by Tom Utescher

Driving hard to the end, Bridget Higgins scored a game-high 14 points in Mount St. Joseph Academy’s season finale last Tuesday. Here, the MSJ senior goes by Jaida Burgess (left) of Spring-Ford High School. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

Back in January, Spring-Ford High School handed Mount St. Joseph Academy its first loss of the 2011-2012 basketball campaign, and in a PIAA state tournament game last Tuesday those same Lady Rams from Royersford were responsible for the Mount’s final defeat of the season, topping the Magic 38-31 in a second-round game at Norristown High.

The top seed coming out of the Class AAAA pool in District 1, Spring-Ford snapped a 12-12 tie early in the third quarter, going ahead for good with a 10-0 surge. The Magic cut the lead to five points twice in the fourth quarter, and they trailed by six in the final minute. Completely in character, senior guard Bridget Higgins went down fighting, gutting out a game-high 14 points.

“After the game I told the girls how proud of them I was,” said MSJ coach John Miller. “Both offensively and defensively, they did everything I asked them to do.”

Seeded fifth among the nine District 1 teams that gained entry to the state tournament, Mount St. Joe finished the year with a 25-6 record. The Magic were regular-season champions in the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies, and in the finals of the AACA tournament they succumbed to Villa Maria, a team they had beaten in two previous meetings.

In the main draw of the District 1 tourney, the fifth-seeded Mounties rolled past number 28 Radnor and number 12 Central Bucks East, then were stopped at Downingtown West by the fourth-seeded Whippets. In the Magic’s only district or state contest in which the higher seed did not prevail, they gave a sterling performance in a 19-point victory in a seeding game against Cheltenham High, originally the top pick for the district event.

Mount St. Joe then handled number seven Upper Darby to claim the District’s fifth spot for States, and on March 9 the Magic won their PIAA opener, 43-34, over Reading’s Wilson High School.

Late in the Wilson game the Magic’s sixth man, junior point guard Kelsey Jones, had to leave the floor with an injury to the meniscus in her left knee. The only faintly positive aspect of the calamity is that she did not reinjure the ACL in the same joint, which she had torn in January of 2011.

Back in February of this year, the MSJ squad lost sophomore starting forward Carly Monzo, who suffered from stress fractures and might have returned had the Magic advanced deep into the state tourney.

Still, the Mount compensated well against a Spring-Ford club that came into Tuesday’s tilt relatively healthy. There were no specific shortcomings due to the two holes in the line-up, as the Mounties handled the ball very well under the circumstances. Still, in a battle between defense-oriented teams, depth is an important consideration.

“We moved people around in practice and experimented because of our lack of depth with those injuries,” Miller related. “We knew how well Spring-Ford double-teams the basketball, so we worked on things like spreading out and running our offense wide. That would make it more difficult for them to double-team us, and also make it easier for us to see the double-teams coming.”

Initially, the two defenses were so effective that you had to wonder if the scoreboard wasn’t going to succumb to a form of electronic atrophy, stuck at 5-5 almost 10 minutes into the game. After all, the Norristown facility had already presented problems, with the most heavily used route to the school closed by a bridge construction just half-a-mile short of the driveway, and with nets on the baskets that were reluctant to let the ball drop through.

Junior guard Brittany Moore, a starter but not one of Spring-Ford’s high-profile players, snapped the 5-5 tie in the second quarter by lofting a three-pointer from the left wing and then banking in a shorter shot from the opposite side. Better-known guard Sammy Stipa, a sophomore, drove the lane and spun around a defender to score, making it 12-5 and forcing an MSJ time-out with 4:39 to go before halftime.

The Magic’s own sophomore standout, guard Alex Louin, stole the ball and deposited a breakaway lay-up, then Higgins hit one of two free throws to make it 12-8. This was Spring-Ford’s fourth team foul and MSJ fans felt there should’ve been more, as their guards appeared to be bumped repeatedly while handling the ball in the set offense. For the Magic, the laid-back officiating style was in stark contrast to the standard established in the Wilson game, when incidental touches sometimes drew whistles.

“The two games were refereed like polar opposites,” Miller concurred. “Against Spring-Ford we only took five free throws the whole night [just one in the second half], and I thought it was a very physical game.”

With six seconds left in the first half, Higgins put up a curious-looking one-hander reminiscent of a heave in the shot put circle, but the ball went in to make it a two-point game at the break, 12-10.

On the first possession of the third period, MSJ junior Meg Geatens (who had taken over Monzo’s starting role a few weeks back) bagged a jumper from near the foul line to level the count at 12-all. In the second minute, though, the Magic’s Louin committed her third personal foul, and Moore once more hit a tie-breaking trey for Spring-Ford.

Stipa stuck a “three” of her own, and then came a pivotal play involving post player Mariah Traywick, who was conservatively listed at six-feet- even on the Lady Rams’ roster. A senior mainstay who has committed to Shippensburg University, Traywick had not scored since hitting the first field goal of the night, but with five minutes left in round three she drew a foul which was the fourth against the Mount’s Louin, who left the court for the rest of the quarter.

Traywick tossed in both free throws, and the next time down the floor her front-court colleague Sarah Payonk scored to complete a 10-0 run that put the Lady Rams up, 22-12. Higgins halted the charge with a three-pointer, but Payonk, a junior, put in two more buckets for a 26-15 tally. In the final minute, though, a field goal by Geatens and a late drive by Higgins (who usually had to fight through double-teams) cut the margin down to seven points (26-19) for the start of the fourth quarter.

The final chapter began with one free throw by Traywick, then Mount senior Maddie Kohler canned her second three-pointer of the evening, getting the Magic back within five points. A successful Spring-Ford drive by Moore was matched by Louin, who followed in her own shot and caused a Lady Ram time-out, with 6:34 on the clock and the score 29-24. When play resumed, Spring-Ford levered the lead back to seven points on a Traywick lay-up.

When Louin left the floor for the last five minutes of the third round, more of the defensive burden in the paint had fallen on senior forward Cailin Schmeer. Her foul total rose as a result, and with 5:38 to go in the fourth period she committed her fifth violation. The victim, Payonk, made both the original lay-up and her free throw to push the lead to double figures.

“Helping as the off-ball guard, Alex was able to use her height [5’11”] on defense, so it hurt when we had to have her off the floor,” Miller said. “I thought that Cailin, at 5’9”, and Meg Geatens, at 5’7”, did a great job against their players, who were significantly taller.”

After Payonk’s three-point play, MSJ’s Higgins hit a short jumper from the lane, but next time down the Magic missed from the three-point arc, and at the four-minute mark Spring-Ford was up 34-26. Over the next few minutes the District 1 champs went to the foul line three times, but added just one point to their lead.

MSJ’s Higgins penetrated for her final field goal of the night, but the Lady Rams got those points back on single free throws by Moore and Stipa, sending the game into the final minute with the tally 37-28. Louin was fouled on a play where she put back the rebound of her own shot, and she also sank a foul shot that was awarded her in that sequence.

Now down by six with 44 ticks on the clock, the Magic were unable to score again, and from the free throw line, Spring-Ford senior Jaida Burgess scored her only point of the evening to lock in the final score.

Louin was held below her scoring average, with seven points, but she clamped onto a game-high 12 rebounds, while Kohler and Geatens gave the Magic six and four points, respectively. Spring-Ford finished with 13 points from Moore, 11 from Payonk, seven from Traywick (11 rebounds), and six from Stipa.

As in any single-digit decision, the game might have turned out differently if the Magic had done a few things differently, but the Lady Rams had some coulda-shoulda’s of their own. Partly because of the overall defensive pressure, neither team shot the ball well from the floor, and in the fourth quarter Spring-Ford missed seven free throws, including one that was the first shot in a one-and-one opportunity.

The 38 points produced by the Lady Rams was a season low.

“Before the game, I put up on the blackboard that if we held Spring-Ford under 40 points, we would win the game,” Miller said. “We executed everything we had practiced, but we just were unable to put the ball in the basket – we only shot 23 percent from the floor.”

Overall, Mount St. Joseph performed impressively this season after graduating two NCAA Division I recruits, Catholic Academies MVP Steph Smith (Loyola) and the Philadelphia Inquirer’s Southeastern Pa. Player of the Year, Mary Jo Horgan (Lehigh).

Miller summed up, “To lose players like Mary Jo and Steph and still win 25 games – I think that’s remarkable for this group.”

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