11-4 at the quarter and was up 16-5 with 2:28 remaining in the first half, but the last two buckets before the break belonged to Downingtown’s Dougherty, who led all scorers at the intermission. She deposited eight points for the Cougars, who trailed 16-9.

Horgan led the Magic with a modest five points, which she expanded to nine in the second half for a total of 14. A fellow senior, forward Steph Smith, came on even stronger after the interlude. The Catholic Academies MVP had been held to a lone field goal in the first half, but she banged in 15 points over the final two quarters for a game-high 17.

“In the first half we weren’t really running our plays, we were kind of just freelancing,” Smith remarked. “We’re better when we run our plays and we wanted to stick to doing that in the second half, so I think that’s why we ended up scoring more. The girl on me was really physical, so instead of posting up down low I decided to drive to the basket.”

Smith penetrated for a lay-up to start the third quarter, and the teams traded points up to 20-13. Just over three minutes in, Horgan hooped a three-pointer that initiated an 11-2 surge, thrusting the Magic ahead 31-15 with 2:20 still left in the third round.

The gap between the teams remained in double figures the rest of the way, and was locked in at 21 points when MSJ sophomore Meg McCabe hit a lay-up with 19 seconds to go. She and freshman Alex Louin each finished with two points, while junior Bridget Higgins, Schmeer, and Kohler had six, four, and three, respectively. With a 15-point performance, Downingtown’s Dougherty accumulated more points than all of her teammates combined.

Two nights later at Villanova, both district finalists seemed a little jittery at the outset. The board stuck at 0-0 for more than three minutes and MSJ’s Miller called a time-out to settle his charges. It was Council Rock’s Megan Cunningham who actually broke the ice almost halfway through opening period, but after that the Magic defense squeezed turnovers out of the Indians and forced them to take imprudent shots, and Rock only managed one field goal for the next 19 minutes on the game clock.

Higgins, the MSJ defensive ace out of St. Philip Neri School in Lafayette Hill, held Lauren Gold’s senior sister, Devin, to one field goal and two free throws throughout the evening, and the junior guard also had a breakout night on offense. Averaging about seven points per game in the district tourney coming in, Higgins accounted for the Mount’s first eight points in the finals, sandwiching a pair of three-point buckets around a score off a steal. Netting another triple in the second half, she finished with three assists, two steals, and a game-high 15 points, one ahead of Horgan (five rebounds, five assists, four steals).

Higgins’ perimeter prowess even surprised the Mount’s Miller. He said that after the junior’s first trey and lay-up, “I looked at the scoreboard and thought ‘How did we get five points?’ Then I figured out that Bridget’s jump shot must have been a three-pointer.”

After her opening spree, field goals by Horgan and Smith made it 12-2 at the quarter, and the tally climbed to 17-2 in the middle of the second frame before the Indians’ Gold scored on a drive for her only field goal of the evening. Schmeer soon responded in kind for the Magic, and the only hint of a cloud on the Mount’s horizon was a third personal foul called against Smith. No worries; sophomore Meg Geatens subbed in and beat the halftime buzzer with a lay-up, making it 21-4.

In preparing his team to defend against the Indians’ offense, Miller again drew upon experience his players gained during their league games.

He called AACA archrival Villa Maria the best running team the Mount has played this winter, and said that facing the Hurricanes three times helped the Magic get ready for Council Rock’s offensive transition.

“When I saw Council Rock play the other night,” Miller said, “it was very noticeable how when the other team took a shot, their big girl (6’2” junior Emily Grundman) would just release and fly down the floor. She’s lefthanded, so she would go to the left box and [Devin Gold] would come up and throw a lob pass to her. They scored a lot of points that way.”

Instead of sending his own “big,” the 6’1” Smith, chasing down the floor after Grundman, he had her stay focused on offensive rebounding while he dropped two smaller players back. Then he had Higgins pressure the Indians’ ballhandlers crossing midcourt, delaying them until Smith could transition to defense. The Magic were able to limit the athletic Grundman to one field goal and a pair of free throws throughout the game.

Following the halftime interlude, Horgan hit two field goals and Higgins and Kohler each canned a “three” to send the Mounties out to a 10-0 start in the third quarter. After that, the Indians salvaged a measure of self respect, outscoring the coasting Mounties 19-14 the rest of the way.

Back in summer league play, Mount St. Joe had edged Rock North twice, in games where the Indians had both Gold sisters and Grundman, while the Magic were missing an ailing Smith each time. Still, even with Lauren Gold now on crutches, few people expected a district tourney triumph of this magnitude for the Mounties.

Back during John Miller’s 18-year tenure as head coach of the La Salle University women, he had recruited one of Palkovic’s players at Council Rock North and had gotten to know the Indians’ mentor.

“I went over to Lou after the game and said I knew it was a tough thing to lose a player like [Lauren Gold] and only have one day to prepare,” Miller related. “I told him now he’d have a little time to put those pieces together and get ready for States.”

Mount St. Joe’s original sixth man, talented sophomore guard Kelsey Jones, went down for the season with a knee injury at the beginning of January, but the Magic had plenty of time to adjust before playoffs, and entered the postseason on a roll.

Smith finished with six points and nine rebounds in the district championship game, while the Mount received three points apiece from Kohler and Louin and two each from Geatens and Schmeer. Junior forward Alyssa Dumont had a team-high eight points for Council Rock.

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