Mount St. Joe freshman Libby Tacka (right) tries to drive past Emily Sullivan, a sophomore from Gwynedd Mercy Academy. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Last Saturday at Chestnut Hill College’s Sorgenti Arena, the Athletic Association of Catholic Academies inaugurated a league-wide basketball event to benefit a worthy cause, the first annual AACA Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. Hoopsters from all eight member schools saw action in a four-game afternoon extravaganza.

The Classic commenced at high noon, but the most exciting showdown came at the end of the day’s program, when the Mount St. Joseph Magic hung on for a 39-38 victory over Gwynedd Mercy Academy. Junior guard Alex Louin scored the last two of her game-high 17 points from the free throw line in the final minute for a three-point MSJ lead. Then, with less than a second to go, Gwynedd made two of three tosses from the charity stripe, leaving the Monarchs one point short at the final buzzer.

Referring to the Mount’s fourth-quarter comeback victory over Gwynedd five weeks earlier, MSJ senior guard Adrienne Cellucci remarked, “We thought maybe we just had a bad first game against them and that we’d come out here and probably beat them by a lot more. But it was close this time, too, so if they make it to the playoffs we’ll have to keep an eye out for them.”

Coming down the home stretch of the regular season, the AACA teams all had either three or four league games remaining after Saturday. Leaving CHC with an 11-0 mark in the 14-game Catholic Academies schedule, the Mount (17-2 overall) was just one win away from clinching the top seed for the playoffs. Villa Maria, which lost twice to the Magic in overtime, remained a solid second after the Classic last weekend, improving to 9-2 with a 40-27 victory over Villa Joseph Marie (5-5).

St. Basil Academy continued to sit in third, attaining a 7-4 mark by beating Sacred Heart (1-9) by a score of 41-26 on Saturday. Along with Villa Joseph Marie, Merion Mercy remained in the mix for the fourth (and final) playoff spot on Saturday. In the ursine encounter that launched the AACA Classic at 12:00 PM, the Merion Golden Bears reached a record of 5-6 thanks to a 35-24 victory over the Nazareth Academy Pandas (1-10).

At the end of the afternoon, the odds of capturing a playoff spot became very long indeed for the Gwynedd Mercy Monarchs, since the gut-wrenching loss to Mount St. Joe lowered their record to 4-7. GMA (8-10 overall) began its league campaign with an 0-4 stretch. The drought included a 43-40 loss to St. Basil, and a 47-41 defeat at the Mount on December 20, when the Monarchs were leading with less than two minutes left to play.

Due to the proximity of the Mount and Gwynedd, and the fact that they attract students from many of the game grade schools, a heated, well-established rivalry exists between the Magic and the Monarchs. This renders useless almost any predictions based on the win/loss records of the two teams against other opponents.

The scoring in Saturday’s clash began and ended with Monarchs freshman guard Bailey Greenberg on the free throw line. After hitting the second of two foul shots to get Gwynedd going, the ninth-grader homed in from the three-point loop for a 4-0 edge. Fellow freshman Erica DeCandido and sophomore Emily Sullivan struck from beyond the arc, as well, and despite a put-back, a short jumper and a lay-up by MSJ’s Louin, the Monarchs took a 13-11 edge into the second round.

MSJ junior Colleen Steinmetz and Gwynedd’s DeCandido traded field goals at the start of round two, then the Magic sandwiched a pair of regular field goals by junior Carly Monzo around a “three” by Louin to move ahead 20-15.

A flawless one-and-one by junior Jess Campbell and a drive by Greenberg brought GMA back within a point of the lead. Five seconds before time expired, Louin dished the ball to Magic teammate Cellucci, who buried a trey from the left side for a 23-19 halftime tally.
Before the game, the MSJ coaches emphasized several points to their players.

“They wanted us to get over the picks to get to Gwynedd’s good three-point shooters,” Cellucci revealed. “They also wanted us to get back on defense in transition, which is something we struggled with. On offense, we wanted to attack the basket, because they don’t have a lot of size.”

Mount St. Joe appeared to take command as the second half got underway. Three-point field goals by Louin, Cellucci, and freshman Libby Tacka fueled a 9-2 run that had the Magic leading 32-21 with just 1:33 elapsed. However, that left the Monarchs plenty of time to mount a furious comeback.

After that first minute-and-a-half of the third round, Gwynedd limited the Magic to one three-pointer and four made free throws the rest of the game, an average of less than one point every two minutes. The gap was still at 11 points in the middle of the third quarter following an exchange of two free throws apiece by GMA’s DeCandido and Mount senior Meg Geatens.

Gwynedd’s rally began in earnest with a 15-footer from the right flank by Sullivan, who would net seven of her team-high 10 points in the final dozen minutes. After a transition bucket by senior Katrina McGrath and a lay-up and foul shot by junior Christa Giordano tightened the score to 34-30 for the conclusion of the third period, Sullivan let fly from near the keytop for a three-pointer as the fourth frame got underway, capping off a 10-0 run and making it a one-point game, 34-33.

MSJ’s Louin responded in kind from the three-point line, and later the junior standout raced back on defense to block a breakaway shot lay-up by GMA senior Jenna Raschiatore.

The two points denied there were later garnered by the Monarchs with just over three minutes to play, when a Sullivan shot from the left baseline got Gwynedd back within two, 37-35. The Monarchs then had a number of chances to tie the game. First, a breakaway came to naught when the ball was bobbled out of bounds. A missed lay-up followed, and then Campbell extracted one point from a two-shot foul for a 37-36 tally with 1:26 to go.

The Mount held the ball, and while seconds ticked away Gwynedd had to foul four times to put the Magic in the bonus. The Monarchs finally stopped the clock by sending a Mountie to the free throw line, but the candidate was Louin, who made both shots to give her squad a 39-36 advantage with 38.4 seconds showing.

The Monarchs quickly called a time-out, but when play resumed they had one shot blocked by Louin and then missed a second. On the rebound the ball was tied up and the possession arrow was pointing Gwynedd’s way with 16 seconds left. The next GMA attempt was blocked by the Mount’s Monzo, but once again the speedy Monarchs grabbed the ball.

In this situation, defenders are always told “Don’t foul the three-point shooter!” The Mounties did just that, spoiling Greenberg’s aim on an attempt from the right flank, but also sending her to the line for three shots with four-tenths of a second to go.

The first ball went down, then the second came back off the front of the rim. The third free throw found its target, but the buzzer sounded the instant the ball was inbounded by the Magic, who escaped with a 39-38 victory.

Following Louin’s lead on the Mount scoresheet were Cellucci and Tacka with six points apiece, Monzo (eight rebounds, five steals) and Geatens with four each, and Steinmetz with two. For Gwynedd, the output from Sullivan was supplemented by Greenberg and DeCandido, with eight points apiece, Giordano with five points, Campbell with three, and McGrath and freshman Bridget Coleman with two points each.