The Mount St. Joseph Academy basketball team and just a fraction of their amped-up fans celebrate after the Magic claimed the 2013 Catholic Academies title. (Photo by Tom Utescher)

by Tom Utescher

Stationed at a courtside press table in Philadelphia University’s Gallagher Center in order to document Villa Maria’s performance in the Catholic Academies basketball finals, a reporter from out West Chester way warily watched supporters of the Mount St. Joseph Magic fill up the bleachers behind him.

Numerous spectators at last Wednesday night’s spectacle wore everyday MSJ garb, but many more were dressed especially for the occasion; the face painters, the body suit girls, the ersatz cheerleaders clothed in retired uniforms. The Chester County correspondent sensed that things were going to get loud, but there was no way for him to completely prepare himself for the experience of hearing Mount St. Joseph Academy in full song.

As famed boxing champ Joe Louis once said, “Everyone has a plan until they’ve been hit.”

In the meeting between the same two finalists in the 2012 championship game, the Mountie Nation was a little subdued near the end, when the Villa Hurricanes put the finishing touches on a dramatic comeback that netted them a 39-35 victory. This year, the banshee cacophony continued up to the final buzzer and beyond, as the Magic went ahead for good in the middle of the second quarter and later led by as many as 21 points en route to a 57-41 triumph.

Junior guard Alex Louin saved 10 of her game-high 18 points for the fourth-quarter coup de grâce, in which the Magic outpointed the ‘Canes 18-5 before Villa scavenged the last five points in the affair. Louin recorded 10 rebounds, four assists, and three steals, while the victors received double-digit offense from senior forward Meg Geatens (five rebounds, two assists) and junior forward Carly Monzo (five rebounds, two assists), with 12 and 10 points, respectively.

Close behind with eight strategically timed points was senior guard Adrienne Cellucci (three steals), and filling out the total for the Magic were two young guards, freshman Libby Tacka (five points), and sophomore Mary Kate Ulasewicz (four).

“I thought we executed both our offense and our defense very well,” stated MSJ head coach John Miller. “When you shoot like we did, you give yourself a good chance to win; we were over 50 percent from the floor, 60 percent from the three-point line, and 85 percent on our free throws.

“On defense,” he continued, “we’re basically a man-to-man team, but we worked on going to a diamond-and-one [zone] at certain times. We certainly took them out of what they like to run, and that was our goal, to get them out of their comfort zone.”

Mount St. Joe would take a 22-2 overall record into the District 1 Class AAAA playoffs. Reflecting back on the league campaign, Miller was understandably proud of the fact that the Mount has now appeared in the title game for seven straight seasons, the entirety of his tenure. This year, the squad accomplished the historically rare feat of making a 16-0 run through the Catholic Academies regular season and league tournament.

In 2011-2012, the Magic lost regular-season AACA games to St. Basil and to Villa Joseph Marie, but swept their home/away series against Villa Maria. The Mount had the Hurricanes down by 13 points with 13 minutes remaining in the league tournament final, but Villa then launched a 23-6 offensive to capture the title.

The next time the archrivals squared off, early last December, it was the Mount that recovered from a double-digit deficit (11 points) to prevail in overtime, 41-33. The Magic then won another OT encounter on January 17, beating the Hurricanes on their home court, 45-42. Still, in light of the way their previous AACA season ended, the Mounties felt they had unfinished business as they entered the 2013 tourney.

It didn’t start well for the number one seeds. A year earlier, they’d cruised by 22 points in the semifinal round, but the Magic appeared to be off their game as they struggled to a 45-40 win over fourth-seeded Merion Mercy on February 10.

In that contest, Miller observed “Some of our girls played nervous. This was a playoff game and we had an undefeated record in the league that was on the line. The one good thing was that I think that game helped us get rid of the jitters. We told the girls in practice that there’s going to be a winner and a loser in the championships, and what we wanted to focus on was just going out and playing our best. We wanted to make Villa Maria have to beat us, and not beat ourselves.”

In the first few minutes on Wednesday, the impression was one of rather random, disorganized energy on both sides. Which club would be the one to settle down and execute its game plan? Down 4-2 just past the midpoint of the first quarter, Miller calmed his charges during a 30-second time-out. Louin, who’d opened the scoring with a put-back, returned to the floor to net three short jumpers in a 6-2 spurt that pushed the Magic ahead. Closing out the initial period, Tacka targeted a three-pointer from the right flank, and the Mount led 11-6.

If some soothsayer had told the Magic gathering that they would see no more scoring from Louin for the next two quarters, they would’ve been worried. On this night, it wasn’t a problem.

It’s true, things looked a little shaky in the first three minutes of the second round. After Villa junior Jackie Carlin traded field goals with the Mount’s Monzo, the Hurricanes’ senior leader, guard Lisa Mirarchi, lobbed in a “three” from the keytop and then tied the game at 13-all with a pair of free throws. That foul had been charged to MSJ’s Tacka, who retired to the bench with her second personal as Ulasewicz took the court.

With four-and-a-half minutes remaining in the half, Monzo scored in transition to give the Mounties the lead for good. Cellucci bagged a trey to reinforce the lead, then Geatens drew Villa’s fourth team foul and made a pair from the free throw line with 2:54 on the clock.

The Hurricanes’ Carlin, who’d been a force in the second game with the Mount back in January, sandwiched a three-pointer and a lay-up around an old-time three-point play by MSJ’s Geatens. The Mount senior then hit another lay-up, and when Villa put Mount St. Joe in the bonus seven seconds before the intermission, Ulasewicz pulled both points from the foul line for a 27-18 tally.

Some pushback from Villa was to be expected as the second half got underway. With a field goal from Carlin, two free throws by junior Molly Namiotka, and a triple from the left wing by Mirarchi, the Hurricanes tightened the score to 29-25 with 4:27 to go in the third quarter, forcing an MSJ time-out.

It was around this point in the third period that Villa began its big comeback in the 2012 final, as the Magic became anxious and hesitant. That didn’t happen this time.

“We didn’t go back on our heels when Villa pressured us,” Miller noted. “Even when we got more of a lead and began to run some time off the clock, we went aggressively to the basket when we had the opportunity.”

The Magic also clamped down on defense against Villa’s primary threats. Carlin would not score again, and Mirarchi was limited to three free throws the rest of the way, each finishing with 11 points.

Following their time-out in the middle of the third stanza, the Mounties increased their margin once more with a three-pointer from the left corner by Cellucci, and a score off a rebound by Monzo. Freshman Marielle Picinich came off the Villa bench for two late baskets, but Geatens and Cellucci helped the Magic take a 39-31 lead into the fourth frame.

The Magic were doing well enough overall that one almost forgot that Louin, while making other contributions, hadn’t scored for nearly 18 minutes. Now, to the immense and audible delight of the crowd, she showed that she’d been saving her best for the last period.

She started out with a lay-up of her own, then assisted one by Monzo with a pass in the offensive transition. Villa recouped two points on a put-back, but then it was bang-bang Louin as the junior scored consecutive buckets to make it 47-33 with 5:24 remaining in the game.

The frenzied Mount crowd was letting loose on the outnumbered Villa supporters. Every time their marquee player made a physical statement on offense or defense, the MSJ faithful bellowed “Hey Villa, how’re you Louin?” And when a noteworthy play was made by Tacka, the ninth grader, the time honored “She’s a FRESH-MAN!” chant cascaded around the arena.

“The girls in our student body were just terrific with their cheers,” commented an appreciative Miller. “That’s what makes it all worthwhile – you don’t want to play a championship game in a vacuum.”

When Mount St. Joe went up by 14, Villa called a time-out, but on their return to the court the ‘Canes were greeted by a successful drive down the lane by Ulasewicz. Mirarchi’s final three points for Villa, all from the free throw line, occurred around a Louin lay-up, and the count was 51-36 with two-and-a-half minutes remaining.

The MSJ 11th-grader then made two from the charity stripe herself on Villa’s sixth team foul. When Tacka and Geatens executed flawless one-and-ones, the Magic’s lead peaked at 57-36 with 54 ticks on the clock. Reserve players from both teams flooded onto the floor after that, and two field goals and a free throw for Villa locked in the final score.